WHILE THE HORDES are bar-hopping around Bali's Kuta beach nightspots, some travellers are choosing more relaxing locations and activities. 'Where once there was bar-cruising in Bali, now there is spa-hopping,' says Errol Tan, CEO of the Martha Tilaar Group (MTG), an Indonesian beauty behemoth that runs two of the island's most luxurious facilities catering for tourists. 'It's something you incorporate into what you do every day; it's a lifestyle.' Having visited Bali twice before, first for its beaches, then for its culture, I wanted a new reason to go back. Becoming a spa junkie seemed a perfect excuse to return. Not that I was suffering from anything more than overwork and underplay. The word spa is an acronym for solus per aqua (Latin for 'health by water'), but most visitors to Bali view spas primarily as places to unwind. Whether they actually have therapeutic benefits or water features are of secondary importance: the feel-good factor reigns supreme. This much is amply provided at the Nusa Dua Beach Hotel and Spa (tel: 361 771 210), whose prosaic name belies its traditional elegance. Opened in 1995, the spa was one of the first to be established in Bali and remains among the biggest on the island: 50 people can be accommodated in its 36 treatment rooms at any one time and both Western and Asian treatments are available. Too bashful to partake in the romantic packages for couples (one includes a variety of treatments in a room equipped with a dip pool and double bed), I opted for a solo, 50-minute Balinese massage (US$30 or HK$234), which promised to invigorate and boost circulation by using a 'percussion technique' to tackle pressure points. With my face slotted into the hole at the head of a bed and my gaze focused on a frangipani flower floating in stoneware below, the masseuse got to work, her hands treating my body like dough. After kneading, pulling and rolling with the aid of my oil of choice, 'desert spice', she used her thumbs to press deep. Then came the maracas movements. Similar to Thai massage, this workout left me feeling loose-limbed but I wasn't especially recharged. This came only after a dip in the cold plunge pool, though some advise against doing this directly after a massage, believing it causes wind. Having avoided Nusa Dua on previous visits because of its reputation as an over-manicured enclave populated by over-spenders, I found myself taking to this part of Bali, but not because of its deluxe facilities. The drawcard here is that the number of touts (and masseuses among them) plying the beaches is regulated, which allows guests to kick back in peace. That is, unless you try a beach-side massage. Charging a fraction of the prices asked elsewhere, these multi-tasking masseuses work in shacks that have the ambience of wet markets. Instead of New Age music there is chit-chat and laughter. And instead of exotic fragrances, there may be fumes. I paid US$3 (bargained down from US$8). Was it worth it? Yes. Bali is home to more than 700 spas, according to Tan, who estimates the boom began in the late 1990s while recession gripped the region. During this time, sidewalk ventures and top-end outfits proliferated, offering everything from traditional Indonesian treatments to ayurvedic therapy. Eastern methods gained favour because of their seemingly more traditional approach. Words such as 'lulur' (an exfoliating treatment using turmeric, sandalwood and yoghurt) and 'boreh' (body scrub made from cloves, pepper, cardamom, ginger, galangal and rice powder to relieve stiffness) entered the lexicon of spa junkies. The eponymous Martha Tilaar spas at Nusa Dua and Seminyak (tel: 361 777 661) are among the better known in Bali, one reason being Tilaar's successful beauty business that has helped make MTG a US$100 million company. Convinced of the growing popularity of spas, Tilaar is planning to open two more in Bali by the end of the year and another two in 2002. To complement her spa school in Jakarta, Tilaar is also starting one in Bali that will accommodate about 30 students, tourists included. Customers who buy week-long packages at her spas and want to pick up special skills and knowledge, for instance, will be allowed to take basic, one-week courses. This means Tilaar will probably have to reveal the secret behind her popular women-only 'Ken Dedes' treatment ... although it may be men who take the courses to find out. Describing it as 'especially for women who are frigid', Tilaar says the special herbal bath, scrub and massage with aphrodisiac oil helps a woman 'to be more feminine and to make her husband happy'. I took a rain check on the Martha Tilaar experience and checked into the Grand Mirage Hotel in Tanjung Benoa. With huge billboards around Bali advertising its thalasso Bali spa (tel: 21 773 883), the hotel targets tourists seeking out its sea-water-based treatments. It also banks on the fact that it is the only such spa in Southeast Asia. Thalassotherapy, which, like most other spa treatments is marketed as a preventive measure, claims to help people suffering from nervous tension, weight problems and tobacco dependency, among other afflictions Apart from packages that cost up to US$130 and last as long as 4.5 hours (the Nusa Dua Spa recommends people not exceed four hours of therapy), there are individual treatments such as 'balneotherapy', in which a 'hydro therapist' massages you with a water jet to 're-mineralise' and invigorate muscles, and the 'great shower', in which victims are blasted with warm and cold sea water to tone the body and 'decongest' fat deposits. Again, I chose tamer options, starting with the aquamedic pool, an outdoor, undercover, salt-water pool with jets that massage every part of the body. The minerals in the water are said to help blood circulation and fat burning. Guests can spend as much time as they like in the pool (for US$25), but staff obviously keep tabs on the time, often motioning people to move elsewhere if they've spent too long in one place. Not that you can withstand more than a few minutes in some jets - the 'waterfall' jet dumps water on the backs and heads of recipients at such volume it's hard work staying upright. That night I slept more deeply than I'd done in ages, though I'm unsure whether it was the result of the mineral-rich soak or just the soporific effect of having little to do except watch my fingernails grow. Hooked, I returned to the centre the following day, this time for a Seaweed Deluxe Application (US$35). Stripped to nothing, I was scrubbed with sea salts, then covered with a thick, warm paste. The sensation was not as sensual as I had imagined; I felt like a raw prawn dipped in batter. But then came the plastic wrap. With goo all over me I was encased like a mummy with only my face uncovered. Naturally, I developed an itch on my back, but by the time I'd decided to say something, my therapist had dimmed the lights and checked out. It was a good 15 minutes before she reappeared and by then the itchy area had turned numb. A quick shower and rubdown restored my spirits but, as I nursed a cup of tea, I noticed a slight itchiness on my upper arm; this discomfort lasted a few days, probably exacerbated by my new-found pleasure: rubbing sea salt over my skin to soften it. Why do thousands return to Bali to spend hour after hour in spas? While ambience and affordability are factors, the real answer is more fundamental. 'It gives me a chance to slow down and pamper myself,' said a pool mate at Thalasso Bali. 'It's the healing hands, the warm touch,' declared Tilaar. I liked it because it sweetened my sleep.