Getting the Most from a Cruise Ship Spa

| September 14, 2007

The spa and fitness center has something for everyone. Here is a guide to help you make smart choices among the many treatments and workouts available.

A key component to any vacation is relaxation. How many times have you and your loved ones returned from a vacation more exhausted than when you started? With a cruise vacation, and a little pre-planning, you can have it all, excitement, activity, adventure and that precious "down time" which makes your vacation the replenishing respite it is meant to be.

You have many choices onboard to experience that elusive down time -- sleeping in late, room service, or just lounging by the pool. My advice is to explore the fitness center and spa within the first few hours after arrival. The spa personnel will be ready to give you a complete tour of the facilities and provide a menu of services. Why is it important to do this early on the first day? Most ship spas offer an embarkation special featuring full service at discount prices, but only available for the first evening the ship leaves port. There will be other specials offered throughout the week, but becoming familiar with the spa the first day gives you the chance to book early and get the best choice of specials, times, and therapists.

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Spa Attendant   Acupuncture Demonstration   Fresh Fruit in Waiting Area
Adults Only Swim against the current pool   dual massage beds in Sanctuary cabana   Entrance to Lotus Spa - Emerald Princess
It's important to get the fitness center schedule early in the cruise as well. This will allow you to plan convenient workouts and attend the special classes that catch your eye. Working out may not be the choice for many cruisers, but it will help you maintain your energy level and give you a guilt free excuse to thoroughly enjoy the delightful cuisine onboard.

Take advantage of the savings and begin your vacation relaxed and ready.

What's Included in Your Fare? On most ships, you are allowed to use the steam and sauna rooms, usually located in the separate locker rooms of the spa, for no charge. In the fitness center you will find state-of-the-art workout equipment and free weights. There is always a highly qualified staff there to answer your questions and help you get started. This equipment is yours to use during the cruise, but some devices like treadmills often fill up fast and there might be a waiting list when you get there. So, be sure to get there early because you will find it a busy place in the morning.

On most ships, you are allowed to use the locker room, steam and sauna at no charge. They are usually located within the men's and ladies' locker rooms inside the spa.

In the fitness center you will find state of the art fitness equipment with highly qualified staff to answer your questions and help you get started. This equipment is yours to use during the cruise. Be sure to get there early because you will find it a busy place in the morning.

One nice thing about fitness centers on most ships is their location. Most are located at the front of the ship overlooking the ocean. It's easy to get your mind off your workout when you face a memorable ocean view through large picture windows, 16 decks high.

Also included in your fare are the swimming pools and hot tubs. Don't forget the jogging track open early morning hours and the 24-hour walking track. Many of the mega-ships have other fitness fun available and included in your fare such as rock climbing and surfing.

Fitness and Spa Services for a Nominal Fee Fitness Center: While many aerobic classes are free, some of the more specialized classes such as yoga, Pilate's, and kick boxing are offered for fees starting around $10.00. You can also hire a personal trainer for an hour or for the entire cruise that will design a custom workout program for you and work with you throughout the cruise. Prices and services vary.

Indicative of a trend on newer cruise ships, the Lotus Spa on the new Emerald Princess offers some delightful self-service options at affordable prices.

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Fitness Center Aerobic Class   Jogging Track   Hair Salon

The Thermal Suite: My husband and I took advantage of this service. It offered an aromatic steam room, a mild steam room (where you could spend a half hour or more without being uncomfortable), a refreshing mint fog/rain shower, and my personal favorite, heated ceramic zero gravity loungers. After spending 5-10 minutes on these loungers, it is very difficult not to fall sound asleep. If you buy the package at a reasonable $109.00 per person or $160.00 per couple, this gives you access to the thermal suite anytime the spa is open for as long as you like, as often as you like, for the ENTIRE 12-day CRUISE. They also offer a four maximum family week pass for $220.00, and an Ultimate Couples Pass which includes an hour Rasul Mud Ritual for the same $220.00. Be aware this area is really not for kids. They much prefer the outside pools and entertainment anyway. The hitch is there are limited passes for this service so the Thermal Suite does not get overcrowded. Get yours the first day and take advantage. After the first day the remaining days will be pro-rated but your best deal is for the whole cruise.

