Image: Gondola Massage
Orient Express Hotels
At Casanova Spa at Hotel Cipriani in Venice, Italy, relaxation-seekers who can't get enough of the city's sights can set sail with a Gondola Massage, performed in a private nook in one of Venice's alluring lagoons.
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updated 8/22/2008 3:12:52 PM ET 2008-08-22T19:12:52

It used to be that nightingales, fish and snakes were just considered part of nature’s majesty, nothing more than elements of the great outdoors that could be enjoyed by those with a penchant for all things wild and wonderful. That was before a few clever spa practitioners decided to get creative, blending the sometimes quirky benefits of the animal kingdom with the nurturing needs of curious spa-goers.

Gone are the days of simple cold cream and Swedish massage. Nowadays, ailments like sore muscles, lank locks and sallow skin are being remedied with the likes of nightingale excrement facials, full-body fish therapy, snake massages and — yes — preheated golf balls.

“Spa culture has moved from basic treatments, such as uncomplicated facials and massages, to a growth industry where, it seems, anything goes, from a cornmeal scrub to products with unexpected ingredients, such as maple syrup,” says Pam Price, spa consultant and co-author of “100 Best Spas of the World.” “The sky is the limit as to what spa-goers will pay for a trendy treatment." But do they work? Price advises, "Ask the therapist about the ingredients and find out if any studies are available to deny or confirm what the treatment promises to accomplish."

The Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North, Ariz., now offers a massage with warmed golf balls designed especially for tired golfers. The massage therapist kneads tight muscles with the balls with the goal of alleviating tension, but, says Price, “I can’t imagine what powers these [golf] balls hold.”

Organic ingredients have a longer history of providing health benefits. Now, though it's considered a luxury by some in Japan, spreading nightingale dung on your cheeks doesn't exactly scream "beneficial." But geishas have been looking to the skies for centuries, and several spas are taking note. At the Diamond Spa at the Diamond Hawaii Resort & Spa in Maui, spa-goers in search of a little face finessing rely on the complexion-healing power of nightingale dung. The skin is treated with a coating of dehydrated droppings, a technique used for centuries by geishas to repair damage and create lighter, more translucent skin.

Equally healing help can be found underwater, courtesy of a flock of hungry fish. At Samputon Spa in Malaysia, a unique breed finds supreme succor nibbling on the dead skin of spa-goers who submerge themselves in their tanks. Ailments like psoriasis and flakey skin on fingers and feet are put under pain-free attack by these ravenous skin-savers, though the experience is most certainly not for the faint of heart. “When you are talking about 1000 fish rallying around the body, it definitely scares the squeamish types away,” says spa founder Joe Ng. “But people who have the guts to try it generally turn out to be the ones who enjoy it the most.”

Would Price, the spa expert, let a fish exfoliate her toes? “In the interest of spa culture research I would,” she says, “as long as it’s not a piranha.”

Liquor therapy is also big in some spas, and a bit less controversial. Cactus paddles and a hydrating tequila and cactus blend are used to knead muscles during the Hakali Massage at Apuane Spa at the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita in Mexico. And beer imbibers can sip their favorite lager while immersed in a tub full of active beer yeast and a mixture of crushed herbs at one hops-happy spa in the Czech Republic.

Image: 24K Gold Facial
Veronica Spa and Skin Care Center
Spa-goers can get the ultimate in beauty bling with the UMO 24K Gold Facial at Veronica Spa and Skin Care Center in Malibu, Calif. This pricey $400 pampering session, a favorite among the spa's celebrity clientele, truly allows spa-goers to strike beauty gold.
Still others find spa bliss in over-the-top, decadent experiences. Spa-goers with hefty bank accounts can cash in with a facial using sheets of real gold, an alfresco massage performed along the canals of Venice, or at the hands of five therapists at once.

Some advice from Price before having your seaweed wrap (talk about a fishy fragrance) or color clay facial: “Depending on where you are in the world, the spa menu will often reflect indigenous ingredients, but if they seem too exotic for your taste, try a patch test first to make sure you will not have an adverse reaction.”

Whether you’re a businessperson looking for a unique mid-meeting break or a fan of the far-out looking to take a trip to spa nirvana, ready your robe. We’re spanning the globe on a quest for extraordinary healing techniques.

Video: 'It feels like a tingling machine'

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