My 15 Most Memorable Spa Experiences Ever

Fish pedis, blind people massage, a $100,000 shower & more

Fish pedicure
Sharon Lapkin/Moment/Getty Images

When people find out I write about beauty they assume the best perks of the job involve free products. It's simply not so. I'm not a product junkie, really. I am, however, a spa junkie.

I love it all. The fancy spas, the wacky treatments, the soaking in hot tubs, steaming in steam rooms and sweating in saunas. I particularly love a great massage. Most of my experiences have been thoroughly invigorating and enjoyable.

Few were memorable, but I have had some wacky experiences I just had to share with my readers.

From 4-handed massage by blind people to watching others get fish pedicures while I sat in a beach chair and got a foot massage to a $100,000 shower, here are 15 of my most memorable spa experiences ever.

Korean Scrubs With Colleagues

When the photo editor at my job suggested I go to a spa with her and some other colleagues on their visit to New York, I said, "sure thing." I figured we'd lounge around in white robes whilst sipping hot tea. There would be hot tubs to plunge in and a sauna to sweat in. Native American flutes would be playing over the sound system. Under our luxurious robes, we'd wear bathing suits.

Cue the scratching Native American flute record.

It turns out the Korean spa the photo editor booked us at, Juvenex in Koreatown, was known for its amazing body scrubs and these body scrubs happened while you and your colleagues who you barely know lay completely naked in a row on tables without any curtains between you.

Imagine a fishery with 5-foot long whale carcasses laid out in a row on tables. Next to each table is a large matronly Korean woman in a white plastic apron holding a giant sponge. That was us. (The whales not the Korean women). White bellies and wet floors and all.

Cue the giggling.

The good news is that the scrub was indeed amazing and that photo editor and I have since become close friends.

I have been back many times with my dearest of friends and once with my husband. I do recommend you keep your eyes closed if you go with colleagues you barely know. And try to enjoy the scrub in between your laughter.

See Is a Korean Spa for You?

The Time I Paid to Have My Eyeballs Read

There are wacky things you can pay for at the world's poshest spas. I paid something like $200 to have my iris studied at the gorgeous Six Senses Sanctuary Spa in Phuket, Thailand in 2011, which is sadly now closed. On my visit, I looked over the spa menu, saw something called "iridology" and thought, "Well THAT sounds interesting!"

Iridologists believe the iris holds many secrets to one's health -- things like the state of your liver's health and whether you have a gluten allergy or potential issues in your breasts or your brain. This is how it worked: my iris reader, a nice 30-something Australian woman who admitted she was a naturopath, not a licensed iridologist (if there is such a thing), photographed one of my eyes with a camera. The image was downloaded on a computer and blown up so the colors came alive. The naturopath then "read" my iris using a map she had that described what various spots and shadows meant.

  I don't remember any of the secrets my iris gave up, but I remember just how surreal it was to pour over a giant picture of my eyeball and talk about it without laughing.

I wanted to ask if my iris could tell her if I would live to be at least 80 and if I would ever fall in love with a tall, handsome man in time to have children, but I didn't because she seemed to take her job seriously. And I was, after all, the one paying the big bucks here.

The bad news is I missed a couple great hours I could have spent snorkeling. The good news is that I wrote off the cost on that year's taxes and a couple years later I did meet a tall, handsome man in time to have children.

Review: Read more about this otherwise fabulous spa.

Blind People Massage in Cambodia

The tour books play them up, so of course, I had to try out the blind people massage when I was traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia in 2009.

 

The massage I had cost about $10 with tip and was nice and relaxing. I seem to recall it was a 4-handed massage, which in a place like this means 2 blind people massaging me. The organization they worked for took care of them in return for their services. There was nothing fancy about the place, it was as bare bones as a massage parlor gets. I seem to recall a dirt courtyard with chickens and a room with several massage tables partitioned off with curtains. Street noise was the background music to my massage. I loved dozing off to the beep-beeps of the motorbikes that are everywhere in Southeast Asia.

Was it the cleanest place I've ever been for a massage? Heck no. Would I recommend it to other travelers in Southeast Asia? Absolutely. You get a good massage for very little money and you are supporting an organization that helps blind people. Love and love.

See What Makes a Spa Massage Good?

The $100,000 Shower in Bermuda

At Tucker's Point Spa in Bermuda, I had a shower in a $100,000 SilverTAG Shower. The shower itself was somewhat memorable for having spigots that shot water in all directions, but perhaps the most memorable thing about it was being able to say I took a shower in something that cost $100,000.

