Taking the Plunge

The curative powers of the ocean have been touted for centuries. Now a seawater-based spa treatment from France—Thalassotherapy—is making waves.

"Ten years ago golf was the big bourgeois leisure activity in France; today it's thalassotherapy," says Jacques Zartarian, director of the Miramar Crouesty Hôtel et Institut de Thalassothérapie Louison Bobet at Port Crouesty, on the southern coast of Brittany. "It's booming because the French have decided that they really want to take care of themselves. Last year over two hundred thousand people visited thalassotherapy centers, and this number is growing by five percent annually."

Stemming from the Greek words thálassa, meaning sea, and therapeía, meaning healing, thalassotherapy is comprised of a series of treatments—baths, showers, and massages, primarily—that all use seawater to stimulate healing and relaxation. "Seawater has almost the same chemical composition as human blood," explains Yves Treguer, founding director of Les Thermes Marins de Monte-Carlo, a leading thalassotherapy center. "Since the skin is permeable, systematic immersions in seawater heated to human body temperature result in an osmotic phenomenon, enabling trace minerals and ions to penetrate through the skin into the body." More specifically, thalassotherapy renews the body's reserves of magnesium, potassium, iodine, calcium, and some 53 other elements naturally found in the blood, and which are easily depleted by stress, poor diet, and pollution.

While thalassotherapy is relatively new, the idea of treating illnesses with seawater is not—as far back as 414 b.c. Euripides wrote that "the sea cures all human ailments." What makes thalassotherapy different from traditional marine medicine is that it not only focuses on ailments such as rheumatism and poor circulation, but also targets the most common affliction to be found today in developed countries: stress. "The most urgently needed cure today is the remise en forme, or anti-stress cure," notes Zartarian. "Stress is epidemic. Many of our visitors are so exhausted and anxious when they arrive that they go into sort of a state of shock once they start to relax. So we aim to help people reachieve their personal equilibrium, both physically and mentally."


The Benefits

Given the long history of marine medicine, it's surprising that research on the medical benefits of thalassotherapy is considered inconclusive. The French government, as a result, does not cover thalassotherapy treatments under its state medical insurance policy. (France is the world's main thalassotherapy hub; there are also thalassotherapy spas in Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Greece, and Cyprus, as well as Morocco and Tunisia. There are no credible ones in the United States at this time.) "Unlike mineral-water spa treatments, which were included in the original coverage of the French government medical system," states Zartarian, "thalassotherapy is not. It's ironic, since in most instances thalassotherapy produces much more dramatic results than traditional mineral-water cures. But the boom in thalassotherapy has been recent, and the French government is loath to extend eligibility to thalassotherapy when its healthcare budget is already ballooning out of control."

Some benefits of thalassotherapy have already been proven. It can, for instance:

  • Increase respiratory capacity. Immersing the body in seawater (at a depth of one meter and 30 centimeters, or 4.29 feet, according to the French) effectively equalizes internal body pressure and external pressure on the body from the surrounding water. This allows increased air volume in the thoracic cavity, and consequently more mobility for the diaphragm, which leads to an increase in respiration and red-blood-cell count by about ten percent.

  • Accelerate the elimination of toxins. Submerged in seawater, the body is subject to a level of pressure many times more powerful than that of air. Movement made underwater increases the body's natural drainage, which leads to improved lymphatic drainage.

  • Improve circulation. Seawater pressure on the body increases capillary circulation and relaxes muscles; thus massages during seawater showers are less painful than those administered to dry skin.

  • Improve cardiovascular function. Because body weight is displaced in seawater, it's easier to intensify physical exertion without straining the heart.

  • Improve muscular contraction. To maintain mobility, the 600-plus muscles in the body need to be exercised regularly. Slow movement in seawater increases circulation to the muscles by a factor of ten. Relieved of body weight, the muscles relax, making exercise easier and more effective.

  • Replenish depleted calcium and phosphorus in the bones. Many studies have shown that two of the elements most easily absorbed by the human body during seawater therapy are calcium and phosphorus—which is why thalassotherapy is often prescribed for people suffering from osteoporosis.