The Sanctuary: They call this area a "Pocket of Tranquility." The cost is $10.00 per person for a half-day pass. It is an adult only area offering private cabanas where you can relax and enjoy an ocean view separate from the noise of the crowds. Waiters are available to bring you healthy, light food and drinks such as smoothies and wraps. (The spa offers a couples massage inside one of these cabanas for $269.00 for 50 minutes.)

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Alpha Capsule   Massage Waiting Room

Regular Spa and Salon Services No matter what name is given to the spa onboard, with few exceptions, Steiner Leisure and their product line, Elemis, is exclusive on cruise ships. Therefore the pricing is consistent from one ship to the other. When I did a price comparison with a few of the land-based resort salons and spas in my area, I found the ship spa and salon pricing to be very similar and in some cases a little less. Your menu of services on the ship will be smaller than what you find on land, but you will get a good sampling from specialty massages such as "Aromastone Therapy" (75 minutes-$195.00) and "La Therapie Oxygen Lifting Facial" (55 minutes-$119.00). You certainly can't beat the convenience of a ship spa. Consider the short walk down the hall back to your cabin in a robe after that euphoric full body massage.

You will find full salon services too. A shampoo and set or blow-dry starts at $42.00. Cuts and color, manicures, and pedicures are all comparable to land spa pricing. Full barber services for men are also available.

There are two other relatively new services that you may see onboard. One is "Gentle Touch Teeth Whitening" (40 minutes-$199.00). This procedure claims to be clinically proven and FDA approved. It definitely is less expensive than dental office teeth whitening treatments on land, but I have not witnessed the results.

Acupuncture is the other new service that is gaining in popularity. (Read my article Acupuncture at Sea). "Acupuncture @ Sea," the first company to offer acupuncture aboard cruise ships, is exclusive to Celebrity line and separate from the spa service menu. Steiner Leisure found it so popular they started offering acupuncture as part of the spa menu. At a cost of $149.00/hour with a 45-minute follow up priced at $126.00, onboard acupuncture is about 30% higher than land based clinics. Seasickness is the second most common complaint treated by ship acupuncturists, so 30% is more than worth it.

I personally recommend "hands on" therapeutic treatments, but if spa treatments are outside your budget, try "The Alpha Capsule." It is a high-tech body enclosure you lay in, covered up to your neck. Your eyes are covered with an aromatic mask. The machine offers relaxing heat, vibration, soothing sounds, and in the newer models, colored light. The cost is about $45.00 for � hour. I have seen some advertising for this machine that claims it "balances your chakras." I tried, unsuccessfully, to get several sources to share the scientific research for this claim. However, if this machine can create an alpha state brain wave pattern, as its name implies, the alpha state and relaxation is well documented

Taking the Spa for a Test Run My husband and I indulged in the "Aromapure Seaweed Couples Massage" during our cruise onboard the Emerald Princess. I would highly recommend this therapy. Not only do you get the detoxification from the seaweed wrap, but you also experience weightlessness as you are surrounded in a warm flotation bed. I relaxed completely as my cell memory had flashbacks of the safety and security of the womb.

The menu description says you are then given a scalp and foot massage. After this you shower and are treated to a back, neck, shoulders, and leg massage. Doing the treatment as a couple makes it fun, especially showering off the green mud together. It helps to have someone scrubbing your back. I suggest, however, getting individual sessions to receive the full treatment and the therapists' full attention. Had I realized that we would not get the dry body brush, which is great for stimulating circulation, and the leg and foot massage because of time constraints with two of us, I would have opted for individual treatments. The cost is $195.00 for 90 minutes. As a couple it is $360.00 for 120 minutes. Separately the treatment time for the two would be 180 minutes. As a therapist I opt for the better therapeutic value over the fun. Other passengers may see it the opposite way.

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Thermal Spa heated Ceramic beds   Heated Steam Room   Massage Room

The other thing that bears mentioning here is the unfortunate policy of "offering product" after the massage is over. We were in our dreamy state after the massage experience and had to listen to the therapist wrap up and talk about the products available for sale and her suggestions for our overall health. This "hard sell" of the products after a treatment is a complaint of many passengers.

