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Medical spas: East meets West


Jet-lagged travelers searching for a Zen glow have discovered Thai massage, Javanese lulur, and Balinese borehs. From Singapore to London, Miami and Hong Kong, a new breed of exotic experiences defines the Asian spa.

By Bernard Burt

Hoteliers discovered they have to have a serious spa to be competitive. Concierge lounges, club floors, pillow banks, and heavenly beds no longer cut it if there isn't an aromatherapy massage on call, or an herbal ritual to defeat that demon - jet lag. Forget fitness. Now, ancient Asian secrets of health, beauty, and relaxation are attracting sybarites as well as stressed-out corporate executives.

Enter an enterprising spa-driven corporation with a mission to define each of their spas by capitalizing on the image of authentic Asian experiences. With nearly 60 locations, Mandara Spa captured a major share of the market for Asian treatments and products. Partnerships with leading hotel chains have made Mandara Spa highly visible at Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton, and Westin properties, as well as Sun International resorts, Club Med, Park Place Entertainment casinos, even city hotels flagged by Nikko, Accor, and Imperial. As a unit of Steiner Leisure Ltd., Mandara Spa sails the seas aboard Norwegian Cruise Line, Orient Line, and Silverseas Cruises.

Established in 1995, Mandara Spa Asia Limited was based in Bali until last year, when Steiner acquired 60 percent of the company. Corporate offices relocated to Hawaii on Honolulu's glamorous Kalakaua Avenue, a fitting metaphor for East-West experiences. Founded by a former California investment banker, Thomas Gottlieb, Mandara's worldwide operations expanded with new partners including UK skin care innovator Elemis, and Shiseido Company of Japan Ltd., Asia's leading cosmetic company. Steiner president Leonard Fluxman said of the acquisition last July:

"This is an important step to assist the Mandara brand name as a leader in the growing spa industry.” Steiner operates spas and salons aboard over 100 cruise ships, and has expanded with resort and day spa locations such as The Atlantis in Nassau, The Bahamas, JW Marriott Phuket Resort & Spa in Thailand, and Paris Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas.

The exotic Balinese mystique of Mandara Spa and its rapid worldwide growth made the company an ideal strategic partner for Shiseido. Becoming the first international cosmetics company to invest in a spa management firm, Shiseido shares management and marketing expertise with Mandara, according to Yasutaka Mori, Chief Officer of Corporate Business Development for the Japanese cosmetics firm. Holding a 40 percent share in Steiner Leisure Ltd., Shiseido's goals include expansion for the Mandara Spa brand name throughout Asian markets, said Mori.

Treatment menus at each Mandara Spa vary, according to the market, with, about 300 different services and packages currently on offer. Keeping with its roots in Asia, Mandara tailors treatments to each facility's theme, design, and clientele. Traditional and classical techniques from Europe and Asia blend with indigenous or native ingredients. This elevates the experience, says Gottlieb, from the merely special to the truly unique.

Thus the Mandara. Spa menu created for a posh resort in Nassau, the Bahamas, includes an Elemis lime and ginger salt glow scrub as well as Balinese rituals. Under the shade of a Thai pavilion in tropical gardens on a bluff overlooking the blue Atlantic, guests at the Ocean Club are offered an 80-minute Swedish or Balinese massage ($190) or an Elemis Japanese "Silk Booster" facial with oxygen and vitamin C ($140).


Neocolonial fantasy adds to new Amrita Spas at Raffles Hotels & Resorts. At the glittering new Raffles City complex in Singapore, a hybrid Amrita Spa shows how international hotel groups combine eastern and western philosophies: American-made LifeFitness exercise equipment is in a gym with a wall of video monitors; California skin care specialist Kerstin Florian supplies bath products from Germany and Hungary for her exclusive Kur Program.

Conveniently located on Levels 6, 7, and 8, Amrita Spa Raffles City offers members and hotel guests access to cutting-edge fitness facilities, over 20 treatment rooms with attached shower, and VIP suites for couples. In addition to their new flagship spa, Raffles operates another five Amrita spas, including Hotel vier Jaheszeiten in Hamburg, Germany. Greg Payne, Corporate Director-Spa, for Raffles International, said the treatment menu incorporates Thai, Balinese, and Ayurvedic philosophies of natural healing. Raffles's first American Amrita Spa opened recently at L'Ermitage in Beverly Hills, California, with both indoor treatments rooms and cabanas on the pooldeck that provide panoramic views. opening this fall in Switzerland at Montreux Palace, a new 20,000 sq. ft. Facility with 10 treatment rooms overlooking Lac Leman.

