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Spa Breaks
Published: Volume 14, Issue 4, July-August, 2006

Rejuvenation, relaxation, time out from a hectic schedule...the buzzwords are 'spa time'. If you want to lie back and be pampered, whether for an hour or a week or more, whether in the midst of the city or in sylvan, idyllic surroundings, Verve has some luxurious suggestions

Three best-kept secrets

Far from the madding crowds of Java, the location of this eco-resort and spa near Magelang, is 900 metres above sea level with spectacular views of the eight surrounding volcanos. The Losari principle is that of a holistic approach to life - the spa offers therapies ranging from traditional Javanese remedies to the best of international treatments.

A touch of Turkey
The hammam, with separate facilities for men and women, is an authentic Turkish steam bath tiled with Javanese yellow volcanic rock and complete with relaxation rooms. Quite a sensation in Indonesia, but sure to be replicated eventually, worries Gabriella Teggia, the Italian owner of the resort.

At first, the thought of the hammam's sticky heat in this tropical climate, was discouraging. Despite learning that the moist warmth of a traditional hammam offers the perfect opportunity for deep cleansing and detoxification, followed by a fragrant, infused oil massage, we were still not tempted. So we let another Franco-American couple, whom we met the first evening, try it out. They were so relaxed afterwards that they disappeared to their villa and only came back for breakfast the next morning! So we gathered that it must be good!

Soothing strokes
Californian spa expert, Susan Stein, of Jari Menari (Dancing Fingers) spa in Bali, regularly visits to train the Losari spa staff in the various techniques of massage, while carrying out quality control. Together with Gabriella, she advocates the use of natural products and Indonesian herbal recipes, an example being a coffee-based soap developed for Losari.

The treatments begin with a 45-minute, non-oil massage for the back, neck, scalp and feet. This is free of charge and introduces those who have never experienced a massage to that heavenly sensation. Even my husband who hates massages tried this one out- for 15 minutes, and survived.

The Italian job
This includes skilled Indonesian-style treatments for the hair, face and feet. I enjoyed a traditional Indonesian cream steam bath treatment for my hair, a luxurious hour-and-a-half with a heavenly head, scalp and neck massage. The face pack smells wonderful and my feet were pedicured after a foot reflexology treatment. The Italian herbal mud-wrap uses special volcanic herbal mud packages which are imported from Italy. The warm mud wrap is excellent for a bad back.

Apart from the spa treatments, afternoon yoga classes can be booked at the fitness centre. Singaporean wellness therapist and yoga teacher of Javanese origin, Azmi Samdjaga, flies in at least once a month to train the resident yoga teachers and masseurs at the resort. For those up early, the free gentle yoga classes take place in the garden at 8.00 a.m.

Javanese dance lessons are scheduled for the afternoon in the pendopo (traditional open Javanese hall) next to the restaurant. Somehow we always managed to miss yoga classes and just appreciated traditional dance or gamelan music from afar. However, we did swim in the octagonal ice-cold spring-water pool to the amazment of other guests.

Pampering with a purpose

The idyllic setting is half the battle won. Not to forget the therapeutic sound of waves lapping the pristine coral beach. Is there anything like the symphony of the swelling sea, to relax body and mind?

The Taj Exotica Resort and Spa recently reopened its entirely renovated and upgraded property in the Maldives. Already listed on the Condé Nast Traveller's 'Hot List', Harpers & Queen's 'Resort of the Year' and Gallivanter's Guide's 'Editor's Choice', this luxurious tropical resort with its over-water lagoon villas and villa suites and impeccable cuisine, now adds the Jiva Grande Spa, which blends seamlessly into the crook of one of the area's largest lagoons. This Indian spa sanctuary aims to be the first truly Indian spa experience outside India, offering a new definition of Asian hospitality.

The Jiva Grande is more than a spa. It is a philosophy which encompasses more than rooms and treatments - an entire way of life integral to the Indian philosophy of wellness, with the 'life force' or jiva being the cornerstone. Located on its own private spa island sanctuary, connected by a bridge to the main resort, the spa offers over-water spa pavilions, each with a private deck and relaxation space. A yoga and meditation pavilion, a VIP spa suite, two over-water couple spa suites are the perfect location for unique spa ceremonies and treatments, body therapies and authentic Ayurvedic programmes.

So, take your pick. This is pampering with a purpose. The spa assures use of the purest of products ranging from Indian herbs and aromatherapy oils to natural creams and secret ingredients. And for those who want to heighten the cleansing process, the spa makes available a range of regenerative and anti oxidant cuisine, including a choice of satvik options based on Ayurvedic principles.

Well, they do promise you an entire experience and, whether you decide to take a day off from the main hotel experience, or decide to spend a week spa-ing it up, you are assured of an enriching time. And yes, for once, you have that option of returning home healthier, slimmer and truly cleansed after a holiday getaway!

No modesty please, we are Japanese

The yukata displayed all the signs of being ordinary bathrobes - the blue cotton wraparounds ironed and folded neatly on our bed had long sleeves and tie-up sashes around the waist. My husband and I had been in Japan less than a month - and were on our first stay at a Japanese ryokan (inn) up in northernmost Hokkaido - so how were we to know that God made yukatas for a greater purpose?

We found out soon enough. We trooped down to the hotel's in-house onsen (sulphur spa) in shorts and tees, swimsuits underneath, looking forward to a romantic dip together in Japan's famous sulphur baths. The romance bit was put to rest right away by two bamboo-curtained entrances, clearly one for men and the other for women. So I went my way; my husband went his.

