Back in the early days of cruising if there was a spa on a ship it was in a dark, cramped room off the beauty parlor and was a place you could get a massage and not much else.
Even the QE2's Golden Door spa was a windowless space on Deck 6 in the middle of the ship, recalled cruise journalist/historian Peter Knego. Shipboard spas rose in the ranks in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Royal Caribbean's Sovereign-class and Carnival's Fantasy-class ships.
By the mid-1990s, a fancy spa was an expected amenity, especially on larger ships. Celebrity Cruises' Century-class ships, with their expansive spas, helped make the words "thalassotherapy pool" part of the cruise lexicon — particularly when the 115,000-gallon saltwater pools were outfitted with bubbling jets.
Fast forward to now, and spa fans will discover a world of delights, cruise ship spas rivaling their land-based rivals and bringing the added benefit (in most cases) of ocean views.
The same company, Steiner Leisure, operates the majority of spas on cruise ships, while Celebrity, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises have spas operated by famous land-based spa brand Canyon Ranch.
On the newest and largest ships you'll find a couple dozen treatment rooms, separate changing areas for men and women (sometimes with sauna and steam) and relaxation lounges. Thermal Suites are in vogue — these oases of calm outfitted with steam, sauna, various types of showers, heated loungers and sometimes a hydrotherapy pool (which you can visit for a fee).
Spa menus feature dozens of relaxing body and skincare treatments — the menu at the Canyon Ranch SpaClub on the Queen Mary 2, for instance, has some 80 treatments.
On cruise ships you can get massaged by hand, hot stones, bamboo and steaming bags filled with herbs. At the Aurea Spa on MSC ships there's even a treatment involving seashells. Couples can get treatments separately or together. On some ships, you can even treat your teen to a treatment.
If there's a trendy treatment on land, you'll likely find it on the newest ships. In the complimentary Thermal Suite on Viking Ocean's Viking Star, for instance, there's the first Snow Room at sea – where you can invigorate based on the Scandinavian health principle of hot and cold both being good for health.
Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway both have Salt Rooms; the dramatic salt crystal-filled grottos that mimic the natural salt caves found in Eastern Europe. The salt is said to be good for respiratory and skin ailments. The Norwegian Escape, which debuts this fall, will have both a Salt Room and Snow Room in its Thermal Suite.
On the newest Princess Cruises ships, the Royal Princess and Regal Princess, the spa is smack dab in the center of the ship – expanded with a large thermal suite with hydrotherapy pool and a pair of heavenly heated waterbeds.
When Regent debuts its Seven Seas Explorer next year, the ship will have a first-at-sea private spa in the $10,000 per day top suite.
Costa Cruises, which has some of the largest shipboard spas, was the first to introduce a destination spa experience at sea. Those who book spa cabins and suites receive treatments, unlimited access to Samsara Spa facilities and dining at a spa restaurant.
Celebrity Cruises was among lines that followed suit – Celebrity's AquaClass cabins and suites come with access to the spa's Persian Garden thermal suite and exclusive dining at the healthy-focused restaurant, Blu.
If you haven't been to a spa before, a cruise ship is a place to see what all the fuss is about – though at prices often higher than on land. A 50-minute Swedish massage can run anywhere from $119 to more than $160, depending on the line. You should also be aware that after your massage, you may or may not get a hard sell for moisturizers and other products.
In addition to relaxation, shipboard spas often have lectures promoting healthy living, which may also include a sales pitch for a treatment.
Lines including Norwegian, Carnival Cruise Line, Princess and Holland America Line have Medi-Spas, proffering non-invasive medical procedures such as Botox. An acupuncturist may also be available to heal what ails you – whether it's arthritis, migraines or general fatigue, and may also sell take-home Chinese herbal medicine remedies.
Whatever the line, shipboard spas cater to both newbies and experienced spa fans. The idea is to indulge while on vacation.
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