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Spas at Sea: Reveling in Relaxation

Cruise ship spas are all the rage these days. A ship's spa is now as vital as its buffet line, craps table and showgirls. Cruise line execs and designers are well aware that spas are an expected amenity that needs to impress.

June 23, 2004 -- Thoughts of a spa invoke images of oiled hands, darkened rooms and new age music. Cruising brings to mind PiƱa Coladas, Bingo and Baked Alaska. To combine these two modes of relaxation causes one to seriously question whether or not to ever end a vacation. Cruise ship spas are all the rage these days. A ship's spa is now as vital as its buffet line, craps table and showgirls. Cruise line execs and designers are well aware that spas are an expected amenity that needs to impress.

No longer design afterthoughts relegated to windowless lower decks, cruise ship spas have been commanding prime real estate on upper decks over the past decade, and are bigger and better with each new ship launched.

"Ten years ago, treatment rooms were few and fitness areas limited. The big focus was on large beauty salons. That's entirely reversed today," says Kelly Gonzalez, Royal Caribbean's Director of Fleet Design and Newbuilding.

While you'll still find a hair salon on board just about any ship carrying more than 100 passengers, it's really an understudy to the main star, the ship's spa.

It's safe to say Celebrity Cruises ushered in the age of the high-style spa with the introduction of its Century-class ships in the mid 90s. These spas incorporate design themes, like a Japanese bathhouse, and were built around a central indoor thalassotherapy pool (an over-sized hot tub with various water jets, pressure points and seating arrangements designed to relax users). They look as cool and enticing as their list of appetizing treatments, with d?r incorporating lots of cool glass, tile and marble ---- practical materials, considering the area's high humidity.

Now, design themes are standard. Much of the artwork, furniture and plantings in the Lotus Spa, on Princess Cruises' ( new Caribbean Princess, for instance, have Asian overtones. In the many of the 14 treatment rooms, there are mirrors framed in black lacquer, black granite countertops, and delicate Oriental-style tables.

The Canyon Ranch spa on Cunard's ( new QM2 is a two-story, 20,000-square-foot complex with a mint and bamboo color scheme. Its vaguely art deco design combines with nautical overtones and a modern minimalist motif to create a fashionably relaxing space to really unwind. A staff of 51 doles out stone and Thai massages, reflexology, facials and other acts of kindness in 25 treatment rooms. Plus you'll find a thalassotherapy pool and hot tub, thermal suite (a cluster of exotic steam rooms and special showers), and beauty salon with wonderful ocean views. The adjacent gym wraps around the bow of Deck 7, with partial views of the promenade deck through smallish windows, though you might not care since the treadmills and stationary bikes have the latest flat screen TV monitors.

No matter what the motif, today's mega ships have thousands of square feet dedicated to sprawling spa complexes, which typically include a separate hair and nail salon, steam rooms, saunas, locker rooms, relaxation area to lounge in before and after treatments, and sometimes an indoor hydrotherapy or thalassotherapy pool.

The Caribbean Princess' Lotus Spa, designed by UK-based Stephenjohn, the firm responsible for the themed spa and Solariums on Royal Caribbean's Radiance-class ships as well as many Princess ships, has an impressive thermal suite and five heated tile chaise lounges. The entire complex, which runs along both the portside and starboard side of the bow on deck 16, wraps around a central outdoor counter-current pool, that's open to all guests, but frequented by spa goers.

This spa is also the first in the fleet to be operated in house by Princess (instead of the ubiquitous Steiner), which means management was free to introduce several new twists. The most exciting, is the option to pre-book massages, facials or other services on-line weeks before the cruise. For those of us who have grown irritable spending an hour or two waiting in a long line to book a hot rock massage on the first day of their cruise, this is big news. (Appointments can be made on Only the QM2 offers a similar set-up, though not as extensive (Grill Guests, that is those dining in Queens Grill and Princess Grill, as well as former Canyon Ranch resort guests, can pre-book spa appointments by phone 21 or more days in advance, by calling 866/860-4662).

In a recent interview, Princess Director of Spa Operations Jeff Kohl was glad to report that the new Lotus Spa departs from the typical shipboard spa in other ways, including instituting a pressure-free way to offer clients the option of buying products. Instead of the in-your-just-massaged-face, used-car-salesman-like pitch that Steiner is famous for, masseuses simply hand clients a list of products used, sans spiel. You buy or you don't buy. Plus, Kohl also said that no electrical equipment will be used for any treatments -- so we can kiss goodbye those shamelessly promoted ionothermie treatments that allegedly (wink wink) reduce cellulite (we all know only plastic surgery can do that!).

Speaking of kissing, the QM2 has some neat features to embrace, including reflexology basins.

"They're like a foot Jacuzzi," says Darryll Leiman, director of cruise operations for Canyon Ranch Health Resorts, the renowned spa resort company that designed and now operates the QM2 spa. A light senses when feet are inside the basin, and then it starts filling up with water to about mid-calf level. Sit back and relax as your tootsies are treated to soothing jets and bubbles for two-minute cycles.

The QM2 spa also has a neat gadget that can be best described as a crushed ice fountain for guests to use after a sweaty bout in the steam room or gym. The self-filling basin sits in an elaborately decorated tile niche built into the wall, and all you do is reach in and grab a handful of ice chips to rub on your face, arms, or wherever it is that needs to be cooled down.

And don't think it's just the new ships that are being outfitted with snazzy new spas, even 10- and 20-year-old vessels are getting the treatment. Recently, Royal Caribbean's Empress of the Seas and the Crystal Symphony were refitted with new spa facilities.

Old or new, spa treatments at sea have become a priority when cruising. Bring on the coconut oil and paper underwear!

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