Sheila Oconnor

I entered the Mandarin Oriental spa in Macau. There was a sharp pain in my shoulder as I arrived. Perhaps it was from carrying my heavy baggage all the way from San Francisco. The Cathay Pacific flight from SFO to Hong Kong and then the ferry from Hong Kong to Macau went quickly, and I slept for an amazing 7 hours. And now it was time to reward myself for the long trip.
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The aroma as I entered the spa area was enough to tell me to put all stresses and concerns aside. The peaceful, inviting area beckoned to me to come further inside. So I did. And I was not disappointed. From the moment my shoes were exchanged for spa slippers at the Mandarin Oriental spa. I knew it was time to unwind

As I handed over those shoes, I felt I handed over a part of myself and was ready for the unloading of any burdens I might be carrying. The spa was warm and quiet, with just a hint of melody in the background and a soothing fragrance. It seemed as if I was the only one there.

I later found out that this is all deliberate. According to Sean O’Connor, Group Spa Manager – Design & Development, this is actually all part of the plan to make you THINK you’re the only one there. They call it “Guest Traffic Management” and it’s designed to make sure you don’t meet any other guests either before, or after, your treatment. The Mandarin Oriental realizes you may not want to feel embarrassed meeting a stranger when you’re somewhat vulnerable in nothing more than a spa robe, particularly with your hair down and tousled, no makeup on and your contact lenses stashed safely in your locker.

“I am very proud that we manage visitors to our spas,” says O’Connor. “You’ll very rarely meet another person, so you don’t have to feel naked behind a robe. We make you feel special–as if you’re the only person there–because, to us, you ARE the only person there–the only person there who matters at that time. That’s part of our management. We want to delight our customers always, and that level of detail is something nobody else has. The ambiance and the experiential aspect are second to none.”

And he’s right. After changing into a swimsuit, I checked out the Vitality Pool. There were three different places or seats here–one was a sit-up spot and the others were in the shape of 2 lounge chairs. Each had jets sending refreshing bubbles onto my body. Hmmm, I could have stayed there for a long time.

The Experience Shower had an energizing mist that descended over my body, and it would have provided cold water had I been brave enough to experience it. I wasn’t, though. I stuck with the Tropical Rain Shower option, it was all-too-soothing.

Then it was onto the massage experience. First the therapists led me into a warm, darkened room and washed my feet and my legs.The foot washing felt like something out of the Bible, and it was both unexpected and strangely welcome – I’d never had anyone wash my feet and legs before. The Foot Ritual is an honorific experience that forms part of the “Spa Journey” and harks back to Oriental heritage – of which Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group is so proud.

The treatment itself was nothing short of intoxicating. With its long, soothing strokes, the massage pressed into every one of my tired, aching muscles with firm, but gentle, determination. Every knot dissolved as the tension melted away under the expert kneading of my massage therapist.
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The whole, indulgent, experience lasted longer than any treatment I’d ever had — an amazing 1 hr and 50 mins, yet it seemed to glide by as I fell effortlessly in and out of sleep.

If you need to feel relaxed then THIS is the place to go. The hardest part of my treatment in Macau’s Mandarin Oriental was getting off the table. I felt like the massage table and I had become one. Ah, bliss. The treatment table is custom made in America to MOHG specifications and is called the MO Experience Bed.
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Be sure to choose whatever scent works best for you at the beginning of the massage treatment. I chose the citrus one for its refreshing aroma. And as for that pain in the shoulder? What pain? I woke up from what felt like the most relaxing spa treatment of a lifetime and the pain was, bewilderingly, gone.

The whole experience at the Mandarin Oriental in Macau quite simply puts the ahhhh back in spaaaaah.

But don’t just take my word for it. Check out what others have to say.

Vincent Rossemeier, a freelance journalist from the US, says: “For me, it was the most personalized spa treatment I have ever received. I thought the therapist really listened and customized treatment to points on my body that really needed attention.”

And Teresa Bergen, author of the book The Vegetarian Asia Travel Guide
(www.teresabergen.com) couldn’t agree more: “I had the Macanese Dragon
experience, which included a body scrub, foot bath, long massage, and time in the hot tub.

“All I can say is–beautiful facilities, great aromatic products, and Lisa–my therapist–had marvelous hands. My skin felt so soft afterwards!”

