What happens when an uptight, modest North American girl steps into a mixed-gender nude spa, sans towel, sans robe, sans support system either literal or metaphorical?
I'm not sure whose idea it was, but I'm sure it wasn't mine. We were enjoying a lunch on the terrace of the Kandinsky Restaurant in the Steigenberger Kurhaus Hotel. In front of us was the bustling boardwalk and, as far as the eye could see in either direction, the smooth fine beach of the North Sea. We noticed that, directly beside the Kurhaus and connected to the hotel by a convenient corridor, was the Kuur Thermen Vitalizee Spa.
"Why don't we try it?" someone suggested, and we all agreed that it would be a wonderful way to end the day.
Then Irma, the only Dutch person in the group, spoke up. "This is a Dutch spa," she said, "and the rules are a bit different from North American spas. For one thing, both men and women use the facilities."
"No problem," we said.
"For another, this is a nude spa. No clothing is permitted."
Silence. But we were not going to allow our provincial prudery to deprive us of a new experience, so we all took a deep breath.
And it wasn't a problem, at least not for more than the first few moments. After that, it was both liberating and exhilarating.
When we checked into the spa at the main desk, we were given a robe, a towel and a locker key.
I immediately wondered where one would carry the locker key - there are no pockets when you are in the buff -- but that had been taken care of.
In the locker room, which is a discreetly lit, serene space with lots of corners for those needing privacy, a computer set into the wall merely needed your personal code and a swipe of the key, and the locker you had been assigned could be opened or locked electronically.
The Kuur Thermen Vitalizee is directly adjacent to the Kurhaus Hotel in Scheveningen on the North Sea, about 30 kilometres from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport and five minutes from the centre of The Hague.
It overlooks the beaches and dunes of the North Sea, and is accessible from the boardwalk, or through the corridor from the Kurhaus.
One of the charms of the Vitalizee is its closeness to the ocean and all the activities associated with a coastal vacation spot. You can cycle or walk for kilometres on the boardwalk, linger in cafés, gamble at the nearby Holland Casino, go horseback riding in the dunes, tour the sculpture garden or take the tram into The Hague to visit museums and shops.
The first thing that strikes you about the Vitalizee is the space. It is large, clean-lined and open, with lots of windows and skylights. There is liberal use of glass brick dividing walls, tiles and wood. The upper floor houses most of the spa services, central to which is an immense swimming pool. At one end are two deep Jacuzzis, then you circle around the pool using each of the spa treatments.
The sauna is located next to a chilled plunge pool and the spa's famous snow cabin, a "chilling room." It's frosty cold, the indoor equivalent to the Swedish habit of rolling in the snow after a sauna. There is even a pile of snow on a stainless steel sink, intended for an invigorating body rub to really bring your core temperature down and wake up your skin.
Next, there is a steam room and the scented-mist garden room. The most relaxing elements were two warm deep-soaking pools, one tinted red and scented with rosemary, the other green and scented with eucalyptus. There are also hot and cold foot baths.
On the bottom floor are resting rooms, Dead Sea salt baths and warming rooms, as well as showers.
There is also a restaurant, with a pleasant terrace overlooking the beach. It's the only restaurant I've ever been in where street clothes were not allowed. Patrons dined in their robes.
All of the staff spoke English. Carola, who gave me a neck and back massage, is a holistic therapist. During the massage, she would occasionally stop and rest her hands softly on my back.
She explained that she believes she has healing hands, that she just knows when to pause, sense how your body is responding, and can transmit some of her healing powers to you.
Even if that is only so much New Age fuzzy thinking, I felt undeniably relaxed and revitalized afterward.
The clientele is mixed, but with a preponderance of thirtysomething spa-goers, as well as several couples enjoying the experience together.
They seemed to be mostly Dutch -- either locals, or domestic tourists staying at the hotel or holidaying along the coast.
They are generally very fit and energetic, and confront the nude experience with aplomb. No one stares, no one intrudes.
While some of the couples were obviously enjoying being with each other in these sybaritic conditions, they were extremely discreet.
The Vitalizee Spa offers a full range of treatments, including a Four Hands saltwater massage, algae therapy and Atlantic-sea-mud therapy.
There are also beauty treatments, facials, pedicures and manicures. An attractive Helena Rubenstein shop on the main floor offers a full range of beauty products and makeup.
After three hours of spa-ing, we sat on the restaurant terrace in our robes, had a cold glass of iced aged Genever gin, Holland's national liquor, and watched the sunset and fireworks explode over the North Sea. We felt fantastic.
The Kuur Thermen Vitalizee is a bargain by North American standards, especially the way we did it. After 7 p.m., all the spa experiences are available for about $26. The spa closes at 11:30.
The treatments are also well priced. My neck and back massage cost about $33 for a half-hour treatment. The Four Hands saltwater massage is about $54.
And the naked thing is no big deal. In fact, after the initial nervousness, it added a wonderful feeling of freedom to the experience.
Kuur Thermen Vitalizee, Strandweg 13f, 2586 JK Scheveningen, The Netherlands; phone 31 (0) 70 416 6500; website http://www.vitalizee.nl. Several room and spa packages are available through the Steigenberger Kurhaus Hotel; phone 31 (0) 70 416 2636 or visit http://www.kurhaus.nl.
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