Here's the bad news first. Cruise ship spa treatments are expensive. The good news is many ship spas, especially on the newer ships, are well-designed pleasure dens, some with ocean-view waiting rooms, fancy steam rooms and dozens of treatment options, ranging from the traditional massage and facial to trendier therapies like teeth whitening and acupuncture. Most standard 50-minute massages will cost you in the neighborhood of $90 to $120, not including the expected tip. On days when the ship is in port, you may find discounted treatments because most passengers are ashore and business is slower. Pricey or not, spa appointments get booked up fast on cruise ships, so make yours the first day of the cruise or pre-book online with the cruise line to avoid disappointment.
In the hundreds of spa treatments I've sampled on ships over the years, I've come to realize a treatment is only as good as the person doling it out. I remember a Swedish massage I had years ago on Royal Caribbean's Sovereign of the Seas on route to the Bahamas. Hardly a memorable ship or itinerary, but the masseuse was excellent. A young guy who had studied chiropractics, he expertly straddled that fine line between working out the knots and making it feel relaxing. Then there was the case of the excellent female therapists who worked their magic many moons ago in a no-frills unused cabin aboard the cozy Star Flyer and the Wind Star. Not to the say the setting isn't important, it certainly can help. Décor, ocean views, comfy waiting rooms and amenities like steam rooms with heated tile chaise lounges are all mood-setting props that can give a boost to a mediocre masseuse. Still, I must admit my absolute top cruise spa experience wasn't on a ship at all, but on a line's private island in an open-air cabana (see below). Some lines also offer in-cabin massages for the ultimate in privacy.
Here are some of the best treatments at sea.
Reflexology therapy targets pressure points in the foot that correspond to various areas of the body; who knows, you may be making your kidney or femur feel better, but mostly, the point is a state of overall relaxation. The SeaDream Yacht Club spas, for instance, offer reflexology and basic foot massages, and both can be done up on deck in a quiet corner with the sea as the backdrop.
Frangipani Conditioning Hair and Scalp Ritual
Think about it, all life's tensions go straight to the top -- your head. Having it rubbed is somehow both stimulating and incredibly relaxing. Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Carnival and many other lines offer scalp massages. Some treatments include a vigorous shampoo and maybe a blow dry and style after, depends on the package.
Hot Stone Treatment
This ubiquitous therapy is super popular and offered by all the cruise lines for a reason. Smooth rounded stones are heated in warm water then pushed in long deep strokes against your aching back or whatever else needs attention. Like an extension of the therapist's palm, the combination of the warmth, firm pressure and aromatic oils melts away the knots and every other care in the world.
Outdoor Cabana Massage
You know what they say, location location location. Four massage cabanas on Disney's private Castaway Cay are clustered at the end of the island in the adult's-only area, steps from the private beach. The discreetly open-air huts let in the sea breezes and soothing sounds of surf and rustling palm leaves -- all of which adds greatly to the experience. Other lines offer similar set ups, including on the beach of Holland America's Half Moon Cay. Crown Princess and Emerald Princess offer outdoor cabana massages on deck.
The One-Hour Combo
With kids usually in tow, time is of the essence when I'm at sea and multi-tasking is key. NCL offers a great combo called Earth, Wind & Sky that includes a neck, scalp and face massage followed by hand and foot reflexology. Ahhh, I'm jello just thinking about it. Most ship spas offer combo treatments, some as long as four to five hours. They're a great way to pamper several body parts in one shot.
This traditional therapy dates back thousands of years. Its main thrust is the application of stretching-like movements that promote overall flexibility and well-being; kiss tightness and tension away after one of these. The QM2's Canyon Ranch spa offers this and so do the SeaDream Yacht Club twins and the Star Clippers ships.
At the end of the day, I'm a big fan of sticking with the basics. Aboard the Crystal Symphony and Silver Whisper recently, I enjoyed a pleasingly firm deep tissue rub as the ships swooshed through the South China Seas. Another top Swedish massage was aboard the Norwegian Sun in the Caribbean a few years back; after being lulled into lala land watching the waves from the ocean view waiting area, one of the best masseuses I've ever had applied the pressure just right. I signed up for a second.
Massage for Two
Among the most memorable experiences aboard the Disney Magic in Europe last summer was a morning sequestered away in one of the ship's three spa villas. My husband and I spent a heavenly two hours first soaking in a private outdoor hot tub on the villa's balcony, then enjoying simultaneous deep tissue massages before chilling out on a chaise lounge sipping herbal tea. If it wasn't for the view of Naples (and that steep $450 price tag) grounding us to reality, we might have thought we were in paradise.
A mineral-enriched mud pack is excellent therapy for your skin, and not just your face. Rasul starts with a cleansing seaweed-soap shower and is followed by a couple applying medicinal muds to each other's bodies in a private chamber. The ritual ends with an herbal steam bath. It's definitely an intimate and healthy way to spend quality time with your partner. Celebrity and Royal Caribbean are among the lines offering it.
Salt and Ginger Body Scrub
The skin is the body's largest organ and there's some 18 square feet of it to maintain. Most ship spas offer an invigorating exfoliation regime where the therapist gently applies a gritty paste (ingredients vary) that sloughs away dry, dead skin cells. Definitely opt for an exfoliation and massage combo if it's offered.
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