Tahiti: Pampered to the point of no return

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Aside from the occasional massage redeemed from a gift certificate, I've never been a spa treatment kind of girl. A place that claims to send you into an extreme state of relaxation without a cocktail handy has always seemed to me a tad contrived.

So I was a little wary when I was invited to the Helene Spa in Tahiti. As part of the Intercontinental Beachcomber Resort on Moorea, one of Tahiti's most popular hotels, I expected swathes of oily newlyweds to come traipsing out of a dark room, smelling faintly of pond scum.

This was different. There are no walls, just thatched bungalows known as "fare", where privacy is created by the surrounding garden. The scent of real flowers whistles through on the breeze and the sound of the ocean isn't piped into the room via a speaker system, but from the gently lapping tide just a few metres away.

Parisienne owner Helene Sillinger opened the spa in 1999, and it has since been known as one of the world's best. With its open-plan design, she wanted somewhere guests could feel connected to the outside world, although her idea of being at one with nature is like something out of a jungle movie. There's the "river bath", where you can scrub your sins away with coconut pulp, the "rain shower", where water acts as a masseuse and the "tropical shower" that looks like a waterfall.

You can take a romantic fresh flower bath, which is basically a spa pool full of frangipani, hibiscus, jasmine and bougainvillea petals. Luxury comes at a price though: each bath takes an hour to prepare at a cost of around NZ$140 per person.

To begin my treatment, I'm asked to disrobe and step into a white, Tahitian pareo, (sarong). I then head to the rain shower, a fare with a rectangular wooden slab in the middle, big enough for two bodies, with two large stones for pillows. A row of shower nozzles is suspended from above. I lie on the slab half-naked before a voice politely explains I'm supposed to be on my stomach. Embarrassed, I turn over and the nozzles let out a steady, gentle stream of warm drops from my neck to my legs.

After five minutes of trickling bliss, the water has begun to feel like tiny fingers all over my back, and I really need to go to the loo. It's the perfect massage for those who don't like to be touched by strangers.

At the end of 15 minutes, a voice seems to come from nowhere instructing me to towel off and proceed to the massage room for a coconut treatment. By this stage I am so relaxed my balance has gone, and I almost slip over on a pebble. The perils of pampering.

Stage two of the experience is more conventional, but Sillinger has put her own stamp on the massage treatment. Her products contain ingredients you'd sooner smother on your icecream than your skin - papaya, coconut, vanilla, lemon and pineapple.

After another 25 minutes having my arms, neck, back and legs prodded, pressed and stretched, I am deeply relaxed and smell like a pina colada. Nothing could be more appealing right now. Instead I am guided like an anaesthetised monkey into reception, where I'm given a tall glass of minty water. It might as well be a cocktail.

* Rebecca Barry was a guest of Tahiti Tourisme, flew Air New Zealand and stayed at the Intercontinental Beachcomber Resort, Moorea.

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