A spotlight on thermal, mineral and seawater soaks
Without water, there would be no spa. Derived from the phrase salus per aquam, or “health through water,” the very word “spa” comes from the time when mineral, thermal and seawater springs were a key healing therapy. People drank and soaked in these waters for relief from everything from muscle pains to digestive, sinus and skin issues. From the ancient Romans to the heroines of Jane Austen novels, they all were instructed to “take the waters” when in need of a cure.
Soaking isn’t just for the history books, though: Many modern-day wellness seekers are drawn to these liquid therapies, and there is currently a Global Hot Springs Initiative Think Tank, led by spa industry experts, dedicated to researching and preserving these traditions, and establishing best practices for the future.
In celebration of the mother of all spa services—and one that’s drawn directly from Mother Earth—we’ve scouted top spots to soak for your health.
Adler Thermae Spa & Wellness Resort
Hearkening back to the days when families soaked together, the family-friendly Adler Spa is located near the village of Bagno Vignoni, the source of ancient Tuscan hot springs, and features a range of indoor and outdoor pools, set in the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Tuscan countryside. (There is another branch in the Dolomites.)
Rainwater seeps deep into the ground, where it is heated by layers of volcanic material. Mineral compounds wash out of the rock and into the water. While relaxing in the pools thick clouds of steam rise around you. It is an incredibly calming experience, along with the happy sounds of children playing in the kids’ “Fun Pool” nearby. The mineral-rich waters are renowned for treating ailments ranging from arthritis and rheumatic disorders to circulatory and skin issues. Adler also features a sauna circuit: an herbal steam sauna with local Tuscan herbs, a Finnish sauna built with olive wood and a Turkish steam bath set in a grotto.
The rooms are simple but comfortable and the spa menu is vast, from acupuncture and ayurveda to flower remedies and sports massage. The dining experience—Tuscan cuisine with wine pairings—is superb. adler-thermae.com —Rona Berg
Banff Upper Hot Springs
Set 5,200 feet above sea level at the base of Sulphur Mountain, in Canada’s western province of Alberta, these hot springs were considered a sacred healing site by the area’s Native Americans, then were rediscovered in 1882 by workers building the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Wellness-seeking European visitors started to arrive in 1884, and by the next year, the area was officially established as Banff National Park, in part to help protect the now-popular springs. The waters are rich in sodium, magnesium, bicarbonate, calcium and sulfate, and despite their long journey up from the center of the earth, they are also the hottest in the Rocky Mountain range, at a tension-melting 98-104 degrees. The current Heritage Building-designated Banff Upper Hot Springs bathhouse houses several heated mineral pools, and the spa offers massages, scrubs and more. Top area hotels include the castle-like Fairmont Banff Springs (fairmont.com/banff-springs), which looks out over the charming alpine town of Banff. hotsprings.ca
Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort
Costa Rica is home to 67 volcanoes—including six that are still active. Thanks to all this geothermal activity, the country boasts several natural hot springs areas, most notably around the Arenal Volcano in the northwest. There, at the award-winning Tabacon Resort, guests can soak in over a dozen pools, each composed of a mix of rainwater and magma that has sunk to the earth’s core—where it gets heated—then risen back up to the surface, infused with hydrothermal flora (good for the skin’s defense system) and minerals from the “resting” volcano. Ranging from 77 to 122 degrees, and low in sulphur, the pools are open to resort and spa guests, or through a number of day-spa packages. The resort’s Grand Spa offers a long list of treatments, including body scrubs using local coffee and wraps using volcanic mud. tabacon.com
This famous site—now one of Iceland’s most popular visitor attractions—was developed in the late 1970s, as part of an exploration into natural heating methods. Filled with over 6 million liters of geothermal water, and surrounded by otherworldly volcanic rocks and electric green moss, the piercing blue-colored lagoon is particularly known for its success healing skin conditions like psoriasis.
