My first visit to a spa was a disaster. I hated everything about the experience: the scented oils, the flickering candles, and the monotonous music featuring breathy pan flutes. Throw in the stranger poking and prodding different parts of my body and it was pretty much 60 minutes of misery.
My friend Sean, who had booked the massage just before mine, was beaming when I stepped out of the treatment room wearing an oversized robe and slippers. He knew I was a first-timer, and grew suspicious when I hemmed and hawed in response to his questions about just how wonderful my treatment had been. He stopped smiling and asked me to rate how I was feeling on a 10-point scale.
"I don't know," I replied. "About a two."
"A two?" he asked, visibly shocked. "But how were you feeling before you went in?"
"About a four."
My friend walked away shaking his head, muttering that I should be feeling at least a six. Maybe a seven.
Look, I know I have issues. Many of the spa rituals that are designed to put people at ease, I find distracting. The constant folding and unfolding of the towel covering your body reminds me of a trip to the dermatologist's office. And the disposable underwear that many spas bestow on you like a gift—as if you might want to keep it for lounging around your apartment afterward—is just an ill-fitting reminder that you're not wearing anything else. (Not to mention that the unisex design looks equally ludicrous on men and women.)
At first I thought my problem with spas might be a guy thing, but then I realized that plenty of men I know don't mind the occasional rubdown. Some might euphemistically call it a "sports massage," a term dreamed up by the spa industry to get more men in the door, but once they step into the treatment room they drop the pretense along with their robe.
Not that I begrudge anybody else their spa time. When a friend who is headed for an international flight goes off in search of a 15-minute mini-massage, it seems sensible. Why not relax before getting on a plane? Another friend heads out west to a desert destination spa every year. It uses up almost all of his vacation time, but he returns looking refreshed and reinvigorated. What's the harm? I once sent my mother and sister to a spa together—a potentially disastrous situation that ended with them walking out together arm in arm.
I had absolutely nothing against spas. They seemed to be a wonderful experience for other people. They just weren't for me.
Then I injured my back.
While skiing in the French Alps I noticed a tightness in my lower back on the second day. At first it was manageable with a handful of Tylenol, but after I took on a few more challenging slopes the pain grew steadily worse. The rest of my group was headed back up the ski lift for another run, but I decided to throw in the towel.
The next morning, my back wasn't much better. I did my usual stretches at the hotel gym, took a steaming hot bath, and downed a few more pills, but nothing seemed to help. The group set off for an afternoon of skiing at the resort town of Méribel, but once again I stayed behind.
Noticing that I was in was in pain, one of the staffers at the Hôtel Le Savoy pointed me to the Spa and Wellness Area by Payot. Housed in the massive Méribel Olympic Centre, built for the 1992 Winter Olympics, the facility has saunas, steam rooms, and a wedge-shaped whirlpool tub that can hold at least a dozen people. As an added bonus, there's a relaxation room that overlooks the ski slopes.
Up a spiral staircase was the treatment area, where a therapist met me at the door of my room. Although the interior was dimly lit, it otherwise lacked the New-Agey trappings that I usually find so off-putting. And my therapist talked in a normal tone of voice, asking me questions about why I was there. She nodded, saying she understood exactly what I needed. So far, so good.
And it was good—better than good. She spent almost the entire hour gently but firmly kneading my back, and I felt better almost immediately. It wasn't a miracle cure, but I did think I could handle skiing the next day. I joined the group taking a gondola up and over the snow-covered mountains to the resort area of Courchevel, where we spent most of the day navigating some very taxing terrain. My back barely bothered me until the early evening.
The following morning, the rest of the group was heading off to the spa at Le Mélézin. They seemed pleased, if a bit surprised, at how enthusiastic I was about joining them. It's a beautiful facility, especially the indoor pool held aloft by slender pillars and the steam room with a gracefully arched ceiling. But all that was secondary for me—I was booked for an 80-minute massage, and I was going to take advantage of every minute of it.
The treatment room was surprisingly simple, with lots of natural wood. The music was soft and unobtrusive. The towels were warm, but not too warm. And best of all, the therapist and I had a serious discussion about what I needed, agreeing on a strategy that she said would help alleviate the pain in my lower back, but also the tension in my upper back, shoulders, and neck that was contributing to the problem.
That’s when things clicked. It might seem obvious to veteran spa-goers, but that was the first time I realized that a massage isn't about letting somebody else do all the work. There are two people in the room, and they both have to be participants for it to have a chance of succeeding.
Because of our conversation beforehand, I knew what the therapist was going to do, and I understood why. And then, for the first time, I was able to really relax.
Mark Sullivan is a travel editor for Fodor’s, specializing in cities and cultural destinations. Follow him on Twitter: @markenroute.