I just returned from a spa vacation, where I accomplished the usual goals: pampering via treatments ranging from massages to facials; lots of exercise, from a few dips in the swim-against-the-current pool to hiking and bicycling; and even a bit of weight loss, from sticking as closely as possible to healthy menu entrees.
But there’s one difference. This spa vacation wasn’t experienced at one of America’s traditional health-oriented fiefdoms, such as Golden Door or Canyon Ranch. Nor was it a resort-with-spa vacation, at a place like West Virginia’s Greenbrier or Colorado’s Broadmoor.
Onboard spas, regardless of who operates them, are experiencing growth and change. Our trend-spotters report:
Sea days always book up fast and at full price—as do days in which a formal night is on the agenda.
Some onboard spas have abandoned occasional (and unpredictable) sale prices and moved to a two-tiered pricing level—higher for sea days, lower for port days.
In at least one case—we’ve seen it on Royal Caribbean—spas on newer ships charge significantly higher prices for treatments than on older vessels. For instance, on a recent trip onboard Voyager of the Seas, its spa charged $110 for a 50-minute massage; on a cruise the week before on the older (albeit recently refurbished) Empress of the Seas we paid $99 for the same treatment.
Be forewarned: On ships where Steiner operates spas, its beauty technicians are strongly encouraged to sell their premium-priced products prior to the end of the treatment. The term “hard sell” comes to mind. I had one experience where a Steiner massage therapist actually cut my session short by five minutes to squeeze in the product pitch. Now I just say “no thanks” before the treatment begins.
Ultimately, cruise ship spas, which are a key component of cruising’s ability to offer a health-oriented experience at sea, add a magnificent touch to any cruise. And some—and we offer our editor’s picks of best spas at sea—can absolutely elevate the experience to an even higher level.
BEST OVERALL SPA
Princess Cruises, Caribbean and Sapphire Princess
Why: Princess’ spa on these two ships genuinely feels like a destination spa – once inside you’ll forget you’re on a cruise ship. We especially love the way the facility is wrapped around its outdoor thalassotherapy pool (which gives it a peaceful, away-from-the-party-crowd ambience all its own). The Lotus Spa concept (seen across the fleet but especially successful here) is quite zen-like and relaxing.
Unique Treatments: What’s unique about the treatments in these two spas is that they, in addition to the usual target of women in terms of treatments, really have made an attempt to cater to men, and even more uniquely, to teens.
Facility: Princess has basically transferred its Grand-class style Lotus Spa concept to these vessels. It’s large and roomy, with check-in and the beauty salon on one side, and treatment rooms, a relaxation room and an aromatic steam room on the other. In between is one of the ship’s best-kept secrets: an outdoor thalassotherapy pool with a swim-against-the-current feature.
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Uber-Excellent: Prices are lower (in some cases significantly), than those charged by other cruise lines. And passengers can book treatments in advance via Princess’ Web site.
Needs Improvement: We so enjoyed our individually scheduled treatments, we’d like to see Princess offer resort-style packages that combine different options (and offer price savings).
Unique Treatment: The 80-minute massage incorporated various rhythms and strokes, rendering us basically helpless.
Facility: The spa is compact, as befits the ship’s small size, but efficiently equipped.
Uber-Excellent: Its small size translates directly to very personal service. The spa also offers day-spa-like packages, which is a great incentive to strongly incorporate treatments into a cruise experience. We also loved small and nice touches—such as a bowl of fresh orchids placed directly beneath the table’s face-hole…much nicer than watching the massage therapist’s feet!
BEST FOR SPA CUISINE
Celebrity Cruises’ Millennium, Infinity, Summit and Constellation
Why: Celebrity offers an upscale big-ship spa experience—with the industry’s only cafes serving spa cuisine. We also loved these ships’ exotically themed thalassotherapy pool areas.
Unique Treatment: The Etruscan Well-Being Ritual includes a couples’ massage seminar.
Facility: The spa’s thalassotherapy pool—on each ship there’s a different “theme”—is gorgeous. Glass enclosed (so it’s indoors ... with lots of light), it features teak loungers. Otherwise, the spa features all the big-ship accouterments, such as treatment rooms and a full-service beauty salon.
Uber-Excellent: We loved the AquaSpa Cafe—open for breakfast, lunch and early dinner—even when we weren’t using the spa. It offers light and healthy fare.
Needs Improvement: Oddly, the decor of the spa (aside from the thalassotherapy area) is eerily cold and uninviting—evoking the atmosphere of a bare-bones YMCA more than an upscale cruise ship.
BEST UPSCALE SPA
Crystal Cruises’ Symphony
Why: Thanks to a recent refurbishment, this spa is the newest in the Crystal fleet and features exotic areas, like a private, canopied teak sundeck and a luxurious new dry float bed suite (for couples or singles).
Unique Treatment: The Cellutox Aroma Spa Ocean Wrap or Float blends sea plants and marine algae with aromatherapy for an ultra-deep detoxification.
Facility: This, like all Crystal spas, has been designed with the Feng Shui (balance and harmony) philosophy in mind. Treatment rooms have been expanded (from six to eight).
Why: The Radiance-class ships have gorgeous full-service spas.
Unique Treatment: The Absolute Face and Body treatment combines a 60-minute massage with a 30-minute facial.
Facility: The ShipShape Day Spa includes all the facilities—beauty salon, treatment rooms. One of our favorite features is the Thermal Suite with heated tile loungers and tropical and fog showers. What’s different about this particular room—other ships have ‘em too—is that it’s open to the sea, with floor to ceiling glass windows.
Needs Improvement: Royal Caribbean’s fees for spa treatments are higher than industry average.
Cruise Critic, which launched in 1995, is a comprehensive cruise vacation planning guide providing objective cruise ship reviews, cruise line profiles, destination content on 125+ worldwide ports, cruise bargains, tips, industry news, and cruise message boards.
Cruise critic has been honored by the society of American Travel Writers with its Lowell Thomas award and was recently named in travel leisure's "best 35 travel sites" list.