As you lie on a massage table, legs tucked into a soft sheet, hot stones soothing the tired muscles of your back and arms, you will most certainly not be thinking about cruise ship spa ratings. And while you relax on a heated tile lounger or in a steamy sauna, eyes drooping, thoughts of work and bills scurrying far away, you're probably not wondering about your cruise line's philosophy on its spa product.
But when you sit down at your computer to research your next cruise vacation, you might very well want to know where to find the best spas at sea -- and we'll be there to help.
Cruise ships take several different approaches to their onboard spas. The traditional approach, found on lines like Royal Caribbean and Princess, is to simply place a spa, salon and fitness center onboard. These facilities might be outstanding, with high-tech cardio machines and creative spa treatments inspired by an array of Eastern traditions, but they are simply another amenity to enjoy on a cruise vacation -- along with swimming pools, energetic musical productions and fine dining. These spas are best for travelers who want an all-around cruise vacation with the spa as one component of the getaway.
The newer approach, innovated by Costa, is to turn part of the cruise ship into a "destination spa," where passengers can immerse themselves in the spa experience, as in a land-based spa resort. On Costa's and Celebrity's newer ships, specially designed spa cabins create a more Zen in-cabin experience with easy access to the spa facilities. Spa restaurants serve light and healthy cuisine in keeping with the wellness theme. Special packages for these passengers give them free access to thermal suites, first dibs on appointments and exclusive in-cabin treats. If you want, you can spend nearly your entire cruise wrapped in the relaxing spa atmosphere, so these offerings are best for the dedicated spa enthusiast.
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Then there are hybrids, like the newer Carnival and made-over Holland America ships, which have spa cabins and lovely spa facilities, but not quite the same level of complete spa immersion that's offered by their competitors.
So whether you want to live and breathe the spa life on your next cruise, just want a lovely place to relax for a few hours or need a fully tricked-out gym and healthy cuisine to be happy on your vacation, we can tell you which spas are the best in the business. In a way you can't go wrong; all cruise lines seem to be enlarging their spa facilities, adding offerings like acupuncture and Botox, as well as Rasul rooms and new treatments. Many also offer popular group fitness classes like spinning and yoga.
If you're looking for the best spas in cruising, here's where to find them.
Celebrity's Canyon Ranch SpaClub at Sea
Standout Features: The Canyon Ranch SpaClub on Celebrity's Solstice-class ships is a superb complex that extends beyond the physical spa to include AquaClass spa cabins, the AquaSpa Cafe and Blu (two dining venues dedicated to healthy fare like smoothies, salads, lean meats and fish). You can truly have a spa-focused getaway onboard one of these cruise ships by eating, sleeping and relaxing in spa-associated locales. The AquaSpa cabins come with spa-oriented bath products and multi-headed spa showers; upgraded linens and a choose-your-own-pillow menu; complimentary bottled water and flavored iced tea; and access to a room service menu of salads, whole grains and healthy dining choices. Plus these passengers get exclusive access to the specialty restaurant, Blu, and complimentary use of the SpaClub Relaxation Room and Persian Garden steam room. A "spa concierge" books treatments, provides product information and offers recommendations for AquaClass cruisers, as well.
Inside the Spa: The spa itself offers more than 20 exclusive facial and body treatments, such as the Environ Enhancing Vitamin Therapy, which is a powerful treatment created to purify, micro-exfoliate and rehydrate your skin. The Persian Garden is a coed sauna and steam room, with a tropical rain shower and heated relaxation chairs that offer views of the ocean. The spa's Solarium is the most gorgeous at sea, with two pools and whirlpools, soaring glass ceilings and whimsical light and water shows. A fully stocked and staffed gym sports all the newest fitness machines, as well as a jogging track to get your heart rate up before or after a blissful session in the spa.
Caveat: Blu might well be exclusive to spa passengers, but the menu is not as exciting as we feel it could be.
