Don’t laugh. It’s no stretch to include hot-tubbing under the cultural travel heading. Though the past-time took on racy overtones in the 1960’s and has spread to prefabricated tubs in backyards everywhere, it has been practiced more or less continuously since the Roman era, with fascinating, cultural variations. It’s all about the therapeutic benefits of soaking in water, but visiting a wood-lined bath in a Japanese ryokan where you have to wash off before entering the hot tub is a vastly different experience from the numbing shock of plunging into the frigid Baltic after a 200-degree roast at the Finish Sauna Society on Lauttasaari Island near Helsinki.
So I seek out baths wherever I go partly for the sybaritic pleasure, but also because some things can only be transmitted through the skin and bone. I like unfussy, workaday bath houses in L.A.’s Koreatown where women gossip and scrub each others’ backs; the public facilities in the fabled old European spa town of Karlsbad (now part of the Czech Republic) where $15 buys you what the brochure describes as a “water cure slightly exciting,” actually an almost painfully-powerful hot and cold water hose down; and a far more restful, even less expensive soak in a Balinese flower bath lined by an open window where I watched a giant spider spin its web.
As something of a connoisseur, I view the aesthetics as paramount. Here are my three favorite places to soak the world over.
The hot spring-fed Esalen Baths are perched along a rock shelf 50 feet above the Pacific Ocean on one of the most stunning stretches of California‘s Big Sur coast. Part of the not-for-profit Esalen Institute, an alternative education center and counter-culture hotbed founded in 1962, they are reserved for workshop participants, except between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. when the public can enter, by reservation. The bath house, elegantly designed and landscaped after damage from 1998 El Nino storms, has two levels of indoor and outdoor tubs, surrounded by decks, and treatment rooms where Esalen-trained massage therapists practice their art. Booking a treatment is another way to visit the baths, but note: Clothing is optional. For the whole fascinating story of the institute and its springs check out Jeffrey Kripal’s “Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion.“
Schloss Elmau is a spa hotel in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps about 70 miles south of Munich, erstwhile realm of Mad King Ludwig. The German national monument was built as a cultural retreat by philosopher-theologian Johannes Muller in 1916, then served as a sanitarium for Holocaust survivors after it was confiscated at the end of World War II. When it burned to the ground in 2005, the founder’s grandson Dietmar Muller-Elmau gave it new life as a luxury retreat with a panoply of elegant spa facilities. My favorite is the heated, rooftop pool where you can swim while snow falls on the nearby Wettersteinwand massif. Suites cost almost $500 a night (including breakfast and dinner), but there are less expensive “Purist” accommodations available under the eaves in the East Wing.
Therme Vals is an extraordinary community bathing facility about 120 miles southeast of Zurich, reached by a precariously winding road up the gorge of the Valser River. Hot springs along its course have long drawn health-seekers and attracted a bottling plant in 1970, but it was the construction of a new bath house in 1996, financed by revenue from an electricity plant, that put the place on the map. Designed by Peter Zumthor who went on to win the Pritzker Prize for architecture in 2009, Therme Vals is a sort of post-modern cavern made of locally-mined metamorphic rock with meadow grasses growing on the roof and dramatic, cantilevered platforms jutting over the pools inside. “Our spa is no fun far with the latest technical gadgets but focuses on the feeling of water and physical contact with primordial stone,” wrote Zumthor. Though built for villagers, outsiders are welcome during regular bathing hours; from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. the premises are reserved for guests at the adjacent hotel where rates include spa entrance.