With more and more
people looking to spas for health, wellness, anti-aging and relaxation,
spa-going has been described as a new cultural trend. But, in fact,
spa-going (i.e., social bathing in "healing waters") has been practiced for
thousands of years - from the Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Minoans, to the
Greeks and Romans (the word spa actually originates from the Latin verb spa
gere - to pour forth), and later, the Ottomans, Japanese and Western
The Classical Age
Homer and other Classical writers report
that the Greeks indulged in a variety of social baths as early as 500 BC,
including hot air baths known as laconica. In 25 BC, Emperor Agrippa
designed and created the first Roman "thermae" (a large-scale spa), and each
subsequent emperor outdid his predecessor in creating ever-more extravagant
thermae. Over time, they were built across the Roman Empire, from Africa to
England, gradually evolving into full-blown entertainment complexes offering
sports, restaurants, and various types of baths. A typical routine may have
involved a workout in the palestra, followed by a visit to three
progressively warmer rooms, where the body was alternately bathed, anointed
with oils, massaged and exfoliated. The ritual would end with a bracing dip
in the "frigidarium" followed by some relaxation in the library or assembly
Spa-Going Around the World - from
Japanese "Ryoken" to Turkish Hammam
Although the Roman combination of hot/cold
baths, massage, exercise, skin treatments and relaxation was formative to
the modern spa experience, distinct spa traditions grew out of different
cultures worldwide. In 737 A.D., Japan's first "onsen" (hot spring) opened
near Izumo, and centuries later the first "ryoken" (inns) were built,
offering fine food, accommodations, Zen gardens, outdoor baths and indoor
soaking tubs called cypress ofuro. Saunas began appearing along the Baltic
in Finland as early as 1000 A.D., inaugurating a rich Finnish spa-going
tradition - including a prescription of sauna-induced sweating, icy lake
plunges, and plenty of beer or vodka - that continues to this day in a
nation that offers one sauna per every two Finns. And of course the Ottomans
were famous for their domed and beautifully mosaic hammam, the crowning
example being the Baths of Roxelana (built in 1556), with its massive
towering steam rooms, private washing quarters, and sprawling massage
platforms. Typical of hammam throughout the Empire, Roxelana became an
important social center, particularly for Muslim women.
Resorts and hotels
let you sample a little bit of everything-from golf
to tennis to sightseeing to horse back riding to water sports to spa
treatments. But sometimes these activities don't mix well, and so it helps
to know some of the etiquette, even on vacation. The suggestions below will
help you get the most out of your time at a resort or hotel spa.
As resort and hotel spas often fill up fast, book as far in advance as
possible. Some resort/hotel spas can accommodate you if you reserve
treatments at check-in; others suggest booking prior to your arrival. Want
to avoid the crowds? Try reserving a treatment during off-peak hours or
during the week. If you do, you may also receive a discount.
If you have any type of medical condition, be sure to mention it when you
book an appointment. Certain treatments may not be advisable for you. Also,
tell the technician if you're wearing contact lenses before you have a
Mixing activities and spa-going
On the day of treatment, try to stay out of
the sun and avoid alcoholic beverages. Also don't schedule a physically
demanding endeavor after a spa appointment. When in doubt, contact the spa
to ask whether it is advisable to engage in a particular activity prior to
In order to avoid all worries and stress, leave all jewelry and valuables in
the hotel or resort's safe and don't bring them with you to the spa.
Ideally arrive 15-30 minutes early so you can enjoy an unhurried transition
into the spa. If you are late, your treatment time will be shortened. After
a treatment, it's customary to vacate the room within five or ten minutes,
though you are welcome to spend additional time unwinding in the spa's
relaxation or waiting rooms.
Exploring the facility
Most resort and hotel spas have more amenities than the average day spa. On
arrival at the spa, check out the activity schedule, so you won't miss
anything that might be of interest, and ask for a tour prior to your
treatment. The tour will acquaint you with your surroundings and introduce
you to the spa facilities, such as saunas, steam rooms, and relaxation
rooms. Generally, their use is complimentary if you are having a treatment,
though there may be a charge at other times.
If you prefer either a male or female therapist, but the spa fails to ask,
don't hesitate to let your choice be known. Also, if you have enjoyed the
services of a particular therapist on a prior visit, feel free to request
The idea of going au naturel is very scary to some people, but don't let
that stop you from enjoying the spa. If modesty is an issue, call the spa in
advance to discuss its policies and suggestions. Some treatments can be done
while you're fully clothed, but others (such as hydrotherapy) are best
received in the nude. Facilities such as the sauna and the whirlpool may be
enjoyed either in a bathing suit or with no clothing at all.
In addition to a swimsuit, bring attire for other activities you plan to
enjoy: light, comfortable attire for fitness classes, gear and boots for
hiking, and sneakers for exercise class along with another pair of
comfortable shoes. At some spas, clothing and equipment (such as boots) are
available for purchase.
Unexpected things do happen, and sometimes it's impossible to keep an
appointment. If you must cancel, give the spa as much advance notice as
possible. Be sure to ask if your money will be refunded; cancellation
policies vary widely.
Communicating your preferences
Be sure to speak up. All aspects of treatment can be modified to your taste:
amount of light, kind (or absence) of music, room temperature, and whether
or not you choose to have a conversation or enjoy the treatment in silence.
If you want the therapist to give you a deep massage, or be gentler, let him
or her know. Also, feel free to ask questions. Your therapist will enjoy
knowing your thoughts and clarifying any issues you may have. If any part of
your experience is unsatisfactory, first tell the therapist. If the response
isn't helpful, speak to a manager or the owner of the spa, if available.
If you must shave, do so at least two hours before your scheduled
appointment, particularly if you're a man receiving a facial or a woman
receiving any kind of scheduled bodywork.
Eating and drinking
Try not to eat for at least an hour before a treatment, and avoid the
consumption of alcohol on the day of a treatment. Drink plenty of water
before and afterward, especially if you plan to take a fitness class or
enjoy heat therapy, such as a sauna or the steam room.
Using shared facilities
Before entering a soaking pool, swimming pool, or
whirlpool, always shower. When enjoying the sauna or steam, always sit on
your towel and wear the plastic shoes provided by the spa. Women should not
shave their legs in the steam room.
Because the emphasis should be on relaxation and because others may be
allergic, it's best not to wear perfume to exercise classes.
For the most part, smoking is not allowed at resort/hotel spas. If it is,
there are usually designated areas where you can smoke.
A spa is a great place to get a little alone time, so it's best to not to
bring children under 16. You can usually leave small children in the care of
a sitter/nanny or under the supervision of the children's program-both of
which many resorts offer-during your treatments. If children are with you,
be attentive to their safety as well as their impact on the comfort and
relaxation of others.
Some animals are welcome at certain resorts but should not be brought to the
spa. Be considerate of others by keeping your pet quiet and following the
Leave phones and pagers at home or in your room; or turn them off before
entering the spa.
In the relaxation room and elsewhere, keep conversations at a low volume.
Ask if gratuities are included, though that is not usually the case. If not,
about 15 percent is customary, but you may of course leave more or less,
depending on the quality of the service. Leave the tip at the reception desk
when you pay your bill rather than giving it directly to the therapist. If
you receive multiple services from different people (a massage therapist, a
facial esthetician, etc.), leave a separate tip for each of them.
Being respectful of your environment is part of the spa experience. Use only
the number of towels necessary: washing them uses water and electrical,
which are limited resources in some communities. If you spend time in
nature, don't leave any trash behind.