Read more about it in my review of the spa.

My Evening in a Mayan Sweat Lodge

On a trip to Mexico in 2009, I got to stay at one of the fanciest places on earth, Maroma Resort and Spa, a jewel of a place tucked along the ocean on the road to Tulum from Cancun, Mexico. 

While at this resort, my dear friend N and I ate decadently, slept in luxurious beds with the ocean lulling us to sleep and sunbathed daily. On the first night, while lying on the king-sized beach bed (yes, there were such things) watching the moon rise over the Caribbean, I spotted three women in bikinis emerge from a hut. They ran across the sand and dove into the surf. They bobbed and dove in again and again, turning their faces toward the full moon. They emerged from the surf holding hands (holding hands!).

I felt as if I had just witnessed a ritualistic cleansing, which, it turns out I had. What I saw was the end result of an evening spent in a Mayan Sweat Lodge, also called the "Temazcal."

Of course, I had to try it. In the Temazcal, the participants and I found animals in hot rocks and described them. We ate fruit. We rubbed fruit and Mayan clay over ourselves. We poured water over our heads. We made noises like babies (the hut is a womb, you see). 

But did we emerge holding hands while emerging from the surf? Read all about it in my article, Should You Try the "Temazcal"?

The Steam Container

2011 was a good year for travel for me. Late that year, I spent almost a month in India and had a few occasions to get massages in both fancy and soooooo not fancy places.

One day in Southern India toward the end of my stay, my traveling companion and I happened upon a spa just off a dusty road that led to a beach on which cows roamed. This "spa" was really a room on the top floor of a ramshackle building with no glass in the windows and 70-year-old linoleum missing in half the places. After weeks of traveling on buses for hours over winding roads, we were desperate to relax.

My kindly masseuse, who I took to be middle-aged despite her giggly nature, pointed to a round container that looked like what I imagined the container they used to send the first dog into space looked like. Except one's head was meant to stick out of it.

"Steam?" she asked with a grin.

Always up for anything that might turn into an experience I could later talk about, I averted my eyes from the steam ship's faulty wiring, chirpily said, "OK!" and then folded my large Western self into the container while my masseuse and her colleagues stood by and watched and giggled. Their giggling led to my giggling and it was all very charming, girlish and non-spa-like.

As I endured the steam, my masseuse sat in a rickety chair across from my container ship and quizzed me in broken English about why I wasn't married yet. Turns out she was exactly my age (38) and a grandmother.

I don't remember the massage that came after, but I do remember the giggling continued throughout the visit. I suppose there's something very funny about an almost-40-year-old traveling the world on her own. Who knows?

Ayurvedic Treatments in Southern India

When in India, you simply have to get an ayurvedic treatment, even if you have the World's Oiliest Hair, the kind that should never have vats of oil poured over it.

I knew there would be oil. I just had no idea how many shampoos it would take to get the oil out. When I had an ayurvedic treatment in Kerala, India, what seemed like vats of warm oil were poured on my forehead and all over my hair. It took me 6 shampoos and an entire afternoon to get the oil out. When oil dries, it makes your hair feel like straw. You don't forget things like this.

The Wrap I Got That Made Me Realize I Hate Wraps

When I tried a wrap at Rancho La Puerta spa in Tecate, Mexico, I was so miserable, I felt on the verge of a panic attack. I did not like having my arms pinned to my side and swaddled cocoon-like in blankets like they do to newborns immediately after birth. Everything was itching and there was no way to move anything except my nose. Once I decided wraps would most certainly be outlawed by the Geneva Convention for being horrible instruments of torture, I called loudly for the therapist, who had left the room. She came, unwrapped my arms, and I was much happier.

I have since had one other wrap and that time I requested that my arms be left out. I still hated it.

The Couples Massage in NYC That Put My Husband to Sleep

For his birthday in 2013, I took my husband back to Juvenex (see the above scrub story) for the works. We got steamed, sauna-ed and scrubbed and the coup de grace was to be a 90-minute couples massage. The massage was hardly relaxing or romantic. Instead, it was somewhat entertaining because of poor Nick, exhausted from a week of hard work and thoroughly tanked from an evening of wining, dining and spa-ing, promptly fell asleep on the massage table, snoring loudly and missing the entire thing.

Well, he didn't exactly miss everything, because the ladies and I kept erupting in giggles, waking him up. He rolled his eyes and immediately fell back to sleep and back to snoring. So much for romance!

