Most Exotic Spa Treatments
Here’s a disappointing scenario: you decide to take a well-deserved spa getaway in an exotic locale—say, Morocco or Tahiti—and on your first day, you’re ushered to your treatment room. The space is furnished with local woods and traditional textiles; the air redolent with the scent of flowers and herbs growing outside; and your therapist—whose own smooth, glowing skin comes courtesy of her grandmother’s beauty recipes—invites you to settle in for…a standard European facial using the same brand-name products you’d find at your local department store. Suddenly, your “authentic” spa experience is over before it’s even started.
Until recently, this situation was common at spas all over the globe. Many facilities, even those in places with their own time-honored beauty rituals, chose to embrace big-name international cosmetic products instead of ingredients indigenous to their locations.
“There used to be a belief that Western therapies and products backed by marketing and hype were superior,” says Luisa Anderson, a senior spa director for Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, adding that hotel spas also tended to pick well-known product lines to give a “safe choice” to their guests. But these days, as Anderson travels through Asia developing menus for new destination spas, she says she’s found a sea change in spa-goers’ attitudes toward indigenous beauty rituals: not only do they now seek out spas that use local ingredients, they demand them.
“Travelers today really want a sense of place,” Anderson says, “so spas need to represent the culture of their location and offer something guests won’t get at home.”
Consequently, traveling spa-goers are now likely to see ancient, and decidedly local, remedies popping up on treatment menus. And while some of these incorporate ingredients that are at least somewhat familiar sounding—cedar, coca leaf, Tahitian black pearl—others may require a bigger leap of faith. (It takes a sense of adventure to submit to a South African fynbos exfoliation, for example, or a Mexican Tepezcohuite Body Drench.)
Spa guests who are unsure about trying an indigenous ingredient, says Mary Bemis, editor in chief of Organic Spa Magazine, should speak up. “Don’t be afraid to ask where the product came from, how it was created, and what the effects are supposed to be,” she says.
For the most part, though, Bemis and Anderson agree that sampling indigenous spa ingredients is a good thing (or at least a harmless one). Since the trend of using these ingredients can be seen as an extension of eco-awareness, Bemis says, products are often harvested sustainably. And since today’s spa-goers are so savvy and well informed, Anderson says, they’re also quick to spot a gimmick; they respond to traditional beauty rituals only if they’re effective.
“You can’t just mash up some papayas and say that works,” Anderson says. “Guests want to experience that ingredient that’s been tried and tested for a thousand years.”
Gold Body Mask, Oman
The Claim: Many ancient cultures believed that gold, along with symbolizing power and wealth, imparted immortality (hence all that burying of bling in Egyptian tombs). These days, chrysotherapy—the treatment of maladies like rheumatoid arthritis, bad circulation, depression, and hypertension with gold—has become relatively well known, and beauty experts say powder-fine gold used in spa treatments can help absorb pollutants, regulate the skin’s ionic balance, and impart a fresh glow.
Where to Try It: In the Arabian Gold Ritual at the Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay in Oman, guests are exfoliated with a basil and mint scrub, then painted with a purifying gold-and-clay body mask. Next comes an invigorating massage of the scalp, face, and body—the latter with a gold-infused oil.
Queen Conch-Shell Scrub, Turks and Caicos
The Claim: Found in the shallows of the Caribbean and southern Atlantic seas, queen conchs are mollusks whose large shells are lined with pink-hued mother-of-pearl, or nacre. Caribbean natives have long considered this shell lining to be health-friendly, likely because it’s rich in proteins and anti-aging keratins. Today’s aestheticians have also found that the relatively soft conch shells, when ground, make an ideal low-impact exfoliant.
Where to Try It: For the 30-minute Mother of Pearl Body Treatment at The Regent Palms in Turks and Caicos, hand-crushed queen conch shell (one of the island’s biggest exports) is mixed with aromatherapeutic oil to create a gentle scrub. The soft, powdery shell bits help to slough off dead skin cells and polish and revitalize the skin underneath.