A massage like this is just what you need before, or after, a visit to some of Macau’s best sites–whether that be a visit to the old town with its UNESCO World Heritage Sites or to Macau’s newest attractions.
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In the old town you’ll marvel at the ruins of St. Paul, the Na Cha Temple, the Macau Museum and the Senado Square, while the newest attractions in Macau include the Science Museum, the Macau Tower (where you can do the world’s highest bungee jump) and the Michael Jackson’s Gallery, where you can spot the famous Jackson glove.

And after you leave? That will no doubt leave you with a feeling you can’t quite describe. It’s something beyond longing, beyond nostalgia and can only be described as a niggling feeling that you can’t quite place.

In fact, what you’ll be experiencing is actually known as “saudade.” Macau tourism representative, Joao Rodrigues explains it thus: “Saudade has no direct English translation; no other language in the world has a word with such a meaning, making saudade a distinct mark of Portuguese culture.”

Simply put, Saudade is a feeling of wanting to go back. Macau and the Mandarin Oriental spa will both have that effect on you.

And the answer? That would be to book your return trip to Macau as soon as you can.

There really no other answer for it!

While in Lebanon, world travelers should be sure to visit Jeita. These are considered the world’s most beautiful caverns, and being located just 20 km north of Beirut, they are within an easy day’s excursion.
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The caverns, whose haunting stalagmites and stalactites seem to project an air of supernatural mystery about them, are made up of both higher and lower galleries.

Our normally chatty group fell silent as we gaped in awe at the beauty of the natural creations before us. Each of use could see shapes and characters in the various formations that surrounded us in the Jeita Grotto http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeita_Grotto
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In order to reach the lower caverns you have to travel by boat over a subterranean lake. The temperature of the water here is a cool (literally) 14 degrees centigrade. If you travel there in the winter, don’t be surprised to find the lower galleries closed.

The upper gallery is somewhat warmer at 18 degrees and you can visit the pillars and formations all year long. You will need to reach them by aerial tramway however, from the entrance area. The ride itself just adds to the fun!
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The Jeita grotto was discovered in 1836 but between 1874 and 1940 expeditions by English, American and French explorers dug deeper into the grotto to finally penetrate to as depth of 1750 meter. These days, the grotto is known to be at least 9 km in length.

Digging into the caves wasn’t an easy task and it took several years. Nowadays, 6,200 meter has been penetrated, ending in an underground river. The Dog River (Har el Kalb) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nahr_al-Kalb rises in this cavern.

When you see the beauty of the caverns here at Jeita grotto, it’s not surprising to learn that they have been nominated as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New7Wonders_of_the_World

San Francisco world travelers can leave from SFO and fly to Istanbul, where they will change plane for the two hour flight to Beirut, Istanbul. Deals can be found online at www.kayak.com
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“Beautiful. And frigid”. That’s the comment left by one brave guest at Canada’s famed Ice Hotel on the shores of beautiful Lac St.-Joseph, a mere 20 minutes west of Quebec. The frozen fortress gets its name, not surprisingly, from the fact that nearly everything in the hotel is made of solid water. That includes the crystalline walls, ceilings, beds, furniture, luminescent chandeliers and even the glasses you drink from at the bar.

And this icy enclave is a snow fort for kids of all ages. It takes almost six weeks to build and is rebuilt every year, each time slightly different from the year before. Over 12,000 tons of snow and 400 tons of ice are used and once the weather warms up, around early April, the edifice is demolished with less drama than it took to build it. The original idea came from the Ice Hotel in Sweden and some adventurous guests have experienced both of them.

And a stay at any of the Hotels de Glace would not be complete without a chilly libation at the N’Ice Club—try Absolut Vodka “in” the rocks (the drink is poured into a glass formed from ice), or hot chocolate to heat you up. Be careful though, about where you put your glass down. Whether hot or cold, the drink tends to slip off the bar. And you might not notice because you’ll be up dancing at the disco, rocking away to the beat of Euro-pop hits. So what if you think you can’t dance? People dance happily in groups or on their own and nobody minds either way. There’s no need to worry about rejection or “getting the cold shoulder” here.
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If you’re not dancing the night away in the disco or even admiring the 400lb ice chandelier in the hallway (just how do they get it to stay up there?), then look out for the Himalayan photo exhibit with its pictures of the trek to the world’s highest mountains. And feel glad you’re only spending one night in this ice haven. Those explorers did it for much, much longer and in hazardous conditions too! Brrrr!

