The Esalen Institute in Big Sur
Lezlie Sterling  /  Zuma Press file
Visitors relax in the natural hot spring baths at Esalen Institute in Big Sur enjoying the view of the ocean.
updated 11/1/2006 7:57:28 PM ET 2006-11-02T00:57:28

While sexy is certainly in the eye of the beholder, there is an exemplary handful of new and classic spas that all possess an undeniable charisma, one that drenches the mind, body, and spirit with an awareness of our earthly presence. Steeped in sense-arousing colors, textures, scents, and spa treatments, these ten hot spots are all something to talk about.

Verana, Mexico

The Setting
The unorthodox journey via boat and then steep trek on foot and mule primes you for the wild possibilities of Verana. Carved out of a cinematic swathe of raw jungle south of Puerto Vallarta in Yelapa, the jaw-dropping bay view and jungle backdrop are dramatized by an aesthetic that is as original as it is chic and handmade. Each guest house is unique from the next and almost all force their occupants to engage with nature. The Mayan house, for example, has only two walls. The jaunt to the infinity-edge pool is a walking meditation peppered with itinerant butterflies and Technicolor green banana palms.

The Spa
Casually made up of two palapas and another semi-outdoor room with glass and metal screens, the spa is laced with the scent of lemongrass and plumeria that grows all around. The menu’s lush masks, massages, and facials use mostly handmade potions whipped up from fresh, locally grown ingredients like avocado, coffee, and papaya. By daylight, a live soundtrack of parrots accompanies the treatments, but at night, a chorus of cicadas and courting frogs replaces them — an ideal match for relaxing by candlelight in one of the Japanese-style soaking tubs steeped in a special blend of essential oils, salts, and herbs.

Satisfaction Guaranteed
Verana’s quiet is breathtaking and the lure of the jungle sets a primordial tone, but for me, the new Watsu pool, elegantly built into the hillside, was its own form of bliss. Sliding into gentle reverie, afloat in the arms of my therapist, I can still imagine swirling slowly through the water, completely willing to dissolve into a womblike trance. Even so, the sense of place pervades, and though my eyes were closed, I never lost sight of being within kissing distance of nature.

Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain, Arizona

The Setting
There’s something about desert air. It’s more vibrant, as if compensating for the stark landscape with a richness that is palpable — the gentle breezes are nearly a caress. The mingled scents of sage, creosote, and deep-red earth high up on Camelback Mountain add another layer of gratification. Under the calm gaze of the Praying Monk, a natural rock formation with easily distinguishable features, Sanctuary’s bungalows ensure privacy, sprawled along the hillside and connected by meandering sandstone paths. At night, the twinkling lights of Paradise Valley carpet the desert floor that stretches out beneath the dark silhouette of the mountains.

The Spa
From the Spa Casitas (the sleek modern rooms built closest to the spa), it’s a short walk to the rock and smooth-stucco spa complex, set downhill from an infinity pool that reflects the impossibly blue desert sky. Passing beneath the arched bamboo doorway, I blinked in the transition from bright sunlight to the cool embracing darkness of the anteroom, the only light spilling in from a four-foot-high slit in the opposite wall. The experience gently evolves in the deeper recesses of the spa, such as the sun-filled Meditation Room, where the sound of trickling water and the smell of desert brush wafts in from the courtyard garden. Throughout, spare lines and earth tones calmly eliminate points of reference, heightening the sense of submission.

Satisfaction Guaranteed
Sanctum is the ultimate outdoor suite where stone slab walls spiral inward to a private arena for one or two. After playing in the vitality pool and rain shower, the fire pit ablaze, I surrendered myself to the two-hour, Thai-inspired Luk Pra Kope. Dressed in traditional sabai wear (a loose fitting, thin cotton top and pants), my limbs were stretched and kneaded in the liberating dance of Thai massage. Finally, warm damp compresses smelling of ginger, myrtle grass, and camphor were pressed into my skin, easily penetrating the fabric and my senses, leaving me redolent of exotic spice.

Tabacon Hot Springs Resort & Spa, Costa Rica

The Setting
In the northern Costa Rican countryside — a green-on-green mosaic that’s stunning in its own right — stands the active and unusually prolific Arenal Volcano. Multiple daily eruptions yield a steady and seemingly slow-motion flow of neon-red lava that’s particularly dramatic in the dark, if the clouds cooperate. And situated near the base of the volcano, on what’s clearly a geothermic hot-spot, is Tabacón. The rainforest-enveloped resort is home to a web of naturally heated streams, falls, and pools where you can easily, and sometimes literally, lose yourself — the ever-present steam both relaxes and obscures.

