Weird & Wonderful

Cleopatra's habit of bathing in milk was once considered the epitome of decadence. But pampering has evolved and, as a new generation of spa goers, we are jaded, picky and possibly lactose intolerant. Treatments that were once exclusive are now de rigueur at any spa, and spa addicts want something bigger, better, or simply stranger.

Spa regulars know the concept of decadence contains an element of cheeky irreverence and a hint of naughtiness, and quirky spa treatments are perhaps just what we need this year: a hydrating cactus massage to brighten the mood.

Nothing says naughtiness quite like playing with our food, and now we can awaken our inner bad child by indulging in treatments where good eats and alcohol are applied to the skin instead of served on a plate or in a glass.

After all, there's no point in clocking up calories drinking alcohol when we can bathe in it instead. The latest in spa luxuries involves submerging ourselves in sake, beer, wine or sangria. Apart from the entertainment factor of sitting chin-deep in alcohol, the word on the therapeutic street is that the health benefits from alcohol baths are also substantial.

Ironically, a sake bath is known for its detoxifying effects. I-Spa at the InterContinental Hong Kong offers a Hokusetsu Sake Body Polish and Bath (HK$780/60min), and spa director Thea Wong said that the sake-infused hot bath (known as sak?-buro) detoxifies the body and helps improve circulation.

'A sake bath warms the body longer than a regular bath and the Japanese claim that it helps stabilise blood pressure,' she says, adding that sake also has a high content of active enzymes, which soften skin texture and even out skin tone.

Hong Kong offers a variety of other alcohol baths for its resident lushes. In addition to its social benefits, beer is also a rich source of vitamin B, which is essential for healthy hair, nails and skin. Sense of Touch Spa offers dark ale baths in wooden tubs, perfect for bar hoppers who like to swim in beer before they drink it. The Cheers to Beers package (HK$1,590/120min) includes a barley scrub and a massage to finish.

Oenophiles, on the other hand, would go loco for the Macanese Sangria Ritual (MOP$1,720/140min) at the Mandarin Oriental Spa in Macau. It's no secret that grapes are rich in antioxidants, and the body scrub with red wine grape seeds, sangria bath and grape-seed oil massage will leave you relaxed in a way that's healthier than time spent drinking vino.

Teetotalers need not despair. Once offered as a gift to the gods, Theobroma cacao now enriches the lives of mere mortals in the form of indulgent chocolate treatments. Theobroma means 'food of the gods', and the rich and creamy treat we have come to love has a wide range of external benefits in addition to its internal pleasures.

'Not only is cocoa butter rich in skin-firming fatty acids, it also contains glycerides which deliver moisturising lipids resulting in softer skin,' says Kent Richards, director of the Bliss spa at the W Hotel Hong Kong.

Bliss offers a Double Choc Pedicure (HK$570/60min) that caters to both the internal and external needs of chocoholics. Guests enjoy brownies and hot chocolate while soaking their feet in a sinful foot bath of chocolate shavings, hot chocolate powder and full cream milk. After filing and cuticle work, the feet and calves are exfoliated with a Bliss Choc Scrub using sugar, hot chocolate powder and oils, then massaged with a chocolate body butter before finishing with nail polishing.

Those still craving chocolate can get another sweet fix at the Langham Place Hotel's Chuan Spa. The Calorie-Free Chocolate Ecstasy (HK$1,480/120min) includes a chocolate mousse bath, chocolate fondue body wrap, followed by a chocolate cream hydration.

Those with a taste for the odd might want to explore the four corners of the Earth for treatments.

If half a dozen snakes slithering over your body is your kind of thing, then a trip to northern Israel may be in order. Hardly a treatment for the faint of heart, therapist Ada Barak unleashes a tangle of snakes onto her guests' backs at her spa in Talmei Elazar, with serpentine sizes ranging from large king and corn snakes that massage as they move their way down your back, to smaller milk snakes for their skin-deep caressing sensations.

For those who would rather their masseuse be of the two-legged variety, the Hakali massage (US$245/80min) at the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita in Mexico makes full use of its regional prickly plant. A warm frothy mixture of cactus and pulque is massaged onto the body with the pads of a cactus - thankfully with the spines removed. In addition to passing on the water-retentive benefits of the plant, the hydrating treatment helps to detoxify and rejuvenate the skin.

If cactus meringue and reptilian kneading fall short of the adrenaline junkie mark, then the sub-zero temperatures in Slovakia will do the trick. We're not referring, however, to the country's freezing winters, we're aiming about a hundred degrees below that with the CryoTherapy treatment (Euro116/10 sessions) at the AquaCity Resort.

Clothed in little more than a moisture-free cotton T-shirt and shorts along with a mask, mittens and socks protecting the extremities, guests must brave the CryoTherapy chamber that is chilled by liquid nitrogen to a frigid minus 120 degrees Celsius.

Thrill-seeking aside, the treatment is offered to guests for its specific health benefits. Having derived its name from the Greek words krio (cold) and therapia (cure), cryotherapy dates back to the ancient Egyptians circa 2500BC when physical maladies such as bleeding and swelling were treated with cold compresses. Today, the extreme cold provided by CryoTherapy is used to treat everything from eczema and arthritis to depression and even Parkinson's disease.

Mary Stuart-Miller, a PR at the resort who has gone through 12 sessions herself, said that the most noticeable benefit is a general sense of wellbeing. 'My mood was more upbeat for several weeks afterwards, and my skin softer and smoother,' she says.

Dr Jan Potocky oversees the resort and is on site to make sure guests are medically fit for the treatment, taking into consideration their medical history, blood pressure and general health. He supervises the guests as they enter the antechamber chilled to minus 60 degrees for half a minute of acclimatising, after which they enter the main CryoTherapy chamber. Guests spend up to two minutes in the misty chamber before heading back through the antechamber and straight to the gym for 20 minutes of vigorous exercise.

Although core body temperature only drops 0.5 of a degree and skin temperature by two to three degrees during the treatment, Stuart-Miller says that the cold is still a shock to the system. 'The cold really hits you at first, it's a very dry cold,' she says. 'Towards the end you can see ice crystals form on your skin.'

Whether we find them weird or wonderful, these unconventional treatments bring a welcome splash of frivolity into our lives. And those feeling more guilt than pleasure for wasting edible ingredients in the name of beauty, might want to take a leaf out of Oscar Wilde's book and know that at least once in a while, 'it is better to be beautiful than to be good'.


Bliss Spa 72-73/F W Hong Kong 1 Austin Road West, Kowloon Tel: 3717 2797

Chuan Spa 41/F Langham Place Hotel 555 Shanghai Street Mong Kok, Kowloon Tel: 3552 3510

I-Spa 3/F InterContinental Hong Kong 18 Salisbury Road, Kowloon Tel: 2313 2306

Sense of Touch 1-5/F D'Aguilar Street Lan Kwai Fong Tel: 2526 6918

Spa at Mandarin Oriental Macau 956-1110 Avenida da Amizade Tel: (+853) 8796 4824