Before breakfast in a rustic chalet amid pine trees in Bavaria’s Ammergau Alps, I ease tentatively into a huge, vintage soaking tub. Not filled with water, it brims with decomposed organic matter, a hot, gooey muck of muddy, scrubby, black gunk. Soaking in this 10,000-year-old mountain pine peat, a local heath tradition said to help women conceive and to alleviate arthritis and other joint pain turns out to be restorative. The hour-long bath not only eases anxiety, but also nullifies my physical aches. Completely renewed, I hop out, take the requisite ice-cold shower to cleanse my skin, and veritably run up the mountain with an abundance of energy that lasts all day.  

I’m experiencing the world famous “bird poop” facial, a skincare treatment, which dates back centuries to Japan’s pre-Edo period, when geishas used nightingale droppings to brighten and exfoliate their faces.

In Japan, I anxiously take my seat in an esthetician’s sleek chamber. Gracefully, she gathers her supplies, stirring a bowl filled with something white, she grins at me, then begins slathering it gently over my face. I’m experiencing the world famous “bird poop” facial, a skincare treatment, which dates back centuries to Japan’s pre-Edo period, when geishas used nightingale droppings to brighten and exfoliate their faces. Typically mixed with rice bran, the popular facial, which imparts a healthy dose of urea and guanine, isn’t a gimmick. The results—glowing, hydrated, line-free skin—speak for themselves.  

During three decades as a spa editor, I’ve had my aura photographed in Sedona, been massaged with an olive branch in Israel and a Maasai warrior’s wooden baton (rungu) in Tanzania, tried past life regression, sat in a steaming tamazcal, been tapped with a hammer, let fish nibble my feet for a pedicure, sat naked with thirty strangers in Malmo, then jumped into the frozen sea to contrast bathe, and done plenty of goat yoga sessions. In the name of research, and personal fulfilment, I’ve been sprayed with freezing water from a high-powered hose, showered in wine, been wrapped in giant tea bags, blessed by shamans, immersed in the petals of one thousand roses, whispered with horses, swum with dolphins, been covered with Balinese coins, swaddled in seaweed, and rubbed with raw eggs. I’ve done music therapy, water therapy, crystal therapy, fire therapy, and oxygen therapy. In the end, I’ve discovered that I’m not satisfied with a classic massage. How about you? 

To whet your appetite for sense-of-place spa treatments that exude authentic wellbeing, we round up a few favorites to add to your list.  

Axe Throwing and Moonlight Bicycling at The Boulders, Carefree Arizona: 

Proving that almost any activity counts as a spa treatment if done meditatively, this yin and yang of spa pursuits comprises only a portion of the vast possibilities offered at this profound spa, poised among ancient rocks and otherworldly dessert environs. Find your Zen beneath a million twinkling stars as you pedal beside night-blooming cacti lit by the glowing eyes of watchful coyotes, jackrabbits, and javelinas. Conversely, in the morning, find your warrior focus when you learn to pitch a hatchet across the lawn, aiming for a bullseye. Empowering, good for burying the hatchet, this activity also benefits team building.  

Cow Cuddling at Mountain Horse Farm, Naples, New York 

Moo-dy? Try some moo-therapy among a herd of friendly bovines at Mountain Horse Farm, a cruelty-free, B&B wellness resort in upstate New York’s bucolic Finger Lakes region. Cow hugging, believed to have started in Holland, begins with a farm tour, which ends with participants embracing cows, a calming act which reduces stress and initiates a warming sense of positivity. It’s believed that the tranquil effects of snuggling a pet and its accompanying boost of oxytocin has an even bigger impact with a larger animal. Choose to “glamp” at night in one of the farm’s kitted-out tipis. 

Lyrical Hiking at Loire Valley Lodges, Loire Valley France 

Leafy and verdant, France’s castle-flecked Loire Valley served as the playground for bygone royalty looking for a rural weekend way from urban Paris. Today, it attracts tourists for its wine, nature, and historical sites. Snuggle into one of Loire Valley Lodges’ luxurious, forest-surrounded tree house suites located just a short drive from bucket list châteaux—such as Château de Chenonceau. Join the hotel’s founder, Anne Caroline Frey, for a 2-hour “forest bathing” romp to commune with the woods. Or set out ready to croon. You’ll tromp alto voce on a sing-a-long walk among wooded pathways. The hotel’s “lyrical hikes” are led by a world-renowned tenor. Both experiences teach guests how to breathe with the trees and reconnect with nature’s offerings.   

Inhalation Bar at The Spa at Boutique Hotel Alhambra, Losinj Island, Croatia 

Long considered an aristocrat’s wellness mecca and a favorite of the Hapsburg clan, Losinj vaunts a unique microclimate, profuse with Aleppo pines, mineral-rich sea water, hundreds of medicinal plants, and deeply-entrenched healing traditions. Today a glamorous spa outpost, the island has a trove of award-winning hotels and wellbeing centers. Lavishly restored, Alhambra Spa honors the past with a contemporary outlook. Its nod to bygone times includes its Inhalation Bar, where modern guests can gather, like those from the past, to socialize and breathe in fine mists of salubrious seawater and nature’s own therapeutic plant-based aerosols. 

Tequila Massage at Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, Riviera Nayarit 

Turns out tequila isn’t just for swilling. At the mystical, seaside Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, on the Riviera Nayarit, just an hour north of Puerto Vallarta, they boast a tequila sommelier. But, spa goers can take their agave-based beverage on their back at the spa, leaving the bar behind—at least for awhile. During a vitality-rich Punta Mita Tequila Stone treatment (a long-time guest favorite), enjoy the healing magic of an ancestral recipe that combines tequila and sage oil to liberate muscle tension, improve joint mobility, and awaken circulation. The therapists “close the bar” with customized pressure using a combination of hot stones, forearms, and hands. 

Sleep Pod at Velaa Private Island, Maldives 

You’d think sleep would come easily after the long flight to the Maldives, a nation formed by some 1,800 islands. But many travelers pack and carry their problems and worries, toting them like extra clothing for the ride. When sleep won’t come, Velaa Private Island, nestled within the Noonu Atoll, has a cure as stylish as the award-winning, design-centric resort itself. Find 40 winks in the Cloud 9 sleep pod, created to aid sleep and reduce stress by cradling guests and swaying them, as if they were babes being lullabied to slumber by a nanny who had mastered the machine’s multi-sensory blend of color and light.