The Spa
The omnipresence of nature’s raw power lends Tabacón a strong, earthy sensuality that makes you want to have someone special along when you visit. Hours passed as I gave each of the streams and pools at least a test dip, if not a lengthy soak. This eco-friendly version of hot tubbing easily becomes addictive as you get to know the subtleties of the various temperatures and mineral contents, and sort out your favorites. Let the main waterfall blast every last bit of stress from your shoulders (and be sure to slip into the steam-filled little cavern behind the cascade), then head to the on-site Iskandria Spa, where you’ll find simple, open-air bungalows (on request) and volcano-derived treatments, as well as reiki, Watsu, and Thai massage.

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Satisfaction Guaranteed
The detoxifying Volcanic Body Wrap is a sensory-fest from start to finish: Go for one of the open-air bungalows, where the warm breezes alone are delicious, and the ambient noise of flowing water and an assortment of chirps trumps even the most relaxing spa music. After being copiously rubbed with the local, mineral-rich mud — and left to bask in it for a bit under a cozy blanket — you’re led to a volcanically heated stream, where rinsing off is in reality a skinny-dipping session. Need I say more?  

Shangri-La Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand

The Setting
Bangkok is endlessly seductive. Still capable of inducing a traveler’s vertigo of sensory overload, the city exudes a sensuality that ranges from the sacred to the profane. Wandering the narrow lanes of the Bangrak district, enticing aromas waft from food stalls while cascades of sarongs, embroidered fabric, and carvings spill from small shops. Nearby, centuries-old temples and the neon of massage parlors beckon to seekers and sinners alike, stirring a delirious mélange of sights, sounds, and scents. It’s also here on the banks of the ageless Chao Phraya River that the superluxe (and aptly named) Shangri-La Hotel vaults into the sky, serving as a hyper-modern retreat from the swirl of activity below.

The Spa
The controlled chaos of the streets dissolves immediately upon entering the incense-infused, silk-draped realm of the hotel’s newly opened CHI Spa. Somehow, the spiritual and sensual aspects of Bangkok’s boulevards are exquisitely entwined here, a retreat redolent of exotic essences such as jasmine, sandalwood, and cardamom. There is a palpable allure of beauty and anticipated experience. Playing off the legend of Shangri-La, CHI weaves Himalayan elements such as Tibetan singing bowls and traditional sculptures with a sleek aesthetic of latticed screens, stacked sandstone walls, and artfully diffused lighting—a stylistic harmony that sets a mood of total surrender.

Satisfaction Guaranteed
The ultimate indulgence is the Yin Yang Couples massage, a treatment that features Himalayan herbs and essential oils with names that translate to “She of 1,000 Husbands” and “He Who is Virile as a Horse.” Get the idea? Halfway through the session, therapists switch the partner they are working on to transfer energies, while the focus throughout is to stir and awaken male and female forces and endocrine and hormonal systems, sending chi, or life force, to the reproductive areas. In sum, pretty hot stuff. 

Masseria Torre Coccaro, Italy

The Setting
Southern Italy’s Puglia region is home to a rustic retreat. The integrity of Masseria Torre Coccaro’s 16th-century farmhouse architecture was retained during its restoration, and the antiques that fill its spacious stone-lined interiors give the feeling of having entered another era. Set among seemingly endless olive groves, the property is richly comfortable with room to wander, pools to swim in, and private nooks to discover, though excursions into nearby villages are easily arranged. Meals are organic, with seasonal ingredients leading the way — there are no menus here. Five minutes away by bike, the hotel’s beach stretches along the rocky shores of the Mediterranean, where privacy reigns supreme.

The Spa
Masseria is such a retreat from the rush of the everyday that to spa might seem redundant; relaxing comes so naturally in a place like this. But while sunning poolside, taking long drives through the countryside, and finding your own private cave on the property have their rewards, the spa itself is stunning. Built into a cave, its stony interior is warmed by candlelight, scent, and cozy blankets, its highlight a heated pool set in a quietly echoing grotto.

Satisfaction Guaranteed
To experience the mental and physical release of the Traditional Ayurvedic Massage requires settling into a large stone treatment room. Performed on a mat on the floor, the full-body treatment takes massage a step beyond as the therapist powerfully engages his own arms, legs, hands, and feet to loosen tension, stress, and undesirable muscle memory. But this is not a clothed, Thai-style massage. Instead, the unusual leverage that this off-the-table therapy offers is as physically liberating as it is requiring of the ultimate mental release — pure trust.