In addition to the treatments aimed at rest and "physical reequilibrium," such as seaweed baths and underwater showers (see Treatment Menu), the most common thalassotherapy cures are those designed to help people lose weight or stop smoking; combat fatigue, rheumatism, and dermatological problems; and deal with menopause. Other specialized treatments include those known as "mother and child," for women who have recently given birth; "special back," aimed at reducing back pain; "chronic pain," to reduce chronic discomfort from migraines, muscular disorders, back problems, and other recurring sources of physical pain; and "heavy legs," for heavy legs caused by poor circulation. Another is the "physical reeducation" treatment following a heart attack or accident, the idea being that the water's buoyancy bears the body's weight and reduces muscle strain during rehabilitative therapy. (If you need serious physical rehabilitation, your doctor should contact the thalassotherapy institute before you reserve your stay.) "I don't think there are any better physical reeducation cures in the world than those offered by French thalassotherapy centers," remarks Pamela Lechtman, author of 100 Best Spas of the World (Globe Pequot Press).


What to Expect

Thalassotherapy cures begin with a mandatory doctor's visit—all thalassotherapy spas have at least one full-time physician on the premises—to determine your general state of health and to customize your regimen. Then your cure schedule is established. Generally, you will receive four different treatments daily, which vary according to the type of cure that you have been prescribed. Treatments, called soins in French, last 15 to 30 minutes, with about a 20-minute interval between appointments. Most often your treatments will be grouped together in the morning or afternoon, so that you'll have to change into a bathing suit only once during the day.

Outside your cure schedule, you can indulge in the other spa facilities, which usually include an indoor saltwater pool, sauna, steam bath, and gym. Or you can schedule supplementary treatments—from reflexology, a foot massage keyed to specific organs and parts of the body, to shiatsu, a massage that involves applying pressure to the same points of the body used in acupuncture. One of the newer deep-tissue massages that has become popular recently is fasciatherapy massage, a gentle massage of the membrane tissues surrounding the muscles, bones, and nervous system.

But the perfect complement to any thalassotherapy cure is one of the most elusive and luxurious treatments of all: total idleness or, failing that, a long nap. "People ask me, 'What am I going to do for a week?' and I say, 'You're going to be taken care of,' " says Zartarian. "First-time visitors are always reluctant at the start. But after their debut cure, they inevitably say that it's been too brief."


A Long History

The shift to thalassotherapy as a recreational activity is relatively recent, but the use of seawater in medical treatments is not. In the Vendée region of France, for instance, locals have been dabbing themselves with sea mud for centuries to heal wounds and cure rheumatism. Here are some of the major milestones in thalassotherapy's evolution.

Ancient Rome
Many cities of the empire have seawater baths prescribed for tuberculosis, psoriasis, and rheumatism. Wealthy Romans import bottles of water from the Dead Sea at considerable expense.

1578
The doctors of King Henry III of France treat his skin diseases by prescribing sea baths at Dieppe on the Normandy coast.

1750
British doctor Richard Russell notes that people living near the sea are much less inclined to suffer from tuberculosis than those living inland. As a result, the British upper classes begin to take dips in the icy waters of the English Channel and the North Sea.

1767
Dr. Maret, professor of medicine at the University of Montpellier, publishes a theory that seawater can penetrate muscle tissue and soften it. He thus prescribes seawater baths for both their antispasmodic and diuretic properties.

1778
The first Maison de Santé Thermale Marine (Seawater Bathing Spa) opens at Dieppe, in France.

1823
A stylish seawater bathing establishment, Bains Caroline, is opened in Dieppe. It attracts visitors such as the duchess of Berry, daughter-in-law of King Charles X.

1855
Empress Eugénie brings the French court to summer in Biarritz, where one of their primary diversions is sea bathing. As a result the extravagant Les Bains Napoléon resort opens there three years later.

1868
A Florentine doctor named Barellai opens l'Ospizio Marittimo Veneto, a seawater treatment center, on the Lido in Venice.

