Return to the Sea: The Caribbean Spa Experience

Spa Élan

By Cathy Ulrich

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, February/March 2005.

Close your eyes and imagine the Caribbean. What do you see? Palm trees, crystal blue waters, sandy beaches? What do you feel? Warm tropical breezes, moist salt air, the weightlessness of floating in the ocean?

Now imagine a spa that utilizes those sensations and the natural, soothing environment of the Caribbean Sea. More than a massage on the beach, these treatments incorporate water, salt, sand, and the rhythms of the sea to create a powerful healing experience.

The Sea is the Setting

People come to the islands to get away, relax, and enjoy our natural environment,” says Cynthia Buntenbruch, the director at Relax au Paradis Spa. “Our goal is to help clients connect with themselves. Nature, and especially the sea, has a powerful ability to heal so we offer many of our bodywork treatments in and around the sea.” Buntenbruch calls it “a spa without walls.”

Located on the property of the Avila Beach Hotel in the capital city of Willemstad on the southern Caribbean island of Curacao, Relax au Paradis offers bodywork sessions in outdoor venues. First, a secluded, covered, wooden deck built over the water and draped with sheer white fabric provides privacy with a full view of the Caribbean horizon. Another outdoor space —The Blue Tower — is a three-story deck with breathtaking views of the island and sea. Finally, Relax au Paradis offers sessions both on the beach and in the sea itself.

During my visit to Curacao, Buntenbruch treated me to an outdoor session. Dressed in my bathing suit, I relaxed on a massage table on the covered deck. I received a full body scrub with a preparation of freshly ground coconut, small bits of coconut shell, and sea salt. As late afternoon shadows intermingled with soft light over the horizon and the sound of the sea, a warm breeze and the salt air transported me to a state of inner calm and peace. She led me into the ocean to rinse the scrub. We stepped down from the deck, onto the beach, and into the water. While I floated in the warm sea, gentle waves lapped against my body. Buntenbruch performed passive stretches to my arms, legs, and torso. We returned to the massage deck where I received a full-body massage with coconut oil. Her technique was firm, but gentle. The sweet scent of coconut filled the air, and I was surprised at how readily my skin absorbed the oil, leaving it feeling smooth and rejuvenated.

After the massage, Buntenbruch invited me to join her at the top of the Blue Tower. We drank to the sunset, sipping milk from cold, fresh coconuts. The milk was smooth, sweet, and light — a perfect complement to the coconut scrub and massage. This was truly a sensory experience — sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound were all engaged in this communion with nature over, and in, the Caribbean Sea.

In addition to the bodywork session I received, Relax au Paradis offers other services that utilize their outdoor venues to the fullest. Water massage is a therapy performed entirely in the Caribbean Sea. It begins with passive relaxation stretches followed by a full-body massage as the client lies on a floating mat. The gentle rhythms of the sea combined with bodywork create a strong relaxation experience.

The hot sea sand massage — offered on the beach — begins with a full-body massage. The client is then covered with a sheet and enfolded in warm sea sand. This treatment warms the body with sand energized by the sea and heated by the sun. While the client relaxes under the sand, the sound of the sea transports them to a meditative state.

The sunset massage is available on the top of the Blue Tower and is scheduled shortly before sunset. Clients can enjoy the views, the sea, and the breezes as the sun journeys below the horizon.

Relax au Paradis is housed in a small Dutch Caribbean townhouse on the back of the Avila Beach Hotel property, but they also offer spa treatments within the main building. Treatment rooms are small with simple décor. White walls, ceilings, and floors create a feeling of spaciousness. They offer a full bodywork menu including reflexology, Shiatsu, and hot stone massage, but most clients opt for the outdoor venues. And since Curacao is just above the equator, it enjoys warm weather year-round.

A Caribbean Island Turns to Tourism

Curacao is one of several islands in the very southern part of the Caribbean Sea. It’s about 35 miles north of the coast of Venezuela, and for many years, its primary economy was based on a large oil refinery in the main city of Willemstad. At one time, the refinery employed around 20,000 people. In 1985, it closed, causing a severe economic downturn on the island. The refinery has reopened in recent years, but with technological changes, it utilizes a much smaller workforce. With the drastic change in its economic base, the island turned to tourism as an important source of income. So along with tourism and resorts, spa development is also on the rise.

One of Curacao’s natural treasures is its tropical reefs. Other islands near Curacao — Bonaire and Aruba (the other two of the ABC islands) — have spent a great deal of energy in promoting their reefs to the scuba-diving industry. Curacao has only recently begun actively promoting diving, so the reefs in most areas of the island are pristeen and untouched. I visited a resort created specifically for scuba divers.

