If you’ve read Liftopia of late, you’ll know the pleasures and the perils European spas hold for those Mark Twain deemed “Innocents Abroad,” also known as Americans. Americans like me. I’ve been au naturel in France and stark naked in Switzerland. Now it’s time to undress in Austria.
I’m high in the Austrian Tirol, in the stunningly steep and breathtakingly beautiful Ötztal Alps. And I’m staying in, yes, a spa. And not just a spa ordinaire — Aqua Dome is a spa extraordinaire.
My first night here, I sink my ski-tired bod into the naturally warm waters of an enormous indoor pool. I am gobsmacked by its size.
Not until later do I realize that I’d seen but one level of this multi-story, indoor-outdoor spa. And that, while this level required swimsuit attire, two levels up, you’d get escorted out for wearing even the briefest Speedo.
The next day, I dared myself to take it all in. Which isn’t that easy; the choice of treatments and relaxations is jinormous. Along with clothed and naked, there are saunas of every thermometer reading, infusions of minerals and herbals, dry and wet heat, private and public rooms, singles and couples massage, Hawaiian and Thai, Swedish and Balinese massages, twelve indoor and outdoor pools, a host of relaxation rooms, salt and sulfur baths, professional-grade workout rooms — I quickly realized that Aqua Dome is the Amazon of spas. No, even better — because if those choices aren’t enough, and if the pleasing modern architecture isn’t enough, the spa and the hotel that houses it are surrounded by jagged snowcapped peaks stretching into the Austrian sky.
That’s the setting; what about the nudity? Unlike every European I encountered in the spa, I had to steel myself — okay, maybe that’s not the ideal phrase — for the naked truth. When I walked in on an unclothed couple in the first sauna I entered, I backed right out again. With my eyes fixed on the floor. Then, when I saw came across four women in the mineral spa, I said, in loud, baby English and with awkward gestures, “IS. IT. ALL RIGHT. IF. I. COME IN?”
In quiet, adult German and with minimal gestures, they gave me the, “Yes, dummy, it’s open to everybody,” message.
I got the message. And started taking mental notes.
More women were spa-ing than men, but both genders included 20s-young and 60s-old. Some had the shape of fertility goddesses; some were Twiggy thin. Some looked cross-country-skier fit; some looked like they’d just swallowed a supersized Kaiserschmarrn. Though silence and whispers provided the soundtrack, every one of every gender and shape seemed at ease.
Every one but me, the only American in the house. And yes, I committed all the sins of New World innocence. I walked into clothed areas unclothed, naked areas in my swimsuit, brought my slippers inside the sauna instead of leaving them in the hall, and failed to place my feet onto the large towel like everyone else was doing.
For these misdemeanors, I was corrected but never scolded; gently smiled at, not humiliated. And I grew ever more comfortable as the day went on.
Did I like seeing naked bodies? Hell yeah. Back home, I never get to see strange women undressed. Did I feel awkward showing my own parts? At first, yes; later, not so much. Would I go back again? In a naked minute. Without a stitch.
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.