It’s interesting when I hear about my clients’ vacation massage experiences. Some people kind of lower their head as if they’re confessing a sin, “I cheated on you while I was out of town.” Last I checked, I don’t have an exclusivity contract with anyone, but I love the sentiment. Sometimes they express frustration regarding the quality, or lack thereof, of the service they received. I once had a client who went on a cruise with his family. His wife booked him several massages in the ship spa over the course of the cruise. He told me that after the first massage he decided to cancel the rest. When I asked him why he said, “They just weren’t you, you’ve ruined me.”
The unfortunate truth is, especially in large resort spas, unless you book a “deep tissue” or “sports” massage or some other specialty massage, you are likely to pay a hefty fee to have someone rub lotion on you. This isn’t always the case, I worked with some amazing therapists at the Ritz-Carlton, and I have had some great massages at spas. But there is enormous pressure in some spas for therapists to “upsell.” I have heard too many horror stories of a person asking if they could have a little more pressure only to be told, “You only booked a Swedish massage, but I can upgrade your service if you would like deep tissue massage.” Yeah, they can upgrade my service and charge me an additional $50.
I love visiting spas, but unless I know the therapist or have been given a recommendation from someone who has been to the same spa, I rarely schedule a massage. Instead, I will book a body treatment and save the massage for the therapist that knows my body, my likes and dislikes, needs, etc. But for someone who is not familiar with body treatments, a typical spa menu can be confusing and potentially overwhelming. Hopefully this blog post will help you make an educated, confident choice the next time you visit a spa.
The typical body treatment consists of 3 components: exfoliation (removal of dead skin using an abrasive agent), hydrotherapy and the “massage” application of a moisturizer. The exfoliation can vary from a dry brush or luffah, to sugar or coarse salt in oil, to a chemical or enzyme such as pineapple, mango or papaya juice/pulp. The hydrotherapy portion of the treatment is sometimes as simple as taking a shower to rinse off the exfoliating agent. Or it could include a Vichy shower, which consists of multiple shower heads positioned above the treatment table (think drive through car wash) that the therapist sweeps back and forth over your body. The water pressure is variable, so it can be like getting a massage with water. Sometimes there will be a soak in a mineral bath, or perhaps a Jacuzzi filled with scented bubble bath.
The “massage” portion of the treatment is where many people are disappointed. Unless the treatment is longer than an hour, or the spa menu specifically states otherwise, the massage portion is usually nothing more than a quick application of a lotion or oil to moisturize your skin at the end of the treatment. Don’t count on the therapist having enough time to address any muscular issues during this part of the treatment.
Sometimes there is a fourth component to a treatment, a wrap which typically occurs after the exfoliation and before the hydrotherapy. The wrap involves having a product ranging from a seaweed masque, to chocolate syrup, to cryogenic cellulite melting magic gel, to coconut/kiwi glop, to just about anything you can imagine, applied to the entire body, then being wrapped burrito style in either plastic or reflective Mylar to trap in your body heat, and then covered in a blanket. Once wrapped you will rest for 10-15 minutes to allow the product to do whatever the treatment claims it does, and then you will proceed to the shower/tub portion of the treatment.
While the components of spa treatments are pretty similar, it is the products used that make them unique. Most spas will have a signature treatment with products that reflect the region. Most will have some traditional treatments that are based on sea water or seaweed/kelp. Many have treatments based on Ayurvedic Medicinal practices of India. The offerings are as broad as the imagination of the spa director.
The following are a few considerations to help make your spa experience a great one:
Do you tend to overheat? If so, a 15-20 minute wrap or soak in a Jacuzzi might be too much. A good therapist will not leave you unattended in the wrap/bath for more than a few minutes at a time. They should check in with you periodically to offer you water, check on the water temperature, and if you’re extra lucky they may give you a cool compress and a scalp massage while you’re relaxing (that therapist is deserving of a big tip). I’ve been the victim of bath abandonment, where the therapist left me to soak in a (overly) warm tub for 20 minutes while they took a snack break, power nap or whatever. I overheated, became light headed and had to get myself out of the tub long before the therapist returned. This negative experience resulted in the therapist getting a poor tip and could have been easily avoided if she had brought me water, a cool compress for my head, or simply popped her head in to see how I was doing.
Are you claustrophobic? If so, what should be a relaxing wrap could instead be an anxiety producing experience. Often, something as simple as keeping one arm out of the confines of the wrap can be enough to keep you comfortable. If you are concerned about a potential claustrophobic reaction, communicate this with your therapist and request that they NOT leave you unattended.
Considering a seaweed treatment? Seaweed and sea salts are rich in trace minerals and can have amazing effects on your skin and muscles. Many seaweeds are high in iodine and have been known to cause a reaction in those who are allergic to iodine/shrimp/shellfish. As wonderfully beneficial as seaweed is, it smells like low tide. Usually the treatment will end with the application of a wonderfully smelling lotion or gel, but be warned that the seaweed smell will return, especially if you engage in any physical activity or are in an environment where you might sweat, even a little bit.
Enticed by the promise of cellulite reduction? While there is research to support many of the cellulite reduction treatments that are offered in spas, unless they are done in a series of multiple treatments over a period of time, the toning and slimming effects you experience from a singular treatment are likely to be temporary. That being said, if you have a special event and need to get into that tiny black dress, by all means schedule yourself for a cellulite treatment the morning of your event.
Visiting a spa in a foreign country? I absolutely love getting bodywork in different countries, but one must remember the saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” Unless you are visiting a well known spa such as Red Door, Canyon Ranch, Ritz-Carlton, Mandarin Oriental, etc. when getting a spa treatment abroad, be prepared for a different experience. When you schedule a mango/papaya body treatment at a spa in the US, you will likely get massaged with a commercial product that has some mango/papaya essential oils in it, while lying on a table in a private treatment room, with a towel or sheet discreetly covering your breasts/genitals. While I was in Thailand I had a fabulous tamarind body treatment. But in contrast to what I had become accustomed to in the US, there I lay naked on a table with no towel, in a room with two other women who were also naked, and the tamarind product did not come out of a jar. Rather it was tamarind pulp freshly harvested from local trees and mashed with a mortar and pestle. It was a wonderful, albeit different experience.
Want to bring home a memento of your spa experience? Your sense of smell is the sense most closely linked to your memory, so there is no better way to conjure up pleasant memories of your spa trip than with a dab of that amazing coconut lotion. Most spas will have a boutique where they sell take home versions of the products used in their treatments. If your therapist did a great job, mention their name when make your purchase so that they get credit (commission) for the sale. If you blew your budget on the spa service, but still want to bring home a little something, consider the spa amenities. The shampoo or lotions offered in the spa locker rooms are usually different from those offered in your hotel room, and are less expensive than the products used in the treatments.
Take advantage of all the spa has to offer. Many resorts charge a daily facility fee to be able to use the pool, weight room, hot tub and/or sauna. But most include full use of the facilities if you are scheduled for a spa treatment. So why not make it a spa day? A few hours before your scheduled service, come down to the spa, take a run on the treadmill or go for a swim. Relax for a bit on the pool deck, later take a steam or sauna. Relax in the spa lounge with a glass of citrus infused water. Some spas have healthy cafes, others have little snacks like nuts or dried figs and some will allow you to order from the room service menu. You can enjoy a full spa day without booking a full day of services.
If you’re still not able to decide what treatment is best for you, don’t hesitate to ask the spa front desk staff for assistance, and if the lead therapist is available, he/she should be able to answer any questions you may have.
Here’s to many wonderful spa adventures, and don’t worry, I won’t be upset that you “cheated” on me while on vacation!