Hot stone massages have become increasingly popular, and can, done well, be one of the finest relaxation experiences you've ever enjoyed. Stones (usually basalt) about the size of the palm of your hand are placed in a water heater with water brought up to about 50-53 degrees Celsius. While the massage therapist massages you, other stones can be left on strategic points around the body (particularly your back) to work their magic in unwinding your muscles. The heat is claimed to draw toxins to the skin's surface, acting as a purifying process as well as a relaxing and balancing one.
I have had this treatment twice. The first time was on a cruise run by the company Voyages to Antiquity. Their massage therapist was amazing and fixed all the aches and pains of the trips, at a very reasonable price given the environment. I was so impressed with the relaxing warmth of her hot stone treatment that I booked another session at the Sun Spa in Abingdon.
The stones were carried in what looked like a first aid canvas-clad kit, but was in fact a storage box with inbuilt heater. They are left to heat up for a while before you're invited in to undress and relax. Massage beds are great, with holes for your face so that you can lie flat comfortably, staring into the darkness of the towels rather than straight at the floor. It smelt a bit odd, but I was assure that this was Valerian, for relaxation purposes.
The treatment was technically 'full body', which meant the back of my legs, my back, shoulders, arms, neck, hands and face. The stones, when used well, do make this far superior to other types of massage I've had. The warm pressure is wonderful as they glide across your skin, and the hardness means that they can be pressed in to deal with all the knotty tangles your muscles have got themselves into, without so much effort or pressure from the massage therapist.
Walls gently decorated with flower paintings just visible in the relaxed gloom
Having your face massaged is a very strange experience, but not an unpleasant one. I had a headache when I went in, and the gentle warm pressure over the affected area did help it to get better. I was kept covered with a towel for warmth and modesty's sake, with some stones placed on top of the towel so as not to burn me when left. This is a carefully thought through and intense experience.
If nothing else, even a less-than-perfect massage is great for providing quality unwinding time, for reminding you how to relax and putting you into that deep relaxation zone. An hour goes by really quickly once time for setting up and finishing off (warming stones up, getting dressed etc) has been factored in, but it is well worth it. I was offered a glass of water at the end. It's always a good idea to drink water after a massage, although on this occasion the small plastic glass full wasn't quite what I had in mind.
The room I was in had a small window above the door, which rather ruined the darkness of inside. Some places I've been have candlelight, which just wouldn't work here. The usual generic 'relaxing' music involving pipes and odd settings of famous pieces was played throughout our treatment. I wouldn't say it was particularly relaxing, but it certainly didn't grate in the way some music can.