Why you should care

Because mere water and mud are so one-dimensional.

Traditional spas: When it comes to mud baths, healing waters and soothing bubbles, Italy does it better than anyone else. More than 200 thermal baths dot the boot, but the latest fad in personal pampering goes for an experience beyond mere H20.

So-called “sensorial spas” aim to engage all senses: sight, smell, sound. The natural elements are key, of course, but here the ambiance takes center stage. For example, patrons can relax in restyled Inquisition dungeons turned into hot baths, or friars’ tubs with Gregorian chants playing in the background.

The first time I tried a sensorial spa in Tuscany I almost reached nirvana. In a Walk in the River, an experience designed to promote self-regeneration and restore physical and mental balance, a gentle current washing over the skin simulates a tropical stream. It takes place in an Etruscan sauna with marble floors and a melmarium (mud room) where clay covers the walls and floors. Which makes for a strong scent — a bit like inhaling the bowels of the Earth.

Lights turn green; you’re serenaded with birdsong and scents of mango and pineapple enter your nostrils.

But what really helped to shake off my stress was the set of multisensory showers. Each is a unique experience, transporting body and mind to the four corners of the Earth. But pay attention: You must follow a progression. First there’s a warm, delicate shower mimicking the fall of tropical rain. Lights turn green; you’re serenaded with birdsong and scents of mango and pineapple enter your nostrils. It’s like being transported to the Amazon rain forest. Next comes the hot, strong shower with the force of a waterfall. Here the lights turn red, and loud muffled echoes re-create the inside of a cave. Finally, the cold, nebulized shower stings your skin, awakening your senses, while the lights turn blue and you’re surrounded with the sound of blowing winds.

For some, the multisensory spa experience can be a bit of an addiction. Anna Pia del Turco, a financial analyst, visits a different sensorial spa each weekend, traveling from region to region with the end goal of visiting them all. “It restores my energies,” she says. The “drug” she “can’t live without” has already cost her a small fortune over the past five months, she confesses — more than $5,300.

Because if there’s a “but” amid all this bliss, it’s the cost. Daily admission varies from $32 to $85 per person, depending on the type of treatment and length of stay. So it’s easy to rack up a big tab, especially if you go for an entire weekend.

Or opt for a niche treatment. When I stayed for two days at a mountain resort on the Alpe di Siusi in northern Italy, I experienced a “hay sauna.” Imagine lying down in a heated barn — with no barnyard beasts around — inhaling the fresh scent of hay, which fills your lungs like a natural balm. As you’re embraced by thick, soft straw that cuddles your neck, back and feet, you laugh while drinking in the view of shimmering snowcapped Alpine peaks. All for a mere 600 euros (about $640). As my granny used to say: “If you want to be beautiful, you must suffer” — meaning, also, financially speaking.

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