Australia to Asia: Spa sensations

By Ute Junker

Spoil yourself and book into one of the best spas in Australia and Asia.

Oriental Spa at the Mandarin-Oriental Hotel

Soneva Kiri in the Gulf of Siam offers many different types of relaxing massages. Photo / Supplied
Soneva Kiri in the Gulf of Siam offers many different types of relaxing massages. Photo / Supplied

For street-side massages, Bangkok is the place to be. Here, you can be pummelled within an inch of your life for what amounts to small change. So why would anyone book into a five-star spa in this city? Because, while a Thai massage in a street-side parlour will ease the kinks in your body, if you really want to unwind you need an oasis of tranquillity in the midst of Bangkok's bustle. You'll definitely find it at the Oriental Spa at the Mandarin-Oriental Hotel.

Even getting to the spa has a sense of ritual about it. While the hotel is located on one bank of the river, the spa is on the opposite bank. A shuttle boat runs you across to the other side where, surrounded by leafy gardens and the 100-year-old traditional Thai teak pavilions, the city feels a million miles away.

While the Oriental Spa offers a full range of treatments, its specialty is its Ayurvedic treatments which take place in a dedicated penthouse area where each of the treatment suites has a water view. While Ayurveda is based on therapeutic principles, there's plenty of indulgence on offer. Sign up for the 90-minute Pzhichil treatment and you'll have not one, not two, but three therapists working on you, massaging you with warm herbal oil designed to stimulate the immune system and nourish the body tissues.

Alternatively, the spa's range of "aqua" treatments includes the two-hour Essence of Aqua, a superb way to smooth, soothe and hydrate your skin. It starts with a body scrub on a heated table and followed with a hydro-massage and a body mask that is applied before a stint in the steam room designed to help the skin absorb the active ingredients. And if you're still not completely relaxed, the whole thing winds up with a massage. Bliss.

The Spa, Hyatt Coolum, Queensland

The Hyatt Coolum on Queensland's Sunshine Coast - just a short drive from the chic seaside town of Noosa - is a bit like The Eagles' Hotel California: you can never leave. All right, you can, but it requires considerable willpower to drag yourself away. The resort is famous for its PGA Championship golf course, but with tennis courts, a beach, nine pools, and a multitude of other activities, there's always an excuse to stay just one more day.

Despite all the other activities on offer, it's the spa (sorry, The Spa - that's its proper name) that, for me at least, makes a visit to Hyatt Coolum worth the trip. At 750sq m, The Spa is the largest in the southern hemisphere, which means your one-hour treatment will somehow stretch into at least half a day of indulgence. By the time you've steamed and sauna'd, done a few lengths of the outdoor lap pool or joined in an aquarobics class, then refreshed yourself with a light meal and some juice, you may find yourself noticing that you really need a pedicure. Fortunately, there's a nail salon available too.

The Spa's defining feature is its indulgent facials, which use the Barcelona-based Natura Bisse brand, a favourite with Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna. The treatments aren't cheap, but they deliver results that most facials just can't compete with. We love the Vitamin C facial, which is designed to deliver essential nutrients straight into the skin.

Confession time: I find facial-speak somewhat impenetrable. When a therapist starts telling me about glyco-peeling and enzymes, my eyes start glazing over just the way they did back in high school during maths lessons back. To me, it's all superficial: a good facial is one that leaves me looking - and feeling - better. And every time I have a facial at The Spa, people start asking me if I've just come back from holiday. That's what I call a result.

Soneva Kiri, Gulf of Siam

For laid-back luxury, you can't go past Soneva Kiri, one of Thailand's most exclusive resorts. Located on a pristine island with just 42 oversized villas, Soneva Kiri combines a rustic jungle setting with a philosophy of total indulgence.

Depending on your proclivities, that might include a wine-tasting class in the superbly-stocked wine cellar, or spending some quality time in the air-conditioned chocolate room, where the resort's pastry chefs wheel out a mind-blowing range of treats including pralines, fondue, macarons and slabs of chocolate.

Those in the know, however, head straight for the resort's secret weapon: its Six Senses spa.

The spa set-up is in keeping with the resort's overall approach: simple treatment rooms made of organic materials, surrounded by lush vegetation to create a tranquil mood. But it's the treatments that really set this spa apart.