A DNA mapping of the water shows that of the 200 microorganisms found in it, 60 percent are new species; two—coccoid algae and filamentous algae—help reduce signs of UV damage and stimulate collagen production, while high amounts of silica help exfoliate skin, strengthen its barrier function and heal inflammation. The Blue Lagoon is located 20 minutes from Keflavik International Airport and 40 minutes from the center of Reykjavik; buses run from both locations. In-water massage and other spa treatments are available for a fee, and you can also purchase a full range of Blue Lagoon skincare products made with the therapeutic waters. bluelagoon.com
The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa
In the heart of northern California’s wine country, this historic resort is one of few in the U.S. to feature its own on-site thermal mineral waters, sourced from 135-degree streams that flow 1,100 feet below the hotel. Once sacred to the area’s Native Americans, the streams now feed the 40,000-square-foot spa’s indoor and outdoor pools—heated to varying temperatures—and are featured in several treatments, including the Energizing Detox Kur, a 90-minute service with organic juniper essential oil-infused scrub, marine algae wrap, mineral water soak and invigorating massage. Spa clients and day-pass holders have access to the Bathing Ritual circuit in the Bathhouse, which starts with an exfoliating shower, then continues with stints in a 92- to 96-degree Roman Bath, a 102-degree hot pool, cooling showers, herbal steam and sauna. fairmont.com/sonoma
With roots dating back to the 17th century, ryokans are Japanese country inns—mainly located in hot spring towns—that showcase the local design, cuisine, hospitality and bathing cultures. Putting a stylish, contemporary twist on the classic ryokan, KAI Hakone is a scenic train ride from Tokyo, in a mountain foothill-town known for its hot springs (there are over 20.) Guests don quilted black kimonos and wooden clogs to head to the same-sex locker rooms and out to the steaming baths, which look out onto the Sugumo River and lush forest. (Per tradition, guests soak naked—no exceptions.) Afterwards, relax in one of the chic, minimalist guest rooms—outfitted with tatami mats and fluffy, oversized futons—then replenish with a traditional kaiseki meal. Guests can stay overnight in this meditative setting, or at a city hotel like the Shangri-La Hotel Tokyo (shangri-la.com/tokyo), which offers day trip packages in conjunction with the hot spring retreat. global.hoshinoresort.com/kai_hakone
Thermes Marins Monte-Carlo
This elegant grande dame of thalassotherapy spas has attracted over a century of wellness seekers with its heated seawater pools, hydrotherapy treatments and classic Turkish and Russian-style baths. While always at the forefront of healing (it was fully equipped with a gym back in 1908!), the complex reopened in late 2014, following a multimillion-dollar renovation that added stunning new interiors, private cabanas around the Mediterranean-view main pool and Europe’s only cryotherapy room, a favorite of recovering athletes. A team of 28 specialists, from sports doctors and estheticians to relaxation therapists and hairstylists, oversees the menu of a la carte services and multi-day programs; the latter target slimming, anti-aging and detox. Guests can dine on healthy meals at the on-site L’Hirondelle restaurant, and overnight at chic sister hotel, the Hôtel Hermitage Monte-Carlo, which has direct access to the spa. thermesmarinsmontecarlo.com
Roosevelt Baths & Spa at the Gideon Putnam Resort
By the 19th century, Saratoga Springs, NY, had become a resort town that served as a healing center for those who sought the springs. The Roosevelt Baths, opened in 1935, are housed at the Gideon Putnam Resort, a National Historic Landmark named after the city’s founding father.
Enter another era by sinking into a warm mustard-colored mineral bath. The deep yellow hue is created when the effervescent, iron-laden mineral waters mix with regular heated water and oxidize upon contact with the air. The springs are naturally carbonated due to dissolved limestone minerals, and remain a constant temperature (55º Fahrenheit) year-round. When fresh hot water is added, the bath temperature reaches a balmy 97º—the ideal temperature to retain the spring water’s carbonation.
Health benefits include increased blood circulation, cell oxygenation, elimination of toxins and relief for skin conditions, and repeated bathing can help normalize the body’s autonomic nervous system, which affects heart rate, digestion and respiratory rate. gideonputnam.com/spa.aspx —Kristin Vukovic
Hot Springs History
From the traditional onsen of Japan and the sacred Mayan cenotes of Mexico to the famed bathing complexes of eastern Europe and the ancient springs of Ma’in Jordan, cultures around the globe turned to water for wellness. But the civilization that really took bathing to heart was the ancient Romans, who turned soaking into a part of daily life: Every Roman settlement featured a frigidarium (cold bath), tepidarium (warm bath) and caldarium (hot bath), where residents would conduct business and catch up on gossip. As the Roman Empire grew, they took their love of soaking with them, establishing baths wherever they came across mineral springs—and thus the modern spa complex was born.
All over the world, locals still work regular soaks into their schedules (and many healthcare plans cover them). Iconic European spots include Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) in the Czech Republic, where you can bathe in waters and fill up water bottles from free fountains around town; and Budapest’s elegant Szechenyi Baths, where you might find families and old timers hanging out in the pools and playing chess on the waterside boards. In Germany’s Black Forest spa town Baden-Baden (translated to “baths”), the new Villa Stephanie combines mineral soaks with high-tech beauty and wellness therapies (villastephanie.com), while in Bath, England, the 99-room Gainsborough Bath Spa Hotel (thegainsboroughbathspa.co.uk)—just opening this spring—is the only luxury hotel in the UK with direct access to natural spring waters.
Many of our historic spa towns sit on sites sacred to the Native Americans. Opened in 1860, in an area once known as Temescal Sulfur Springs, Glen Ivy Hot Springs (glenivy.com) is a long-time favorite for its wellness offerings and community spirit, while northern New Mexico’s Ojo Caliente (ojospa.com)—where the 11 sulphur-free pools are rich in lithia, iron, soda and arsenic—come from ancient subterranean volcanic sources. On the way to becoming a fully carbon-neutral property, Palm Spring’s Two Bunch Palms (twobunchpalms.com) has a bathing history that dates back to native cultures, as well as modern-day legends like Al Capone—who had a private bungalow at the property.