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PUBLISHED WORK >The World's Strangest Spa Treatments

Travel+Leisure  September 2008

The World's Strangest Spa Treatments

Space-age light capsules, sake baths, and flesh-nibbling fish: today's health and beauty services are wackier than ever.

From September 2008

By Karen Catchpole

 Once you’ve changed into a disposable paper robe, an attendant leads you to a room containing a futuristic, egg-shaped pod. Opening the lid, she motions for you to climb into the molded foam interior; then, after pressing some buttons on a Battlestar Galactica–looking console, she closes you inside. Suddenly, the glass lamps surrounding you start to glow with white light…steam pumps from hidden jets, and the entire capsule starts to vibrate. You can’t help but wonder: are you about to be blasted into hyperspace?

Hopefully, the only parts of you being blitzed into the stratosphere are your fat cells. As space-age as it may seem, the function of this Oxy-LED light capsule, found at the Med-Spa Clinic at Tunbridge Wells, England, is simply (and allegedly) to help you lose weight. Welcome to the weird new world of health and beauty treatments.

If you hadn’t noticed, spas are just about ubiquitous these days. In pretty much every developed country in the world, even small-town beauty salons and mom-and-pop hotels are opening up treatment rooms to offer patrons special pampering services. The proliferation has meant a push for spa owners to differentiate themselves, and one of the best ways they can do this is by providing new and different treatments—sometimes, ones that make traditional massages and facials look quaint.

“The menu of treatments at most spas has exploded in the last decade or so,” says Melisse Gelula, editor in chief of SpaFinder Lifestyle, a new Web site launching this fall as part of SpaFinder. “There used to be a couple of massages or a handful of body, skin, and wellness treatments on a typical spa menu, and now there are dozens and dozens.”

Modern-day spa-goers also have a much higher level of sophistication than they once had, according to International SPA Association (ISPA) President Lynne McNees. “One size no longer fits all,” she says. “Clients are now demanding experiences that are tailored to their personal needs and desires.” A person who wants to lose weight but doesn’t have the time or inclination to exercise, for instance, might seek out the Oxy-LED capsule; clients wanting skin rejuvenation beyond what they can get from traditional skin care often gravitate toward fringier treatments—like immersing themselves in sake baths, painting themselves with chocolate, or submitting to the ministrations of skin-nibbling fish.

While such treatments may seem beyond the pale, Gelula points out that many of them actually rely on venerable, even ancient, practices. Having wooden pegs tapped with a hammer along your body may sound bizarre to North Americans, but it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in Japan, where such “manaka treatments” have been performed for centuries. “It’s important to remember that things we may deem far-out in our culture are actually deeply embedded traditions in other cultures,” Gelula says. “One person’s ‘strange’ is another person’s ritual.”

As with any spa treatments, there may not be a whole lot of evidence that these off-the-wall-seeming services actually work. But in the end, there’s a lot to be said for the health and beauty benefits of being adventurous and having plain-old fun. After all, at the very least, being nibbled by fish will likely make you giggle—and don’t they say that laughter is the best medicine?


Gondola Massage

Gondola Massage

Where to experience it: The Cassanova Beauty & Wellness Center at the Hotel Cipriani (www.hotelcipriani.com), in—where else?—Venice.

What it is: Exactly what it sounds like: a 40-minute massage performed in a specially modified gondola, piloted slowly through the Venetian Lagoon (a private area off the Grand Canal) by your own personal gondolier. To further protect your privacy, the massage focuses on the upper body, face, and feet, keeping the lower body draped at all times. To protect your skin, this outdoor massage is given using a special oil with SPF protection.

Best for: Mild exhibitionists.

Image courtesy of Orient-Express Hotels (UK) Ltd.


Alpha Oxy-LED Light Spa Capsule

Alpha Oxy-LED Light Spa Capsule

Where to experience it: The Med-Spa Clinic at Tunbridge Wells (www.med-spa.co.uk), in Kent, England.

What it is: A full-body capsule resembling a tanning bed on the Starship Enterprise. Once you’re closed inside, your body is painlessly blasted with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that give off deep heat. The result is that you sweat a lot, which—when combined with a vibrating mattress (to “exercise muscles”) and super-oxygenated air (to “speed metabolism”)—reportedly promotes weight loss.

Best for: Non-claustrophobes.

Image courtesy of Med-Spa Clinic Tunbridge Wells



Reiki on Horseback


Where to experience it: At the Rockin’ Heart Ranch (www.rockinheartranch.net), near Jackson, Wyoming.

What it is: The Japanese practice of Reiki is focused on the belief that healing energy—when passed from practitioner to client—can correct imbalances in both spirit and body. Usually the practitioner is a human, but Rockin’ Heart Ranch owner (and Certified Reiki Master) Christina DiBartolo believes that horses also possess an innate healing energy. Riding on horseback—either alone or with DiBartolo, and with her guidance—ostensibly allows a client to tap into that energy, and ease everything from physical aches and pains to emotional anxiety.

Best for: Animal lovers.

Image ©tbkmedia.de / Alamy


Japanese Saki Bath

saki bath

Where to experience it: At Hakone Kowakien Yunessun Hot Springs Amusement Park and Spa Resort (www.yunessun.com/english/yunessun.html) in the Hakone hot springs region of south-central Japan.

What it is: Perhaps the most popular of the “amusement baths” at this sprawling spa resort (which also includes a Green Tea Bath, a Red Wine Bath, and a Coffee Bath). The concept is gimmicky, sure—you basically soak in a communal hot tub, into which a constant drip of sake flows from a huge overhead cask. But the amino acids in sake are also touted as powerful natural moisturizers, once used by geishas before applying their elaborate makeup.

Best for: The parched.

Image © Hemis / Alamy



Arctic Ice Room

Arctic Ice Room

Where to experience it: Qua Baths & Spa (www.harrahs.com/qua) at Caesars Palace, in Las Vegas.

What it is: An anti-sauna, basically. Once you step into the communal glass-and-tile room (big enough for eight spa-goers at once), and find yourself a spot on a heated bench, you can start breathing in mint—infused air-chilled to 55 degrees F. At the same time, you can watch as “snowflakes” (actually crystals made from soap and water) fall from the ceiling vents. The indoor snowstorm is merely to provide ambience, but believers say that a shot of extreme cold—especially after a stint in a hot tub or sauna—can help reduce hypertension and tighten pores.

Best for: Homesick Scandinavians.

Image © Rouse Photography/Courtesy of Caesars Palace




Chocolate Facial Therapy

Chocolate Facial

Where to experience it: The Aquapura Douro Valley Resort & Spa (www.aquapurahotels.com), in northeastern Portugal.

What it is: A literally luscious 40-minute treatment, which culminates with slathering the face with creamy, melted, oxygen-infused Swiss chocolate. Aquapura staffers swear that the O2 helps deliver the chocolate’s vitamins and antioxidants deep into the skin to better fight aging, promote healing, and accelerate cellular rejuvenation. (And no one will mind if you lick your lips during the treatment.)

Best for: Big-time chocophiles.


Image courtesy of Aquapura Spa



"Harmony Balls" Massage

Harmony balls massage

Where to experience it: The Saltwater Spa at Casa Dorada Los Cabos Resort (www.casadorada.com), on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

What it is: Adapted from an ancient Chinese tradition, this 50-minute massage uses silver baoding balls (which have been around since the Ming Dynasty). The balls are rolled over the body in place of bare hands; the idea is to stimulate the body with rolling pressure while the 48 different tonal vibrations produced by the balls relax the mind.

Best for: Anyone who likes their spa treatments to sound vaguely X-rated.


Image courtesy of Casa Dorada



Manaka Tapping Treatment

Manake Tapping Treatment

Where to experience it: The LakeHouse Spa at the Lake Austin Spa Resort (www.lakeaustin.com), in Austin, Texas.

What it is: Similar to acupuncture—but without the needles. During this 50-minute treatment, a wooden hammer called a manaka—used in Japan as far back as the 16th century—is employed to gently tap wooden pegs placed along your body’s acupoints. The tapping, done rhythmically to the beat of a metronome, purportedly provides the same benefits as acupuncture: balanced energy, and relief from both general stress and specific bodily pains.

Best for: Anyone interested in acupuncture (but less interested in playing pincushion).


Image courtesy of Lake Austin Spa Resort



Rose Quartz Facial

Rose Quartz Facial

Where to experience it: Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa (www.sanctuaryoncamelback.com), near Scottsdale, Arizona.

What it is: During the 90-minute Sanctuary Luxury Facial, smooth rose quartz crystals (which have been “energized” by the power of the sun, then cooled on ice to 40–45 degrees F) are rolled over the face. According to Sanctuary Spa staffers, minerals in the stones soothe skin irritation and stimulate lymphatic flow, thus reducing puffiness—while the crystals’ cool temperature calms inflammation.

Best for: New Age believers.


Image ©Emotive Images / Ala



Full-Body Fish Nibbling

Full-Body Fish Nibbling

Where to experience it: The Sampuoton Spa (www.sampuotonspa.com) in Selangor, Malaysia.

What it is: Sticking your feet into a tub full of flesh-nibbling fish and calling it a pedicure is already de rigueur in several parts of Asia—but here, the garra rufa (small fish in the carp family, which feed on dead skin cells) are used for full-immersion purposes. The process is simple: you lounge in a heated pool for about an hour—as long as you’re not ticklish—while swarms of “nibble fish” snack away at rough spots and deep-clean your pores. While feeding, the nibbling fish also reportedly exude an enzyme that slows the return of skin problems like acne.

Best for: Anyone too lazy to exfoliate.

Image courtesy of Sampuoton Fish Spa



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