It would be easy to funnel as much money into massage therapy as into one’s mortgage. Particularly today, when complementary and medical practitioners alike are touting the stress-releasing, immunity-boosting, pain-reducing, sleep-enhancing benefits of regular treatments – some are even arguing to have them included in health coverage. Or maybe you can’t bring yourself to splash out more than once a year.
Either way, when you travel, your experiences will likely vary wildly in quality. And that goes as much for a five-star resort as a beach-side shack. You may feel moved to propose to your therapist after a $25 foot massage in Beijing. But you’re as likely to spend that hour silently cursing the Ayurvedic masseuse at the Oberoi for her lily-fingered approach as she wonders why you’re so tense then charges $100 to your credit card.
Strangers in a strange land might not think they have much control over their experience beyond ticking the box marked “firm” (and why anyone would tick another is a mystery). But experts – of which there are, unsurprisingly, many – would like you to know even whistle-stop visitors have more power than they might think. They’ve outlined 10 hard-and-fast rules for getting a luxury experience whatever you pay.
Know your territory
If you’re after extreme pressure, Asia is your panacea. Thai, Balinese and Japanese massage involves more pressure-point and deep-tissue work than other methods. Wielded confidently, tools often help, too. “In deeper-tissue massage, your therapist should be using her arms, elbows even bamboo sticks or hot stones,” says Caitlin Dalton, who travels to 60 international spas each year as editor of Good Spa Guide. Less keen on ritual pummelling? Use show-and-tell. “I had a massage in China recently which has forever stopped me from ticking ‘deep pressure’ on my consultation forms. I couldn’t even ask for shallower pressure as my therapist didn’t speak a word of English.”
Do your research
Now that our phones are roaming even as we roam the beach, it seems foolish not to use them to our advantage. If you’re tempted to duck into that seaside hut for a rubdown, do a quick check online for reviews of the area. Even operations without a sign are googleable. Failing that, word of mouth is invaluable. Once you’re in, use that show-and-tell to discuss any ailments with your therapist and tell him what pressure you like, says Helen Greenhow, product director at Wellbeing Escapes, a Britain-based operator in healthy holidays. “You don’t have to spend an absolute fortune to get a good indigenous treatment. But it can be potluck.”
If you’re following a bargain to an unmarked hut or strip mall, don’t go in stressed. “The more tense you are, the less effectively the masseur can work on your muscles,” Dalton says. If you’re at a finer establishment, make use of the sauna or hot tub before your treatment. “Your muscles will be warm going in, so your therapist will be able to tackle much more in the allotted time,” Dalton says.
Ask for the boss
Like a hair salon, a reputable spa will have junior and senior practitioners – even if they won’t let on which are which. “Often one therapist will be senior and even training the others,” Dalton says. “Ask if that’s the case and request that person in advance.”
Pay for privacy
The greatest luxury is the quiet you can only get when you’re truly alone (with your masseur). “Privacy is definitely worth paying for,” Greenhow says. “Anywhere you can get outside will be very expensive but absolutely worth it.” She recommends the Ayurvedic treatments at Como Shambhala Estate in Ubud, Bali, “where all you can hear is the river and you’re completely undisturbed.”
Disregard international awards
Good Spa Guide doesn’t rate foreign spas by the same criteria as the domestic ones – with different traditions, methods and standards, there’s just no way to compare. So if you spot any framed plaques on the wall at reception, says Dalton, “ignore the international ones.”
Whether or not your masseuse can sense your frustration with her limp, ineffectual touch, she should pause 10 minutes into your session to ask if the pressure is right. “The protocol should be there,” Greenhow says. “But if they don’t ask, don’t be afraid to say, ‘Can you work more on my shoulder?’ ” She might simply have a confidence issue.
Ask for a man
In Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean societies where massage is practically in the DNA, women shouldn’t feel intimidated by a masseur. The “blind massage” tradition in China offers a particularly non-threatening, and memorable, experience. “And it may sound controversial,” Dalton says, “but if you want a stronger massage, a male therapist is the way to go.”
Seek out a qualified doctor
Wellness resorts such as Canyon Ranch and Lanserhof offer medical expertise for your epic spend. And splashing out at one could actually be life-changing. Greenhow’s favourite is Ananda Spa in the Himalayas, in the foothills where yoga was born. “It’s near the Ganges, the doctors practise Ayurvedic medicine and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
There are regulations about how many hours a practitioner can work every day, and even the brawniest lose their mojo before they clock out. So booking in early, say after a red-eye, is ideal, when therapists are fresh and physically able to apply the desired pressure.