For those not feeling very adventurous, you can easily take a tour of the property for only $14 CAN–over 70,000 people do it this way every year. Or, better yet, join the courageous and spend that one-of-a-kind night here. There’s nothing like bragging you spent the night in temperatures that hover between 23 and 28 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 2 to minus 5 degrees). And survived.

But first you’ll have to take an information class to learn how to get into your mummy bag—it’s warm enough for temperatures that plummet to minus 40 degrees (your fridge, by the way is only minus 8 degrees). Note they recommend you sleep nude. Yes, really. Honeymooners, should you happen to be among them, get to zip their bags together and yes, there’s even a wedding chapel on the premises. Makes you want to ask: “Did you get cold feet?” but that would be too corny. Romantic rooms include the ice bed shaped like a sleigh and the Nephertite room.
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The best practice is actually to go in the outside hot tub to increase your core temperature. You’ll need to wear your winter hat for this, but don’t worry, everyone does. Hats and hot tubs go surprisingly well together. Then you dry off in the dry sauna and put your spa robe (provided), boots and hat back on, before heading to your ice chamber. Your clothes for the next day go at the bottom of your sleeping back so they stay warm and don’t end up cold the next morning.

The secret to a good night’s sleep is actually to make sure you don’t breathe inside your sleeping bag — that would cause humidity and you’d eventually get cold. Oh, and don’t wear cotton–even if it’s what your thermals are made off–should you decide to go the thermal, rather than the nude, route. Cotton, once it gets wet with perspiration, also makes you feel cold. Even wearing that day’s socks to bed can do the same thing, so put on fresh synthetic socks, right before you climb in.
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The beds are surprisingly comfortable and don’t worry–you’re not sleeping on ice itself, although the outside of the bed is made from the frozen water. Instead, the inside is made of wood, with a foam padding on top. A pillow is provided inside the hood of the mummy bag. Leave your snowboots outside the bag and they’ll be just fine in the morning.
The rooms are pretty much bare apart from the ice beds and the powdery snow that lies between them (remember you’re there to sleep; there would be no point in hanging around. Much too cold for that). There are no Picassos or Monet’s on these 12-inch-thick walls. And although you won’t find a nicely locked door between you and the other guests–just a curtain–everything feels safe. Interesting to find the lights in the room are actually placed inside each bed itself, giving off an other-worldly glow. It means you don’t have to move anywhere to turn them off. Keeping your nose warm is the hardest part, but this can be resolved by pulling your hat down onto your nose.
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Next day, you’ll see the proud, beaming faces of the snow warriors who survived their sub-zero night(most people do it only once, we’re creatures of comfort, after all). The successful regale how long it took them to get to sleep, how warm their plush bags were and how surprised they were to don snow boots still remarkably dry and comfortable, before heading to the inviting hot showers of the auberge.

Sad though, is the face of the visitor who had too much to imbibe (even if it wasn’t alcohol) and had to get out the sleeping bag to don warm clothes and make a bathroom visit in the wee, freezing hours of the night, only to return and go through the whole undressing-and-back-into-the-bag-again process. It’s not surprising that some just don’t make it back down from the lodge, a few short–yet somehow endless–yards away. They end up instead spending the rest of the night on a couch in the heated locker room!

Other than sleeping, the hotel offers activities that include cross-country skiing, ice-fishing, snow-shoeing, dog sledding and skating. Or you can simply stay warm by eating. The food is everything you’d expect from a five-snowflake resort and you can enjoy options like cheese fondue (try the bread, cheese and grape all in one mouthful) or the locally fished trout.

So how did it all turn out? After a successful night at the Ice Hotel, this warm-weather lover anticipated returning home to some toasty 50 degree weather. But snow boots and thermals snugly packed away, I surprisingly missed the Ice Hotel and all its quirky offerings. Was it beautiful? Breath-taking, like nothing you’ll see anywhere else in North America. Was it frigid? Not for the adventurous in spirit. More importantly, was it worth it? Absolutely. Unequivocally. It’s an experience that, I, for one, have frozen in my memory.