Coca Leaf Body Mask, Peru
The Claim: Native to northwestern South America, the coca leaf—which contains the alkaloids used to make cocaine, but is not, in itself, addictive—is an integral part of traditional Andean medicine and has long been chewed, brewed, and applied topically to treat everything from headaches and depression to muscle pain and high blood pressure. Besides having a high concentration of calcium, the leaf also contains skin-friendly alkaloids like papaine and benzoine.
Where to Try It: Designed to detoxify and improve blood circulation, the three-hour Inkaterra Therapy service at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu’s UNU Spa starts with a stint in an Andean sauna (in a eucalyptus-wood hut), then moves on to a stimulating coca-oil body massage, a coca-leaf body mask, and hydration with a coca-leaf moisturizer.
Tepezcohuite Body Drench, Mexico City
The Claim: Known for centuries as the “skin tree” all over Mexico and in parts of Brazil, Tepezcohuite (pronounced “Te-pez-co-whee-tay”) was traditionally used by the Mayans to stop bleeding, prevent infection, and treat lesions. More recent lab studies have shown that the tree’s bark has antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antifungal properties, while its extracts contain anti-aging flavonoids, skin-smoothing tannins, and nutrients like zinc, copper, and magnesium.
Where to Try It: Opening in March 2009, the Aurora Spa at Mexico City’s Las Alcobas hotel will feature influences from the Mayan, Aztec, Toltec, Nahuatl, and contemporary Mexican healing cultures. The one-hour Tepezcohuite Body Drench is a cooling, hydrating, and therapeutic body salve combining the restorative bark with aloe and mint—perfect for parched or sunburnt skin.
Maple Sugar Body Scrub, Vermont
The Claim: About a decade ago, Canadian dermatologic chemist Ben Kaminsky was on a midwinter fishing trip when he began pondering the ability of maple trees to thrive in such cold temperatures. Many tests later, Kaminsky discovered what he calls the Bio-Maple compound in the tree’s sap—a combination of antioxidants, polyphenols, and minerals that makes maple extract a deeply soothing, hydrating, and reparative substance. Alpha hydroxy acids also help make it an effective, but gentle, exfoliant.
Where to Try It: Bio-Maple is now an integral part of the B. Kamins, Chemist product line (a particular favorite of people with sensitive or rosacea-prone skin), but the pure stuff is also used in spa services in maple-rich Vermont. Both the Topnotch Resort and Spa and the Stoweflake Mountain Resort & Spa offer maple sugar body scrubs that exfoliate and moisturize using sap from local trees.
Black Pearl Body Buff, Tahiti
The Claim: Found only in French Polynesia, rare black pearls are naturally more prized than their paler counterparts. But though they’ve got superior cachet (and dazzling shades that include deep purple and green), black pearls’ beauty benefits are the same as those touted in China for more than 3,000 years. Crushed, pearls reportedly have anti-aging and skin-lightening properties and also act as a mild sunscreen; in skin products, they’re said to improve circulation and elasticity and encourage cell turnover to leave complexions smooth and even.
Where to Try It: During the Monoi Poe treatment at the Manihi Pearl Beach Resort in Tahiti, you’ll get buffed with a combination of real Tahitian black pearls—harvested at one of Manihi’s 60 pearl farms—and indigenous monoi, a hydrating nut oil used by all local women. Skin is left smooth and glowing.
Cedar Massage, Wisconsin
The Claim: Regarded as sacred by numerous Native American tribes, cedar is thought to have qualities of purification and protection, as well as an ability to cleanse on an emotional level. As a result, it’s often used in ceremonies designed to release heavy emotional baggage and is also used for “smudging”—the burning of herbs to remove negative vibes and create a healthy, sacred space. (It also just smells really nice.)
Where to Try It: At the Aspira Spa in Wisconsin, cedar gathered from the ancient trees growing along nearby Elkhart Lake is used in the signature Cedars Massage. The treatment—which incorporates cedar-infused massage oil and a wrap in a blanket layered with fragrant sprigs—was influenced by the traditions of the local Ojibwa Tribe.
