If you’ve ever been to a fancy hotel or destination spa, then you’ve probably experienced some sort of treatment incorporating traditions and ingredients from a faraway land. Whether it was a Thai massage, Chinese acupressure, or an Indian Shirodhara ritual, it probably wasn’t too hard to feel temporarily transported to another destination—even if just for an hour. While I’ll never stop my endless quest for finding the most authentic and results-driven global services that delight the senses as well as the mind, I was almost about to call off the dogs after my recent experience at an authentic Turkish hammam (a.k.a. hamam) in Istanbul.
Dating back to 1556, the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam (located between the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque) is one of Istanbul’s most stunning representations of the time-honored Turkish bath culture. The historical structure was designed and built by Mimar Sinan, the chief Ottoman architect, upon the requisition of Hurrem Sultan (Roxelana), the wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century (1556-1557 AD). Its location is particularly significant, as it was erected where the ancient public baths of Zeuxippus (100-200 AD) used to stand, which also happens to be where the Temple of Zeus once stood.
The Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam was built in the classical period Ottoman bath style, yet it was an innovation in Turkish bath architecture because it was designed to have the sections for men and women constructed on the same axis as mirror images of each other. My journey began on a beautiful fall evening in Istanbul—which was much needed considering I had just completed a two train, plane and cab journey from Lake Como, Italy, starting at the ripe hour of 4:30 a.m.
There are a variety of individual services and packages to choose from, but having never experienced a hammam, I went for one of the more robust options, which only set me back about $100 for 90-minutes of bliss. Despite being there in off-season, note that you still have to make advanced reservations—though I only made mine the day before and was granted my preferred time slot.
From the moment I walked into the hammam, I knew I was in for something special. My first impressions were: It was as clean as a whistle, the architecture was even more drop-dead gorgeous in person than on the photos I saw online, it smelled like an exotic Garden of Eden, and the traditional Turkish music that was playing softly in the background was the perfect catalyst for transporting visitors into another time and place—including yours truly.
I was escorted to a small changing area where I was given disposable panties and a very small towel (the traditional bath wrap called a pestamal) to cover myself with—let’s just say that it didn’t quite cover everything. I was then taken to the main room of the bath house where all the magic happens. My therapist instructed me to drop my towel, which was a new experience for an American who has worked in spas where proper draping was non-negotiable. I quickly scanned the room and noticed that women of all shapes and sizes were sporting their birthday suits without any inhibitions, so I let that terrycloth hit the floor and got ready to hammam like a pro.
The therapist left me on a heated marble step near a gold faucet/marble basin, where I was instructed to ladle warm water over my hair and body with the use of a beautiful, gold-plated ottoman bath bowl. Next, we moved to the nucleus of the room—a heated, octagonal slab of marble—where I laid on my back while my therapist gave me a traditional body scrub and relaxing bubble wash scented with essential oil of Melissa, which smells very similar to lemongrass. After I turned over and the process was repeated, I moved to yet another “station” where my hair was washed and conditioned with Judas tree essential oil-infused products.
The next step left my skin as smooth as silk for days—even after showering a few times. My therapist slipped a traditional olive oil bar of soap (again, scented with Melissa E.O.) into a dampened bath glove and vigorously rubbed every extremity of my body in an effort to give my skin a thorough exfoliation. Next, I was rinsed and wrapped in a large towel and escorted to the main relaxation area, where I was served water, Turkish Delight and a local beverage called Ottoman sharbat, a cold beverage made from fruits, spices and flower petals.
After a few moments of of becoming entranced by the hypnotic music in my relaxed state, I was escorted up three flights of stairs to a private room for a Judas tree essential oil aromatherapy massage. The top floor rooms aren’t covered, so I was able to take in the glow of the dreamy blue light that filled the beautiful domed ceiling of the hammam itself.
My hammam tips and takeaways:
- Get over being body conscious. Trust me when I say nobody is looking at you, and an experience like this is more about wellness than vanity. Refreshing, right?
- Take the time to really soak in your surroundings. Chills ran down my spine when I thought of how many people enjoyed this amazing ritual in the exact same spot over the past 400-plus years.
- Go for one of the larger packages of services. You can receive a full hammam experience in less than it costs for one service at a traditional spa or resort; it’s completely worth it!
- You’re going to love how you feel and smell when you leave, so take note of how silky smooth your hair and skin feels afterwards. As mentioned earlier, I still felt the results even after taking several showers. What won’t last, however, is the delectable aroma of essential oils that envelops your hair and skin from top-to-bottom.
- Each guest receives their own “hammam kit,” which includes everything you need for your entire journey, so it’s extremely sanitary. You even get to take home body lotion, olive oil soap, your bath mitt and sandals. A perfect souvenir until you can make it back to paradise.
I worked in a five-star hotel spa for over four years, so I can tell you that the majority of my clients were there to receive a pampering experience. Don’t get me wrong, today’s savvy spa consumer wants results, too—but this type of guest is also willing to think outside the box and opt for a non-traditional service to further connect with their getaway destination of choice.
