“Wait! I think my calves are a little tight after that last stretch of the Inca Trail.” “I’m pretty sure I feel a twinge in my neck after staring up at those temples in the Bhutanese Himalayas.” “It’s Thursday, right?” Trust me, I don’t need much of an excuse to schedule a massage when I’m on vacation. A little extra indulgence is just the ticket on top of a decadent day of exploring wondrous places and eating well and hanging out with truffle hunters or shepherds. So bring on the hot lava stones, the aromatherapy mist and whatever sea salt, therapeutic mud or exotic technique is the local specialty. Herewith, 11 of our favorite places to put your happy traveler’s body into the hands of some of the world’s most accomplished massage therapists.
1. Post-Inca Trail Pampering
It’s hard not to swoon over the renowned Inkaterra Hotel near the foot of Machu Picchu. But can I just say that among its charms (an orchid garden, tea plantation and hummingbirds), the UNU SPA is beloved to me. I found it at the end of a day that started with my lifelong ambition of hiking a stretch of the Inca Trail. That was everything I expected with the crowning view at the Sun Gate overlooking the legendary ruins. But as the adrenalin ebbed, my legs reminded me that the trail is steep. UNU SPA to the rescue. Do you go for the coca leaf exfoliation before the rubdown? Or the deep-tissue after the high-altitude walk? Maybe some Andean river rocks?
2. My, Oh, Maya at Ambergris Caye
A day on a private catamaran, moored over the world’s second largest barrier reef with plenty of lounging and some swell snorkeling ought to leave you plenty relaxed, right? That’s how it worked on me. But on return to the luxe Victoria House resort in Belize, I couldn’t let go of that intense sense of relaxation. Enter the Victoria House Spa. A relaxation massage could do it. Or something deeper tissue. But in my quest for the local solution, my eye kept going back to the therapy based on “traditional indigenous Maya healing techniques.” If it was good enough for the people who built the pyramid I climbed earlier in the week, it’s good enough for me.
3. Retreat in Luang Prabang
After the Laotian elephants, you get your own turn. Near Luang Prabang, a 2,000-acre elephant sanctuary offers an unforgettable up-close day with the giant animals. Along with the mahouts who care for them, you’ll learn to care for the animals and give one it a bath in the Nam Khan River. Yes, you will get wet and no, you won’t forget it. After an experience on such a mammoth scale, I find it extra relaxing back at the Azerai Hotel to spend a quiet, hands-on hour in their elegant spa. As you’d expect, the therapists use traditional Asian techniques – a serene and soothing counterpoint to an active day in the outdoors.
4. Serenity Defined in Bhutan
The Tiger’s Next Monastery defies easy explanation, improbably perched as it is on a near-vertical wall of Himalayan stone. The trail up to it is awesome and inspirational. You certainly come to appreciate how this remote aerie lifted Buddhist monks above earthbound c1ares. And, okay, it also leads you to wonder how pilgrims traveled to it from the valley below without a wonderful massage at the end! Fortunately, the Menlha Spa at the Zhiwa Ling Hotel provides some blessed relief inspired by the healing goddess Tara and surrounded by Bhutanese art. The massage will even give you new appreciation for why this is a kingdom famous for measuring “Gross National Happiness.”
5. Go Nordic in Québec
If your impressions of Québec feature the 500-year-old skyline of the city, the journey into the rural and rugged Charlevoix region will come as the first surprise. I love it out there, where elk roam and a vast wilderness park sits in an impossibly vast meteor crater. This is the kind of place where you can visit a family farm and taste their artisanal sheep and cow cheeses. My favorite hotel in Baie-Saint-Paul (home of Cirque du Soleil) capitalizes on the outdoorsiness of the setting in its Spa Nordique. Keeping with the theme, an excellent Swedish massage makes relaxing sense, though I am partial to the “hot shell” therapy that incorporates heated seashells and coconut oil. And of course, you need to leave time for a steamy soak in the outdoor thermal pool.
