One of the pleasures — and the perils — of European skiing for innocents abroad, i.e. Americans like thee and me, doesn’t lie on the snowy slopes. It lurks in the spas at the foot of those slopes.

What’s a European spa? It’s not where you get your feet massaged and your nails done. Traditionally, it’s a place where guests bathe in mineral-rich spring waters and sometimes drink those waters. Spa treatments are intended to aid healing and health, recovery and relaxation. Throughout the world, healing waters have been part of the scene for just about ever. Queen Anne bathed (at Bath) in 1701. Darwin took the waters in 1849. Today, so does Oprah.

Skiers use those same natural hot springs to ease aching muscles and relax after a hard day’s piste. It’s one of the pleasures of skiing Europe.

But, for Americans, a.k.a. toi et moi, the spa is a mixed and confusing blessing. We don’t know whether to soak or drink, go clothed or naked, obey the unwritten (at least in English) rules or get scolded in a foreign language for making the wrong choice.

I know this to be true. I’m one of those innocents abroad. I’ve lived in fear of, well, exposure. That and colonic cleansing.

My first encounter with European spa-life was at Brides-les-Bains at the foot of the enormous Trois Vallee ski resort in the French Alps. Long before Brides-les-Bains was a ski town, it was a spa town where wealthy Europeans journeyed to take the waters. 

The Grand Spa at Brides-les-Bains

“Take the waters.” That deceptively simple phrase has two meanings. Yes, it means Jacuzzis, steam rooms, mineral pools and all that, but it also means drinking large quantities of the local thermal water, which in Brides is considered, “good for the liver and that other thing near the liver.” It also exuberantly increases colonic cleansing. 

At Brides, I went for the Jacuzzi and steam; with not a moment’s hesitation, I declined the internal cleanout. 

But even without the flush, an afternoon there was one of the fastest jetlag cures I’ve yet experienced. 

Still, that leaves unanswered the question, Are health spas healthful? There are three conflicting answers:

  1. Of course they’re healthful; people have been seeking wellbeing at them for eons.
  2. Of course they’re not; just check out the people who go there, work there and live next door. How healthy do they look? (My answer: Not very, but they’re perhaps not so pale and sallow as the people who work in American health-food stores.)
  3. Forget health; you’re gonna live till you die. Warm water, massage, relaxation – how bad can that be?

Updated, 12/23: We’ll try to answer another  question next time: Should you suit up or go nekkid at the biggest spa-and-wellness resort in Switzerland?

Jules Older is author and publisher of the ebooks, DEATH BY TARTAR SAUCE: A Travel Writer Encounters Gargantuan Gators, Irksome Offspring, Murderous Mayonnaise & True Love and SKIING THE EDGE: Humor, Humiliation, Holiness and Heart.

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