The resort massage is a surprisingly tricky thing to get right. It should, of course, be gloriously relaxing, with a choice of scented oils and the long, smooth strokes that make you feel like a cloud drifting through a summer sky. However, it should also iron out any persistent knots or strains - a difficult combination to nail. Soneva Kiri's massages do this better than anyone else. You can drift off during the massage, and still leave the room walking straighter than ever before.

The resort's extensive spa menu offers much more than just massage. A rotating roster of visiting experts offers the chance to try something completely different, from posture realignment to Chinese stomach massage - not for the faint-hearted, it is a painful experience, but does offer the most incredible sense of release. Or try one of the spa's signature treatments, such as the Dancing Light massage, which involves the application of warm beeswax.

A post-treatment ginger tea in the tranquil relaxation pavilion rounds off the experience perfectly.

The Day Spa, Observatory Hotel, Sydney

If there's one treatment that stands as the test of a good spa, it's a hot stone massage. Precisely because there's nothing as toe-curlingly delightful as a virtuoso hot stone treatment. Equally, there's nothing as disappointing as a poorly-performed specimen.

The Day Spa at the Observatory Hotel offers a textbook example of how to do it right: lots and lots of hot stones (in this case basalt) - on your chakra points, between your toes, massaged along your arms and legs - at just the right temperature and with the right pressure. We're not saying the Volcanic Stone Therapy is the only reason the Day Spa is a favourite with chic Sydneysiders - the La Prairie facials are also in high demand - but it certainly helps.

Beyond the individual treatments, what makes the Day Spa such a destination is the attention to detail. Most spas will place a lavender-scented bag across your eyes during your treatment; at the Observatory, they gently drape a tissue over your closed eyes first, for extra hygiene. And when your massage is finished, before you've regained enough focus to move your limbs, the therapist will gently place your slippers on your feet: one little task that makes your descent back to earth slightly easier.

When you do book in, remember to take your swimming togs - the Day Spa's ridiculously inviting indoor pool is set under an artificial sky filled with twinkling "stars". It's so mesmerising, you'll often find clients curled up in a deck chair, just staring up into "space".

Alila Villas Uluwatu, Bali

Sometimes, it pays to look past the obvious choice. Alila Villas Uluwatu is all about privacy. The 60-odd villas are designed to offer every type of creature comfort, allowing guests to spend their whole stay cocooned away from the world. That includes massages in their own courtyards - on a balmy Balinese night, truly an experience to be treasured.

Despite that, it's worth stepping out the front door and trekking to the spa - because Alila's spa is something quite special indeed.

Like all good spas, this one is a feast for the senses. Even before you get to the treatments, there's soft music, the fragrance of scented oils, muted colours and fabrics, all designed to relax you and remove you from your everyday environment.

At Alila Villas Uluwatu, however, the biggest sensory turn-on is the spa's location. Perched high on an oceanfront limestone cliff, the entire open-air spa swirls with the invigorating tang of sea air, and the muted roar of the ocean on the rocks below. Forget the post-treatment chill-out: here, you're chilling out long before your treatment starts.

The Alila philosophy is about intimate experiences, both holistic and eco-friendly.

Yoga, meditation and nutrition are offered alongside a range of massages, facials and other beauty treatments, many of which include locally-sourced ingredients. But if you really want to savour a unique natural remedy, arrive half an hour early for your appointment so you can soak in the spa's clifftop jacuzzi, from where you can watch the waves and the clouds chase each other across the horizon.

A little further afield

* Looking for the perfect Maldives resort? At Shangri-La Villingili Resort and Spa, you can wake up in either an over-water villa or a tropical tree house, relax on one of the island's pristine sandy beaches, and finally lose yourself in the sprawling Chi spa, where each treatment villa has its own private garden and herbal steam room.

* La Residence is not your average country retreat. Located in the wine region of Franschhoek, about an hour from Cape Town, La Residence's 11 suites include one named after Elton John, a repeat guest. The feel is indulgent and extravagant, without being over-the-top, the meals are superb, and the in-room massages are blissful.

* Low-key luxury is the word at Le Taha'a, one of French Polynesia's hidden gems. Though set on the same stunning lagoon as Bora Bora, it is a world away from its high-profile, high-density hotels. Le Taha'a is a boutique retreat where alfresco dining takes place high in the tree canopy, and the spa is perfectly positioned to let you watch the sun set while you're enjoying a facial.

- NZ Herald

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