Guide to the best spa experiences on cruise ships: Things you need to know about spa and fitness treatments while cruising

Just as wellness holidays have become a $662 billion-plus business in retreats and luxury health resorts around the world, cruises now offer a raft of sophisticated spa and fitness treatments designed to have you leaving the ship healthier and more relaxed than when you got on.

Cruising is pretty relaxing anyway, but for a new generation of active travellers it's not enough to lounge around the pool with a cocktail. It's all about attaining a healthy balance. Classes in yoga, tai chi, pilates and more challenging spin and results-based-training (RBT) go hand in hand with indulgent body-sculpting spa therapies, while Medi-spa treatments such as Botox offer the chance to return from your cruise looking really "rested".

SPA AS DESTINATION

The concept of the spa as a destination has taken off across mainstream and luxury cruise lines. Far more onboard space is dedicated to spas than a few years ago and many are beautifully designed temples to wellness. The Lotus Spa on Princess Cruises' 3560-passenger Royal and Regal Princess has 18 treatment rooms and the fabulous Enclave thermal suite (more on thermal suites later), while Hapag-Lloyd Cruises' highly rated Europa 2 has the biggest spa-fitness facility (1000 square metres) for a ship of its size (it carries a maximum of 516 passengers).

Staying in a spa suite has become an integral part of the overall spa-as-destination experience. They offer easy or private access to the spa, extra amenities such as upmarket bathroom products, pillow menus and herbal teas and, depending on the cruise line, free use of the spa's relaxation areas and priority bookings for treatments and classes. On Celebrity Cruises' ships guests staying in AquaClass cabins and suites can have breakfast and dinner in their own exclusive restaurant, Blu. It serves "clean cuisine" that is light and healthy but certainly not spartan.

Other lines featuring spa suites on some, if not all, of their ships include Azamara (introduced this year for the new Sanctum Spa); Carnival (Cloud 9 spa); Costa Cruises (Samsara Spa and restaurant); Holland America Line (Greenhouse Spa); MSC Cruises (Yacht Club suites have access to Aurea Spa); Norwegian Cruise Line (Mandara Spa); and Seabourn (Spa at Seabourn).

WHO RUNS THE SPAS?

A quick look at HAL's Greenhouse Spa menu on Koningsdam shows that it offers nine facial therapies, 17 massages and 12 body treatments. (This doesn't count salon services such as hair, nail and waxing treatments, Medi-spa treatments or fitness centre sessions.) There is a similar selection on Norwegian Epic's Mandara Spa menu and the products used on both are all by Elemis, La Therapie and Ionithermie.

This is because spas across almost all cruise lines, whether luxury or mainstream, are operated by UK-based Steiner Leisure, which also owns the product companies. Prices for similar treatments can vary but at both the HAL and NCL spas a 75-minute Thai herbal poultice massage – taking a random example – costs $258.

American company Canyon Ranch Spa has a perfectly pedicured foot in the door, with spas on all Celebrity Cruises' ships, Cunard's Queen Mary 2, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises but Steiner has definitely snagged the lion's share of the seagoing spa scene. One notable exception is Liv Nordic on Viking Ocean Cruises' new ships, the first cruise-ship spa venture for Swedish company Raison d'Etre.

TREATMENT TRENDS

From facials using gold leaf to seaweed body wraps and coconut poultice massages, the range of treatments is quite astounding. And they are not just for women.

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Couples can book in together for salt scrubs and full body mud packs, or just a good old-fashioned Swedish massage. A romantic option on Royal and Regal Princess is a customised pampering package in one of the private Lotus Spa cabanas in the adults-only Sanctuary, overlooking the ocean.

Teenagers can indulge in their own spas or spa menus on several ships; Carnival's Zspa caters for 12 to 17-year-olds, with fun-sounding Fabulously Fruity Facials, Surfers Scrub massage and Sole Mate pedis.

Mother-daughter and father-son treatments offer the chance for some family bonding during massages, while men can enjoy traditional barber-shop services as well as facials, manicures and pedicures.

THERMAL SUITES

If you book a spa treatment you can enjoy the facilities of a thermal suite but otherwise you need to buy a daily or weekly spa pass (unless you're staying in a spa suite that includes free access). Only a limited number of passes are available to keep these serene spaces uncrowded and, well, serene and they tend to sell out quickly. Prices vary; check at the spa's reception as soon as you embark.

Thermal suites basically provide heated stone loungers, saunas, steam rooms, cold rooms, hot tubs, aromatherapy showers and sometimes a thalassotherapy (warm saltwater) pool. They can be quite elaborate and some have relaxation rooms with wonderful ocean views.

FIVE TOP SPAS

Newer and recently refurbished ships have the spiffiest spas; here are five recommended by seasoned spa aficionados.

Celebrity Cruises' Canyon Ranch SpaClub, Solstice-class ships. Highlights include the Persian Garden thermal suite and Take Care of Your Selfie onboard and onshore program.

