By Ken Hegan for MSN

I’ve had three fantastic open air massages in my life:

1) A beachside couples massage at Rockwater Secret Cove on BC’s Sunshine Coast

2) A warm cliffside massage at Cabanas Copal resort on the Mayan Riviera in Mexico

3) The infamous Kenya safari massage. That’s when your safari Jeep bounces and bangs your kidneys as you drive a rocky dirt road across the savanna.

All three massages were deep tissue…and the Kenyan one may have led to disturbing internal injuries. But they all pale next to the unusual treatment you get at the Hotel Therme Vals (Les Thermes de Vals-les-Bains) in the Swiss Alps.

Here you can get a floating, thermal water massage inside a stone cavern carved right into the mountainside.


Alas, Sally’s not getting a thermal massage in the Swiss Alps and may have just been attacked by pebbles.

Billed as ‘a palace of stone and water’, Hotel Therme Vals was built over the only thermal springs in the Graubünden canton in Switzerland. The massage takes place in a hot thermal pool in an all-stone room.


Here’s how it works:

You’re wearing your bathing suit (or nude, your preference) and stumbling around in 35 degree Celsius water. Suddenly your masseuse wades into the chest-deep water beside you.

The spa website details how your masseuse grabs your flesh and moves you in “predetermined figures, thus combining the positive properties of water with the basic effects of Shiatsu…the body – weightlessly floating in the water- undergoes passive lengthening and stretching. Here, the drag of the water enhances the technique. There is a feeling of weightlessness inducing a deep relaxation.”

It sounds deliciously soothing and purifying. If you drool a lot during massages (like I do), the hot water cleans your face right up. If you’re afraid of water or don’t know how to swim, you’ll be forced to face your fear of being held underwater by a psychotic stranger who may have killed your masseuse to get to you.

It basically combines the exhilaration of being an astronaut, the relaxation of weightlessness, and the terror of being drowned in a Charlie Sheen hot tub. The only way this massage could be any more enjoyable/scary is if you’re in a 2-year hospital coma and someone starts massaging you after the first year.
Constructed in 1996 by architect Peter Zumthor, Hotel Therme Vals became a historic monument just two years later. Zumthor built the hotel and spa from four buildings that date back to 1969.


The challenging part was adding thermal baths that use the same stone used to build the houses in the nearby village. The baths consist of 6,000 blocks of stone that gather the mineral-rich thermal water rising up from inside the mountain.


Outdoor pool at Hotel Therme Vals Photo courtesy Micha L. Rieser

According to this luxury hotel website, guests enter the hot spring baths by walking through “a narrow gallery. Inside, the concrete slabs, the quartzite walls and the three immense bay windows provide an uninterrupted view of the valley. Visitors can immerse themselves in 14-degree water or a steaming hot 42-degree bath, in the basins which seem to be carved into the depths of the mountain.”

Here’s how another spa writer describes these pools:

“Both the floor and pool are made of this greyish-green stone with white inclusions, which look at you like eyes, the ceiling panels are made of concrete – [imagine] rooms made only of stone, water and light.”

Floors that stare at you with inhuman eyes? That sure sounds calming and healing.

To see what these thermal pools look like if you’re naked, alone, and scared to fall in love, watch Janet Jackson’s Every Time video. It was filmed inside Hotel Therme Vals in 1998. As for the ‘calcium sulfate, hydrogen carbonate thermal baths’ themselves, they’re a little more ancient, dating back 50 million years.

The hotel’s currently closed for a 6-week spruce-up and will re-open on June 15th, 2013.

So how much to stay at this 140-suite hotel? It’s actually pretty reasonable: just 89 Euros/night ($119 CDN) for a twin room during summer high season.

Meanwhile a 50-minute water massage costs 87 Euros/night ($116 CDN), while a late night swim (Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday only, 11 pm – 12.30 am) is free for hotel guests and naked Janet Jackson.

— Ken Hegan

Read more of Ken’s travel stories here

Twitter: @KenHegan

Photos courtesy Hotel Therme Vals