This past weekend, I had what I’m pretty sure was the worst massage of my life. The woman had fingers like knives and every minute of it was uncomfortable, alternating between ticklish and painful. That massage gave me aches in places that weren’t achy before and made me tense up when I hadn’t been tense at all. Of course, I just gritted my teeth and let out only the odd murmur of protest before resigning myself to being tortured on my own money because the woman was clearly capable of no better and my only alternative was to run out of there naked and screaming.

Anyway, ironically what got me through it (okay, I am aware that people go through worse than being prodded uncomfortably while being slathered with scented oil) was thinking up all the really nice massages I have had in the past. I am something of a spa junkie, a habit weirdly (or not so weirdly because I was perennially at a loose end there) intensified in Hyderabad. And in my avatar as journalist who sat next to the Beauty editor in Hong Kong, I was in the very enviable position of actually trying out such therapies free of charge. So I decided to list my personal “Best of” in the Spa category for your edification. They span all the places I have lived in and visited and range from luxury high-end spas to shady rooms somewhere. In no particular order:

Best Facial

Tie between:

Garden Spa at McArthur Place, Sonoma: If you ever visit this wine region, this is a beautiful hotel to stay in. We found it on TripAdvisor and were so pleased it with. There are cottages, quaintly done up and these very eclectic gardens with cozy nooks. I had just discovered I was pregnant which made it very ridiculous being in wine county (we did an olive oil tasting instead) and so I booked a facial in this spa. V and I have come to expect spa services inAsia to be the best and we were both pleasantly surprised with our experience at this one. I had just discovered I was pregnant and was starting to feel pukey and once I told my therapist, she choose products that smelled lovely but weren’t too overpowering. And generally it was bliss and she was so warm and nice herself. In a very American way, when I was paying at the end, they asked me if I would like to leave a tip and I was more than happy to – in fact had been wondering how to do it as I had no cash on me, but they worked it out so that it went on my room bill. Anyway, if you are planning a trip there, consider staying there (choose Sonoma over Nappa as Sonoma is cheaper and just as cute and you can easily drive to Nappa) and then GO TO THE SPA. V said his massage was one of the best in his life too, and he has had a lot of massages, since we share this passion for paying to be pampered.

Sunflower Beauty Parlour, Indranagar, Bangalore: This is a very basic beauty parlour run and staffed by very talented ladies from the North East who in the immortal words of my sister-in-law’s mother-in-law who discovered the place “have hands like petals”. They really do. Having a facial here used to be a must-do on my trips to Bangalore. They combine the painful part of the facial – really getting in there and getting the blackheads out – with lots of sheer pleasure in the form of mini massages everywhere. Initially, they’d give you a neck and shoulder rub with lotion (at least I think it is lotion, can’t be sure since eyes are closed) during that boring time when the face mask is on, then they started doing a hand massage as well (which I adore because my hands get so much more tired than my feet) and last I was there, a chest area massage was included. I must confess I nearly had a “happy ending”. So yeah, intensely pleasurable while doing the grit work of a facial. The dour proprietess really knows her stuff also – she insists I lie there with mask for half an hour minimum despite my pleas of needing to run off. Their pedicures are also amazing. Sadly, my sister-in-law tells me standards have dropped so not sure I can vouch for this place anymore but I feel loathe to believe in the downfall before I see it.

Best massage

The Oriental Spa at the Landmark Mandarin, Hong Kong: This was the first five-star spa experience I had in Hong Kong and I was very impressed how the spa creates a very relaxing atmosphere very different from the executive feel of the hotel or the buzz in the street above. I went there during a period of great stress career-wise and I emerged all zen. The massage I chose professed to use some yin-yang or crystal therapy, basically nice-sounding stuff that I have no faith in but appreciate the aesthetics of in concept, and I got to choose a supposedly crystal bracelet which would help me carry the positive energy after the massage. Even though I am very sceptical, the massage was so good that I didn’t take the bracelet off for ages afterwards.

Pregnancy massage at Elemis, Hong Kong: Again, impressive how a beautiful and zen atmosphere is created right in the bustle of Central. But also, notable for the complete relaxation I felt afterwards. Every part of it was pleasurable. I also had some emotional epiphanies during this massage which I’ve written about earlier. This is the first massage I could have fallen asleep through.

Best pedicure 

Beauty parlour in Bowenpalli, Hyderabad (cannot remember name): Six years ago this was a new parlour that my cousin and I tried in our attempts to try every new parlour in the Secunderabad region (joking!). It is/was (as not sure if it still exists) run by a very neat Telgu woman, with the help of a lone helper. The very effective pedicure was followed by a leg massage using cream that had us raising our eyebrows in surprise at its sheer goodness. Unfortunately, my cousin kept picking new places for our jaunts and it was never easy to get a auto to this place so I didn’t go there as often as I should have. They also did a great oil head massage.

Best pedicure for ambience 

Iyara in Soho, Hong Kong: I reviewed this one when its first little branch first opened and I was so impressed by the general mood (chatty but luxe), the range of colours available and the staying power of the pedicure. However, my main beef with pedicures in Hong Kong is that they are either purely cosmetic like the Iyara one, unless you shell out big bucks for a pampering foot massage, or purely drudge like the Shanghai ones that really get the dead skin out.

Best eyebrow shaper

Sarah’s Beauty Parlour in Chapel Road, Bandra, Mumbai: This is the place my mum took me to first wax my legs and after trying numerous other places, it remains the place I go back to. It is run out of a room in one Bandra auntie’s house and basically the woman who does the waxing is great. And nobody has been able to shape my eyebrows like her ever. Cost of eyebrow shaping: Rs.25. I have been giving the leaving a Rs 25 tip as well to assuage my conscience.

Most life-changing spa treatment

Body scrub in Dragon Spa, Seoul (not entirely sure of name of spa): This spa is in a huge building frequented by families. There is a separate men’s and women’s floor and kids can go to either. The life-changing thing was that everything was naked. They give you a little towel and a locker key when you register and basically, the towel is to be used on your head. Rest of body – au naturel. I have never seen much point in body scrubs but this one was highly recommended by the Chinese journalist I was tagging along with (it was odd, for about five minutes, to stand in front of each other completely naked and then it just seemed normal). The body scrub was performed by these mammoth ladies clad in their bras and panties. They use a rough towel I think to scrub you down. The result – literal noodles of black stuff coming off your body, making me a little creeped out thinking how much gunk I am currently harbouring since that trip was a good four years ago.

Massage type to be avoided

Thai: When I visited Bangkok, made the rookie mistake of trying the local speciality and it came very close to my disaster massage of the weekend past. In fact, the extent of discomfort at the weekend’s massage can be imagined, if I’m citing Thai massage as a wee bit less uncomfortable. Dear husband, having been to Thailand numerous times, happily choose Swedish aromatherapy while yours truly endured the rigours of a slim Thai beauty going at me with elbows and knees, only mildly comforted by the yelps of the American woman in the cubicle next to mine.

Massage type I appreciate the benefits of but avoid

Chinese reflexology foot massage: There is no denying you come out of it feeling like you’re walking on air. But the process of being poked in acupressure points under ones feet, I find really painful. I am told this is because I am very unhealthy. I fully accept this. In fact, I already know it. I’m not going to part with my money in order to have the point reiterated. Many many other people love this massage so do try it. Just that if you find that you don’t, make peace with that and choose some other kind of spa treatment next time.  

Which is your favourite spa experience?