What I've learned from getting pampered at spas in over 50 countries
I can't resist an opportunity to visit a spa and to be pampered. Over the last decade, I've experienced hundreds of treatments worldwide as a result of my unique obsession. Still, when an aesthetician suggested I drink my own urine, I was shocked. My response: “Seriously? You want me to do what?!”
As a globetrotter and self-confessed spa junkie, I’ve experienced pampering in more than 50 countries. I go to every spa with an open mind and a go-with-the-flow attitude.
Soaking in a vat of beer in the Czech Republic? Sure. Tiny fish nibbling away at dry skin on my feet in a Malaysia? Tickly, but bring it. I’ve been covered with avocados, honey, crystals, crushed grape seeds, smelly mud, seaweed, Jamaica coffee, seashells and chocolate. I’m game as long as it feels good.
But, when during a facial at a spa in Bath, England, my facialist said I should drink my own urine, claiming it would clear up the pimples on my chin, it was truly a moment of monumental weirdness. Not a chance. I draw the line there. She did her best to convince me that was a credible way to boost my health — even writing down websites and book recommendations to check out. I was too shocked to utter a word and left the treatment room as quickly as I could.
Awkwardness seem to be a kind of norm when you put yourself in the hands of strangers who will be touching you, sometimes while you’re naked. Sometimes, it makes colorful memories, like the massage therapist in Budapest who couldn’t stop farting while she dug her thumbs into the knots in my back like she was mining for diamonds. Or the hamam attendant at a spa in Winnipeg, Canada, who concluded my rub down with olive oil soap with one firm slap delivered to my bare bottom.
At a resort on the coast of the Red Sea in Egypt, my male massage therapist took things further and massaged my breasts — without asking. While it’s not normal practice, on occasion, I’ve been asked if it’s OK to treat my décolleté — usually during a facial. I grabbed his wrist and moved his hand to a more appropriate area. My travel companion also had a strange experience during his massage here. The woman doing his treatment tickled the hair of his underarms and whispered “I love you” to him at the end of the session. Later, once the shock subsided, we couldn’t stop laughing about this for days.
Other times, I have been the one providing comic relief. In Evian, France, the spas are hydration obsessed, since this is where chi-chi Evian water comes from. Even at the reception desk, the staff was handing me bottles of the stuff to down, then more in the locker room, and even more as you wait for your therapist in the relaxation room. My facial involved some sort of elaborate masque of paper strips and clay carefully arranged on my skin that would do its magic over 20 minutes.
Soon after my aesthetician left the room, I had to pee — desperately — thanks to all that freaking water. “Madame? Madame!?,” I called, but to no avail. I got up and went in search of her and a washroom, while holding my face held up toward the ceiling to ensure whatever miracles were happening to my skin would be undisturbed. I gingerly navigated my way down a spiral staircase and to the front desk. When the aesthetician saw me, clutching towels around my naked upper body and head twisted skyward like I was trying to spot a rare bird in a tree, all she could say was, “Mon dieu! (My God!),” before she and her colleagues started chuckling.
I caused a similar reaction when I accidentally stumbled into a locker room of naked Hungarian men at the Szechenyi Baths in Budapest while navigating my way through the maze of hallways and staircases to get to my massage appointment. The men just laughed at my horrified face and pointed me to the exit. There were more man bits on show when I was in Baden Baden last summer. I thought my friend and I were going to Friedrichsbad, the traditional, i.e., naked, bathhouse, on ladies’ day. When we got halfway through the circuit of steam rooms and soaking pools, we suddenly realized it was co-ed time, as a parade of bouncy penises went by. We tried not to gawk and to act German. That means not noticing, or caring, about the naked flesh in front of you.
My spa time has not all been pleasant. On occasion, I have felt like I paid for the privilege of being tortured. At a hair salon that also offered aesthetics in Toronto, I was left with burn marks all over my back after a brutal hot stone massage. In Maui, my nose was badly bruised, courtesy of a forceful therapist who went after a blackhead like it was a matter of life or death. Luckily, my spa-induced injuries have been minimal.
At a really good spa, I can lose myself in the experience. That doesn’t happen often because I have a busy brain that won’t shut up but I did manage to do it in Bali. I went there a month after my mom died from ovarian cancer. As I lay in a stone bathtub in a private courtyard at the spa at the Four Seasons at Jimbaran Bay, I could hear chanting from the Buddhist temple next to the property. The sound seeped into my core. I cried, letting the grief I had stuffed down pour out of me.
I often get asked what is my favorite spa. I couldn’t pick just one. Besides those in Bali, I feel wonderfully content at the Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess (fabulous pool area), or the Ancient Cedars Spa at The Wickaninnish Inn near Tofino on Vancouver Island, British Columbia (foot soaks next to the roaring waves of the Pacific). But good spas don’t have to be fancy. In December, I had an excellent pedicure for $5 with a head and neck massage for $3 in a simple, one-room place in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). All I ask of a spa is that you treat me nicely — and if you don’t ask me to drink my own pee, I’ll be happy.