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STRESS-REDUCING SPOTS : UNWINDING IN A ROMAN SPA ON BOARD THE NORWAY : Two Ways to Rejuvenate, Caribbean-Style-in a Cruise Ship Mega-Spa or at a Tranquil Island Resort


BOARD THE NORWAY — Each stroke of the house-sized paint brush erased, if only temporarily, one more patch of winter pallor, along with a fair share of the stress that had gone into creating it. Finally, coated in a layer of warm mud and sealed in several layers of aluminum foil, I blissed out to the strains of Pachelbel and the distant hum of engines.

I was floating, figuratively and literally. It didn't really matter that I couldn't tell whether this gradually enveloping sense of relaxation had more to do with my cozy cocoon of oozing glop or the imperceptible motion of the ship--the Norway--upon which I'd just embarked, last June, on a weeklong spa at sea.

The 2,032-passenger Norwegian Cruise Line ship would be calling at St. John and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and St. Maarten in the Netherlands Antilles, but what I was really looking for was seven days of pampering. For passengers less than enchanted with the traditional frivolities of a week at sea--you know, napkin folding classes, beer drinking contests, lambada lessons and the like--the Norway offers what it claims to be: one of the largest spas afloat, a eucalyptus-scented refuge where aromatherapy massage, body wraps, facials and other typical spa pleasures offer a more sedate break from weekly pressures and routine.

The nearly 6,000-square-foot spa on one of the ship's lower decks was installed three years ago, defying the smaller-than-a-breadbox design philosophy generally associated with a ship and offering a range of services as varied as those you'd find at many major land-based spas.

I should say from the start that the whole idea of a spa cruise struck a number of people, not least among them several travel agents I consulted, as a major contradiction. "Spa?" asked one, as if she'd been asked to book a ski weekend on Maui. "People don't go on cruises for spas," she informed me, her mind clearly on the culinary excess travel at sea is better known for.

It is true that most passengers on the Norway appeared more interested in the midnight buffet and the aft ice cream parlor than the "aroma-derm" facial or hydrotherapy massage. Still, I can report that with a heavy dose of willpower, it is possible to spend a week on a cruise ship and not have to head directly to Jenny Craig upon disembarking.

The Norway offered light, low-fat choices on all dining room menus, and a poolside breakfast/lunch buffet with plenty of fresh fruit and salads.

Along with policing your own calories, you have to do a little schedule juggling to get full spa benefits since the exercise programs are supervised by the gym staff while massages and other body services are managed in the spa itself.

The ship's spa program has been planned so that passengers can book one or two treatments, $15 to $60 each, or sign up for the six-day "Emperor" package, $689 for six massages, two facials, manicure or pedicure, three body wraps and full use of facilities like steam, sauna and whirlpool. Opt for the Emperor and you don't have to worry about ports of call--you won't have time to see any of them. That's why the most popular package, according to one of the spa hostesses, is the three-day "Patrician," $359 (similar to the six-day package except you get three massages).

I'd booked a Patrician before the ship pulled away from the dock at the port of Miami, leaving the scheduling to the spa staff--even though past experience at land spas had taught me that's not always wise. (Who wants a massage right before two hours of body sculpting; you want it after, right?) But the Norway's staff members not only seemed plugged in to that mentality, they were also more than willing to juggle both times and services. So, what can you do during a spa day at sea?

We started most mornings with a hike on the jogging track that circled one deck, 3.5 laps to the mile. (Serious runners were frustrated by not being allowed on it before 8 a.m. in deference to the sleeping habits of people in the nearby high-ticket cabins.) To encourage runners/walkers to use the track, anyone doing 35 laps got a 10-mile club certificate at week's end. To me, the exhilaration of running with a 360-degree ocean view was incentive enough.

Just when walking in circles was becoming monotonous, we docked off St. John, where the fitness staff gathered the die-hards for a 6:45 a.m. hike up a hill steep enough to make you wish you'd had room for hiking boots in your luggage. Our small but determined band of about 15 chugged the mile and a half in about 20 minutes, arriving on a small, deserted beach that--and this is major when you're on a ship with 2,000 other people--no one else knew about. At that point we had a choice. Stay on the beach and enjoy a couple hours of relative isolation or follow the instructors back down the hill, double-time, and be rewarded with breakfast at a local dive they swore makes the best banana pancakes in the islands. See how easy it is to be led astray?

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