Spas are Pure Bliss—and More

I absolutely love spas and everything about them—the tranquility, the scents, the ambiance, the sounds, the colours, the soft-spoken therapists, the treatments, the lounges, the bathrobes and slippers, the refreshments… All appears to be so perfectly orchestrated and I completely surrender to the experience the moment I walk in. I am rarely disappointed.

Pure bliss at the Ole Henrickson Spa
in West Hollywood, California. (Max Whittaker/Visit California)

I also enjoy a good story and often spa treatments are based on a country’s culture, which usually includes beliefs, legends and myths, as well as products that are indigenous or popular to the area.

Take Portugal, a country that revels in its history and folklore, often told in song known as fado. On a visit to the elegant Ritz Spa @ Four Seasons Lisboa, I indulged in a signature treatment, Portuguese Retreat, which was inspired by two popular Portuguese legends. It all began with addictive cinnamon cookies and verbena tea, a powerful natural anti-inflammatory that stimulates the digestive system. Following short stints in the steam room and dry sauna, I was scooped up by Fatima who proceeded to explain the procedure I was about to experience. A mixture of ground almonds and honey would be used an an exfoliation and rose oil would be used for its massage benefits. So what are the stories behind these treatments?

Refreshments at the Ritz Spa Four Seasons Lisboa. (V&V Hospitality & Media Services)

The use of almonds stems from a tale that dates back to the country’s Moorish occupation. Once upon a time, a Moorish king married Gilda, a Nordic princess from the north, where it snowed in the winter. Realizing his wife sadly missed the whiteness of her country, the king planted thousands of almond trees throughout the Algarve region so the white blossoms would remind her of her snow-covered homeland thus make her happy again. Yes, even back then, men recognized the benefits of a “happy wife, happy life.”

And the roses? There are many versions of this story, including a Portuguese legend. Elizabeth of Portugal, also known as Elizabeth of Aragon (1271–1336), was married to King Denis of Portugal. She was known for her charity and, against her husband’s wishes, she regularly left her palatial quarters smuggling a basket of bread under her cloak to fee the poor. One day, she was confronted and questioned as to the contents of the basket she hid from view. Once exposed, much to everyone’s amazement, the food had miraculously turned into red roses. Today, she is often referred to as Saint Elizabeth of Portugal.

Poolside at the Grande Real Villa Italia Hotel & Spa in Cascais, Portugal. (V&V Hospitality & Media Services)

On another occasion at the sophisticated Grande Real Villa Italia Hotel & Spa in Cascais, I experienced another treatment that combined a 45-minute Thalasso therapy circuit in a heated wave pool followed by an hour-long relaxation ritual involving natural shells from the Atlantic Ocean filled with heated almond oil and gold dust mixed in a neutral oil. The inspiration was the history of the Portuguese explorers who crossed the oceans of the world in search of gold. And, yes, real gold was used. I emerged from the session absolutely glowing!

So next time you sign up for a spa treatment, take time to ask your practitioner what inspired its creation. The story may intrigue you and add a whole new dimension to your experience, as well as provide some insight into the rich local culture.

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