Of course, hotels and resorts all over the world are well aware of this, which is why service menus are tweaked to include indigenous ingredients and local area rituals and traditions to educate your mind and enlighten your spirit. Ahead, we present 10 spa treatments from around the world that will make you feel like a local in two hours or less.
Grand Garden Ritual: Grand Hotel Tremezzo
Photo courtesy of the Grand Hotel Tremezzo.
Between the crystal clear blue waters and villa-studded landscape, being in the Lake Como area is a treat in itself. But if you’re looking for a way to make your visit even more serene, the newly renovated T Spa at the stunning Grand Hotel Tremezzo hotel definitely caters to anyone seeking a little R&R—and a taste of the good life.
The Grand Garden Ritual ($270) is inspired by the fragrant flowers in the stunning Grand Hotel Tremezzo garden. The treatment begins with a welcome foot ritual and continues with a body exfoliation using natural sea salts and rosemary and lavender essential oils. Next, the guest receives a relaxing back massage and intensive facial treatment using the essence of neroli—talk about giving entirely new meaning to the term “garden fresh.”
Grand Hotel Tremezzo, Via Provinciale Regina 8, 22019 Tremezzina CO, Italy; +39 0344 42491.
Borinquen Coffee Polish: St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort
Destination: Puerto Rico
Photo courtesy of the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort.
Located at the foot of the El Yunque National Rainforest is the resort’s 10,000 square foot Remède Spa, a luxurious retreat that beckons guests to become one with nature.
The Borinquen Coffee Polish ($170) treatment celebrates the fact that Puerto Rico is America’s leading coffee producer, harvesting 10-million pounds last year alone. The largest coffee and chocolate exhibition in the Caribbean takes place here in late September (26-27) to boot. Tying the two together, this indigenous polish awakens the skin and senses by incorporating coffee and cocoa butter to improve skin texture and increase circulation and skin firmness. The treatment is finished with a warm Vichy shower and an application of shea butter moisturizer to help repair cellular degeneration from time spent out on the beach.
St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, State Road 187 Kilometer 4.2 (Rio Grande, Puerto Rico); 787-809-8000.
White Clay Treatment: UXUA Casa Hotel and Spa
Photo courtesy of UXUA Casa Hotel and Spa.
From the moment you step into the stunning spa on the UXUA grounds, you’ll immediately get what it’s all about: pure and utter serenity. But aside from the lush, natural landscape, the most impressive aspect is its commitment to offering services that celebrate the heritage of the Pataxó Indians, African slaves, Jesuit missionaries and 20th century hippies who’ve roamed the land. The area’s vast biodiversity is also a focal point, so ingredients like almescar resin—indigenous to only southern Bahia and the Amazon—are used for their restorative qualities.
The White Clay Treatment ($350) stems from rituals performed by local tribes. To make the experience as authentic as possible, guests travel off-site via horseback or car to the red-colored cliffs of Taipe Beach, where they’ll cover themselves in a mineral-rich clay body scrub that’s been used for centuries as a natural form of stress relief therapy. After basking in the sun with their body covered in white clay, a quick dip in the ocean washes it all away, leaving skin fresh and smooth to the touch.
UXUA Casa Hotel and Spa (Quadrado Trancoso, Bahia Brazil); +55 73 3668 2277.
Traditional Hammam Treatment: Royal Mansour Spa
Photo courtesy of Royal Mansour.
If a picture says a thousand words, then you’re probably ready to book a ticket to Marrakesh by now. If your first thought was that the spa looks like a place fit for a king (or queen!), then you’re right on target—the Royal Mansour is actually owned by the King of Morocco.
The Traditional Hammam Treatment (approximately $121) is a Royal Mansour (and Moroccan) specialty, so it’s perfect for anyone looking to have both a pampering and cultural experience. The service begins with massaging a soap of olive resin to cleanse the skin and ease tension. Next, a detoxifying mask is applied, and the body is exfoliated with the traditional kessa massage glove. At this point, the body is warmed up, so it’s time to take a plunge in the cold room, resulting in a feeling of complete renewal.
Royal Mansour Marrakech, Rue Abou Abbas El Sebti (Marrakech, Morocco); + 212 5 29 80 80 80.
Zareeba Treatment: The Palms
Destination: Turks and Caicos
Photo courtesy of the Palms Turks and Caicos.
From holistic therapies to ancient remedies, this luxury resort on the famed Grace Bay Beach is home to an award-winning 25,000 square-foot spa that boasts all of the bells and whistles a beauty and wellness-enthusiast could ask for.
The Zareeba Treatment ($215) is one of many local-inspired services at The Palms—and it’s also a guest favorite. Zareeba literally means “protected enclosure,” so it’s no surprise that there’s a wrap involved. The experience begins with a full-body herbal cleansing and detoxification ritual using a Caribbean cure-all (dogwood, cerasee, rosemary, lemon, ginger, pimento, basil, eucalyptus, guaco bush, lemongrass, lignum vitae, pepper rod, and vervain) that’s been known to alleviate rashes, colds, fever, muscle pains, and nausea. Therapeutic herbs are inhaled with the help of steam before receiving a cooling wrap and a body massage to release toxins.