A Foot Massage While Watching Fish Pedicures in Thailand

I love getting foot massages on Khaosan Road, the most famous street in Bangkok's tourist district. The last couple days of a vacation I took there in 2010, I went every day and every evening for a foot massage in the street. You literally sit in a comfortable chair on the street among 50 chairs with other people in them and a person comes to you with a bucket for soaking your feet. After washing your feet, they sit on a stool and massage your feet for up to an hour. All for something like $12. Divine. It was the perfect way to end a vacation where I walked a ton.

My massage spot was nicely situated within viewing of the street's famous fish pedicure place and I spent hours watching people pay to have the dead skin on their feet nibbled on by fish. I have tried a fish pedicure before and believe it to be a ridiculous, yet very humorous, tourist attraction. Unlike foot massages, fish pedicures are not relaxing. This is what I watched happen over and over again like comedy television: a tourist takes off her sandals, rolls up her pants legs and sits down on the chair that hovers above the fish tank while her friends who are too scared to try it watch, hands over mouths. The tourist dips a toe in, pulls it out quickly and giggles hysterically, which causes her friends to erupt in laughter. This happens a few more times as she dips her foot in a little bit more each time.

Even the tourists who were able to sit there with their feet totally submerged as the fish nibbled away were unable to endure it with a straight face.

I, however, watched this unfold again and again while having the world's best foot massage. Decadent.

The World's Lamest Body Scrub Ever

At the Great Jones Spa here in NYC I decided to try a scrub. I have always loved the scrubs I have had in Korean spas in both NYC and Seattle because they scrub so hard, you end up covered in balls of your dead skin. I always leave Korean spas with the softest, silkiest skin.

So I figured paying $140 for a scrub at a posh spa in NYC would even be better.

It wasn't.

It was somewhat lame. First I lay in a fancy bed and had water sprayed all over me. Then the woman came in and sort of rubbed me down with mitts. I have no idea if anything was exfoliated. In fact, I hardly remember the service except that it did not compare to my Korean ladies.

I should have saved my money and given myself a body scrub at home. See Top 11 Body Scrubs & Bath Salts.

Numerous Naked Massages in India

For a country in which the women cover themselves up in public and expect female tourists to as well, I was surprised at how comfortable their massage therapists were with having their tourists lie there completely naked with no towel to cover them up during a massage. In fact, they expected it. The Lonely Planet guidebook really should add a line teaching us how to say, "Towel, please" in Hindi.

I had a few naked massages just like this. Apologies for the image that just popped up in your head.

Don't miss I Spa-Hopped Across the World & This is What I Learned.

That Time the Facialist in Vancouver Would Not Stop Talking

I love a good facial, but I don't love it when the facialist talks to me throughout the facial about the "rosehip" this and the special lavender oil that and what exactly she's doing to my face and neck. I don't give a hoot what you're putting on my face in order to sell it to me later, I just want to enjoy all the rubbing with that Native American flute music you put on as my only background noise, thank you very much.

This is what happened to me when I got a fancy facial in Vancouver, BC, back in the late 90s. I've never forgotten that particular facial because, after it, I was presented with a long list of those rosehip and lavender products used on my face. I actually fell for it, spending about $150 on products that I STILL HAVE TO THIS DAY.

My Horrible, Awful, Almost Ended Up in the Hospital Pedicure in Austin, Texas

I am spoiled by the awesome mani/pedi places in New York City so I tend to be judgmental when I get pedicures elsewhere. The pedicures in NY are cheap because there are millions of women (and men) here who get them and competition breeds good business. If you do a bad job, those people will flock to the manicure place literally 4 doors down from you and you will be forced to close your doors. I believe there are more mani/pedi places in New York City than there are Starbucks in the entire world.

I grew up in Texas and spend a lot of time in Austin, which is one of my favorite American cities, and I'm sure my Austin friends will begrudge me for this, but I have to say the worst pedicures I've ever had were in Austin, Texas. I've had 4 of them and once I was actually cut by the woman so badly I could barely walk for a week. The other 3 times they just did a lame, not-very-thorough job. I'm convinced this is because there aren't many cheap pedicure places in Austin so there's not much competition forcing them to do a good job. That, or crunchy, athletic-oriented Austin isn't really a place where most women (and certainly not men) get pedicures. The city is known for its music, but not for its pampering of the ladies. Get thee to Houston or Dallas for that.

The Pseudo-Sexual Stomach Massage in Tulum, Mexico

There was nothing sexual about the massage my girlfriends and I got in Tulum, Mexico, except that it was kinda, somewhat, ok, very sexy. I'll leave it at that. 

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