Image: Fango Treatments In Italy
Jonathan Blair  /  CORBIS
Ask for a fango (mud) treatment in an Italian spa and your whole body will be immersed in inches of volcanic mud that envelop you with the smell of minerals. The treatment is believed to aid rheumatism and nervous disorders and ease muscle tension and joint pain.
updated 7/11/2008 2:49:17 PM ET 2008-07-11T18:49:17

Remember when a Swedish massage sounded exotic?

As recently as a decade ago, many U.S. spas offered fairly generic menus, counting European facials and the standard Swedish massage as their most unique offerings.

The industry has gotten more diverse and creative since then, branching out into treatments and body scrubs native to India, Korea and Thailand. But that hasn't stopped dedicated spa-goers from roaming far and wide for treatments.

Experts in the industry say that, for the past few years, a small group of adventurous spa regulars with money to spend has been traveling, domestically as well as abroad, in search of spa experiences that more closely resemble their original forms. The therapies usually offer the promise of a health benefit or treatment of a chronic illness, such as a reduction in inflammation or relief of arthritic pain. But the treatments also provide a window into a different culture.

"Seeking out the true roots of a tradition is very appealing," says Mindy Terry, president of Creative Spa Concepts, a full-service spa consulting firm. "And there's a lot of bragging rights, too — to be able to say 'I've done onsen in Japan' or thalassotherapy in France, that's significant to this group."

Carolee Friedlander, CEO of the by-invitation network for women AccessCircles, has been an avid spa-goer since the '80s, shortly after Canyon Ranch opened its first health resort in the foothills of Tucson, Ariz.

Over the years, she began making a habit of visiting spas during travels to China and Thailand, but found that most of the focus was on massages and body or facial treatments. Today, she says, there are far more experiential treatments aimed at helping you re-energize and heal.

Take, for example, the outdoor bath she took at an Amankora Spa in Bhutan during a recent trekking trip. As she looked out on Mount Jumolhari, Friedlander relaxed in a wooden tub filled with hot stones — to regulate the water temperature — and floating local herbs, a practice said to ease muscles aches.

"It was in fact a reflection of the country's cultural, physical and spiritual values," she says.

Friedlander isn't the only one who has developed a taste for a touch of authenticity. Dr. S.P. Sreejit, medical director of Athreya Ayurvedic Resorts in Kottayam, India, estimates the number of customers from around the world seeking the facility's traditional Ayurvedic and rejuvenation therapies has doubled in the past couple of years.

Image: Temascal in Mexico
Frans Lemmens  /  Getty Images
A native steam bath, the temascal dates back to the ancient Aztecs. The tradition is still in practice in Mexico today, used for both curative and religious purposes.
The therapies include shiro, a cleansing and invigorating treatment that involves the careful pouring of a stream of medicated liquid or oil on the forehead for 45 minutes. While offered at many spas and medical centers in the U.S. in single sessions, this kind of Ayurvedic treatment was traditionally designed to be given in conjunction with other medicinal therapies over a period of weeks.

Environment also plays a role in the effectiveness of a spa experience. At Athreya Ayurvedic Resorts in Kottayam, guests live and breathe the therapy, surrounded by peaceful, green paddy fields and an exotic herbal garden with access to a yoga and meditation hall.

Sure, you may be able to get a version of the traditional Maldivian sand massage, which uses cool, wet sand to exfoliate the skin, in your local spa. But it likely won't be performed on a patch of shaded sand next to the Indian Ocean, as the waves roll in and out, lulling you to sleep.

Image: Russian Banyas
Olivier Renck  /  Getty Images
Used for centuries by Russians for everything from washing to religious ceremonies and healing rituals, the Russian banya is a far cry from your typical trip to the sauna. A visit can last a few hours and generally involves alternating time spent sitting naked in a steam room and showers or dips in icy-cold pools.
The little things can also make a big difference when you're experiencing a spa treatment in its country of origin, says Susie Ellis, president of, a comprehensive guide to the global spa marketplace. Get a fango, an Italian mud treatment, in the U.S. and you may get a light body mud wrap. Go to the source and you're likely to have inches of mud applied to your whole body — mud that somehow smells fresh and gives you the same feeling as bathing in mineral springs.

Ellis says there were no major practical differences in the Thai Yoga massages she's received in and out of Thailand. But the native Thai masseuse, who had been practicing the art most of his life and probably learned it from his family, performed the stretching techniques in a much more fluid manner.

"It was almost like a dance," Ellis says.

But you don't have to go all the way to Thailand for a unique spa experience. Look hard enough and just about every country has an indigenous spa ritual. In Virginia, the one-year-old Spa of Colonial Williamsburg, for instance, offers treatments inspired by healing and relaxation practices from each of the last five centuries.

The price tag associated with tradition varies widely depending on the type of overall experience you're seeking. A Thai Yoga massage could cost $160 in a Thai spa connected to a luxury hotel, while down the street in a storefront shop, it could cost $5. A two-hour, 18th-century inspired colonial herbal spa experience in Williamsburg will run you $265.

If you feel the urge to try an authentic local healing or relaxation ritual on your next trip, look at some spa menus online and see what's unique, ask the hotel concierge and, most important, turn to the locals for advice.

Don't know any locals? Ellis recommends talking to the people who work in the hotel, service your room or run nearby shops. They will know the truly indigenous places to go.

With any luck and an adventurous spirit, you may soon, too.

© 2012


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