A World of Bucket List Spa Experiences

For thousands of years, people have been travelling for the therapeutic benefits of spas, springs and massage therapies. Today, just about every major resort offers spa services, for relaxation, sport injuries, or romance. Over the years, I’ve had some unusual spa treatments. Perhaps these will inspire you to do the same.

The Goa Rub Down

A cramped, overnight train ride from Mumbai resulted in stiff muscles and one achy Esrock. Walking on a dusty road in the village of Arambol, I saw a sign: Ayurvedic Massage, 1 Hour, $8. Anytime I see a massage that cheap, I pay attention. I was ushered into a small, steaming room. Three men poured a bucket of warm, herbal oil over me, and got to work. Kneading, squeezing, and rubbing my skin with such concentration that sweat dripped from their brows. For thousands of years, Ayurvedic medicine and massage has helped people in India, and now around the world. One thing is for sure: An hour later, I was relaxed, loosened up, and in the perfect mood to explore the beautiful beach towns of Goa.

The Fire Doctor of Taiwan

In Taipei, I found myself sprawled on a massage bench in the office of Master Hsieh Ching-long. For more than a dozen years, this fire doctor has been using open flame to untie the knots and heal the muscles of Taiwanese sports and movie stars. He tells me it took years of martial arts training to channel his inner energy so he can use his hands like iron. Lying on my stomach, he pasted herbal goo on my back, doused it with alcohol, and took out a blowtorch. I felt a quick burst of heat, after which the Fire Doctor used his bare hands to spread the flame around. Something smelled like burning skin. My burning skin! Still, with his iron fists, the Fire Doctor hammered out my stiff worries, creaked here, twisted there, and wished me well. Out of the frying pan, and into a scorching summer Taipei day.

Balinese Massage

Balinese massage is a mix of aromatherapy, acupressure, stretches, kneading and skin rolling. At the fantastic Hotel Nikko in Bali, we were treated to a family spa that relaxed our muscles, put big smiles on your faces, and literally head-massaged my youngest into a blissful slumber. While friendly attendants painted my five year old daughter’s nails, my wife and I became puddles during our couples massage, and while little Gali continued to dream, we transferred him to the bench and us to the large adjacent outdoor bubble bath.

The Communal Thai

In Thailand, massages are as a cheap as a beer back home. Small, lithe masseuses twist and crack joints, often chattering away as they do so. Off Khao San Road, where thousands of backpackers flock to cheap hotels, bars and markets, the massage shops might pack a dozen clients into a single room. Here you can chat to your friends too, in a rather social environment, all the while having your body subjected to the type of pain and discomfort that can only be good for you. Thai massages are heavy on the elbows and knees, penetrating deep into the tissue. Off resort, at $6 to $10 an hour, the price is always right, especially on the beach.

The Georgian Backwalk

In the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, you must visit the famous 17th century Orbeliani bathhouses. Blue tile lines old eggshell domes, housing hot sulfur springs that have been revered for their healing properties for centuries. After my dip, I was shown to an adjacent room and told to lie down naked on a marble slab. A man wearing naught but a small towel came over in the steam and poured a barrel of boiling water over me. He then proceeded to give me a rub down using rough hessian rope, scraping away layers of skin with a thick, foamy soap. It hurt, but not as bad as the sulfuric water poured on afterwards, or when he started walking up and down my back. There is a separate bathhouse for women, but not, alas, for the Georgian Rugby Team, who joined me in the baths shortly afterwards.

Something afoot in Shanghai

I had wandered a couple blocks from my hotel looking to experience traditional Chinese acupressure. Based on the same idea as acupuncture, acupressure uses hands, elbows or props to stimulate various pressure points, which help with circulation and energy balance. In a small shop, I was shown to a chair. My feet were scrubbed clean, and then a tiny lady with iron clamps for hands got to work. Pushing and probing, she honed in on my sensitive pressure points, and proceeded to punish them with vigour. My ears were throbbing, my lower back was sweating, my armpits were singing – I don’t know what she was doing, but when she finally stopped, the relief was well worth the agony.

Hungarian Healing

Budapest sits above a sea of natural thermal baths, which Turk conquerors once developed into exquisite palaces of swimming pools. There are still several enormous bathing complexes, exhibiting grand architecture, and well-maintained baths. For about $15 you get a locker, and access to dozens of baths of various temperatures, along with saunas, spas, whirlpools, showers, and for a few bucks more, massages. I spent the afternoon at the Szechenayi Baths, amazed there could be so many options to enjoy. Hot, cold, big, small, indoors, outdoors. A large, sour masseuse however, ensured my massage was as tranquil as a Soviet prison.

A Spa for Two

Occasionally I’m lucky enough to travel with my wife. Many resorts offer couples spas as relaxing alternatives to long walks on the beach, or in the mountains. The wonderful Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Banff Springs offers various couples packages, encompassing rose-infused side-by-side scrubs, rubs, and baths. In South Africa, we soaked up our pampering at the luxurious Gary Player Health Spa, getting matching facials to enhance our romantic glow. You don’t have to be on your honeymoon to treat yourself to a couples massage. Although after you experience one, you’ll feel like it anyway.

Bucket List Journeys for the Soul

It has been said that the first tourists in the world were pilgrims, religious folk making their way through exotic deserts and across foreign shores on a holy journey. They didn’t have digital cameras or blogs, but their journeys were as much about the soul as about discovering new cultures, cuisines and adventure. Today, there are just as many spiritual destinations for us to discover, whatever faith we choose to follow.

Buddhist Temple, South Korea.

Buddhism

Buddhism is a path, a way of life that tunes its followers towards the road to nirvana. Lets start by heading over to South Korea for an authentic Temple Stay in a Buddhist monastery, developed to introduce foreigners to the concepts of Zen Buddhism. Here you’ll don grey robes, eat strictly vegetarian meals, learn about meditation and the worthiness of chores in a relaxed, tranquil environment. Thailand (and many other countries) offers 10-day Buddhist meditation retreats, where silence and reflection is revered. Tibetan Buddhism has its centre nowadays in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala. Here you can take Buddhist classes (in various languages), and meditate in the crowded presence of the Dalai Lama. Incredible temples devoted to the Buddha abound throughout Southeast Asia, and consider climbing the magnificent Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, where legend states you can find the footprint of the Buddha himself.

Lalibela, Ethiopia

Christianity

Biblical Tourism is booming in North America, as Christians of various denominations book tours to discover Biblical sites in Israel and beyond. For an alternative, consider the11th century rock churches of Ethiopia’s Lalibela, built to mirror Jerusalem. Israel is ground zero for Biblical tourism, as busloads of foreigners visit sites like Bethlehem, the Red Sea, and the Sea of Galilee. Amongst old ruins and beautiful landmarks, you can hear the echoes of Jesus and his followers. Turkey, known as the “other holy land”, is rich with Biblical history, especially in the east. Here you can find villages like Harran, mentioned in the Bible, regarded as the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world. Christians also make annual pilgrimages to the resting places or shrines of saints, such as the shrine of St Francis Xavier in Goa, India, the Marian centres of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, or churches like Lourdes in France.

Jama Masjid, India

Islam

Foreigners are denied entry into Mecca, site of the holy pilgrimage, or hajj, mentioned as one of the cornerstones of Islamic faith. Muslims undertaking the journey describe it as unforgettable and transcendent, and millions undertake the hajj each year. Following in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammed has always drawn followers of the faith, through countries like Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Travellers of any faith are overwhelmed by the majesty and grandeur of the great mosques in Istanbul – the 16th century Blue Mosque, the Suleyman Mosque, and the basis of them all, the 6th century Hagia Sofia (originally a church of Eastern Orthodoxy). Ancient mosques, holy sites and pilgrimages can also be found throughout Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq. Jerusalem, a holy city to all three monotheistic faiths, has many important destinations for Muslims, such the magnificent Dome of the Rock.

Kataragama Festival, Sri Lanka

Hinduism

Hindu festivals, as befits the religion itself, are renowned to be colourful, vibrant, and thrillingly jovial. A blend of worship, celebration, spectacle and processions, festivals like Diwali, Esala or Durga have been delighting travellers and Hindus alike for millennia. Along the banks of the holy Ganges in India, ashrams sound bells in Rishikesh to signal the puja, a ceremony of worship, bursting with dancing and music. In Sri Lanka, I bore witness to a stunning spectacle at the annual Esala festival in Kataragama, where men demonstrated their faith by dragging loads behind them with hooks in their back, or piercing parts of the body in vows of devotion. Today, many westerners depart on yoga retreats throughout India, a chance to grow both mind and body. Ashrams, under the guidance of gurus and masters, are full of foreigners seeking answers to the burning questions of life.

Jerusalem, Israel

Judaism

Jews around the world are emotionally tied to the Holy Land of Israel, their spiritual and political home. The famous Western Wall in Jerusalem, all that remains of the grand Temple from Biblical times, sweeps most visitors away with the raw emotion on display. Walking the city streets of Haifa, Tiberius or Jerusalem reconnects modern Jews to their ancient legacy. Climbing Masada in the desert symbolizes the eternal struggle and courage of Jewish ancestors. In eastern Turkey, visitors to Sanilurfa can visit Biblical sites like the cave where Abraham, the father of all three monotheistic religions, was born. In Prague, the Old New Synagogue dates back to the 11th century, and Jewish visitors to the mostly decimated Jewish Quarters of post World War Europe – Krakow, Budapest, Vilnius and others – are both fascinated, and horrified, by the not-too distant past.

Confucianism, Bahai, Jainism, Zoroastrianism – whatever your faith, visiting historical roots, festivals and holy centres offers incredible rewards for the modern traveller. And for all the unfortunate tragedies of history demonstrating otherwise, it will always be worth noting that every prophet, teacher and religious path urges us to treat one another as we would treat ourselves.