Contemporary spa culture is a compelling fusion of ancient traditions and modern mechanical wonders. The evolution of the "wellness industrial complex" reveals interesting implications on how we view our bodies in an increasingly contaminated world.
In the Northern hemisphere, there's formidable emphasis on appropriated Asiatic mysticism, ancient healing and indigenous-inspired treatments. The Southern hemisphere seems more fixated on super slick, "Western-style" spa experiences. And the continuing spread of luxury hotel chains to the farthest reaches of the planet bucks both these trends as their accompanying spa franchises follow a cookie-cutter mould to achieve brand cohesion.
In such a varied industry, there's continuous flux and exceptions to every rule. For the most part, at remote-destination spas it's all about over-the-top luxury. At leading urban spas, opulence and indulgence are giving way to a focus on results-driven, needs-oriented treatments, ranging from de-stressing to nutrition.
Switzerland: Set on the idyllic fringe of the ego-boosting altitudes of Gstaad, the Grand Hotel Bellevue is renowned for its spa, a star attraction for those who appreciate touch over technology. Top-notch wet facilities spoil jet-setting spa-goers. Think perk-me-up ice grotto, immune-boosting steam bath and a let-it-all-go salt grotto. The only great project at hand is simply to slow down and breathe. The elegant genius of this spa appeals to Fortune 500 "ski hippies" and serious athletes alike. Must-try treatment: sonic meets sensual touch in a massage using Tibetan Singing Bowls. After a relaxing session at the spa visit the SPA Bar for a healthy mocktail and freshly made sushi courtesy of Norihiro Ogura, the Bellevue's own Japanese sushi master. Grand Hotel Bellevue at Hauptstrasse, Gstaad 3780, Switzerland; 41-33-748-0000; bellevue-gstaad.com
U.S.A.: Mii amo Spa of Sedona, Ariz., embodies the high touch, emotion-driven ethos, and every treatment pretty much ends with an embrace from your therapist. This is the nation's ground zero for "hugging it out." Surrounded by Arizona's majestic red rock canyons, this spa is an authentic beacon of spirituality and healing. After a deeply nurturing Shirodhara, I'm goosed enough to lay a metaphorical golden egg. A subtle therapy that allows a continuous stream of ayurvedic oil to run onto the forehead, this treatment is thought to be beneficial in balancing hormones as it is associated with the pituitary - the "third eye" area - the gland responsible for regulating hormonal secretions. The goal of Shirodhara is to establish a state of parasympathetic repose, an ego-less state. It's Mii amo's answer to "wiping the slate clean." For even more touch-based life-affirming sessions, the menu incorporates many touch-based healing rituals passed down from the Navajo, Yavapa-Apache and Havasupai people. Mii amo Spa at Enchantment Resort, 525 Boynton Canyon Rd., Sedona, Ariz.; 888-749-2137; miiamo.com
China: A spirituality-driven spa leader for the metaphysical age, the Anantara mantra focuses on therapeutic dynamism - localizing the transformative power of touch therapy over a visit to the chiropractor. Nestled in the heart of Shanghai, the Anantara Spa at The PuLi Hotel is a passport to the ancient healing philosophies of China, Thailand and India. Both ancient and modern details grace the Anantara experience, creating a distinct sense of place - an urban oasis featuring the intricate metalwork of Han dynasty bronze accents alongside lustrous silks in vivid modern hues. Blending hand-crafted treatments and cutting-edge interiors, this spellbinding space induces a sleep quality scripted by Rumi himself - sailing to uncharted shores, sensing the secrets of the stars. The PuLi Hotel and Spa at 1 ChangDe Rd., JingAn District, Shanghai; 86-21-3203-9999; thepuli.com
Canada: More than mere pamper palace, Ancient Cedars Spa at Tofino, B.C.'s Wickaninnish Inn is a positive, emotionally validating ecosystem. Sheltered by the forest fringe, the spa offers spectacular views overlooking the Pacific. Nutrient-rich seaweed is hand-harvested off the coast of the spa's own setting of Vancouver Island, producing certified organic SeaFlora Skincare. The handmade concept continues with a unique Hishuk Ish Tsawalk Awakening Treatment; my therapist presses into me with the soothing rhythm reminiscent of kittens kneading a mother's belly to keep the milk flowing. In short, it's a drool-worthy throwback to the embryonic. This is what we mean when we call spa culture "special." Ancient Cedars Spa at 500 Osprey Lane, Tofino, B.C.; 250-725-3100; wickinn.com
Italy: In a restless sea of franchised wellness and shifting bandwagon trends, The Spa at the Bulgari Hotel in Milan remains one of the most rarefied experiences in the European market. True, professional glamazons are drawn to the hotel's cinematic beauty; regardless, the vibe never verges into pretension. The spa sits in the centre of a 43,000-square-foot private garden with a framework dating back to the 1300s. Once the vegetable patch of a monastery, it's now an intricate, jungle-ish tangle of vines and evergreens. Recruiting some of the best bodywork pros in Italy, the spa is all about idle afternoons spent in hands-on pleasure. Massage protocols are followed to the letter: fingertips never leaving the body for more than five seconds; hands thoroughly washed before the therapist moves onto massaging face and scalp. Not surprisingly, the most popular treatment is The Frequent Traveller, designed to soothe the effects of environmental pollution and air travel. Bulgari Hotels & Resorts Milano at Via Privata Fratelli Gabba 7/b, Milan, Italy; 39-02-805-8051; bulgarihotels.com
