In 100 BC any self-respecting Greek or Roman citizen who needed a makeover would journey to Pergamum in Asia Minor for its renowned health facilities - the Canyon Ranch of its day. The treatments included comedies and tragedies in the amphitheatre, mud baths, snake-handling, soaking in a hot mineral pool and drinking ‘magical water’ laced with opium. Later, while the tired centurion chilled out on a marble plinth, an attendant who spoke through a tube to impersonate a god would tell him that, from now on, life was going to be fine and dandy.

In Latin, spa stands for sanus per aquam or ‘health through water’; it is also the name of a town in Belgium where the Romans discovered hot mineral springs. By the 16th Century, Spa’s sulphur and bicarbonate-rich natural waters had acquired such legendary status that Pliny the Elder, the natural historian and scientist, became a fan of this popular chill-out destination and, in his wake, celebs of the day such as Henry VIII, Peter the Great, and Casanova followed.

Cruising for a smoothing

A massage therapist giving a Royal Caribbean cruise passenger a massage

Though not as far-fetched as in their Grecian heyday, recently, lavish spas have become an intrinsic part of the cruising idyll and on-board many top-of-the-range ships, they have a prominent position and can often come with thalassotherapy pools, not to mention caldariums, tepidariums and even snow grottoes. Part of the spa at sea experience is a range of treatments all created with the aim of making passengers feel better and look younger – but buyer beware.

Some critics of spas cite them as little more than a quick way to pour money down an elegantly-designed drain. Others find the faux-ethnicity tantamount to offensive, where a simple facial comes with a chiming of a Tibetan this or a dousing with a Thai that. It is true that in some trendy seaborne spas the rituals verge on the quasi-religious, with more heady aromas and tinkling bells than the Vatican! But whether such atonement for the excesses associated with indulgent cruising leads to a cleansed aura is open to question.

Toning time

Two women talking in the infrared sauna in the spa on-board a Celebrity cruise ship

If you don’t know your Ayurvedas from your Ashtangas, or your Reiki from your hot stone therapy, you are behind the times. Many ship spas offer a physically relaxing, spiritually uplifting, revitalising environment in which to rejuvenate your body, mind and soul. Some passengers spend endless days (and dollars) in the spa and return home with that kind of radiant glow that only serious maintenance and some carefree days can provide. But bear in mind one ionithermie treatment is not going to cure years of cellulite, nor will it remove fat, but it does make a difference, leaving the skin looking noticeably smoother.

The sea casts an aura of well-being on dedicated spa devotees as well as those who have never considered the benefits of therapeutic pampering. Unlike visiting a health-club in some posh resort in Britain offering little more than a 'therapist' dousing on a bit of Elemis, spas on cruise ships not only offer a wide range of treatments, but well-trained therapists with sound experience in both product and application. However, these practitioners are often paid a very low salary by some concessionaires that operate in the seaborne beauty industry and are left to augment their income by promoting and selling the spa's branded product.

Don’t let detoxing leave a bad taste

A Royal Caribbean cruise passenger enjoying a mud massage in the spa

Looking out at an indigo sky and azure ocean from the comfort of a massage table, coated in a thick film of detoxifying mud, few passengers are at their most astute and can all too often become easy prey for a well-honed salesperson masquerading as a caring therapist. The incidents of elderly ladies departing the spa weighed down by beautifully-wrapped boxes of ‘essential’ products are not rare.

If you are in any doubt about the ‘hard sell’ detracting from the therapeutic benefits of your not-inexpensive treatment, then lay down the ground rules right at the start of the consultation and explain that you have your own regime at home. This usually gets the message across the massage table and you will be free to relax and let the product be applied deftly without the constant barrage of a sales pitch.

Don’t forget that spas are supposed to put the 'treat' into 'treatment'. However, for some, the curative session can be tarnished when the bill arrives complete with an added gratuity of around 15% - ‘for your convenience’.

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Gary Buchanan
Gary Buchanan
Gary Buchanan has been an influential cruise writer for almost 30 years. Based in Scotland, he writes for Britain’s leading national newspapers and respected consumer magazines on a variety of cruise topics. Recipient of several awards for his creative writing, he has also written five books about cruising. His other skills include being an expert lecturer on maritime history aboard Cunard ships during transatlantic voyages. His favourite cruise destinations include the Greek Isles, Thailand and the Norwegian fjords. When it comes to river cruises he rates the Irrawaddy, Mekong and Seine as real gems.

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