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Destination Aruba

by William McGowan

Deep winter, my senior college year. Bitter cold in northern Vermont. Hadn’t gone above zero in weeks. Worse, senior theses deadlines were looming. Half the class was freaking out in the library; the other half was plotting ways of escape. Bermuda. The Seychelles. Anywhere But Here.

Senior Crush leans over my desk and whispers with lowered and knowing eyes: Aruba. Her lips were pursed with the mouth-feel of the word—A-Ru-Ba. It was only one word, but the way she said it promised adventures of all sorts, not to mention respite from the killer cold and the cabin fever of the library.

Note to Senior Crush: I do have regrets about not running off right then and there. But more than 25 years later, sitting on a Dutch colonial “planter’s chair” in the garden of the Radisson Aruba Resort as I await my first treatment at the Larimar Spa, it seems to have been worth the wait. The hotel was built by the Dutch Queen in 1958 as the island’s first resort; its seaside garden is an Eden incarnate. Around me flower ginger lily, hibiscus, birds of paradise, and Indian jasmine, shaded by coconut, date, Sago, and Royal palms. A macaw, some Congo grey parrots, and a Yellow Nap Amazon shriek in the background, agitated by the cobalt blue iguanas scurrying through the dust and sand. The spa itself, which started operations in 2006 is a paradise within a paradise. Its nine treatment rooms are arrayed around an open-air Zen garden filled with bamboo plants and saw grass, with water trickling through it for cooling. Its outdoor herb garden, one of the spa’s contributions to the hotel’s green drive, boasts mint, basil, dill, and sage, to name a few. The spa has one of the best training gyms in the Caribbean, as well as a cool 59-degree plunge pool for anyone overcome by the tropical heat, which is usually a dry 90 degrees plus, though you wouldn’t know it for the ever-present breezes. In the center of the lobby, encased in glass, stands a 14-pound chunk of jade-colored Larimar stone, mined in the Barahona Mountains of the Dominican Republic. Bruce Cavan, the 49-year-old Hawaiian manager of the spa explained to me that the Larimar stone was once used by Caribbean shamans in rituals designed to foster clarity of communications in relationships. The stone seems effective. The two treatments I got there put me in touch with my own body in quite a remarkable way.

My first treatment was the spa’s signature Aloe Vera and Rum massage. Arubans call aloe “the plant of life “ and use locally produced Palmero Rum—infused with lime, lemon and other gels—as a kind of liniment to relax the muscles and open up the skin to the warmth of black lava stones, which are placed as various points along the spine. Most of the 80-minute treatment involves a series of flowing wave-like strokes that combine compression, acupressure, and “Lomi-lomi,” a traditional Hawaiian massage where the masseuse uses her forearm against the long and flat muscles of the legs and arms. The result is the very soundtrack of bliss: “ahhhhh, oooooohhhh yaaaaahh….”

Early the next morning I took an open-air jeep ride around the backside of the island, along the northern coast. Here the terrain was harsh, almost desert-like, the sea taking bites out of the shoreline leaving behind jagged, unstable shelves. Locals, however, see it as a place of good luck, and pile lava stones into small cairns to mark a birth or a wedding. Bouncing and lurching in the jeep through this rugged area left my bones bruised and my muscles sore. I was certainly ready for another massage. This one was even more exotic than the first. It was called the IndoCeane Voyage, lasted 100 minutes, and sought to “balance the energies” using various techniques of the orient. Phase One involved being slathered in a “sweet and savory scrub” blended from brown sugar, salt, and Mediterranean oils. Following that some fairly light massage, then the application of “Qi” balm, made from the essential oils of sandalwood, cedar, patchouli, and extracts from the melia leaf. The “Qi” balm opens up the body’s “keys” my masseuse explained, the term she preferred to use rather than “chakras.” Step Three involved being rinsed underneath a Vichy shower, a seven-nozzle apparatus that swung over the table. The sensuous, warm water coming out of the Vichy shower sounded like a tropical downpour. As it rinsed off my prone body, my skin felt both silken and tingling. After that, my masseuse went very deep tissue, kneading and stroking in the Shiatsu tradition. She found some knots buried deep in my shoulders, and as I felt the mixture of pain and pleasure, she used her strong fingers to get at what she called “the crunchies.” She ended by glazing me with a “sealer oil” made from lotus flower, pink lily, and white mushrooms, which smelled very much like ice cream. “It seals in all the good things I rubbed into your skin,” she explained. “It’s very rich in relaxation.” But before she ended, she went back to the “crunchies” between my shoulders. “Lots of tension in there,” she said. “Next time, you’ll have to come for a whole month.”

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