The Quest For The Herbal Holiday

A hydrotherapist wearing an apron empties a glass of what appears to be good Bordeaux into my whirring Jacuzzi. "This," she says, "is red vine extracts, to help circulation." Following the bath, I am wrapped in a sticky blend of local honey and wine yeast, then scrubbed with grape seeds. And after a swim in an indoor pool filled with thermal waters, I feast on a four-course dinner in a restaurant fine enough to have earned a Michelin star in its first year.

Hey, it's a small price to pay for a little relaxation. At Les Sources de Caudalie spa, nestled in the vineyards of Bordeaux, a week's stay--complete with four treatments a day and meals--runs about 2,000euros per person, double occupancy. Since its opening two years ago, Caudalie has become one of France's hottest vacation destinations for the moneyed and overworked. Already the hotel has grown from 29 to 49 rooms. Caudalie specializes in vinotherapie--using the discards of winemaking for the benefits of the body. Clients come with one objective: to unwind. "People want to take better care of themselves," says Caudalie director Alice Cathiard. "They understand today that it's beneficial to truly relax."

Unlike traditional spas, which have long been in the business of "cures"--tough dawn workouts, "lite" cuisine and rubs to recover--today's vacation spas focus simply on pampering both body and spirit. "Spas are no longer fat farms for the rich and famous," says Lynne McNees, executive director of the International Spa Association. "We're working at a crazier pace than ever before and really need to take the time to relax. Spas let you do that." According to McNees, there has been a veritable "spa explosion" around the world in the last two years. Hotels are building them, and new places like Caudalie are springing up. Some resorts emphasize yoga or hydrotherapy--or whatever the hippest new treatment is. As a result, spas are quickly becoming a popular family-vacation destination.

The Four Seasons Resort Maui actually encourages stressed working couples to bring the children along. It offers Kids for All Seasons day care; while the tykes are learning the hula on the beach, parents can head into the surf for an Aquacranial massage. This signature treatment, performed entirely in the ocean, involves floating on your back for 25 minutes. Your head rests on a flotation pillow and the therapist cradles your legs, using gentle massage at key pressure points to relieve tension. "There is a great freedom in being supported in the ocean on very deep levels of our psyche," says therapist Rebecca Goff.

Day spas in cosmopolitan city centers are also growing more popular. In Moscow, Russians and foreigners alike flock to the banya, an outrageously hot steam bath in a wooded room. The city's trendiest banya is Sandunovskaya, where practitioners--clad only in woolen caps--beat each other's backs, arms and legs with veniki, or fistfuls of birch leaves bound with twine. Massages, manicures, pedicures, waxings, facials and mud wraps are available, too. The banya is said to improve circulation, clean pollutants from the skin and rehabilitate a tired or anxious soul. Says banya regular Galina Smirnova, "It's the only place I can go and just turn into an ameba."

In South Korea, the hot spot--literally--is Myongdong Hanjeungmak, one of Seoul's several dozen traditional Korean saunas. It consists of a cavelike dome made of special stones and heated by pine, creating an almost unbearable heat. Koreans believe that sweating in a hanjeungmak helps detoxify the body. The Myongdong basic package includes the traditional sauna, scrubbing, a cucumber pack and a massage with milk and oil. The most peculiar treatment involves steamed mugwort, a fragrant grass often used as an herbal medicine, which is believed to cure gynecological ailments and hemorrhoids.

Japanese have long retreated to onsen, the natural thermal baths formed by one of the country's many volcanoes. The most popular at the moment is Tsukino Usagi (literally, Rabbit of the Moon) in Ito, on the Izu Peninsula. Opened in December 2001, the inn consists of a main building and eight cottages, modeled after an old Japanese folk house and done up in Balinese and Chinese furniture. Each comes with a rotenburo, or outside bath, affording a magnificent view of the ocean off the Izu Peninsula. Tsukino Usagi is so popular that weekends are booked through May 2003.

Few spa experiences are more exotic than ayurvedic treatments. Developed in India more than 4,000 years ago, ayurveda is a holistic approach that deploys herbs, diet and hydrotherapy to promote general wellness. It's especially popular in the southern Indian state of Kerala, where the steamy climate is considered ideal. Over the past three years, a host of ayurvedic health spas have opened there. Despite poor air links, tourists come for a longer stay and spend more money in Kerala than elsewhere in India, with 90 percent of them taking ayurvedic treatments.

Treatment at the Travancore Heritage resort, near Trivandrum, begins with two attendants slathering the body with pungent herb-infused oil to tone muscles and eradicate sleeplessness. Next comes shirodhara: milky oil is poured from an earthen pot onto the forehead in a rhythmic fashion for 45 minutes. After a steam bath, the oil is washed off with a special ayurvedic powder. Between or after treatments, green-robed clients sip coconut milk while overlooking gardens strewn with palm trees.

Sometimes therapeutic treatments are discovered by accident. At Caudalie, Alice's parents, Daniel and Florence Cathiard, had just bought the 600-year-old grand cru estate Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte in Bordeaux when a researcher from La Faculte de Pharmacie de Bordeaux came to visit and saw a pile of discarded grape seeds. "What are you going to do with those?" he inquired. According to his studies, grape-seed oil slows down the skin's aging process. So the Cathiards duly launched a grape-seed-oil-infused skin-care line called Caudalie--named for the unit of measure enologists use to describe how long a particular wine lingers on the palate. Now grape-seed products and thermal waters from a source on their property are the basis for their menu of vinotherapie treatments. Between sessions, guests can bike-ride through the vineyards and forests, tour the wine cellars or puff on Monte Cristos in the clubby Cigar Tower. "It's escapism," says Wendy Narby, an English resident from nearby Bordeaux. "And as this is in France, you still get to drink and have great meals." After all, spas should not be confused with suffering.

The Quest For The Herbal Holiday | News