SPA alternatives from Thailand

By JENINNE LEE-ST.JOHN / TRAVEL+LEISURE, NOVEMBER 2016

AMATARA WELLNESS RESORT

If you’re looking for the definition of “tough love,” try a hammam. They’ll beat the daylights out of you and you’ll thank them heartily. Hammams, also known as Turkish or Moroccan baths, are made up of a series of hot, cold and steam rooms cap-stoned by a body scrub—an ancient Roman tradition that combines socializing with spa, and has a place in sundry northern hemisphere cultures. In the Russian baths in New York City, for instance, I laid on bleachers in a steam room full of my friends and strangers, while a guy whacked me with a broom made of oak leaves drenched in olive oil soap. Less a massage than a public flogging. The folks at the newly relaunched Amatara Wellness Resort in Phuket knew such roughhousing wouldn’t jibe so well in gentle Thailand, land of smiles. So they took the aggression down a notch, while stil keeping the treatment abusive enough to be gratifying. That’s how they’re able to dub their brand-new, gleaming hammam, where Mediterranean bathing and soaking principles meet Thai massage and aromatherapy, the first of its kind in the world. “This is not a fat Turkish man slapping you around,” Brice Borin, the general manager who oversaw the revamp, assured me. “It’s a nice therapist using softerpressure Thai technique.”

Up on a bluff on the island’s southeastern peninsula, Amatara debuted this year with a focus on wellness so broad-minded that both detox-retreat junkies and the spaskeptical (the wine list is impressive) will be happily, healthily at home. You can book a wellness program, sure: they range from fitness, to detox, to the Amatara Connect meant to build bonds between you and your traveling companion. But from the smallest details—the yoga pavilion is positioned to make the most of your dawn sun salutations; the vast infinity pool has a line-up of massage jets; the airy, circular bathroom in your sunlit pool villa feels like a spa—the property lulls you into its plush wholesomeness.

Even those who think vacation equals gluttony will be psyched about the diverse, delicious menu at The Retreat, concocted by the resort’s head chef and nutritionists, and open to guests who’ve booked villas or wellness programs. This is a parade of super-duper foods, and though we could talk about why the über-healthy bulgur, avocado and flax seed oil combine to make the grilled king prawns so yummy, it is the shockingly simple “Organic Green” that steals everyone’s heart on my visit. A distillation of veggies including kale leaves, broccoli, leeks, baby spinach and garlic, with seasonings highlighted by hemp seed oil, this soup might be the liquid embodiment of the whole resort: so good yet also so good for you.

Still, the main event is the gorgeous hammam—all glittering mosaic walls and golden accents, layers of luxe without any inkling of the garish. Experiencing it is a multi-room, multi-temperature, multi-step adventure. “Introducing cold water or ice at different intervals stimulates the immune system, triggers the body to heal itself,” wellness director Phoebe Boonkerd told me. “You’ll be tired after, but you’ll sleep very well.”

The first step is the sauna. Seems standard. But don’t let the tame ease-in fool you; after a few minutes your therapist (your guide and timekeeper through the whole process) sends you to the jets, power-blasting you with water to cool you down.

This is hilarious to experience with a group of four grown women, all of us squealing like little girls in the chill. Then it’s the big reveal: the doors are opened to the sparkly, chandeliered hammam room whose crimson centerpiece is a giant mosaic Bodhi tree. This is a spa room for the private palace of a modern-day princess. Take off that tiara, though, because you’re here for a fragrant and relaxing hair treatment and head massage.

Next, you’re shuttled to the steam room, in which you finally grasp why “hammam” means, “spreader of warmth.” Our therapists set the timer for a few minutes and then make their escape. It soon becomes clear as to why they were in such a rush—the steam, pleasantly scented by Thai herbs, gets as thick as cotton candy and none of us can see each other though we’re less than a meter apart. “When will this end?” someone moans, half-jokingly. “I’m melting.” For me, a steam is always a personal challenge, an internal faceoff between maximizing the health benefits of the extreme environment and, well, surviving it. But this soaking-wet, 50-degree immersion is a whole new level (which makes us all feel like wusses when we later learn that Turkish steams are even hotter). Just when we are starting to debate whether the therapists might actually be CIA black-site interrogators, they set us free, muscles as loose as wet noodles, to head back to the hammam for the main event, the full-body massage and exfoliation.