Costa's Samsara Spa
Standout Features: Costa's beautiful Samsara Spa cabins and suites feature bamboo-effect doors and calming color schemes, along with sumptuous bedding, eco-cotton bathrobes, herbal teas, Elemis bath products and a special scent diffusor. Samsara cruisers may dine at the exclusive Samsara Restaurant -- with its focus on a la carte and light menus -- at breakfast, lunch and dinner. They also receive unlimited access to the spa areas and free visits to the thalassotherapy pool (plus the Solarium on Costa Diadema), the Japanese Tea Room, Tridosha Shrine (like a Turkish bath) and Temple of Peace meditation room. Spa treatments, specialty fitness classes and meditation sessions cost extra.
Inside the Spa: The two-level Samsara Spa -- four levels on Costa Diadema -- sports an Asian-inspired design, complete with rice paper walls, bonsais, wind chimes, teak Buddhas, lantern lighting and dragons. The facility offers a huge variety of treatments, including proper ayurvedic therapies -- using oils, herbs, salts -- by a qualified practitioner and treatments tailored to men and couples. A Japanese tea ritual ends each spa visit -- not a sales pitch. Cruisers also have access to steam and sauna rooms, sun beds and rainforest showers. Next to the spa, a large gym and fitness area sports machines, weights and fitness balls.
Caveat: Our one gripe is the location of the spa restaurant, which is on a lower deck and nowhere near the spa.
Royal Caribbean's Vitality@Sea
Standout Features: The spas on Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships stand out for their enormous gym complexes. These are among the largest of any cruise ship fitness center. The ships offer cruising's first-ever boxing ring; it's used as much as an advanced aerobics style workout as it is for boxing (though lessons are offered). Beyond that, the ships' workout areas feature a breathtaking range of machines and free weights, with a separate room for fitness classes like yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, cycling and boot camp. All cardio machines sport personal LED screens, and windows surround the gym so passengers can gaze at the serene sea while building up a sweat. Kudos, too, to the line for offering physical activities for kids. (Note: While the gyms on the line's newer ships -- Quantum of the Seas, Anthem of the Seas, Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas -- are also quite large, they lack a spacious spa and offer limited treatment rooms. That's why we prefer Freedom-class spas.)
Inside the Spa: The spa offers pretty much the usual range of Steiner Leisure treatments: massages (Swedish, hot stone and couples), reflexology, facials and body wraps. Acupuncture is also now available. The salon, tucked off to one side, features hair cutting and styling, manicures, pedicures and teeth whitening. With the teen-geared YSPA program, kids ages 13 to 17 can book treatments, such as "acne attack" and "surfer scrub." More standard massages, facials, manicures and pedicures are also available for teens.
Caveat: Ambience-wise, the spa possesses the charm and character of a big-city bus station.
Seabourn's The Spa at Seabourn
Standout Features: As the first new luxury ships to be designed in a decade -- debuting in 2009, 2010 and 2011, respectively -- Seabourn Odyssey, Sojourn and Quest boosted the luxury ship spa concept to new levels. The sprawling two-deck spa facility is surprisingly large for a small ship and offers everything from a Kinesis wall to Finnish sauna. Also intriguing are Spa Villas, each featuring an oversized bathtub, balcony, living area and daybed. Each 2.5-hour session in the private villas also includes a spa treatment.
Inside the Spa: The Spa at Seabourn features an impressive hydrotherapy pool. The spacious fitness room is a step up from smaller gyms on luxury ships, but the yoga room really impresses with a Kinesis Wall for gentle exercise (group classes are free) and a screened-off area for a Thai floor massage. Spa treatments tend to be lavish. You can pay for access to the spa's "serene" area, which offers two herbal saunas, a relaxation room with heated loungers, showers and a private open-air deck. Pricing is dependent on your itinerary, but generally it runs about $300 per couple for the entire voyage.
Caveat: Prices are overly high, especially for the use of the spa villa, hydropool and thermal suite.