1894
The first international congress of sea bathing and water therapy is held in Boulogne-sur-Mer in France. Seawater therapy is promoted as being beneficial in treating tuberculosis, gynecological and dermatological disorders, and ear, nose, and throat diseases.

1899
The precursor of the modern thalassotherapy center, the Institut Marin de Rockroum, is opened at Roscoff on the northern coast of Brittany.

1904
Dr. René Quinton startles the medical world by claiming that the internal body chemistry of all mammals mimics seawater, and that this milieu is essential for healthy human cell function.

1964
Champion French bicyclist Louison Bobet establishes the Louison Bobet Center in Quiberon, which quickly becomes a popular destination for the European jet set.

1966
Professor Dubarry of the University of Bordeaux demonstrates that human skin can be permeated by the ions in seawater. Dubarry also shows that through this process of absorption the body takes in those minerals that it requires in direct proportion to its deficiency.


The Spa Life

The minimum stay recommended for thalassotherapy cures is one week. Before you book your reservation, you should consider the size of the spa, the treatments offered, the hotel facilities, the location, and the availability of English-speaking staff. The best thalassotherapy spas are in France, where you can find more than 30 on some of the country's most beautiful coastal sites. The government requires that a constant supply of clean, fresh seawater is used daily at every thalassotherapy center—each spa visitor uses approximately 260 gallons of freshly pumped seawater per day—and water quality is tested monthly by the French Ministry of Health.

When To Go
There is no prescribed season for a thalassotherapy cure, but most centers close for a month during the winter. Many French devotees of thalassotherapy complete two cures annually, one during the spring and another in late fall. A word of caution: Few thalassotherapy centers are air-conditioned, and the coastal regions where the centers are located are crowded with vacationers in July and August.

What to Bring
You'll have a lot of free time during your cure, so bring magazines, books, and portable stereo. A bag is handy for carrying your brush, bathing cap (mandatory for those with long hair), shampoo, and reading material into the spa. As for attire, spa life is casual; most visitors dress in stylish sportswear for meals. You should also pack sneakers, sweatpants, sweatshirts, several sweaters, and a windbreaker.

Most thalassotherapy treatments are taken in the nude and given by either male or female staff. If you're shy you can retain your bathing suit, but it can be rather uncomfortable during massages. If you do opt for a suit, keep in mind that repeated immersion in salt water is tough on swimwear, so you're best off buying a couple of simple bathing suits just for your stay. In between treatments, visitors wear bathrobes and plastic slippers issued by the spa. Towels are also supplied.

Social Activity
Thalassotherapy spas are generally quiet, early-to-bed places, so don't expect much nightlife or a lot of social activity. Most visitors go with a spouse or a friend, but a growing number go solo. Most spas have tables d'hôte in their dining rooms, where you will find company during meals.

Gratuity
Tipping is optional; a gratuity is included, but it's customary to leave an additional five percent tip on your total bill.


The Best Spas

The four top spas are Institut Louison Bobet in Port Crouesty (it can accommodate 280 guests daily), Thalassa International in Dinard (200 guests daily), and Thalassa International in Quiberon (500 guests daily), all in Brittany; and Les Thermes Marins de Monte-Carlo in Monaco (160 guests daily). All of them offer state-of-the-art facilities—including indoor saltwater pools, saunas, steam rooms, gyms, and beauty centers—in cheerful, comfortable, nonclinical settings. They are also connected directly to pleasant four-star hotels that serve good food and are located in beautiful settings.

Institut Louison Bobet
Port Crouesty, B.P. 53, 56640 Arzon; 33-2-97-53-68-68; fax 33-2-97-53-68-69;
www.miramar-crouesty.com. Six-day minimum, including four treatments a day, room and full or half board. Rates: $1,240-$1,475 per person double occupancy, $1,160-$1,770 single occupancy.

Thalassa Dinard
Avenue Château Hébert, B.P. 70223, 35802 Dinard; 33-2-99-16-78-10; fax 33-2-99-16-78-29;
www.thalassa.com. Cure price per day per person, including four treatments, full board and double-occupancy room, $190 to $215; cure and room only, $140 to $165 per day.