Argan Oil Massage, Morocco
The Claim: Native to southwestern Morocco, the spindly Argan tree produces a small, pitted fruit that’s something like an olive. For centuries, native Berber women have ground up the pits and seeds of these fruits and pressed them to produce an oil for use in cooking and body treatments. Thanks to a high content of vitamin E, carotenes, and fatty acids, the oil is an excellent hydrator—it leaves skin nourished but not greasy—and also helps minimize wrinkles, restores elasticity, and stimulates cell oxygenation.
Where to Try It: At the Amanjena Resort in Marrakesh, the traditional communal hammam experience has been refined into the pampering Moroccan Bloom spa treatment. Guests enjoy a steam, a wash with locally made black soap, a thorough body scrub, and a rhassoul clay body mask, topped off by a dousing with refreshing eucalyptus-infused water. Once skin is squeaky clean and polished, a massage with Argan oil helps seal in moisture.
Achiote Hydrating Wrap, Cancún
The Claim: Grown widely in Peru, Brazil, and Mexico, the flowering achiote, or annatto, plant has been used for health and beauty ever since the Mayans first ground up its rust-colored seeds to make lipstick. Local cultures still use raw achiote leaves to treat skin problems and stomach distress, the roots for coughs and digestive issues, and dried-leaf tea to fight inflammation, high cholesterol, and obesity. On the beauty front, oil extracted from the seeds has moisturizing and antioxidant properties and also creates a light UV barrier when applied to the skin and hair.
Where to Try It: The JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa’s Mayan-influenced menu includes an Achiote Hydrating Wrap—which does exactly what it says—and also an Xux Ek Venus Goddess Facial, which mixes mud from the Chicxulub meteor crater with achiote to nourish tired and dry skin.
Jade Hot Stone Massage, Beijing
The Claim: Long considered a symbol of beauty, power, and good health in Asian countries (where it’s largely harvested), jade is often worn against the skin for the purposes of strengthening the kidneys, liver, and heart. Cosmetic manufacturers who infuse their products with the green stones also insist the ingredient helps to even skin tone, reduce inflammation, and add moisture, likely due to its high content of silica, which helps produce collagen.
Where to Try It: The Jade Hot Stone Massage at The Peninsula, Beijing, begins with a cleansing facial, “polarity balancing,” and an acupressure head massage, followed by a dousing of the body in warm scented oils. Next, hot jade stones are used during a deep massage, helping to loosen muscles and—ostensibly—impart mental clarity and spiritual harmony.
Fynbos Exfoliation and Wrap, South Africa
The Claim: Meaning “fine bush” in Afrikaans, fynbos refers to the unique vegetation found in South Africa’s Cape Floral Kingdom—a lush coastal belt that stretches from the Western Cape to Port Elizabeth in the southeast. Ranging from tall protea shrubs to reedy plants and bulbous herbs, the fynbos family includes rooibos, a red bush known for its powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which generations of locals have brewed into tea. Recent research has shown that when used topically, the plant can also help fight skin problems like dryness, acne, and eczema.
Where to Try It: At the Pezula Resort Hotel & Spa in Knysna, South Africa, all signature treatments use products based on indigenous fynbos recipes. The Matombo Experience includes a full-body fynbos exfoliation, followed by a mineral volcanic rock massage; the Mhute Steam Experience combines a steam, scrub, and fynbos mud wrap to hydrate and regenerate skin.
Cellular Bust Emulsion, Switzerland
The Claim: Swiss mountain water has always been a symbol of purity. And the product line Swiss Perfection Cellular Skin Care mixes the mountain runoff with active and intact cells of the Iris Germanica root. The result, says the company, is a formula that can rejuvenate skin tissue, doing everything from hydrating the elbows to firming the bust.
Where to Try It: Order up the 90-minute Decollete Treatment at the Clinique La Prairie Spa, set on Lake Geneva in Montreux, Switzerland. The spa’s been around since 1931, and the Swiss are just as committed to “wellness” as they are to chocolate. So if this particular treatment isn’t for you, no worries; you’ll find the Swiss Perfection product line in plenty of other treatments, which range from simple massages to complex anti-aging procedures.