I appreciate a brief evaluation of the session and what the therapist found after working on my body. I do this with my clients as well, but we would have preferred a more detailed evaluation and product suggestion delivered to our cabin later. First of all, she wouldn't have destroyed our massage "buzz," and secondly we would be more receptive to her suggestions at a later time.

Tipping Tips are always appreciated and unspokenly expected for any professional "hands on" treatment. Keep in mind that almost all cruise ship spa personnel are on salary and do not get a percentage of the service charge you see on your final bill -- as is the case in most land based spas. There is often a space to write in an "additional tip" on your final bill, eliminating the need to carry cash in your robe.

The problem with signing for that additional tip is that it may or may not go directly to your service provider, since the policy varies by cruise line. The spa staff work long hours (but of course room, board and health coverage are included with their job.) The suggested tip is 10% to 20% of the service cost. Ask the front desk when you book your appointment how tips are handled in their spa. Based on the response, you may want to give cash directly to your service provider instead of signing for the tip.

Advice from a Health and Wellness Professional I have spent the last 25 years as a professional massage therapist and body-worker. My advice comes from within the profession, so allow me to offer a few tips to enhance your spa experience.

First of all, book early. When contacting the front desk, tell them what you are looking for in a massage or other service. Ask them who they would recommend to their favorite relative. It lets them know you want that extra consideration. Keep in mind that you are more likely to get an honest answer to that question early in the cruise, before most time slots are booked.

Try to accommodate your schedule so you can book with the recommended therapist. It is best to book a massage as the first or second appointment of the therapist's day when they are rested and fresh, or the first or second after a lunch break. Even though it may be best for your schedule, avoid the last appointment of the day. Remember massage is hard work and the therapist may not be able to offer you their very best at the end of their shift.

Before your scheduled massage, take advantage of the steam room to clean your pores and relax your muscles. Follow the steam with a cool shower and an exfoliating body scrub. This will prepare your skin for best absorption of the massage oil. If you didn't bring a loofa sponge and exfoliating cleanser along on your cruise, the spa certainly has a quality product to buy. You can also look for something memorable at a specialty store in a port you may be visiting.

During the massage, it is OK to communicate with your therapist about what you need. For instance if something feels uncomfortable or you feel you need an increase or decrease in pressure. It is a natural tendency to remain quiet during the massage and to feel a little uncomfortable about questioning or directing the therapist. Usually a therapist will ask how things are going for you, but if they don't, remember this is your time with them and they really do want you to have the best massage possible. So speak up. Experience and skill requires feedback and gently providing this for a professional therapist should be accepted graciously. Also, every person is different and you need to be pro-active in ensuring that your treatment is what you want. Don't wait till the end out of "politeness." That doesn't serve you or the therapist, and it's too late for them to accommodate you. If you do try and direct the therapist and they do not respond, then I suggest that you talk with the spa director after your treatment.

After your massage, it is critical to drink lots of water. Massage stimulates circulation and toxin movement. If metabolic toxins are released from the muscles and not flushed with plenty of water, they will remain in the tissue and cause soreness. That next day soreness or flu-like feeling can taint a great massage, but it can be all but eliminated by making sure you hydrate! This can't be stressed enough.

Summing Up I have interviewed several massage therapists onboard ships who have had land-based practices. They have the unique experience of being able to compare bodywork done on land with that on the sea. The fact is cruise ship therapists work very long hours, do a lot of work in a week, and for extended contracts (6 months or longer). I have had more than one therapist tell me that they don't get as tired when they work on the water. This leads me to wonder if there is something special about bodywork done at sea. It's a different life being surrounded by water. Our bodies are made up of 70% water. Something to think about.

If you plan a cruise vacation, remember that an important part of every vacation is relaxation and there is something for everyone in the spa/fitness center. Remember to book early; some ships even allow you to book online before your cruise. Read your daily program and watch for spa specials. They are often offered on days in port. Make the spa a major stop on your next cruise.

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