You can tell a lot about a person by the first thing they do when they enter a hotel room. Some make a beeline for bathroom to test the fluffiness of the towels, while others peruse the room service menu for their preferred late-night snack. Personally, I grab the spa menu and plan how to transport my weary body – often knotted after many hours cramped from a budget economy class flight – to a treatment nirvana, where oils and balms will soothe my muscles and relax my senses. And then the reality of many hotel spas hits home – the prices.
Luckily many holiday destinations favoured by Australians, especially those in south-east Asia, have myriad options when it comes to holiday pampering.
So how do you choose which treatment to go for, and how much to spend?
That all depends on what your body needs, says Ana Marques, director of Lime Spa at PER AQUUM Niyama in the Maldives.
The archipelago is spa nirvana, with a specialisation in under- and over-water massages, as well as ayurvedic treatments.
"If you're tired after long-haul travel, book a sleep therapy on your arrival day and straight away you'll be relaxed and ready for your vacation. If you're not sure what you want or what's right for you, ask your therapists. You'll be surprised, they're not there to sell you the most expensive treatment, but rather the one that your body needs – from a little extra moisture on your skin to relaxing tense muscles."
And while Marques doesn't advise scrimping on spa treatments, she said it's best to book a treatment in the heat of the day, "when the sun is out there and you don't want to be sunbathing. It's equally as great during rainy weather. I always tell guests to splurge on a massage after a day spent on water activities or cool down after time in the sun with a luxurious body wrap."
Let's face it though, many people do like to sample a range of treatments on holidays. Here's an example from Bali of what you can expect from a massage at three price points.
THE $7.50 REFLEXOLOGY MASSAGE
When the afternoon tropical downpour hits the streets of Seminyak, there are few better places to while away an hour than one of the hundreds of massages and beauty parlours that line the streets of the town. For as little as $7.50 – there are some offering cheaper treatments, although we didn't go there and were told many are "mattresses on the floor in a dirty, dank room" – you can have a strapping young man or lady poke, stretch, tap and push the kinks out of your feet. At this price the treatment quality is very hit and miss, from therapeutic to downright disinterested. Typically your feet will be washed in a bucket, and a scented balm worked into your feet, one at a time. Many cheap massages will finish with a quick neck and shoulder rub. Let them know if you don't want this and prefer the time to be spent on your tootsies. The room will almost certainly be well lit, a little noisy and the towels will generally resemble a fine grade of sandpaper. But for the price of a beer at home, who's complaining?
TIP: If you're doing cheap and cheerful, take a look at the chairs. If you can find a place with good recliners at this price, keep it to yourself.
WHERE TO GO: Too many in the main beach areas of Bali to list, just look for the signage on the street. Many are open until 11pm. Expect to pay between $7.50 and $10 an hour.
THE $40 SIGNATURE MASSAGE
There are plenty of mid-range massage options in Bali for travellers wanting something a cut above the communal cheapie but still more affordable than those at home. Like many spas in this price range, Sundari Day Spa offered a pick-up service, a ginger tea on arrival and a questionnaire to learn our preferences and ailments. We weren't told about the construction next door with the noise varying from a tap to a constant hammering. So it pays to ask your spa if there are likely to be any disruptions. The couples treatment room, although private, was a little cramped, meaning our therapists had to constantly whisper when they needed to change position. My signature massage, although relaxing, promised "a complete body reawakening through a combination of yogic stretching and deep therapeutic strokes", although the stretches were largely MIA. Perhaps I was too distracted by the drilling outside.
TIP: The spas in this price bracket offer some seriously good package deals. Sometimes a massage and facial is only marginally more expensive than one treatment alone.
WHERE TO GO: Some mid-range spas aren't at street level, so it pays to research. Some other favourites in Bali include Bodyworks, Jari Menari, Sundari Day Spa and Spa Bali. Expect to pay about $40 to $50 an hour, including tax.
THE $120 RESORT MASSAGE
The adage "you get what you pay for" couldn't be more true than inside Anantara Uluwatu's couples room. A outdoor shower, fluffy robes and quality toiletries are all available to use before or after treatments. The treatment begins with the meditative sound of a gong, which summons our therapists to begin the "foot ritual" – a traditional bathing and exfoliation of the feet. The therapists move like butterflies around the heated massage tables as they apply just the right amount of pressure to every spot I indicated needed attention. Everything from the scent of oil used to the tempo of music is up to us – almost too many decisions to make on holidays. The traditional Balinese massage uses a combination of palm pressure and stretching to achieve relaxation and improved blood flow. I fall asleep at least three times in the hour. After the treatment, we are offered tea in the relaxation room, which overlooks a lovely plunge pool.
TIP: Save the best for last. If you are planning a resort or high-end treatment, book it towards the end of your holiday or it can be a rough comedown going back to the cheaper places.
WHERE TO GO: Every five-star hotel has a spa. Anantara also has a spa in Seminyak, while The Legian, Double Six Luxury Hotel and Ayana Resort and Spa also have renowned spas. Expect to pay upwards of $110 an hour, plus tax.
RUB-DOWN LOW-DOWN: A GUIDE TO MASSAGE MENUS
RELAXATION MASSAGE means exactly what it says. You'll be asked to specify your preferred pressure but nothing too strenuous here. A good massage for beginners, with or without oil.
SPORTS MASSAGE is the opposite of a relaxation massage. You may feel great afterwards but can go through some serious discomfort along the way as the therapist works deep into your sore spots. Great for athletes and those who can stand a deep tissue approach. First-timers should avoid on holidays.
HOT STONE MASSAGE – volcanic stones are heated and glide over the body to soften muscles and tissues. The stones are used in lieu of hands and may also be placed at points of tension to relieve pressure.
COUPLES MASSAGE – two massages, one room. You may share a home with your loved one but that doesn't mean you necessarily want to share a massage room, especially if one of you is prone to snoring.
THAI MASSAGE is a bit like a sports massage, sometimes with clothes on, a traditional technique that stretches and manipulates the muscles. Do not shriek when the therapist jumps on the table – it helps them get leverage. Can leave you feeling like you have done a big workout.
SHIRODHARA is an ayurvedic treatment in which a steady stream of oil is poured on the forehead – the third eye chakra – often while a massage is being performed on the body.
LOMI-LOMI MASSAGE is a Hawaiian technique that uses the forearms as well as the hands, knuckles and even feet to create a gliding motion across the body.
Melissa Singer was a day guest of Anantara Uluwatu Bali Resort.
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