Begawan Giri Estate, Bali

The Setting
A decade in the making, this dream of a tropical retreat is made up of nine luxury bungalows (there are 21 suites in all) hidden among jungle gardens and perched over the Ayung River Gorge near Ubud. Each residence has a theme: Fire, Water, Forest, Wind, and Earth. My suite in Tirta-Ening (Clear Water in Indonesian) has a turquoise seamless pool directly opposite the front door and a private oasis off the back where I luxuriated for hours between a zen-styled Jacuzzi, a bathtub carved from a two-ton boulder, and under a small waterfall in the plunge pool.

The Spa
Descending 350 steps into the river gorge, the path to the spa is lined by lush jungle gardens. Brightly colored firecracker hibiscus, fragrant sandat, and masses of flowered vines glow amid the dense greenery. Birds I can’t see make exotic calls. The deeper into the gorge, the greater the roar of the river and the stronger the scent of the jungle: dewy leaves, thick soil, and aromatic flowers. About halfway down, I find a wooden platform with a small stone pool that glitters emerald green in the dappling sunlight. This is the first sign that I’m at Como Shambhala, Begawan Giri’s breathtaking open-air jungle spa.

Satisfaction Guaranteed
Originating in the 15th-century palaces of Java, Javanese Royal Lulur was traditionally practiced daily for the week preceding a royal bride’s wedding. The two-hour spa version of this sensual ritual begins with a massage of fragrant oils, accompanied here by the lulling sounds of the river. As a mask made from rice flour, turmeric, sandalwood, and jasmine is gently applied to my body, its spicy floral scent insinuates itself in my nostrils. When the intoxicating blend dries, I am rinsed and rubbed with yogurt and honey, then led to a bath scattered with jasmine and hibiscus. Time has slowed down if not stopped, and I bathe with eyes closed.

Therme Vals, Switzerland

The Setting
Located in an isolated mountain valley of Switzerland’s easternmost canton, Therme Vals’s original draw was the elaborate baths designed by Peter Zumthor — an architectural monument that became the Bilbao of bathing overnight. My husband and I made a pilgrimage planning to spend one night; instead we stayed for three and left reluctantly. But our experience went beyond the baths. We loved the whole curious but charming dissonance of the place—from the hamlet town of 1,000 with its rösti restaurants, to the unsettling first impression that you’ve arrived at a drab ’60s ski resort (the mind-bending baths are built into the side of the hill), to the chain-smoking after-dinner lounge act.

The Spa
The bathing halls kept calling us back throughout the day. Constructed from ribbons of silver-gray Valser quartzite, the baths are sleek and monochromatic, but the panoramic picture windows invite the rich greens of the Swiss mountain face inside. The velvety sensuality of the stone encouraged focus on all the sensory experiences surrounding us: the smell of calendula in the flower petal pool, the bubbles of the naturally carbonated water gently clinging to our bodies, and the water massage provided by some powerful brass spigots. We felt like explorers spelunking through the vast labyrinthine world of Zumthor’s baths.

Satisfaction Guaranteed
Best of all were the silent midnight soaks. After dinner we returned to the bathing hall, careful to observe the signs at the entry that reminded us not to speak. We followed a tunnel to an outdoor pool where steam rose above the 97°F water and the moonlight splashed down on us — snowflakes powdered our eyelashes. Nearby were other couples, silently floating together, each engaged in their own private water dance.

Esalen, California

The Setting
Esalen is proof that God favors sensualists. It’s built on 27 acres of the Big Sur coast — a sublime stretch of shore studded with redwoods, beaches, waterfalls, and, of course, hot springs. Fifty feet above the swirling, crashing Pacific, 119°F mineral water, once revered by local Indians for its healing power, cascades into exquisitely designed cobblestone and concrete tubs. The funky sulfur scent rising from pools scattered across the sandstone deck hints at the water’s richness. Some tubs are exposed to the elements, others sheltered beneath dynamic cantilevered ceilings, and each one sucks the stress from your bones and soul almost instantly.

The Spa
Esalen is more an institute than a classic spa. Yogis, Buddhist teachers, authors, and musicians offer seminars year-round. There are even weekend tantric sex workshops for couples, but it is possible to arrange day spa services. In fact, people come from all over the world just to soak in the famed Esalen baths, and they’re all naked. The changing rooms are coed; the showers, built with sliding glass windows on the seaward side, are likewise unisex — the bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Public displays of self-assured nudity are rampant here — height, weight, body fat be damned. We’re talking contagious self-body-love, and, frankly, there’s nothing sexier.