We line up and lie down on a row of warmed stone beds and the ladies get to work. “Okay, I’ll tell you the location of the secret lair!” is the first thing that runs through my mind when my therapist starts scrubbing, so obvious it feels that she needs information or she’ll flay all my skin off. But, almost immediately, an unexpected thing happens: any initial discomfort is overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude and euphoria. I know that sounds cheesy; maybe it’s lightheadedness from the extremetemperatures rollercoaster, but in this beautiful room surrounded by friends, the rhythm of the soused kessa glove on my back, I feel like I’m purifying body and soul for baptism.

Rather than holy water, though, we’re next doused in mud—besides being detoxifying, the exfoliation allows the body to better absorb the therapeutic minerals in the mud, sourced from Morocco or Hungary. This is supposed to reduce inflammation, aches and pains. After a rinse, it’s a snooze in the Himalayan salt room. Actually, four girls in robes, in a pink room, giddy from the day, is more like a pajama party. My skin is glowing, my hair is soft, my muscles are mush and I’ve got zero of my normal back pains. Boonkerd had said the purpose of the hammam was to turbocharge our “exfoliation, detoxification, relaxation, circulation… and breathing.” Sub out the last one for “vacation” and you’ve got a poetic ode to the day’s pleasurable pain. Also known as “elation.”

SPA STUDIO – MANDARIN ORIENTAL

The boat you take to the iconic Oriental Spa symbolizes the entire experience: it’s a journey. The new Spa Studio is a whole other animal. Housed in the hotel in a set of former suites, it’s an urban escape for folks who don’t have all day. There’s a waxing bar, and a massage loft where you can grab a cat nap or order champagne with your neck rub. But the stars are the collagenenhancing facials from QMS, created by a German trauma and cosmetic surgeon, that leave pores tight and skin plump (mine included two masks, one Phantom of the Opera-style and the other more Sith Lord-y), and the only Pedi:Mani:Cure Studio in town. French podiatrist Bastien Gonzalez is a beauty-industry rock star thanks to his blade-only, health-centric nail treatments, and he’s hired equally dapper and charming (no coincidence, we’re sure) French podiatrists to run all his studios. Here, trust Alex Lutin—armed with pearl cream and a chamois-leather buffer modeled on Gonzalez’s great-grandmother’s—to hone your nails to a month-long shine. Talk about polished. mandarinoriental. com; QMS facials from Bt3,350, Bastien’s pedicure Bt3,250.

EFOREA – MILLENIUM HILTON

Indian massage and Thai therapy. Chinese acupressure and Swedish massage. Egyptian reflexology and Native American spirituality. Fusion is usually for food, not fingertips. But treatments at the new Eforea spa meld distinct healing traditions in dense 30-minute sessions. These “journey enhancements,” developed by master therapist Sean Jordan, an Englishman who has studied healing from the Himalayas to Central America, may be booked solo or flowed into other treatments. Such flexible customization ensures you never receive a cookie-cutter massage, and while I was as skeptical of the blurred spa lines as I would have been had they offered me paneer pizza, my masseuse had magic hands, weaving together all six traditions in continuous flow. She was representative of the other innovation here: getting the therapists involved in the treatments via body movements, meditation and breathing. “The therapist is the channel, the conduit through which you experience healing,” Jordan told me. “Unless we make the therapist happy, it’s impossible to translate joy to the guests.” Consider the message delivered. hilton.com; from Bt1,600.

THETA STATE FLOAT CENTER

It will sound unbearable to claustrophobes and anyone with a hint of AD HD, but climbing into a pod filled with magnesium sulfate water and shutting the lid is the best thing you can do for your aches—physical and mental. Warmed to body temperature, the tank imbues a weightlessness that aids meditation. The medicalgrade salt is detoxifying (hydrate first), and though I got seasick— if you’re prone, use one of their larger float rooms—I emerged having rid my neck of its piercing pain. There’s loads of science behind this, but here’s the key takeaway: it’s an anti-gravity elixir and all you have to do is nothing. thetastatefloat.com; Bt1,950.

THE ONE SAND BATH THERAPY

If you’re down with onsen, you might try soaking next in sand. Specifically, these volcanic, larger-than-average Japanese grains. Climb into the tub and your therapist will rake sand all over your body, turning you into a human Zen garden. Basically the opposite of a float tank, the sand exerts pressure on you equally from all sides, so it can get hot, heavy, and, yes, maybe claustrophobic. But quell your mind, relax, and power through, because all those little bits are filled with 50 vitamins and minerals that detoxify, boost immunity and circulation, and stave off signs of aging. We’d call that a great day at the beach. theonesandbath.com; Bt2,500.

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