Cunard's Canyon Ranch SpaClub, Queen Mary 2. One of the biggest spas at sea, it offers more than 80 treatments in 24 treatment rooms. Spa cuisine is available in the Britannia restaurant.

Viking Ocean Cruises, all ships. Access to the Liv Nordic spa is free; facilities include heated stone loungers, sauna, snow room, large thalassotherapy pool and whirlpools.

Norwegian Cruise Line's Mandara Spa, all ships. More than 50 treatments and thermal suites are offered fleetwide; Breakaway-class ships feature a Salt Room.

Seabourn's Spa at Seabourn by Steiner. One special feature of these stylish, spacious facilities is the Kneipp Walk, alternating cold and warm water baths designed to reduce stress and boost circulation.

WELLNESS PROGRAMS

If you're looking for a cruise that will take the health factor up a few more notches there are some interesting options. Next year MSC Cruises is launching its Wellness Experience Powered by Technogym. Put simply, a personal fitness program is tailored for your requirements and health levels, involving an online questionnaire and consultations with a doctor and senior trainer onboard.

Wellness Experience passengers' programs include specific classes and cabins kitted out with sports gear, sports towel and an exercise mat. Challenging new shore excursions for participants include a running-kayaking-snorkelling triathlon in Cozumel and hiking up Mount  Floyen in Norway. And there is no excuse for overeating: Wellness menu choices will be available in the buffets and main restaurants.

Luxury line Seabourn is launching the Mind and Body Wellness Program with Dr Andrew Weil on its upcoming new ship Seabourn Encore, and then across the fleet. Weil is a well-known integrative medicine expert and the program's focus is on a holistic spa and wellness experience that integrates physical, social, environmental and spiritual wellbeing, with daily yoga and meditation sessions. He will sail on a different Seabourn ship each year where he will present a 60-minute lecture for guests and also hold smaller informal group discussions.

SPORT & FITNESS THEMED CRUISES

You can find plenty of river cruises that focus on activities such as golf and cycling but ocean-going cruises dedicated to specific sports tend to be private charters. For example, Marathon Expeditions is operating running cruises in the Caribbean and Alaska in February and July 2017, on board Jewel of the Seas and Radiance of the Seas respectively; see runningcruise.com.

If Zumba is your thing, check out zumba-cruise.com for details about the five-day Zumba-intensive Caribbean cruise on Navigator of the Seas in April. A few more sports-themed cruises are listed at themecruisefinder.com but your best bet is to find out if your favourite sporting organisation offers any chartered cruise holidays.

Golf players have by far the most choice of sport and fitness-themed cruises run by a handful of lines. Azamara, NCL, Silversea and SeaDream Yacht Club offer an array golf cruises in 2017 and 2018 that combine major events with games on world-renowned courses in Australasia, the Caribbean, Britain, Europe, Hawaii and the Baltic.

In 2017 Silversea Expeditions has seven Wellness Expedition cruises that combine adventure cruises in exotic destinations with comprehensive onboard programs organised by experts in nutrition, yoga and fitness. They range from seven to 14 days in south-east Asia and the Pacific. Silversea Expeditions is also offering eight cruises for scuba-diving enthusiasts in the same regions next year.

Star Clippers' yoga cruises have been very popular over the past few years and will run again next year – dates and itineraries are still to be confirmed. Daily yoga and meditation classes are held on deck beneath the traditional tall ships' billowing sails and experts present lectures on yoga philosophy.

As the global wellness travel segment is projected to grow by nearly 10 per cent annually over the next five years, according to MSC Cruises CEO Gianni Onorato, I think we can confidently predict a huge increase in sports and fitness-themed cruises – and maybe even entire ships devoted to the spa experience.

FIVE MEDI-SPA TREATMENTS

ACUPUNCTURE

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine use fine needles to treat ailments ranging from asthma to seasickness. Needles are inserted along the body's meridians, with the aim of clearing blockages in the flow of Qi (vital force) caused by illness. It should be relaxing and painless and the acupuncturist will probably check your tongue and pulse.

BOTOX

A medical doctor injects a purified botulin toxin around wrinkle-prone areas such as foreheads and frown lines; the underlying facial muscles are temporarily paralysed and lines look smoother for three to six months.

DERMAL FILLERS

Dermal fillers such as Restylane are a naturally derived or synthetic FDA-approved material that is injected into your skin to plump up wrinkles or thin lips. Like Botox injections, they can be administered only by a medical doctor.

TOOTH WHITENING

The Go Smile Teeth Whitening treatment is offered by most cruise lines. It involves the application of a hydrogen-peroxide gel and sometimes light to activate the bleach. Treatments take about 30 minutes; you may need more than one session.

THERMAGE

Thermage is a non-invasive, radiofrequency cosmetic procedure that is said to help smooth and improve skin on the face and body by stimulating collagen production. Treatments take between 45 and 90 minutes.

Warning: all procedures have associated risks, so do your research before committing.

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