Satisfaction Guaranteed
Priority #1 is to submerge in the shimmering pools, #1A is to enjoy Esalen’s singular massage. There is a soothing quality to the therapists’ long, sensitive strokes, and they are not clock-watchers. They work until the kinks are smooth and all tension is released. And if you’re too loose to leave, book a room with a view, enjoy the organic seductions they call dinner, and watch the sunset and moonrise over the ocean. Then strip down, feel the night air in all your glory, and hit the baths one more time.

Chojukan, Japan

The Setting
Cupped in the cleft of a cedar-carpeted valley, Chojukan ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) exists as proof that romantic Japan lives on. Built in the classic style, the inn has low-slung tiled roofs softened by clinging moss. Just beyond the sliding door entrance, a stately brook rumbles over its pebbled bed completing the air of serenity. Burdensome shoes are removed at the threshold where a kimono-clad hostess guides you through the cedar-scented interior to the austere rooms, perfumed by soft tatami mats and the faint whiff of charcoal from a Japanese hearth sunk into the floor.

The Spa
Even though Chojukan doesn’t offer a formal spa setting with treatments, you won’t miss it—exploring and experiencing (continued from page 85) the choice of indoor and outdoor bathing options is blissful. The first is a wooden, high-ceilinged temple dedicated to the art of hot-spring bathing that both sexes can share á la Japonaise. Cypress tubs in another timbered room offer similar restorative relief and time for contemplation of the valley view spread out before you. But for the ultimate, you must dare to venture as I did with my girlfriend, a shy, snow leopard of a woman, into the mist-wreathed outdoor onsen pools.

Satisfaction Guaranteed
We sat in the baths alone under the stars. Snow, dusted like icing, had encrusted the valley while the last of autumn’s crimson leaves and fingers of ice dipped into the lucid rock pools that were our baths. Floating logs provided headrests while heated sake nestled by our fingertips. Built directly on a riverbed, this onsen’s thermal water bubbles up through the pebbles naturally, rich in skin-beneficial calcium sodium sulfate. But science isn’t what comes to mind in this magical setting.

Hotel Hana-Maui, Hawaii

The Setting
Maybe it’s way the Pacific explodes on the black lava rocks of Maui’s easternmost point. Or the sweeping view down the coast from the hot tubs that grace the decks of the seaside cottages. Maybe it’s the changing scents of the foliage as you hike through groves of strawberry guava, past monster banyan trees, into a bamboo forest and find yourself blinking up at 400-foot Waimoko falls ... and plunge in. But the real beauty of Hana, an end-of-the-road town of about 1,800 that has barely changed in 50 years, is what’s not here. Outside the resort grounds, there are two stores, one other restaurant, a gallery, and a gas station. No bars, no 18-hole golf courses, no parasailing. Not here, not for 50 miles.

The Spa
The oldest hotel in Maui, the 62-room Hotel Hana-Maui still has its 1946 bungalows, but everything was tastefully renovated not long ago with a zen-like nod to quiet and elegance. You move easily here from indoors to out, from the spa’s garden showers and lava rock plunge pools to spacious private treatment suites, each opening onto a garden that looks out across the mesmerizing bay.

Satisfaction Guaranteed
The sensuality that lies at the root of Hawaiian healing is the essence of three of Hana’s most seductive spa treatments. During the Calming ‘Awa and Spirulina Body Wrap, each leg is painted with a mask made from the narcotic ‘awa (or kava) and spirulina; a strong forearm strokes firmly across your back during the Hawaiian Lomilomi massage; and the gentle placement of hot lava stones on the body during the Honua Ali‘I Hot Stone Massage is surpassed only by a rub down with the hotel’s flower-laced signature aromatherapy oil and a soothing sheen of ti leaf: Such is bliss.

Contributed by Alexia Brue (Switzerland), Tamara Collins (Arizona), Michael Fitzpatrick (Japan), Lisa Gosselin (Hawaii), Kathryn Harris (Mexico), Eric Hiss (Thailand), Abbie Kozolchyk (Costa Rica), Adam Skolnick (California), and Gisela Williams (Bali).

Spa Magazine  portrays the full-depth of the spa experience and ways to live it every day. Dedicated to providing the information and inspiration needed to pursue health of body and mind, Spa Magazine  presents a contemporary view of spas worldwide. © 2006 World Publications, LLC

© 2013 World Publications, LLC

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