Spa Time Travel
Spa has been a way of life for thousands of years, but our recognition of it as a full-blown and still-growing industry is a relatively more recent development. From the thermal baths of ancient Greece, Rome, and Japan to our ability to book an herbal wrap from our iPhones, we take you on a fascinating tour of spa through the centuries.
In 4th century B.C., the asclepieion at Epidaurus, a small city in ancient Greece, becomes the healing center of the classical world. In 25 B.C., Emperor Agrippa designs and creates the first Roman thermae (a large-scale spa); over time, thermaes are built across the Roman Empire, from Africa to England, gradually evolving into full-blown entertainment complexes offering sports, restaurants, and various types of baths.
In 737 A.D., Japan's first onsen (hot spring) opens near Izumo, and centuries later the first ryoken (inns) are built, offering fine food, accommodations, Zen gardens, outdoor baths and indoor soaking tubs called cypress ofuro. Saunas begin appearing along the Baltic in Finland as early as 1000 A.D.
Middle Ages & Renaissance Era
In the Middle Ages, Western Europe's Charlemagne's Aachen and Bonaventura's Poretta develop as popular bathing/healing gathering places around thermal springs. In the Renaissance era, Paracelsus' mountain mineral springs at Paeffers, Switzerland, and towns like Spa, Belgium, Baden-Baden, Germany, and Bath, England (advertised as "the premier resort of frivolity and fashion") grow around natural thermal waters considered to have healing properties.
The U.S. develops into a center of spa innovation, when New York's Saratoga Springs emerges as a fashionable retreat for luminaries ranging from Edgar Allan Poe to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who, as New York's governor, championed the town's renovation in the early '30s).
Budapest becomes Europe's spa capital with the opening of Gellert Baths, a stunning complex comprising Art Nouveau architecture and Turkish-inspired thermal pools.*
Photo credit: Rudas Bath - Photo courtesy of Budapest Winter Invitation
A second-generation American, Deborah Szekely, creates the first destination spa, Rancho La Puerta, located just south of the border in Baja, California. In 1958 Szekely opens the pioneering Golden Door spa in California, offering individualized weight loss and fitness programs (and purportedly introducing Jane Fonda to aerobics).
The first fitness spa, The Ashram, debuts in California, announcing a grueling weight loss/fitness regimen that is toned down and popularized by Tucson's Canyon Ranch in 1979.
In 1986 New York-based SpaFinder, Inc. (then known simply as "Spafinder") opens its doors, becoming the first travel agency specializing in spa vacations. Since that time, the spa industry has grown from a fledgling niche business into a booming $15 billion global industry.
In 1995, luxury hotels take note of the ever-growing popularity of spas and begin to add them among their amenities*. By 1997, innovative U.S. doctors began to introduce "medical spas," combining Western and holistic medicine in a luxurious environment alongside spa services.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Morgan Hotels Group/Delano
More and more people begin traveling to another city, state or country for medical spa experiences, creating a new trend: medical tourism. Many hotel/resort spas begin to recognize the new opportunity that medical tourism presents and market themselves as ideal pre- and post-operation stays.
Resorts and hotels also expand into the corporate and wellness retreat business, adding specialty programs or special accommodations (think workshops, boot camps, etc.) that appeal to their guests—in effect becoming "destination spas" for a period of time.
Spa-ing while traveling reaches a whole new cruising altitude, with in-transit spa-going: trains with fully equipped gyms and spas, planes with in-flight spa showers and massage treatments, health and wellness-oriented cruises and more.
Spa lovers can travel down any street in the U.S. and check their iPhone to pinpoint the spa nearest to hem, thanks to the SpaFinder App.
The year also brings a new term, "wellness tourism," describing travel across borders for preventive services, diagnostics, spa and wellness vacations, even stem-cell banking.