Thalassa Quiberon
Pointe de Goulvars, 56170 Quiberon; 33-2-97-50-20-00; fax 33-2-97-30-47-63;
www.thalassa.com. Six-day cure with four treatments daily, room and full board included, per person double occupancy from $1,410 to $1,760 at the hotel Sofitel Thalassa; six-day cure with four treatments daily, room and full board included, per person double occupancy $1,795 at the hotel Sofitel Diététique. Both hotels are directly linked to the thalassotherapy center, but Sofitel Diététique serves dietetic food only.

Les Thermes Marins de Monte-Carlo
2 Avenue de Monte-Carlo, MC 98000 Monaco; 377-92-16-49-46; fax 377-92-16-49-49;
www.montecarloresort.com. Six-day cures including four daily treatments, hotel room, and half board from $1,760 to $2,005 per person double occupancy and $2,005 to $2,500 single occupancy at the Hôtel de Paris; $1,385 to $1,730 per person double occupancy and $1,660 to $2,340 single occupancy at the Hôtel Hermitage. Prices vary according to the season; winter months are generally less expensive.


Treatment Menu

Thalassotherapy treatments, which usually last from 15 to 30 minutes per session, range from the gentle to the intense. We've listed below the primary ones you'll find at the top spas.

Aerated Bath (Bain Bouillonnant)
A heated seawater bath with air jets that create a bubbling effect. The bubbles dissolve the layer of air between the skin and the water, allowing for better penetration of seawater and relaxation of muscle mass.

Aquagym
An aerobic workout in a seawater pool heated to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Directed by an instructor, you perform a variety of stretching exercises while being massaged by underwater jets.

High-Pressure Hose Shower (Douche a Jet)
One of the most popular thalassotherapy treatments, especially in weight-loss cures since it loosens cellulite. It consists of a gradual full-body spraying with a high-pressure seawater jet in a specially constructed cabin. An attendant applies the jet from head to toe on the front and back of your body. The jet increases circulation and relaxes all the major muscle groups, while the mist created recharges the body with negative ions, which boosts immunological response.

Inhalations (Aerosols)
A fine mist of seawater and eucalyptus oil that is inhaled, thus opening respiratory and nasal passages and improving overall respiration.

Massage Bath (Hydromassage)
A computer-programmed underwater massage. You lie in a special tub and are massaged by seawater jets for total body relaxation.

Seaweed Or Sea Mud Wrap (Application D'Algues Ou De Boues)
A fresh paste of seaweed or sea mud thinned with seawater is applied to your body, which is then wrapped in a light plastic sheet and covered with a heated blanket to facilitate the absorption of the minerals in the seaweed and the elimination of toxins. Seaweed therapy, known as algothérapie in French, was developed during the 1970s following the discovery that many varieties of seaweed are rich in mineral salts and vitamins, as well as agents that soften the skin and heal wounds. The most commonly used seaweed is Laminaria digitata, of which approximately 50,000 tons are harvested annually in Brittany. Sea mud wraps often use mud from the Dead Sea or the shores of Brittany, and are specifically prescribed for people suffering from rheumatism or circulatory problems. Both treatments are followed by a saltwater shower.

Seaweed Bath (Bain D'Algues)
A seawater whirlpool bath containing dried seaweed in powder form. There are two purposes of the bath: relaxation, and absorption of the minerals and trace elements in the seaweed and seawater.

Underwater Shower (Douche Sous-Marine)
A heated seawater bath that includes underwater massage with a high-pressure seawater jet. Relaxes muscles, increases circulation, and reduces pain from rheumatism or muscular disorders.

Wet Body Massage (Massage Sous Affusion)
You don't get more relaxed than this. One or two masseurs massage you while you lie on a table under a mist of seawater. This popular method allows rapid subcutaneous penetration of seawater.

Alexander Lobrano wrote the guide to the best places to see, stay, and eat in Alsace in the September 2000 issue.