A combination of good fortune, hard work and a devilishly tricky spine have led me to seek out spa treatments all around the world.
But what is it that makes a good spa great? What makes it one of the best in the world?
To an extent, of course, that’s personal. Some people love to feel in pain, to feel they’ve earned the right to relax or to feel more beautiful.
As you may have already guessed, that approach does not sit well with me.
I’ll leave the “no pain, no gain” philosophy for exercise and non-avoidable medical treatments.
When it comes to spas, I seek pleasure not pain.
Culture, too, goes a long way to fill my senses. I love to find spas that tailor their design, their architecture and their treatments to the local landscape and customs around them.
And so those are the things I’ve held most in mind as I’ve drawn up this list from well over 200 spas in over 50 countries.
Custom, culture, cool design.
And above all else, a spa that leaves me feeling better at the end than I did when I went in.
Are your aching muscles ready?
Then let’s begin.
Behold, my personally curated list of the best spas in the world.
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Arabic beauty with a focus on high quality and flawless design
I have a soft spot for the Chedi. I first went there on my honeymoon and then returned to mark my 10 year anniversary, give or take the odd month.
Its monochrome arches cut clear lines against the desert sky and the infinity pools glittered in my mind throughout the years.
The spa itself, renovated now, combines Arabic architecture with a medley of techniques from India, Bali and the Arabian Peninsula itself.
This place remains my favourite spa in the world.
A barely there spa setting that makes the most of the stunning surroundings
Enjoy every aspect of the Maldives Islands with a stay at the W Retreat & Spa. Not only does the Indian Ocean surround the rooms but frosted glass portholes reveal its shimmer and shine beneath your feet as well.
Accessible only by sea plane, the spa itself has no walls nor windows: just bright air, sea breezes and yet more views of the unbelievably brilliant blue.
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The Lafodia Waterhill Spa, Croatia
Pine-scented relaxation with views of the Adriatic ocean and hiking paths nearby
The Lafodia’s spa’s signature treatment, the Aemotio, focuses on the theme of water in these Elaphiti islands. Positioned beneath an octopus of pulsing jets, the therapist begins with an exfoliating treatment on a luxury water bed before moving on to a mud mask and finishing off with a water vibro-massage. A 21st steam hammam takes place, as does treatment with gel drainage masks and infra red.
Elsewhere, steam rises up in vapours of citrus and pine – and of course, there’s always an ice bath for the bold and, er,
Perfect massage technique with a backdrop of roaring surf
Only 30 minutes from the main airport, the chunky boulders that surround the soft white sand create a world away from stress and strain. A palm-fringed path leads up the hill to the spa, whose treatments blend poultices made from indigenous herbs with traditional Thai techniques.
The waves of the Indian Ocean provide a thunderous chorus through the open-air walls while therapists melt away aches and pains with ease.
Precision treatments that will change the way you think about sake forever
If you’ve decided that the rice wine sake is not for you, then a trip to the Hoshinoya Karuizawa Spa may change your mind. Rooms bring a contemporary touch to traditional Japanese ryokan living but the essentials remain: low level furniture, cleanliness, immaculate design and piping hot baths.
Relax in the aromatic cedar wood bathtubs of the room or head to the spa for the full sake scrub.
Walk back, nay float, beneath the clear light of the stars.
Eco-luxury high in the mountains with cable-car-only access and views of the lavender-tinged Dolomites.
Dreamy white sails and spice on a private island in Borneo
In the name of research, or course, I tried out several spas in Malaysian Borneo – and the Gaya Island Resort won easily. Accessed by a short trip on a private boat, the island itself acts as a research-based turtle sanctuary with snuffling wild boars, as well as a prime honeymoon destination.
The spa village, a tranquil arrangement on stilts amid Borneo green, incorporates Sabah’s spices and indigenous customs into its treatments.
The results are heavenly.
Disclosure – At some of these spas I received complimentary treatments for review purposes – and in some of them, I did not. In any case, I always keep the right to write what I like and to choose which spas make the cut in my best of the world list.
Typically, I only publish my own photos here on the lab but in certain situations (spas, business class etc) I’ll use stock images to protect people’s privacy. Let’s face it, few of us want photos of us asleep or in our swimsuits on the internet…right?!
Abigail King is an award-winning writer and author who swapped a successful career as a hospital doctor for a life on the road. With over 60 countries under her belt, she's worked for Lonely Planet, the BBC, National Geographic Traveller and more. She is passionate about sustainable tourism and was invited to speak on the subject at the EU-China High Level summit at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.Here she writes about food, travel and history and she invites you to pull up a chair and relax. Let's travel more and think more. Welcome!
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