Tibet: The peak of the Tibetan capital - at an ethereal 3,658-metre elevation - is now home to the world's highest high-end hotel, the St. Regis Lhasa. Attitude meets altitude at the newly opened resort's Iridium Spa, where five-star luxury meets mystical Tibetan spirituality. The hotel features 150 guest rooms and 12 villas that look out over snow-tipped Himalayas, poetically dubbed "The Roof of the World." Perhaps imagining the endangered landscape of the Dalai Lama colonized by Starbucks-addicted pamper pusses is nauseating. A swim in the ornate, gold-tiled heated swimming pool or a taste of Si Zi Kang restaurant's gastronomic take on Tibetan cuisine may temper your outraged tune. The spa menu incorporates herbal medicine and showcases therapists so fiercely hands-on they practically wrestle you to the mat. The St. Regis Lhasa Resort at 22 Jiangsu Road, Lhasa, Tibet; 86-891-680-8888; starwoodhotels.com/stregis
Singapore: Driven by generating results over feel-good endorphins, Singapore's Drx Medispa delivers high-tech therapies in a serene spa setting. It prides itself on being the only spa in Singapore to offer zero-gravity flotation chambers to combat sleep disorders, and Airnergy, an oxygen therapy system used in sports medicine to boost our natural regenerative ability. They also offer lipo slimming for the self-conscious, acoustic wave therapy for jittery types, and trichology for the folically challenged (treatments designed to enliven the hair and scalp with low-level laser therapy). Drx Medispa at 302 Orchard Road Tong Building #16-01, Singapore; 65-67331555; drxmedispa.com
Brazil: Brazil's Kurotel Medical Longevity Center and Spa offers a cutting-edge Cellular Revitalization Treatment, a pre-emptive strategy to improve immunologic response quality. With three staffers for every client, the centre provides truly personalized service by addressing all aspects of a guest's needs. With an international reputation for predictive, preventive medicine, Kurotel is one part pampering spa, one part state-of-the-art medical centre. Kurotel Longevity Center and Spa at Avenida Nacoes Unidas, 533 Gramado - RS, Brazil; 0800-970-9800; kurotel.com.br
Thailand: Located in the heart of Bangkok, S Medical Spa offers some of the most extensive spa facilities in Asia with qualified doctors, dermatologists and acupuncturists at the ready. The spa menu has the girth of the Toronto Yellow Pages - literally. Impatient types are drawn to the medical facials and laser technology for removal of acne scarring or unwanted hair. For the svelte-obsessed, there's "figure styling" technology to dissolve fat through non-surgical Lipolysis. Of course, this seems to work best on the already slim. I got chills at the sight of the colonic "throne room," which was a bit too like Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey for my taste. I found the programs focused on detox, vitality and relaxation much more appealing. A surprising delight is the dining, which greatly surpassed expectations. S Medical Spa at 2/2 Bhakdi Building on Wireless Road, Lumpini, Bangkok, Thailand; 662-253-1010; www.smedspa.com
South Africa: South Africa's Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa offers some of the finest non-surgical anti-aging facials. With a focus on recapturing a youthful appearance, they offer state-of-the-art innovations and "cosmeceuticals." My experience with Dermalogica's ChromaWhite is a big hit - accelerating brightening, improving skin clarity, creating a fresh, healthy tone. This effective treatment targets the appearance of sun and age spots, shielding skin against further environmental damage. Another cutting-edge marvel is the Medibac Clearing Treatment, intended to address acne breakouts, leaving skin visibly disinfected and wonderfully decongested. Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa on Victoria Road, Camps Bay, South Africa; 27-0-21-437-9255; 12apostleshotel.com
Australia: Saffire Freycinet's Spa Saffire is a jewel of the Tasmanian wilderness, a state-of-the-art sanctuary to restore vitality, both energetically and aesthetically. Oprah gave the spa an enthusiastic thumbs up - which actually came across as quite genuine - while touring Australia. A big attraction is the sought-after DL Dioriti Volcanic Magma body shaping, a rare shaping therapy that actually boasts heavyweight R&D behind it. The spa line has developed a product that when moulded in your therapist's hands, the minerals of diorite, an igneous rock, help "drain" stubborn fat deposits. Saffire's Jewel Collection of facials features advanced technology to release the unique skin-beautification qualities of sapphire, gold and diamond dust. This luxury coastal refuge reflects Australia's growing reputation as a sophisticated spa destination. Saffire overlooks the wide expanses of Great Oyster Bay, where migrating whales and dolphins are often spotted from guest suites. Local farms produce fresh, succulent oysters in some of the world's cleanest waters. Saffire Freycinet at 2352 Coles Bay Rd., Coles Bay, Tasmania, Australia; 03-6256-7888; saffire-freycinet.com.au
The Philippines: The Farm at San Benito is a haven of scientific spa "feats" in the raw jungles of the Philippines. From Digital Meridian Diagnostic Therapy and Nutritional Microscopy to Infusion Therapy and Liver Cleansing, this spa sets a new standard for serious detox devotees. Services include preventative and curative medical care, cosmetic anti-aging and lifelong-wellness programs. A team of doctors, lab specialists and nutritionists staffs the spa; this is the kind of performance-driven experience where you're encouraged to pack your latest abdominal ultrasound along with your bikini. The Farm at San Benito at 119 Barangay Tipakan, 4217 Lipa City, Batangas, Philippines; 63-2-884-8074; thefarm.com.ph
Special to The Globe and Mail