Great Spas of the World

One of my favorite kinds of pampering is to get a massage. It was regular massage which finally put an end to my chronic back pain – I get monthly myofascial and deep tissue massage at Skin to Soul in Stoneham (which I would strongly recommend to anyone local!) Wheen I go on vacation, I really enjoy checking out unique (and reputable) spa locations.

Last week this time I was sitting in a Scandinavian Spa overlooking the St. Lawrence river in Montreal, and thinking about some of the other, really cool experiences I’ve had. I decided to pretend I was a World Traveler and offer to you a guide to some of the most interesting and best experiences I’ve encountered!

We took a nice nap on those bean bag thingies
We took a nice nap on those bean bag thingies

Montreal Quebec: Scandinave Baths – Les Bains
The concept of the Scandinavian spa seems masochistic. First, you get really, really hot in a sauna. Then you go jump in an icy lake. Maybe you have to break a hole in the ice to get in. Then you repeat the experience. I’ve never done this before – I kept getting lost at the “icy lake” part. But a visit to the baths on a frigid and windy April day in Quebec seemed like just the thing. I signed my husband and I up for an afternoon massage and carefully read the preparation instructions (bring your own swimsuit!).

The spa (and there are several spread across Canada, in case you’re interested) took that original Scandinavian theme and expanded on it. First, there was the fluffy white bathrobe and high tech locker locks. (Magnetic waterproof bracelets!) Then there were the signs abjuring all to complete silence, or at least muffled whispering. The spa itself was filled with the sound of crashing water from the hot-water-fall. There were three hot spots, two cold spots, and lounges full of medium-temperatures, comfy chairs and dim lighting. There was also a very expensive juice bar, in case you got hungry or thirsty for something other than water.

The three hot spots were a full-swimming-pool-sized hot tub with aforementioned hot-water-fall. You have never seen such an expanse of 120 degree water before! For the non-immersed, there was a Eucalyptus steam sauna, where every ten minutes or so the walls vented fragrant steam. It was HOT. Finally, there was a standard dry sauna. The goal was to stay in the hot rooms until you were entirely too hot. Then – on to the cold! There was a very small pool – even smaller than a hot tub but deeper. And there was an enclosed, motion-activated shower. You popped into one or the other – for just a moment – to cool off your skin. (You were encouraged to get out before your overheated core temperature was affected at all.) Then, you moved to the resting area where there was lounging and a juice bar and comfy chairs to drowse until you got a bit chilly (aka your core body temperature got back to normal) and/or your heartbeat returned to normal, then you did it again.

We started off with one cycle, then got a massage, and then I did two more cycles. That all took like four hours. Four hours of quiet. Of just sitting and not doing anything. Four hours of not really focusing your eyes because it was steamy and not really having to stay awake if you found staying awake hard. I took a nap snuggled up on one of the chairs with my husband.

It was great.


This completely private hot tub looks out over a beautiful forested hill
This completely private hot tub looks out over a beautiful forested hill

It brought to mind another hot-tub/massage experience, though. This one as culturally different as possible. The Scandinavian Baths were all high tech and high price. I joked to Adam that we were soaking above our class, and in truth I felt surrounded by the monied elite (which was probably exactly the image the spa wants to cultivate). One of my very favorite places to visit is Wellspring. Based in the foothills of Mt. Rainier – just a hop and skip down the road from the National Park Entrance – is an organically grown haven. It started with a woman and a dream. Sunny learned massage. She built a massage cottage, and a hot tub. It burned down. She built it again. And another. And other cabins for people to sit in with each other and nature. Trails grew out of her hideaway. Labrynths were made. Her latest great moment is the discovery and appreciation of a natural grotto, which Sunny has carefully cultivated with a near-druidic eye to be a place of celebration.

The grotto is even more beautiful than this picture shows
The grotto is even more beautiful than this picture shows

Surrounded by peace and joy, and then there are the hot tubs and the massages! When I go home, I sign my husband and I up for a pair of massages. The best of the hot tubs overlooks a superb Northwest forest hillside, with a rippling brook in front and a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees up to the sky. It is perfectly private there, and the hot tub is quiet. We take turns soaking and looking and being while the other person is getting their massage (and their catch up session with Sunny!) It is entirely wholesome and relaxing and joyful – and full of the spirit of the Northwest.

My sister and husband honeymooned there. I’d love to pass a night there, but it seems a little silly when my parents live 12 miles away. Maybe some day!


This captures it pretty well, actually.

The last, and most culturally distinct, of the great Spas I Have Known, were the Turkish Baths at Cagaloglu (pronounced Ja-la-lu). These held on to a cultural tradition going back to early Roman times of communal bath-houses where the purposes was to get clean. It was a three hundred year old bath house, made in marble with ancient steam pipes heating vast slabs (slightly too short for modern women).

I wrote about it in great detail, but I often find my my leaning back to the silver ewers and taps, the hot marble, the provocatively protected skylights and the old Anatolian women scrubbing my back.

So to summarize: I recommend you visit them all. Tell them I said “hi” and I’ll be back as soon as I can!


Also, just for my husband, I give you this. My eldest son declares this his favorite movie, above even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Star Wars. We don’t waste weekends around here!

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