Transplanting the new Amrita Spa philosophy to Cambodia had a definite impact on room sales at the historic Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh. The hotel is a 1920s French colonial classic, restored by Raffles in 1997. Suites named for dignitaries of the French colonial period are equipped with huge bathrooms featuring vast claw-footed tubs, fog-free heated mirrors. The plumbing is miraculous, commented one visitor, and would have stunned even a practiced sybarite.

Adding a six-room spa to the hotel 20 months ago," says Payne, enhanced the hotel's bottom line. Located close to Angkor Wat, tourists typically spend a few days exploring the area. " The spa has been so successful that we now feel that we can extend the duration of the stay from 3 days to 6 days," Payne comments, 11 and are adding a whole wellness center and spa suites for guests."


Kurt Wachtveitl, long-time general manager of The Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, was the first Asian hotelier to recognize the potential for a world-class spa. Housed in a 120-year-old structure across the Chao Phraya River from the hotel, the Oriental Spa is an oasis of calm and beauty. In the privacy of a high-ceilinged spa suite, you soak in a pool of polished black marble, then move into the teak sala for massage. The simple white mattress on the floor indicates that this is traditional Thai. But tucked away in storage are massage beds that go unused.. Authenticity, the management discovered, is what guests want. So at the Oriental, French seaweed baths take their place alongside traditional herbal remedies. For jet-lagged travelers, Swedish and Thai techniques are combined.

Canadian-Thai links are being forged at Echo Valley Ranch & Spa in British Columbia. When ranch owners Norman and Nanthawan Dove dedicated the Baan Thai (house of healing) last fall, the event drew socialites from Bangkok who brought along a Thai band and dancers.

There were chants by Buddhist monks, and native American ceremonies. Designed by distinguished Thai architect Dr. Pinyo Suwankiri, the two- level structure's teak carvings and furniture came from Thailand. Set amid vast, virgin forest in Cariboo Country, where horses and cattle roam free, the Baan Thai includes a treatment suite and luxury villa for guests who enjoy Zen-like privacy. With accommodations in luxurious log lodges for 36 guests, Echo Valley Ranch evolved into a spiritual retreat as a result of the Nanthawan Dove's studies at traditional medicine schools in her native Bangkok.

The Doves intend to create a Canadian centre to teach traditional Thai massage, to form a traditional Thai massage association, and to have legislation put into place to regulate standards. Sourcing quality herbal products in Thailand, Dove imports through his Vancouver-based firm, Asian Spa Therapies, Inc., and plans to become the premiere supplier of such products to the spa industry of North America. Explaining their dedication to the project, Norman Dove says: "The reasons we are motivated to vigorously pursue our plans are two-fold: First and foremost we see a need in North America to raise the standards; Secondly, development of Echo Valley Ranch & Spa, which has as its theme "West meets East."

The ranch's spa therapists are from Thailand, and Thai herbal products are used for the various treatments. Echo Valley Ranch & Spa is a very high profile and respected resort, member in good standing of the International Spa Association (ISPA) and Spa Canada, praised by the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism British Columbia. web marketing accounts for 40 percent of reservations, mainly European. (For a virtual tour of the Baan Thai, go to the ranch's interactive Web site at

While massage parlours proliferate in Bangkok, a new class of professionals is training at government schools. Thailand's Ministry of Health joined with the Ministry of Labor to train therapists in traditional health care. Massage specialists are required to gain practical experience before returning to the school in Bangkok for certification. The Institute of Thai Traditional Medicine graduated its first class last year, with 120 students completing an 800-hour course.

The British Complementary medicine Association offers certification in holistic health therapies, from acupuncture to massage. Chairwoman Sarah Noble recently joined Chiva-Som Health Resort in Thailand as Corporate Director of Health & Wellness.


Banyan Tree Spa Expands: Following success of the first Banyan Tree resort spa in Phuket, Thailand, the Singapore-based group opened spas in the Maldives, on Indonesia’s Bintan island, and the Seychelles. offering a fusion of Eastern and Western rejuvenation techniques works well for their international clients, says Edwin Yeow, Joint Managing Director for Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts. The location in the Seychelles is of strategic value, Yeow added, "offering unique co-marketing partnerships. Italy's Immobiliere Sorento, SA, invested in the Seychelles project. Future Banyan Tree openings: Nepal, Mexico. (www.banyantree.com)


True to its Asian connections (the Mandarin Oriental hotel group is based in Hong Kong), London's most exotic new day spa lets you travel to some fantasy Far East country without leaving the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park. Everything here has a sleek Zen look - from the tatami-matted reception area to the Vitality soaking pool and relaxation room with its Japanese garden and color therapy lighting.

