If you’re after some rejuvenation on your next break but still fancy a bit of an adventure, there are a whole host of alternative therapies offered around the world. From snail facials to a spot of sauna whipping, you can invigorate your body and soul with a smorgasbord of weird but wonderful wellness treatments. Here we’ve rounded up ten of the best.
Soak in sake in Japan
Sake isn’t just the steamy accompaniment to a plate of tempura. This fermented rice drink is also a tonic for the skin. In Hakone's Yunessun Spa, an enormous cask drips sake straight into a pool. Believers swear that a soak prevents age spots forming, and others get a kick out of the heady fumes. Not to your taste? Take the plunge in Yunessun’s coffee, red wine or green tea baths instead.
Get whipped in a Russian banya
The grime you acquire riding the Trans-Siberian Railway won’t steam itself out. In a Russianbanya (steam room) birch twigs and leaves are bundled up and moistened with hot water, then swished against the skin in between steaming sessions. Light whipping with branches is thought to encourage circulation, so banyas are especially popular in Siberia where temperatures dip below -35°C. Plenty of hostels and hotels have them on site; check out Belka on the shores of Lake Baikal.
Enter the deep freeze in Finland
Scandinavians are known for indulging in (or enduring) a plunge into ice-topped lakes in between sauna visits. But cryotherapy turns the temperature gauge even lower… right down to -110°C. Less than three minutes in the chill chamber at Finland’s Haikko Spa is all it takes, and if the promised benefits of pain relief and glowing skin don’t appear, the feeling of sheer exhilaration – that you survived – should suffice.
Planning a trip to Finland? Don't miss our guide to the best things to do in Finland.
Relax with a pinch of salt in Poland
Wieliczka Caves are an eye-boggling series of subterranean grottoes, 90 minutes from Krakow, and today they’re bedecked with glitzy chandeliers and intricate statues – all carved out of salt. Hundreds of years ago, locals noticed a lower incidence of lung disease in salt mine workers which began a vogue for salt cave pampering; supposed benefits include improvements to asthma and allergies. Descend 135m down into Wieliczka’s Lake Wessel Chamber to try for yourself.
Be buffed by Lithuania’s mermaid amber
When you spy the glint of amber on Baltic beaches, don't dismiss it as hardened tree resin. Amber has a powerful place in Lithuanian legend, infusing it with ritual significance when worn as jewellery or used in beauty products. Lithuanian folk tales tell of a mermaid queen, Jūratė, and how her passionate affair with a mortal enraged the thunder god Perkūnas, who then smashed her amber palace to pieces. You can be scrubbed, polished and wrapped in the tragic siren's amber in spas across Lithuania, like Vanagupe in Palanga, a seaside town in the northwest.
Bathe like an emperor in Rome
Modern spas owe a great deal to the Roman Empire. Cleansing with oils, scraping off dirt with a strigil, and alternating between a caldarium (steam room) and frigidarium (cold plunge bath) remain the blueprint for modern wellness rituals. Imperial baths (thermae) were much more than spas though: lingering amid clouds of fragrant steam was the perfect atmosphere for gossiping, poetry recitals and a round of political debate. Wellness centres across Rome still offer this timeless experience; visit Rome Cavalieri.
Neptune Roman empire thermal bath, frigidarium and landscape in Ostia Antica © mgallar/Shutterstock
Cook like an egg in a Korean kiln
Consider yourself a sauna connoisseur? A Korean han-jeung-mak might test your limits. In between steam rooms and a punishing round of exfoliation, break a sweat in the ‘kiln sauna’ – alarmingly similar to an oven in appearance, this intensely heated dome uses burning wood and charcoal to heat the room, the style of which has barely changed style in 500 years. Eggs are a popular in-spa snack in Korea; you might spot a bowl of them inside the kiln, slow-cooking (just like you). Public bathhouses (jjimjilbang) around Korea have kiln rooms; try Dragonhillspa in Seoul.
Enjoy a snail’s pace across your face in Japan
How far would you go to get bright, clear skin? Centuries ago, geisha used uguisu no fun (nightingale droppings) to remove makeup and polish their skin. Nightingale faeces still makes its way into some beauty treatments and products, but the new vogue in Japan is for snails slithering across the skin. Brave the moisturising properties of molluscs at Clinical-Salon Ci:z.Labo in Tokyo (17F Ebisu Prime Square Plaza, 1-1-40 Hiro'o, Shibuya-ku).
Experience blind massage in China
The heightened tactile senses of blind masseurs are thought especially effective at targeting aches and pains. The number of blind massage therapists exploded with the foundation of the Chinese Massage Association of Blind Practitioners nearly 20 years ago. Around 100,000 are now thought to practise throughout China; take a local recommendation if you can, or ask a taxi driver to look out for mangren anmo. Be aware that massage parlours with pink or blue lights might be offering a different 'treatment' altogether.
Get some reptile therapy in Israel
If you thought fish pedicures were a little tame, what about a few dozen snakes writhing over your skin? At Ada Barak's Carnivorous Plant Farm in Israel (Talmei El'azar), snakes are released to crawl over the shoulders, neck and scalp of a patient (or victim). The snakes' rhythmic movements are thought to be highly therapeutic. After surviving a faceful of snakes, routine treatments like waxing will never phase you again.