World's Strangest Spas
You're lying on a massage table, but instead of the masseuse's hands, snakes slither along your back. They weave through your hair, nibble on your eyelashes, and curl around your toes.
You can get one of these odd massages on a farm in northern Israel. There and at the rest of the world's strangest spas, you'll be immersed in unforgettable, oddball situations that all somehow share the same common goal—to help you heal and relax.
The spa industry has exploded in the last decade: there were 20,600 spas in the U.S. in 2009 compared to 5,689 spas in 1999, according to the International Spa Association. Storefront nail salons also increasingly offer massages and facials. To stay competitive, spas try to stand out through unconventional treatments and locations, such as a Czech brewery that specializes in hot-beer baths.
"Spas have become experts at offering treatments that let spa-goers experience what the local area is all about while still getting the results they crave," says International Spa Association President Lynne McNees.
Taking this strategy to the extreme, Chiang Mai Women's Prison Spa lets you experience what life is like for local inmates, who are trained in the traditional art of Thai massage as part of a prison rehabilitation program.
Prisoner-style uniforms are required for patrons at an entirely different kind of oasis: the five-story, 100,000-square-foot Spa Castle in outer Queens, in the shadow of New York's LaGuardia airport. It's easy to spend the entire day exploring this theme-park-like space, which includes jade and gold igloo-shaped saunas, plunge pools, and a food court dishing out authentic Korean barbecue.
Teri Cunningham appreciates Spa Castle for both the relaxation and the entertainment value. "After making the rounds from the dipping pools to the hot saunas to the ice room, we love to hang out on the lounging sofas upstairs watching the planes land," she says. Brooklynite Jonathan Ames was also won over by Spa Castle's quirky charm; he featured the spa in an episode of his HBO cult favorite Bored to Death.
If you find yourself bored of choosing between Swedish and deep-tissue, you know the cure: an appointment at one of the world's strangest spas. Just be prepared to travel for it. Israeli farm-owner Ada Barak would like to bring her snakes to us in America, but the FAA says: no snakes on a plane.
Bota Bota, Canada
Most folks love the sound of waves when getting a massage. At Bota Bota, you're on the waves—floating on a barge-turned-1960s-showboat that morphed into a luxury spa in 2008. It's anchored in the Saint Lawrence River in the port of Old Montreal. Clients typically start with the "water circuit," a series of pools, showers, sauna, and a steam bath, and then indulge in a body treatment like the Cocoa Wave or Honey Ocean. Hang on to that blissful post-treatment feeling by swaying on the boat's hammock overlooking the city skyline.
Chodovar Beer Wellness Land, Czech Republic
Talk about a full immersion experience. At this spa on the grounds of a family-run brewery, you slip into a bath of dark beer, mineral water, and beer yeast with seven dehydrated curative herbs. The mixture supposedly improves body immunity and helps skin conditions like acne and psoriasis. Start with 20 minutes in a 93-degree beer bath, then recuperate wrapped in a fleece quilt during a 25-minute bed rest. The spa suggests pairing the bath with a massage—and a few of its beers, naturally.
Chiang Mai Women's Prison Spa, Thailand
You don't need to have seen episodes of Locked Up Abroad to be fearful of entering a foreign prison. But people actually do come to this women's prison to relax. The spa is equipped with a large room with mats and chairs for your choice of Thai or foot massages. Inmates run the spa as part of a massage school prison rehabilitation program, and the cost of a massage is set aside for the inmates for use after their release.
Galos Caves, Chicago
You no longer have to visit Poland to experience salt caves built with crystals from the Black Sea—thanks to the Polish and Ukrainian specialists who came to Chicago to construct the first U.S. salt-iodine caves (opened in 2005). Visitors spend about an hour in the dim caves, relaxing on lounge chairs amid kitschy decorations of seahorses and mermaids, listening to calming music, and breathing in the salty air. The environment is supposed to ease asthma and digestive issues. Kids make a beeline for the "saltbox," where they can play with brightly colored beach toys.
Lime Spa, Maldives
The Maldives are famous for luxurious over-water bungalows with glass floors—and now for the world's first underwater spa, part of Huvafen Fushi resort in the North Malé Atoll. Clown fish, parrot fish, blacktip reef sharks, eels, and many other creatures swim by as clients enjoy treatments like the Marine Wave, an aromatic body and scalp massage, or Pulp Friction, a full-body exfoliation with mineral sea salts and botanical oil. The spa brings sea life indoors with décor inspired by coral and sea sponges.
Mais Oui Spa Train, California
When you board this authentic 1920s luxury Pullman railcar, go for the "roundtrip": a massage, an herbal facial, and a body scrub. The boutique spa is stationed at Napa Valley's Calistoga Train Depot, the second-oldest depot in California. Opened in December 2010, the train has only three cabins, with room for up to six—so be ready for an intimate trip. Staff up the kitsch factor by giving you train tickets when you enter the spa.
Ada Barak's Carnivorous Plant Farm, Israel
Ever since biblical times, recoiling has been the first instinct when a snake slithers near. But in the Holy Land, of all places, Ada Barak is convinced that her snakes can be a soothing influence. If you dare, Barak will watch over the creatures as they writhe along your back, legs, stomach, hair—even your face. The nonvenomous snakes vary in size, with the largest ones providing a kneading feel and, at most, a little nibble on your eyelashes. 011-972-4-6373473
New York Spa Castle, New York
Most spa excursions last only an hour or two, but you can easily spend the whole day at Spa Castle, a 100,000-square-foot oasis among warehouses in Queens. It's modeled after a Korean bathhouse (jimjilbang), complete with plunge pools, igloo-shaped saunas lined in gold and jade, and a food court. When you arrive, you're issued a uniform of shorts and a T-shirt, plus an electronic bracelet that works as a locker key and a charge card. Before slipping into your new getup, spend time in the all-nude steam rooms and baths (separated by gender). Then head to the rooftop for a dip in the coed heated pool, with whirlpools, massage jets, and a view of Long Island Sound.
Get a massage by a habit-toting Austrian at this nun-run spa. After years of operating a chicken farming business, the sisters made over Marienkron Abbey as a wellness center in 1969. The menu ranges from lymphatic drainage massages to colonics. One signature treatment created by a 19th-century priest involved being hosed with hot and cold water. You can always cap it off with a little holy water by attending a mass during your stay.
The Spa at The Firehouse, Iowa
More than a century ago, this Greek Revival-style firehouse employed award-winning horses, both named Jack, which won fire-wagon races and dashed out whenever there was an emergency. Now, instead of putting out fires, the staff come to the rescue by alleviating stress. Folks check in by the old brass fire pole and check out the operational fire gong and a large collection of historic firehouse memorabilia on display.