Try it at home:
- Draw a hot steamy bat
- Steep 4-6 of your favorite herbal tea bags in your bath and squeeze in 1 full lemon.
- Inhale the steam in deeply; as you lie there, try to focus on your own breath, and let your mind melt away…
The Palms Turks and Caicos, Grace Bay Beach, Princess Drive, Providenciales TKCA 1ZZ (Turks and Caicos Islands); 1-866-877-7256.
Ritual Xocoa Delicatessen: Majestic Hotel & Spa
Photo courtesy of the Majestic Hotel Barcelona.
This sleek spa is a favorite of the international jet set—and with good reason. It’s a five-star respite in the heart of bustling Barcelona, complete with a list of top-notch services to match.
The Ritual Xocoa Delicatessen (approximately $177) is one of those services. The detoxifying (and calorie-free) massage pays homage to Spain’s part in the culinary history of chocolate, which dates all the way back to the 16th century—long before it was in the clutches of the Italians or the French. Along with receiving an extreme hydration boost, added benefits include the reduction of tension, stress and fatigue.
Majestic Hotel Barcelona, Passeig de Gràcia 68-70 (Barcelona, Spain); +34 93 488 17 17.
Honey Bliss Treatment: Twin Farms
Photo courtesy of Twin Farms.
Forget what you think about Old McDonald. This is literally a five-star luxury farm experience spread out over 300 acres of beautiful landscape. The only laboring you have to worry on this farm is figuring out which spa services to receive.
The Honey Bliss Treatment ($230-$270) starts with a full-body exfoliation using a results-driven sugar scrub made with citrus essential oils and local honey to soften and renew the skin. After relaxing with a warm hydrating body masque and wrap, the massage therapist will execute a relaxing massage with shea butter for an added hydration boost. Add a facial enhancement for an additional $30.
Twin Farms, 452 Royalton Turnpike (Barnard, Vermont); 802-234-9999.
Fuller Brook Wild Crafted Wellness Experience: The Lodge at Glendorn
Photo courtesy of The Lodge at Glendorn.
This opulent-yet-intimate hideaway—a Relais & Chateaux property—is situated on 1,500 beautiful acres of land in Bradford, Pennsylvania. The lodge was originally a family vacation home owned by the Dorn family from 1927 to 1995. It was up for auction in 2009, but a man by the name of Cliff Forrest stepped in and restored the property to its glorious state. While a bevvy of outdoor activities are within close reach, the lodge debuted an intimate spa in 2014 for those seeking a little indoor R&R.
The Fuller Brook Wild Crafted Wellness Experience ($135 to-go, $250 to have the product applied at the spa during your treatment) gives guests the unique opportunity to work with the “spa chef” to forage ingredients from throughout the property to create everything your very own product, such as a lavender scrub with lemon balm and rose water. The entire process, sans treatment, takes about an hour.
The Lodge at Glendorn, 1000 Glendorn Drive (Bradford, Pennsylvania); 814-362-6511.
Voodoo Massage: The Ritz-Carlton New Orleans
Photo courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans.
It doesn’t have to be Mardi Gras for New Orleans to be pulsating with energy. And after a day of eating, sipping on hurricanes, and listening to jazz throughout the streets of the French Quarter, pop into this award-winning spa for a service with a unique take on the history of the Big Easy.
The Voodoo Massage ($150-$220) The soul of New Orleans is magical and mystical, and this massage — using oil with notes of absinthe, bourbon, cypress, moss, and vetiver — will put you under a spell of complete relaxation. Incense permeates the room, and voodoo chants set the ambiance like no other therapy you’ve ever experienced.
The Ritz-Carlton New Orleans, 921 Canal Street (New Orleans, Louisiana); 504-524-1331.
RLP Herbal Wrap: Rancho La Puerta
Photo courtesy of Rancho La Pureta.
When contemplating your next destination spa getaway, keep this in mind: Rancho La Puerta was named the number-one destination spa in the World by Travel + Leisure’s 2014 World’s Best Awards—and the three years before that. The 3,000-acre property is the original “fitness resort,” so guests can expect a wide array of activities to suit all interests and levels of athleticism. Of course, the resort isn’t all work and no play. The spa makes it a priority to guide guests through a series of cleansing, relaxing, energizing, and restorative treatments throughout their stay.
The RLP Herbal Wrap ($50) incorporates indigenous ingredients (California sagebrush, powis castle, rosemary, white sage, and eucalyptus) that were harvested right before treatment. The cocoon-like treatment warms, cleanses, moisturizes, and nourishes the skin, while steaming hot linens steeped in traditional, local Native American herbs wrap the body in aromatic bliss.
Rancho La Puerta, Carretera Tecate-Tijuana Kilometer 136.5 (Tecate, Mexico); 800-443-7565.