I didn't go very far. I had just gotten down to my swimsuit and taken two steps in when I came slap-bang against a Japanese octogenarian decked out in the Emperor's new clothes. I'm no prude, but nudity is one thing and a nude grandma is another. There she was, in the skin, with nothing, nix, nought, zero, zilch on in terms of clothing, dripping wet from taking the waters (which hadn't worked too many wonders where her youthfulness was concerned). I shrieked and that needed no translation. She shrieked, too.

So far we were even but then she spoke in Japanese and tipped the scales in her favour. It was many long lines of gibberish to me, but I was being scolded. She pointed at my swimsuit, clucked like a hen and steered me back to where I had left my shorts and tee. Then, waiting till I had peeled off my swimsuit, she handed me a little towel from the cane basket in the corner. As if that was going to cover anything! I finally decided to let Japan have 'Indian Woman - Posterior View' and with napkin held out in front of me, I scurried and skated on the wet floor toward the misty glass doors.

But my naked guide wasn't done yet. She pushed me toward the showers. Japanese people are very particular about cleaning themselves thoroughly before sharing a sulphur spa with all and sundry. I still didn't feel any less icky when I got to the pools, steaming cauldrons of water reeking of the rotten-egg smell of sulphur. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that this was season time and I was rubbing shoulders (and other unmentionables) with women of all shapes and sizes.

But once I got into the water deep enough for modesty, I could feel its heat numbing and calming every nerve in my body. Slowly, I learnt to do as the others, wrapping my little towel around my head like a turban, or walking, towel held like a fig leaf in front, from one pool to the other. The water in each pool is a different temperature and once I'd warmed up sufficiently, I decided to follow the others through another set of doors.

They led outside…and it was snowing. The ground was covered with snow and there, in the middle of all that whiteness was a rotenburo - basically a sunken outdoor pool of scalding hot water. I felt my blood rage as I sank in shoulder-deep, snowflakes brushing against my cheeks as they fell. There was something funny about naked women getting so hot in those waters that they frequently felt the need to step out and stand under the snow - but it was so surreal, so beautiful to be embraced by hot water under a white snow-filled sky that humour took a willing backseat.

My husband didn't fare as well on his first visit. He went pool hopping toward his ultimate destination: a heated tub shaped like a beer barrel and meant (glory be!) for one. He ended up with unwelcome company, in the form of a seven-year-old girl whose father hadn't thought twice about carting his daughter into the men's onsen. She climbed in; my horrified husband climbed out.

Over time, we collected more than our fair share of 'Drama in Real Life' stories. On one visit, I fainted from dehydration after shuttling between the hot rotenburo and the freezing outdoors one time too many. There was also the time we asked for an ofuro instead of an onsen and ended up in a public bath where all the locals of the village were scrubbing themselves silly.

That said, we're onsen fanatics now. We strip down without shame. We shower before and after we use the spa. And we rinse our faces with black charcoal soap, the way the Japanese do. Our brownness invites stares, our gaffes elicit giggles but, that's a small price to pay for one of Japan's greatest indulgences. Once you're inside that hot tub under the stars on a snowy evening, nothing else matters.

An oasis of calm in the city

Mumbai's Kemps Corner circle is crowded and noisy as always, shoppers are streaming in and out of book stores and designer outlets, the latest of which is Amara, home to names like Gaurav Gupta, Shahab Durazi and Wendell Rodricks. And just above this fashion mayhem, I walk into Rudra, a newly opened spa-cum-salon, where I am scheduled to sample a few hours of pampering.

Rudra is a rustic style, comfort zone of tiled roofs, natural woods and therapeutic aromas; a bright reception area looks out onto a quaint courtyard-terrace, while ahead lies a narrow corridor of massage and treatment rooms that my colleague, Shainita and I are gently guided towards.

She experiences the 'Balinese massage', with a true blue Balinese therapist who mainly works on her legs and back and foot pressure points with light oils and constant swaying motions - we giggle about this later, maybe the Indonesian way prescribes swaying for effective energy flow!

I opt for the 'aromatherapy' ritual, which aims to rejuvenate me with a soothing blend of lavender oils applied on the body. I begin with a quick shower (I am surprised to see that the bath area is located outside the treatment room and is shared by all customers - a space saving strategy but slightly inconvenient) before wrapping myself in Rudra's signature robe.

More than an hour of deft strokes and deep massaging follows; the lilting music goes on and off, sunlight streams in through the overhead window, the din of the traffic below cannot be completely shut out - but I feel immensely relaxed nevertheless. A quick steam adjacent to the shower stall and we are ready for the next round - 'The Colour Bar Salon'. Ellen, my hair guide/stylist/therapist/saviour, all rolled into one, advises a hair spa mix for dry ends and coloured hair (other packages include treatments for dandruff, fine hair, falling hair, amongst others). First, a creamy base is applied to my scalp and strands, followed by hot and cold steam so that my hair can soak in all the healing properties of this Wella product. After a hair wash (on reclining beds - so much better than the typical leather seats of the past), Ellen sprays my head with a mysterious concoction before suggesting a quick haircut to add volume and edge to my thick but unruly mane. Snip-snip and a stylised blow-dry later and I have the look that Jennifer Lopez sports on the May Harper's Bazaar cover. Good going Ellen!

Rudra offers a great mix of signature treatments, ('Himalayan power therapy' massage), body scrubs (the traditional 'almond and honey', or the more delicious sounding 'apple polisher'), wraps ('seaweed detoxifier' or 'herbal enricher'), facials ('purifying', 'soothing', 'radiance' or 'hydrating') along with a host of hair specials at the salon. Full-day special packages are available for a complete experience.

The courtyard will soon house an outdoor jacuzzi and open air treatments.