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 may very well want to know where to find the best spas at sea. And we'll be there to help.
Thanks to Costa, cruise ships now take two 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 may be outstanding, with high-tech cardio machines and creative spa treatments inspired from 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 their getaway.
The newer approach, innovated by Costa, is to turn part of the cruise ship into a "destination spa" where guests can immerse themselves in the spa experience, as in a land-based spa resort. On Costa and Celebrity's newer ships, specially designed spa cabins create a more Zen-like 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 -- and so these offerings are best for the dedicated spa enthusiast.
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, and offering the most popular group fitness classes like spinning and yoga.
If you're looking for the best spas in cruising, here's where to find them.
Stand-Out Features: The AquaSpa on Celebrity's newest ships is a superb complex that extends beyond the physical spa to include the AquaClass spa cabins and the AquaSpa Café 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 shower; 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 AquaSpa Relaxation Room and Persian Garden steam room. A "spa concierge" books treatments, provides product information and offers recommendations from the wellness library for AquaClass guests, as well.
The Best of the Rest: The spa itself offers compelling new twists on traditional favorites, with unique additions such as Medi-spa fare like Botox, a men's barber shop and a "lash and brow bar." The Persian Garden, also found on other Celebrity ships, is a coed sauna and steam room, with a tropical rain shower and heated relaxation chairs with views of the ocean. The spa's Solarium is the most gorgeous at sea, with a 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.
The Flip Side: A new treatment option, the 24 carat gold facial, is obviously a gimmick created during the economy's high-flying times. It doesn't fit with a recession.
Stand-Out Features: Costa Cruises' first-ever "destination spa" at sea revolutionized the industry with the notion that it is possible to travel healthfully on a cruise ship. Costa pioneered the concept of the complete spa package -- now found on several of it ships -- that includes specially designed cabins, meals in its Spa Ristorante and free access to thermal suites, in addition to plenty of opportunities for spa treatments. For example, the "welcome ritual" package for booking a spa cabin consists of two treatments, two fitness classes, a personal consultation, unlimited use of the thalassotherapy pool and an invitation to a special tea service, as well as three meals a day in Ristorante Samsara. The beautiful Samsara Spa cabins and suites feature bamboo-effect doors and calming color schemese, along with sumptuous bedding, eco-cotton bathrobes, herbal teas and Elemis bath products.
The Best of the Rest: The two-level Samsara Spa 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. Guests 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 fitballs. Menus for the healthful Ristorante Samsara are supervised by Ettore Bocchia, a Michelin-star chef and founder of molecular cuisine.
The Flip Side: Our one gripe is the location of the spa restaurant, which is on Deck 3 -- nowhere near the spa.
Stand-Out Features: The spas on Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships stand out for their enormous gym complexes, 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 the gym is surrounded by windows so passengers can gaze at the serene sea while building up a sweat. Kudos, too, to the line for offering physical activities for kids.
The Best of the Rest: The spa offers pretty much the usual range of Steiner treatments: massage (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.
The Flip Side: Ambience-wise, the spa possesses the charm and character of a big-city bus station. Plus, the spas are operated by the London-based Steiner Leisure, which trains its spa staff to conclude treatments with a phony, M.D.-like "prescription" for products that will benefit the customer. It's essentially a hard sell of Steiner's Elemis product line, and a very jarring and unpleasant way to end a spa treatment.
Stand-Out Features: As the first new luxury ships to be designed in a decade, Seabourn Odyssey, Sojourn and Quest are taking the luxury ship spa concept to new levels. The sprawling two-deck high 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 day bed. Each two-and-a-half-hour session in the private villas also includes a spa treatment.
The Best of the Rest: The Spa at Seabourn features an impressive hydrotherapy pool, a thermal suite with two herbal saunas and a relaxation room with heated loungers, and a quiet deck area. 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.
The Flip Side: Prices are overly high, such as the $650 charge for a couple hours' use of the spa villa. Plus, the $30 price tag for use of the hydropool and thermal suite seems like an odd case of nickel-and-diming on such upscale ships.
Stand-Out Features: As a result of its affiliation with Canyon Ranch, this is the only spa at sea that 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 was the Thai Massage; it's basically a series of stretches (you wear loose fitting clothing) and it completely relaxed me. 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 adventuresome, you can still get more traditional massages, manicures, pedicures and hair styling.
The Best of the Rest: The facility is huge, but well laid out. A boutique sells lifestyle merchandise and 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 one day another passenger actually fell asleep there! I liked, too, that the fitness facility was completely separate; working out and spa-going have two different vibes. Even better: You can pre-book spa treatments up to three weeks before your sailing.
The Flip Side: There's a lot of space around the facility that's ill-used, particularly in the corridor opposite, but also in the sad Winter Garden, which is next door and is basically used for art auctions. If the spa could add a cafe of sorts, that would be a much better use of space.
Stand-Out 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.
The Best of the Rest: Treatments, which ranged from a fantastic salt and ginger scrub to a couples massage and acupuncture, were outstanding. The staffers were exceptional, and never tried to sell me anything (even though the spas are operated by Steiner, famous for their product pitches). 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 were upscale, featuring multi-head showers, a sauna, Aveda toiletries and a mini-fridge stocked with complimentary water.
--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief; updated by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor