Even though I spent many years writing about spas, I have always had a cat-like aversion to treatments that get the entire body wet. But once I am immersed in the water’s warmth, time stands still, or better yet, floats. Anxious thoughts dissolve.
The belief in water’s ability to heal goes back to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks who knew the value of a warm bath to soothe aches and pains. As the population ages, we, too, are increasingly seeking healing waters, according to spa and travel industry experts.
The Romans are credited with creating the world’s first spas — elaborate bathhouses built near mineral springs. The word spa, in fact, is believed to be an acronym of the Latin phrase salus per aqua — health through water.
Doctors in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries prescribed drinking and bathing at well-known hot springs and seaside towns, such as Bath and Brighton in England and Baden-Baden in Germany.
These sites became fashionable resorts where monarchs and artists of the day would congregate — some for the social scene and others hoping to relieve ailments from infertility to rheumatism to gout.
Seawater therapy was termed “thalassotherapy” (thalassa means sea in Greek) by a French doctor in 1865. Patients were prescribed a strict regimen of ocean water, sea air, algae wraps, walks on the beach, massage and healthy meals.
In the U.S., many thermal springs were held sacred by Native Americans and later frequented by nobility, celebrities and presidents. Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed many a good soak in mineral waters throughout the country to relieve symptoms from his polio.
Proponents of the “water cure” believed that it replenished our bodies as we absorbed needed minerals through our pores. But as modern medicine became more advanced, interest in water cures waned. Until now.
Making a Comeback
“Hot springs are hot again,” says Mia Kyricos, chief brand officer of Spafinder Wellness 365, the largest marketing company for the spa and wellness industry. The organization also publishes an annual industry report, which listed visits to these sites as a top trend worldwide.
Another plus: A growing body of evidence shows that our ancestors may have been right. A study done in Israel in 2008 indicated that soaking regularly in mineral water can relieve pain and improve motor function in elderly adults suffering from chronic lower back pain and arthritis.
Another study from the Italian Board of Medicine looked at data from over 23,000 spa goers and found a major reduction in hospitalizations, sick days and pharmacological drug use.
Kyricos says hydrotherapies help with common health complaints due to aging. Plus, she says: “We may worry less and relax more.”
(MORE: Do You Worry Too Much?)
The Best Healing Waters Now
Below are nine of the best places to take the waters — locations where they still flow in their purest form:
Photo courtesy Toskana Therme
Bad Sulza, Germany
Toskana Therme is blessed with natural, warm salt water that springs from an ancient underground ocean, allowing guests to float as if in the Dead Sea. The place has become famous for its creative devotion to the glory of H2O. Thermal water is pumped into seven pools housed in a futuristic dome that offers bathing in light and music. The concept is called Liquid Sound.
It was developed by musician Micky Remann, who was inspired by whales singing underwater. Five of the pools are equipped with speakers that play music, with the body absorbing the vibrations for an ultra-relaxing experience.
Located about 40 minutes from the east German town of Weimar, known for its music schools (once home to Franz Liszt and Johann Sebastian Bach), live musicians sometimes perform under the dome as guests listen and float.
Photo courtesy Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs
Ojo Caliente, N.M.
A sacred oasis 50 miles north of Santa Fe, Ojo Caliente (hot eye) is perfect for day trips or overnight stays in rustic Southwestern elegance. Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs offers yoga classs or indigenous spa treatments (e.g. a blue corn-prickly pear scrub). Revered by Pueblo Indians for over 3,000 years, the springs are heated by subterranean volcanic aquifers and fill 11 pools with 80- to 109-degree waters with different combinations of minerals (one has more arsenic in it, which is believed to relieve arthritis). A big plus: no chlorine. The water is sterilized with ozone and ultraviolent light and pools are refilled three times a week. A tip: Weekends can get crowded with day drippers, so if you prefer privacy, go during the week or reserve one of three private pools near a glowing kiva fireplace.
Photo courtesy The Omni Homestead
Hot Springs, Va.
Nestled in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, The Omni Homestead is about four hours from Washington, D.C. and has catered to politicians and Southern gentry for decades. Rather than bragging rights to sleeping in the same inn, you can say you soaked in the same octagon mineral pool where Thomas Jefferson bathed to relieve his rheumatism. Built in 1761, it is touted as the “oldest spa structure in the U.S.” The temperature of the waters is a consistent 98 degrees, even in winter, which allows for an outdoor soaking experience during the holidays, surrounded by snow, mountains and an ice skating rink.
Photo courtesy Terme di Saturia
Driving through the opening gate, you may be greeted with the smell of rotten eggs and gray smoke rising in the distance. But after soaking in the mineral pool at Terme di Saturnia Spa and Golf Resort, any doubts about this place drift away like mist over the water. This mist is actually sulfur dioxide gas escaping from the waters, but it takes on a poetic glow in the moonlight. The warm water pours into the pool fast enough (at 132 gallons a second) that the pool is refreshed every four hours. The spa has been favored by discerning travelers over cutting-edge beauty clinics of Switzerland, such as La Prairie. Chalk it up to the sulfur, a building block for collagen, which leaves the skin soft and smooth. It doesn’t hurt that the town is an hour north of Rome and within driving distance of many Tuscan hill towns. If you’re not into spas, a day trip to the nearby waterfalls with limestone terraced pools is just as enchanting and free.
Photo courtesy The Caracalla Spa
Baden means “bath” in Germany, and the old joke is the town is so charming, special and lovely, they named it twice. Situated in the foothills of the idyllic Black Forest, it is one of Europe’s classic spa towns, where Roman emperors once came to ease their aches. At night you can relax in the quiet of nature at a luxury hotel, such as Brenners Park- Hotel and Spa, or take in the nightlife at the casinos (one of which inspired Dostoevsky to write The Gambler).
The Caracalla Spa is modern — with glass walls — and the mineral waters come in both hot and cold (alternating temperatures are believed to stimulate circulation and build the immune system). The second floor is for those who prefer to go au natural, a common practice for Germans. The other famous bathhouse, Friedrichsbad, is older, but no less beautiful with vaulted ceilings, marble columns and painted tiles. Keep in mind: This is an all-nude facility. The upside is that is it reportedly less crowded than Caracalla.
Photo courtesy The Thalasso Center
France is the birthplace of thalassotherapy, and it is still practiced in its purest form at many locations, especially in the coastal towns of Brittany. Today, many resorts call themselves thalasso retreats, even if they just have a Jacuzzi filled with saltwater, so it’s good to do some research if you want the full thalasso experience. One of the most highly-rated, The Thalasso Center, was built by three-time Tour de France winner Louison Bobet after thalassotherapy helped him recover from several surgeries following a car accident. Everything about the property embraces the ocean.
Photo courtesy Gurney’s Montauk Resort & Seawater Spa
The closest the U.S. has to a thalasso center is in Montauk on the tip of Long Island. Gurney’s Montauk Resort & Seawater Spa, perched on a glorious cliff facing the Atlantic, pumps ocean water into its heated indoor Olympic-size pool. The place has a slightly worn Catskills resort kind of vibe, but it is in the midst of a facelift and its location is one of the best, with rolling dunes and a heavy dose of relaxing sea.
Annette Foglino is a journalist and author of Spa Journeys for Body, Mind and Soul.