Travel

By Kelley Granger

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The hammam at Gaia Spa

Hammam treatments are popping up in the unlikeliest of places, like New York and Las Vegas. (Who knew Sin City wanted to clean up its act?) The truth is this method of purification has roots in the countries of Turkey and Morocco, where the bathing rituals have been carefully performed for centuries in special bathhouses. But sometimes the neighborhood hammam can be a little intimidating to a foreign first-timer because many Western norms are not adhered to – bathing is done in a communal space, nudity is not frowned upon and the burly woman scrubbing you down might signal you to turn over with a good smack on the butt. (Trust me, I know for a fact.) So if a trek to Turkey is in your future, consider paying a visit to the Gaia Spa at the Hyatt Regency, where they have faithfully recreated the fine points of the Turkish bath in Taksim, just a metro-ride north of Istanbul’s main attractions.

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The Gaia Spa’s relaxation room

A friendly, English speaking staff greeted me as I entered the spa – a luxury one may not find so easily at some traditional hammams. The scene was immediately relaxing – the staff spoke in hushed tones and the reception was dimly lit. I was led to a well-appointed locker room where I changed into a thick robe and sandals and was given a refreshing glass of water that was infused by the slices of lemon and cucumber that floated in it. I was invited to the relaxation area, where guests can recline in comfortable lounge chairs while soothing, colored lights fade from pink to blue to purple and back and a waterfall trickled on the wall. Once hydrated, it was time to step into the steam room and cedar sauna for a good sweat session, an imperative step before any hammam treatment.

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Gaia recreated the traditional look of hammam faucets and basin

After about 15 minutes of preparation there, I followed my scrubber through an unassuming door into Gaia’s hammam – and was instantly blown away. The designers of the spa created a marble masterpiece that is the modern replica of the traditional bathhouse. Grey marble is everywhere in contrasting dark and light tiles and comprises the huge slab where I was to lay. The stone slab and four marble, scalloped water basins are enough to accommodate more people, but I was lucky enough to have the entire room, echoes and all, to myself.

The washing begins seated on a marble shelf as the scrubber poured silver bowls full of water over my body from one of the water basins. Even the faucets above the basin have been constructed to resemble those used more historically. The scrubber had me lay out over a towel on the marble slab, and scrubbed the front and back of my body with a mitt. I then was rinsed again before a thick layer of foam was gently placed from my feet to my neck, and I could feel the popping of the bubbles making my skin tingle. Soap was massaged in, and my scrubber asked if I’d like an ice massage – normally I’d pass, but this time I was glad I didn’t. Though the initial sensation is jarring, it was quickly replaced by a better one as my elevated body temperature quickly melted the ice and the water ran across my skin. It’s got the same exhilarating effect as the plummet from hot tub to cold plunge pool – just one body part at a time.

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A treatment room at Gaia Spa

After being rinsed again, I was instructed to sit on the shelf near the water basins once again. Here, my face was gently scrubbed with the mitt and my hair was shampooed and rinsed. I felt exponentially cleaner, but a little out of sorts – the heat will definitely make your heart race. A few pointers, so things aren’t found out the hard way – drink plenty of water before and after, and wear a bathing suit, because there’s no draping inside the hammam.

If you select the Gaia Hydrate package, your journey doesn’t end there. I was instructed to go back in for another round in the sauna before I was led to one of their simple but stylish treatment rooms that employed the same colored lighting as the relaxation area. After selecting my choice of aromatherapy oil, I was treated to an indulgent hour-long full body massage followed by a hydrating facial treatment in the same room – a benefit that let me luxuriate in post-massage bliss longer than usual.

While there is no replacing a visit to a historical hammam and letting yourself melt into the marble like countless other women for the past 500 years, Gaia is an excellent place to get exposed to the bathhouse culture – and a great alternative if you’re not ready to be exposed in other ways. For additional treatment options, see the hotel’s website: www.istanbul.regency.hyatt.com.

Originally published May 2008
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