6. Room for Relaxation in the Galápagos
First you walk on white sand beaches, lava fields and through a mangrove forest. You boat to a small islet that’s one of the few spots where Galápagos penguins live. You watch blue-footed boobies, go beach-combing, and maybe head out into the waves for a little boogie boarding. And this is just another day in the life of Isabella Island in the Galápagos. It’s also the kind of day when the perfect finale is an in-room massage at the boutique Iguana Crossing Hotel overlooking the beach lulled by the sound of waves. In-room is all the better because happily tired and totally relaxed, you’re as close as necessary to your bed for a little pre-dinner nap. To my way of thinking, this is one of the very best perks of paying an island-based visit to the islands, rather than being on a cruise ship where you may have to book your massages weeks before you even set sail.
7. Aprés Mont-St.-Michel
I find that the quiet and mental focus of a massage helps me lock a travel experience more firmly into my memory. (Or maybe that’s just my excuse for a massage.) That’s how it worked for me at Chateau La Cheneviere after my walk on the tidal flats around Mont-St.-Michel in Normandy. The walk on firm sands exposed at low tide was nothing short of amazing. The abbey-topped island is one of France’s most iconic places, but virtually none of the visitors see it like this. For centuries, pilgrims waited for the tide to roll out to dash across for worship. Doing the walk today with an expert guide takes away the rush so you can concentrate on the history and the unsurpassed views. Back at the Chateau, my massage was the icing on the gateau.
8. Holistic Santorini
You could feel perfectly content that you’d had the complete Santorini experience without ever leaving the Fanari Villas Spa Hotel. It has the pinch-yourself-views you’ve seen in photos. It’s the perfect ringside seat for sunset over the azure Aegean waters of the caldera. And, after all, the whole tempo of the Greek Isles is slow and easy. No apologies required here when you stretch out for a holistic massage in a spa where there’s a cave sauna and a pool with a view. When the therapist promises that her work will “promote a sense of deep inner and physical calm,” she speeks the truth!
9. Agra Ahhhhhh
To enter the Taj Mahal in Agra is to realize a lifelong dream for many travelers. But I can top that. The Hotel Oberoi Amarvilas where we ensconce our guests is just 600 meters from the Taj, and all of the rooms and public areas overlook the monument. As you could well expect, a massage in the dramatic spa is supremely majestic. Hidden behind fretwork doors, the spa has a domed roof and the steam room, of course, is white marble. The therapy rooms all have the million-dollar view. And yes, you will feel like a maharajah as you undergo your pomegranate-orange body massage. I mean, really, if you’re ever going to indulge your inner potentate, this is the place to do it.
10. The French Side of Fès
Morocco is one of my all-time favorite countries. The experiences you have ranging from an overnight in the Sahara to the medina of Marrakesh are incredible. I remember a day in and around Fès like no other. First we walked in the country through olive groves and had tea and fresh almonds in the home of our Berber friends. Back in the medieval city, we met up with artisans in ceramics and mosaics. Then a pause for a massage at the Givenchy Spa in our chic Hotel Sahrai, perched on a hilltop overlooking the whole city. There’s plenty of French influence in Morocco, as in the hotel’s Architectural Digest-worthy spa. My massage was the perfect brief retreat from the bustle. Though next time, I may shop their extensive massage menu more carefully to see if they have one designed to stimulate appetite because the day ends with a stupendous meal at the world-famous Maison Bleue restaurant.
11. Swedish in Norway
As you’ve seen, I can justify a massage on any kind of day. But the one youget after a day in Norway’s Jostedalen Valley will be one of your best, falling as it does at the end of an iconic outdoor experience. Start by kayaking on a glacier-fed lake amid freshly calved ice bergs. Then strap on crampons and go for a guided glacier walk. The air is clean and beautiful. The scenery is like nothing you’ve ever seen. The thrills will easily carried you through the day. And that’s a textbook set-up for a massage – especially here where it can happen outdoors overlooking Sognefjord on a summer day with endless sun. Yes, this is Norway, but a Swedish massage is the way to go!