Insider's Guide to Spas
Hotel Matilda


Rejuvenation Through the Elements

Mary Bemis

What better way to feel good, enliven the spirit and the senses, than with a visit to a spa that embraces the basics.

I come from a long line of women who know how to bathe. I’m talking two-hour tubs at a time, so it’s no surprise to those who know me that soaking, splashing, and generally taking the waters in any way, shape, or form is what floats my boat.

A quick look through spa’s storied timeline reveals that bathing rituals are as old as civilization. The Egyptians practiced water therapies, the Greeks introduced cold-water bathing, the Persians were busy creating steam and mud baths, the Turks followed with lavish baths built during the Ottoman Empire, and in 1326, a curative spring was found in a little town in Belgium. As it turns out, this was the very spring frequented by the Romans before 100 AD and named “Sulsu Par Aqua.” Hence the name of the little town: Spa.

All ancient cultures recognized and paid homage to these basic elements—water, earth, and fire—and spas are where those elements have always come together for healing, for relaxation, for rejuvenation.

The really good news is that we now get to experience all of it in a blending of the best traditions. I have spent a lifetime literally soaking it all up—pure waters, steam, mud—basic elements that enhance wellbeing. Here’s a quick list of places where these elements reign and that should be on your (water) bucket list.


Hydrotherapy is essentially the use of water for enhancing one’s health and wellness. Water therapy comes in many forms, including mineral baths, jetted tubs, Swiss showers, Vichy showers, and the old-fashioned high-pressure Scotch hose. Perhaps one of the most quintessential spa towns is Baden-Baden, which is home to the elegant Brenner’s Park-Hotel & Spa ( founded in 1834. One of the first European spas to modernize its facilities successfully, it now offers a topnotch experience for today’s spa-goer. Baden-Baden is also home to Friedrichsbad, a public 125-year-old “temple to the art of bathing.” Stateside, The Spa at the Standard Hotel in Miami Beach offers a hip, playful take on hydrotherapy. Describing itself as a “holistic hydrotherapy hotel,” it offers 15,000 square feet of fun in the form of an indoor-outdoor hydrotherapy playground: Hot baths, cold plunges, saunas, and much more. (

All ancient cultures recognized and paid homage to these basic elements—water, earth, and fire—and spas are where those elements have always come together for healing, for relaxation, for rejuvenation.


Water and earth make mud, and mud—via body wraps, masks, and packs—has been applied to the body for eons. The ancient Roman physician Galen wrote about mud treatments for arthritis and rheumatism. A good mud wrap, one of my all-time favorite spa treatments, can work wonders, as it has exfoliating, detoxifying, and firming properties, among others.

For thousands of years, people have flocked to the Dead Sea, famous for its curative mud and waters. This landlocked salt lake between Israel and Jordan, is one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world. It can actually be called one of the worlds’ first health resorts, thanks to Herod the Great, who used it as such. My husband, who had hurt his knee climbing the nearby fortress of Masada, was cured in a 45-minute mud wrap, much to his amazement. This area is also a major supplier of salts and minerals for a variety of personal-care products.

One of my favorite places to meander in the mud is the volcanic island of Ischia, about 20 miles from Naples. It has long been revered for its fantastic volcanic mud and terrific hot springs. One of the island’s nicest hotels is the L’Auberge Della Regina Isabella ( where mud is made right on property and used in its authentic spa treatments. The historic Omni Homestead Resort & Spa in West Virginia, has been drawing distinguished visitors for centuries. On the menu today is the Mineral Spring Mud Wrap that uses local mud from the hot springs here. After your body is exfoliated, your covered in warm mud and wrapped for about 20 minutes so that your body can absorb the beneficial properties. After showering, your skin is noticeably softer and super hydrated (


Native people everywhere had their sacred sweat lodge. They were used for many purposes from religious to spiritual to purification and ritual. The Mayans had their temezcal, the Russians their banya, the Finnish their sauna, the Turkish their hamam. These are all basically steam or sauna rooms. At their very core is water and fire.

The Turkish hamam is an ode to the steam bath. A beautiful, often ethereal space with ornate mosaics, octagonal pools, domes, and fountains, this is where one would come to socialize while being scrubbed with a special black soap, bathed, and massaged. The classic hamam is made up of three interconnected rooms of varying heat. The hottest room is home to a large marble slab that’s situated in the center and referred to as the “belly stone.” This is where one lies, relaxing and soaking up the steam, and where one is thoroughly scrubbed.

There are a plethora of places to experience all version of hamam. In San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, the chic boutique Hotel Matilda offers a miniature version of the hamam. The glittering tiled jewel-like room is a sought-after refuge for the city’s fashionable set. (

If you’re longing for renewal, for energizing the body and mind, why not immerse yourself in the elements and enhance your wellbeing.




Mary Bemis

Mary Bemis

Mary Bemis is editorial director of She is an award-winning spa journalist, honored with Folio's Top Women in Media Award, and the distinguished ISPA Dedicated Contributor Award. In 1997, she launched American Spa magazine, and in 2007, Mary co-founded Organic Spa magazine. A pioneer in the sustainable spa and beauty worlds, Mary is co-curator of Cosmoprof North America's Discover Green Pavilion. She sits on the board of Wellness Warrior, is a Global Wellness Day Advisor and a co-founder of the Washington Spa Alliance.