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!

Warm thoughts

It’s been a brutal, brutal winter here in New England. You know it’s bad when you wake up, see it’s 18 degrees out, and think, “Hey, not too cold this morning?” It’s significant progress that the drifts along our walkway have been reduced to merely waist high. Here in Massachusetts, nearly 200 roofs have caved in, and more people than you might guess find themselves flinging pantyhose filled with snow melt onto their roofs at 11 pm at night… NOT THAT I KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THAT. (And it was the side facing away from our neighbors, so you can’t have proof!)

So I thought I’d bring you a warm thought I’ve been holding on to for half a year now.

When we were in Istanbul, we went to a 300 year old turkish bath called Cagaloglu Hamami (C is pronounced as “J” and the “G”s are more or less silent, so it was pronounced “Ja-la-lu” in case you ever go looking for it.)

Now, we were in Istanbul in August. Shockingly, it is HOT in Istanbul in August. Every day it was hovering around 100 degrees (although this wasn’t as bad as you might think, since the hill city on the water got lots of nice cool breezes off the Bosphorus straight and the Golden Horn). So already, before we went in to the shady confines of the baths, we were hot. The baths, like many in Turkey, are completely symmetrical. The men head off in one direction, the women in the other. We paid our money and split off into our different directions, scrubby mitts in hand.

I changed in a courtyard (women only) with a tall fountain in the middle and booths all around. The booths had high windows, doors with old-fashioned keys, dark stained wood, and narrow benches to place clothes on. I walked on impossible wooden shoes, wrapped only in a thin sheet, down to meet my masseuse — an inevitably soft, middle-aged woman who had just come back from a smoke break. She was wearing a black bathing suit and carrying a towel.

She brought me through a transition room to the baths themselves — ancient marble delights with silver taps constantly flowing with cool water. The entire room was made of marble. There were alcoves, a sweat-room, some partial walls for partial privacy, and a dome with pinpricks of light coming through opalescent ancient glass. It was very old luxury, not decrepit, but far from modern. In the middle was a large octagonal slab of marble — each side being just slightly shorter than a tall modern woman. I suspect they were perfectly sized for our less nourished forebears. And on each one of these sides was a woman, with her black-bathing-suited, comfortably-proportioned, middle-aged masseuse. Most of these women were in the same condition they would be for a bath or a shower at home. (What can I say, I fear the search engine traffic if I explain more clearly!)

My lady left me there, in an alcove, looking around in wonder but trying not to stare, with a silver basin in my hand and cool water running behind me. I sat until I got hot. I surreptitiously tried to figure out what to do. I poured a libation over my head. It felt marvelous, sluicing through the heat and making my towel cling cooly.

I waited a long time. I was beginning to be afraid I’d missed something in translation. I tried to slow my breathing, to just enjoy, to not be shocked that in the middle of this Islamic country I was surrounded by women completely at ease with themselves, with their bodies, with other women.

Finally, my black-bathing-suited woman returned. She lead me to my place on the marble slab, holding my hand solicitously — like I hold my sons on the slippery ice. The octagon was warm to the touch. 300 years ago, they had designed these baths to be heated by water and steam running past the marble on the other side. I could not see them, but furnaces were roaring to make this place even hotter than the 100 degree heat outside. I laid down on the warm marble, and she sluiced me again with water.

The massage was an amazing experience. It was actually a bath – as promised. There was soap. She washed my hair. She exfoliated with the scrubby mitt. One woman began singing an old Anatolian song, and the others joined in before trailing off into laughter. At the end of it, I was clean, and covered once more in the cool water before drying off and returning to the busy, narrow streets of Constantine’s city.

I think of those pinpricks of light, in the dome of the baths, now. As I trudge through the weary, narrowed world of February, I remember the surprising sensation of hot marble. I marvel that it is possible to sit, relaxed, sans garments, without fear of chill. With my vistas cut off now — by snow banks and hurry — I think of the far sights of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, towering above the millenia-long important churning waters on the gateway between Asia and Europe, East and West. And I remember that today’s frigid contraction is not forever.