Cunard's Canyon Ranch SpaClub
Found On: Queen Mary 2
Standout Features: As a result of its affiliation with Canyon Ranch, this spa genuinely feels like a land-based destination in terms of knowledge and expertise. The treatments are quite distinctive compared to the usual cruise ship offerings. Ashiatsu is the ultimate deep-tissue massage. The therapist hangs from a bar on the ceiling and uses her/his feet! A surprising favorite is the Thai Massage. It's basically a series of stretches (you wear loose-fitting clothing) and it is completely relaxing. In addition, they have massages for seasickness, aching bones, arthritis and chronic pain. Reiki, acupuncture, Ayurvedic treatments and even an Ice Cream pedicure round out the offerings. But don't worry -- if you're not adventurous, you can still get more traditional massages, manicures, pedicures and hair styling.
Inside the Spa: The facility is huge but well laid out. A boutique sells Canyon Ranch products, and the thalassotherapy/steam room/sauna area is the ultimate in peaceful relaxation. A dedicated "waiting room" has big, cushy lounge chairs that face floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a promenade and the seascape. It's so comfortable that passengers have been know to fall asleep there. We also like that the fitness facility is completely separate; working out and going to the spa have two different vibes. Even better: You can pre-book spa treatments up to three weeks before your sailing.
The spa also offers SpaClub Passport daily passes that allow entry to the Aqua Therapy Center, relaxation lounge and locker room. It's $40 for one day (discounts available for multi-day passes), valid from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The SpaClub Passport is complimentary with any paid treatment.
Caveat: There's a lot of space around the facility that's ill used, particularly in the corridor opposite and in the quiet Winter Garden lounge, which is next door. If the spa could add a cafe of sorts, that would be a much better use of space.
Crystal's Crystal Spa and Salon
Standout Features: The spas on both Crystal ships are peaceful, exotic areas, with features like a private, canopied teak sun deck and a luxurious dry float bed suite (for couples or singles). The spas have been designed with the feng shui (balance and harmony) philosophy in mind, and the Zen theme really works to create a calming atmosphere.
Inside the Spa: Treatments, which range from a fantastic salt and ginger scrub to a couples massage and acupuncture, are outstanding. The staffers are exceptional and won't try to sell you anything. The salon offers the full gamut of services: haircuts, styling, pedicures and manicures. The gym is amply outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment and flat-screen televisions to amuse while exercising. Even the locker rooms are upscale, featuring multi-head showers, a sauna, Elemis toiletries and a minifridge stocked with complimentary water.
Caveat: The only problem with Crystal's spas is the fact that appointments book up quickly. Reserve your treatments as soon as possible, and know that the salon will be particularly busy on formal nights.
Viking Ocean Cruises' Liv Nordic Spa
Standout Features: The Liv Nordic spa, operated by Oslo-based Reason D'etre, is the most gorgeous and serene spa we've seen at sea. The spa is inspired by Nordic traditions, which offer a balance between hot and cold therapies. The pretty thermal suite features a beautifully designed thallasotherapy pool with adjacent hot tub. They're backed by a fireplace, which uses flame-like water vapor and is the first we've seen in a cruise ship spa. In keeping with hot and cold traditions, other features include warmed tile loungers, a rustic Norwegian-style shower that features a bucket that dumps cold water on your head, a steamy sauna and a snow grotto. Men's and women's locker rooms abut the thermal suite and they're well thought out, with cold plunge pools, a dry sauna and a relaxation area contained within. Best of all: Counter to tradition on most cruise ship spas, the thermal suite areas are free to use by all passengers at all times.
Inside the Spa: LivNordic features nail treatments, facials and massages, but keeps choices simple. For instance, there are just three types of Swedish massage (mindful, detox and deep tissue), and two facials, the idea being to reduce complexity and enhance performance.
Caveat: Treatment prices are resort-style expensive, though the high quality (and lack of sales pitch you might find on other cruise line spas) is a big plus. Also, on port days, keep an eye out for occasional specials and volume discounts.
--By Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief; updated by Andrea Rotondo, Cruise Critic contributor