Each treatment room has a tiny gravel garden, where your feet are washed in a welcome ritual. Jet- lagged clients are massaged by rotating hydrotherapy jets, and the Crystal Steam Room has an amethyst stone centerpiece, said to induce peace. Crossing the Atlantic, Mandarin Oriental Miami brings a new level of luxury to Florida's vibrant international city. The 329-room hotel's curved architecture is reflected in a signature fan logo and spa brochure. Repeating her London success, ESPA design guru Susan Harmsworth brought Zen-like simplicity to the 17-room spa. Couples relax in six private suites with expansive views of Biscayne Bay, swim in an infinity- edge pool at sea level, and dine on celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein's fusion cusine at Azul, the hotel's bayside restaurant. Reservations:


Opulent teak furniture, l7th-century Buddhas, and a sculptured Thai tree of life add an Asian flair to Latin America's newest Four Seasons Resort on the forested shores of Rio de la Plata. Overlooking the massive river delta that separates Uruguay and Argentina, 44 suites and cottages surround a wooden spa pavilion. After a rainforest shower, guests relax at the tea bar in a pebble garden amid clouds of incense. Design consultant Dorinda Rose Berry, a veteran of Bangkok's Banyan Tree Hotels, helped spa director Clotilde Ortiz source local herbs for treatments.


"We have done something original," says Claude Renaudin, of the Givenchy Spa at Sun International Resorts' Le Saint Geran on Mauritius. Renaudin is the driving force behind spas franchised by the famed French perfume and fashion house Givenchy. "Space and natural light are essential," she emphasized, "as well as a hotelier's commitment to quality service."

A 30-year veteran of French hotel and tourism marketing, Renaudin observed the explosion of thalassotherapy centers such as Quiberon and Accor Resorts' Thalassa International based on seawater therapy. Demand for ultra-luxurious pampering, she said, led to Givenchy's creation of creams and products for skin-firming. For their signature massage, called Canyon Love Stone Therapy, oils were specially formulated by Givenchy laboratories to provide extremely efficient detoxification and relaxation.

A four-hand massage is done with ylang-ylang flower extract. Don't look for trendy oriental or Asian treatments: "Our clients know what they want," said the much-traveled Parisian, "and we created products to complement beautiful people and places. " On the tropical island of Mauritius in the Indian ocean, Givenchy Spa clients like Oprah Winfrey and the Rothschilds pay $2,000 and up for a suite at Sun International's Le Saint Geran, where Renaudin trained 14 Mauritian therapists.


Secrets of luxurious Asian healing and rejuvenation add an exotic aura to Spa Mystique in Los Angeles. Set in oriental gardens, the 30,000 sq.ft. building has direct access to Westin's Century Plaza Hotel & Spa as well as the St. Regis Hotel, plus a private entrance for members and day spa guests. As the largest spa in Los Angeles, facilities include Korean scrub rooms, Japanese furo pools, and a Thai massage suite. Signature treatment conceived by Sylvia Sepielli is called "Akasuri," a Korean tradition of vigorously scrubbing the body with an exfoliating brush and gel, followed by warm oil application, thorough face cleansing, and nourishing application of ground cucumber.

The extensive menu ranges from Swedish massage to shiatsu, men's facial, and renowned hair stylist Billy Yamaguchi's newest salon. Between treatments, guests enjoy spa cuisine in a cafe overlooking meditation gardens, or relax in the tranquility lounge. According to spa director Sherrie Huebner, "Spa Mystique brings a special style of relaxation and pampering to Los Angeles by incorporating Asian techniques and rituals with state-of-the-art fitness facilities. Workouts in the 4,500 sq. ft. Fitness Center include yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, aerobics, and Cybex equipment. Design by Sepielli is based on feng shui principles; there are 27 indoor and four outdoor treatment rooms, including a Japanese cypress tea bath. The free-standing spa building is located at 2025 Avenue of the Stars in Century City, heart of LA's fashionable Westside and adjacent to Beverly Hills. Information:


Bringing a taste of Thailand to Portugal, Chiva-Som Health Resort plans to rejuvenate an historic palace for their first European venture, opening next year. Comprehensive regimens combine medical tests, holistic philosophy balancing mind, body, and spirit. Founded by former Thai deputy prime minister Boonchu Rojanstein, Chiva-Som rates among world's best spas. www.chivasom.net


Design consultants Collier & Collier, based in Whitefish, Montana, have been retained for creation of Hong Kong's newest luxury spa.


Set amid verdant rice paddies of northern Thailand, 72 suites and three-level Lanna Spa evoke ancient Asia. Regent International Hotels has embarked on a selective expansion program under the stewardship of Carlson Hospitality Group, based in Minneapolis, Minn.


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About the Author
    and classical techniques from Europe and Asia
    blend with indigenous or native ingredients.
    The Institute of Thai Traditional Medicine graduated its first class last year, with 120 students completing an
    800-hour course.