A Spa for Divers

Habitat Curacao is an 80-unit property on the western side of Curacao, about 25 minutes from Willemstad. It sits on a cliff overlooking the ocean and provides divers with easy access to shore diving (the reef starts about 50 yards from the end of a short dock), as well as multiple boat trips daily. It also maintains a full-service spa with the needs of divers in mind.

While in the water, divers enjoy a feeling of weightlessness. By hovering over a reef using a technique called “neutral buoyancy,” divers can move with little effort. But depending on skill level, a diver may experience neck and/or shoulder discomfort if she extends her head and neck for prolonged periods while underwater. Even the best scuba masks can obstruct at least part of a diver’s peripheral vision, requiring her to turn her head or maintain a less-than-optimal head position. Improperly fitting dive equipment can also create strain. The dive regulator — the device used for breathing underwater — is a series of hoses hooked to the tank just behind the diver’s head. If the hose is too short, it will limit head and neck range. Since many divers rent gear at their dive destination, rather than bringing their own, optimal fit can be a problem.

Out of the water, dive gear is heavy and cumbersome. Walking from the bow of a rocking boat to the dive platform in the stern with a 30-pound scuba tank strapped to one’s back can cause strain to the back, neck, and shoulders. Divers come in all ages, sizes, and fitness levels, so the potential for muscle strains and even bumps and bruises is high.

The Spa at Habitat Curacao offers treatments specifically for divers’ needs. I spoke with spa director Patricia Tapias about her spa’s offerings. “The Habitat diver’s massage is specifically designed to relieve strain in the neck, shoulders, and back,” Tapias says. “Many divers make a trip only once a year, so they’re out of shape when it comes to lifting heavy dive gear. After two or three dives, they’re ready to relax. I do deep tissue work to the neck, shoulders, and back for the 30-minute diver’s massage. The hour-long ‘waves of bliss’ massage also incorporates reflexology for back and neck points, as well as facial massage to relieve the tension to the face from wearing a scuba mask.”

Another popular treatment with divers is the ultra-hydrating revitalizer facial and hair treatment. It’s designed to rehydrate skin and hair after extended sun exposure in the tropics, a great offering for divers who are frequently traveling from cooler, less sunny climes.

The spa is located in a peaceful setting, surrounded by blooming bougainvillea with a large saltwater pond to one side. Some of the treatment rooms have views of the pond. Habitat Curacao Spa offers bodywork sessions on the private beach and an extensive menu of esthetic treatments for the hotel’s clientele. “Many of our guests come with their spouses who don’t dive,” Tapias says, “so the spa is a relaxing vacation activity for them.”

I asked Habitat Curacao’s Operational and Finance Manager, Michelangela Kalmez, about future plans for the spa. “I’m planning a proposal for consideration by our board of directors,” she answered. “I’d like to build a gazebo over the water with a clear bottom. We have so many beautiful fish there. Wouldn’t it be great to have a massage while watching the fish swim beneath you?”

I agreed. One of this island’s greatest resources is its aquamarine waters. People want to swim in it, dive beneath its surface, and simply gaze into its depths. What better way to experience the gift of bodywork than to receive it while enjoying the sea’s embrace?

Cathy Ulrich, P.T., is a Colorado author and bodyworker with more than 20 years of experience in physical therapy, craniosacral therapy, myofascial release, Rolfing, Rolfing Movement Integration, and visceral manipulation. She can be contacted at

The Healing Powers of the Sea

The sea has a powerful impact on the human psyche, but why do we feel so energized and relaxed while sitting at the beach, standing by a waterfall, or wading in a river?

Science has found that moving water increases the concentration of negative ions in the atmosphere. Negative ions — oxygen molecules with an extra electron attached to them — have been found to reduce serotonin levels in the brain, producing a sense of well-being, reduced anxiety, and a general feeling of heightened energy. Negative ions have been shown to increase oxygen uptake in cells and stimulate mitochondrial activity (the fuel furnace of the cell). They’ve also been found to reduce the presence of airborne viruses and bacteria and decrease respiratory allergy and asthma symptoms. Other studies have shown that when subjects breathe an increased concentration of negative ions, they produce more alpha brain waves — these waves are found in higher concentrations when people meditate.

Since the positive effects of negative ions are only felt when someone is breathing them, it’s no wonder we instinctively seek experiences in nature that promote these feelings of well-being. It may not be possible to conduct bodywork sessions outside by an ocean or waterfall, but fountains or negative ion generators may help increase a client’s sense of well-being during a session.

For more information, visit The Negative Ion Information Center at