I love to board a cruise ship and offer my stressfully tight body to a massage therapist, so my muscles and mind are ready for relaxing days at sea.
For this privilege, I’ve paid $80-$200, and it was money well spent.
While all cruise lines advertise that their spas are soothing and pampering -- a come-on that pays off, as treatments and skin products are big moneymakers -- you may want to consider a few basic tips.
Check out the atmosphere
Only a few companies, led by the Steiner folks, manage shipboard spas by contract with cruise lines, so treatment choices and expertise are similar on most ships.
The quality of the total experience, however, varies from ship to ship. Some treatment rooms are poorly located (during one of my massages, noise from the deck above sounded like a basketball game), and some waiting rooms are designed less like a stress-free calming area and more like a busy dentist’s office.
Take a quick tour on your first day aboard. Ask to see the relaxation rooms for lounging before and/or after treatments. Pay attention to how you are treated at the front desk.
I’ve been particularly impressed by the design and atmosphere on Celebrity’s Solstice class AquaSpas; Samsara Spas on the newer Costa ships; Crystal Cruise’s Symphony and Serenity; and Oceania’s new Riviera and Marina where the spas are operated by CanyonRanch.
Find out what’s included
Some spas are like visits to a doctor’s office, where you sign in, wait for your appointment, are ushered to a room, treated, and then sent back out to sign the bill. Others are more like destination spas on land, a more rewarding experience, with pools, relaxation rooms, steam rooms, and saunas.
The newer and bigger ships from Costa and Celebrity have cabins dedicated to spa-goers, with special amenities and complimentary access to spa facilities, including a restaurant with a healthy menu.
Even if you are not staying in a special spa cabin, you may take advantage of spa facilities, usually for a fee. Treatments, such as a massage, may include some time to use the facilities before or after. If not, consider paying a daily or half-day fee to make a morning or afternoon of your visit.
Prices change during a cruise
Nearly every cruise ship offers spa discounts during the voyage. The two best times for discounts are on the first afternoon, right after boarding, and on days when the ship is in port, as most passengers are off the vessel so the demand for services is reduced. Watch the daily ship bulletin for spa specials. If you want to use the spa on a sea day, get your reservation in early -- even before your trip.
Etiquette demands that your body be thoroughly cleaned before you use any communal spa facilities. Showering also is recommended before your massage (so whatever is on your body is not rubbed into it).
Most spas will provide a locker, robe and flip-flops for a pre-treatment shower. Some passengers prefer to shower in their cabin, don a robe and walk to the spa, though others feel self-conscious about walking around the ship in a robe.
By the way, if you are uncomfortable with lying naked, with only part of a sheet between you and a massage therapist, ask the spa reception desk about treatments during which you may keep your underclothes on.
Also, be aware that on some European ships, especially those from Germany, nudity is common where both sexes share the same dressing rooms and saunas. Gene Sloan of USA Today wrote recently that men and women generally wore no clothing in the coed sauna, steam and shower areas of the cruise ship, Europa 2.
Allot enough time
Basic massages are about 50 minutes. Even if you plan to zip in and out, you will want to get your 50 minutes worth, so be at the spa at least 20 minutes before your scheduled treatment.
Before your first spa appointment on a ship, you will be asked to fill out a form about your daily medications, as well as personal information about your stress levels and causes (which for me means I need to bring my reading glasses).
Be ready for the hard sell
Don’t be surprised if your massage therapist turns pitch person for spa products after your treatment, making liberal use of the stress information you freely provided before the treatment.
The sales pitch may be a strong one, as spa employees have told me that they are under heavy pressure to sell high priced products to the guests, for which the therapist also gets a cut. If you do not want to buy such products, resist the hard-sell. I simply say “no thank-you,” which, on more than one occasion, I have repeated several times.
Consider a couple’s massage
One of my favorite treatments is a massage for two, a romantic and soothing experience that my partner, Fran Golden, and I recently shared on Royal Princess.
On Princess Cruises' newest ship, the expansive spa has been moved from the usual spot on a high deck to a location much lower and closer to the middle of the vessel. The spa entrance is near the Piazza, which is the ship’s hub of activity, including specialty restaurants and lounges.
The new spa design includes a large relaxation room (fee required) with a hydrotherapy pool, as well as a Turkish-style hamman, a sauna and a pair of waterbeds (all for mixed sexes, bring a bathing suit). Spa employees said that treatment rooms lower on the ship don’t roll as much at sea, compared with spas on higher decks.
Massage treatment rooms on Royal Princess include villas with whirlpools (from $449 for 110 minutes for two), as well as two Royal Villas in the adult-only Sanctuary on a top outside deck, where couples can get an Exotic Couples Massage (from $449).
We chose a simpler couples massage in the spa ($269 for 50 minutes). They were full body treatments by two therapists on two tables that were side by side.
At the end of the session, the therapists deftly lifted our arms that were closest to each other and placed our hands together. It was done so smoothly that all of a sudden we noticed we were alone, holding hands, a romantic ending to a delightfully quiet hour.
David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at TheTravelMavens.com. His cruise trends column appears monthly in U.S. newspapers and on other Internet sites. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com.
This article appeared in the Miami Herald