Edit on 210519: ok, so this hasn’t aged well hahaha. You and I probably won’t be going to the Bliss spa any time soon, and I’m getting an antibody test later this week to try to determine if the weird mystery illness I got after our cruise was COVID, so maybe stick to a sheet mask?
It was announced earlier this month that Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand goop is heading to sea with Celebrity Cruises. I’m not a goop person at all (it seems like a very vagina-focused brand, while I see fanserviced as more pussy-adjacent), but I’m a bit delighted that someone with a lot of Treat Yo’ Self-Care cultural power is recognizing that cruises can offer more than children playing in the adult pool and norovirus-vector buffets.
It turns out that goop at sea isn’t so much a whole chartered cruise (groups ranging from Weight Watchers to furries have chartered private and semi-private cruises before) as a single goop day on the yet-to-launch Celebrity Apex with some goopified accents throughout the sailing. goop at Sea (oh god, that’s the real name) is available only to people who book in the suite category and pay an additional $750 per person for a ticket, so prepare to pay up if you want to take part. When I quickly estimated the cost for two people to sail with goop, the price was just over $10,000 — and that’s not including flights to and from Barcelona or any extras. I seriously wonder if anyone other than journalists looking to blow their legacy publication’s travel budget for the year are going to book this.
Virgin Voyages, a new adults-only cruise ship line launching this year, is playing up their shipboard spa that will feature the usual massages, less usual mudroom, and truly out-there evening DJ. I can’t wait to see people doing performative masking for the ‘gram with loud music in the background. It’s exactly the sort of thing that could kill off the whole skincare industry in one blow. A cruise ship with a Korean bbq onboard and spectacular spa should be my thing, but Richard Branson’s travel Willy Wonka persona weirds me out. I don’t know what it is that draws cult-of-personality brands to the sea (tbh it’s likely the fact that 26.7 million people took cruises in 2017 and they have a $134 billion output worldwide — as in, that’s how much money they spread around, not even how much they take in), but I don’t want to be there when Poseidon asserts his dominance.
I first wrote about cruise ship spa services in 2016 for Racked, and I was pretty skeptical of the offerings like Botox that should probably be handled on land where, you know, you can get a bailout if someone happens to accidentally inject something in your veins. Ships have offered beauty treatments for at least one hundred years — there’s no audience more captive than a bunch of people wealthy enough to travel floating in the middle of the ocean — and it seems like cruise lines and partners such as goop are looking to capitalize on the wellness trend and take it to sea.
That said, you don’t need to drop $10K or wait for Virgin Voyages to launch or pay $300+ for a hot stone massage to have a really amazing spa experience.
On my most recent cruise, a Christmas sailing on the Norwegian Bliss, I decided early on to book Spa Thermal Suite access for the whole sailing. My husband saw some videos, heard the words “child- and alcohol-free zone,” and wanted in, too. Our fear was that a Christmas sailing during a school break would be an absolute madhouse and people would be, like, climbing on the walls and shit while wearing elf hats (it turned out to be totally fine! even by the pool!).
How to book
The opportunity to book cruise-long Thermal Suite access on a Norwegian boat typically opens up online to all reserved passengers regardless of stateroom type before the sailing, just like specialty restaurant and some show reservations. I set a reminder and rushed in to nab our spot about 80 days before our voyage, I wasn’t playing around. Despite the cruise having something like 4,700 passengers (a whole damn lot even for the massive Bliss) for our sailing, cruise-long spa passes seemed to be available until the cut-off date of just a few days before departure. That said, my feeling is that if your heart is set on being in the Thermal Suite, you shouldn’t wait to book. We sailed to the Bahamas, but apparently the passes go quick for Alaska, Panama Canal, and Transatlantic voyages, which have lots of sea days or colder outdoor temperatures.
There were some people who booked cruise-long spa passes after getting on the ship (it just costs a bit more on-board: $20 extra for our sailing, but that came with a self-administered sugar scrub) and some people who booked day passes ($59 per day for our sailing, port days only and only when the week-long passes aren’t sold out), so check in at the spa if you don’t get a chance to book before boarding. A tour of the Thermal Suite on embarkation day is free, and if you go before it opens for use at 3pm, minimally awkward. Unlike the beverage packages, Thermal Suite access isn’t an all or nothing deal — you can book for just one person in your cabin, if you’d like.
Another way to get into the spa is to book a spa cabin instead of a regular balcony or oceanview cabin. Spa cabins typically come with an in-room tub and Thermal Suite access for the first two adult passengers added to the reservation at no additional charge. In some cases, cruise fans have reported that they paid less by booking a fancy spa cabin or suite than booking a regular cabin and adding Thermal Suite passes à la carte.
There’s no free access to the Thermal Suite and sauna
On some ships, the dry sauna in the spa area is free. That’s not the case on the Bliss, where access to all of the rooms, pools, and loungers requires either a cruise-long or day pass. Similarly, booking a spa treatment does not entail Thermal Suite access, something that’s quite common on land.
How to sign in
Check in at the Mandara Spa on deck 16. The first time you sign in, a receptionist will add a sticker to the back of your room key card to signal that you have a Thermal Suite pass. Each time you go into the Thermal Suite, you’ll need to drop off your card at the front desk and then pick it up upon leaving. As a result of this seemingly low-tech system, attempting to share your Thermal Suite pass really isn’t going to work. There isn’t anything to buy once you’re in the Thermal Suite, so leaving your card at reception isn’t going to pose problems.
What it’s like inside the NCL Bliss Thermal Suite
What you need to know is that the Bliss was built to sail in Alaska, so it has all these enclosed spaces like the Observation Lounge and the spa, where people can just hang out without being in the cold. The Thermal Suite is located on deck 16 in the aft (aka. the rear) of the ship. This is useful to know if you’re sailing out of NYC in the winter, because we definitely came up in the wrong elevators a few times and had to walk outdoors on the open pool deck to get to the spa. The Thermal Suite looks out on the water behind the ship, so as you read dirty books, you can see the wake below thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows.
Most of the time, people are lounging on two types of chairs. Right in front of the windows, there are tons of heated stone loungers looking out at the ocean. The loungers are covered in tile, which transfers just a bit of warmth so you feel like an iguana sunning yourself on a friendly rock. These were great when I was wet from the pool or steam room and wanted the heat to transfer easily. Signs in the stone lounger area state that these chairs are available for 30 minutes at a time, but most people didn’t stress about that and there were plenty of loungers available when I was there.
There were more standard wooden loungers with white cushions in the Thermal Suite, and I think I actually liked these even better because they’re soft and adjustable. On the last day of the cruise, I apparently took a midday nap in one of these, alternating between a giant smile and my mouth hanging open. GLAMOUR!
Finding the chair of your choice can be a bit daunting at first because sea days are peak times in the Thermal Suite and so many people go in looking to sit together. My tip is to go in willing to split up until a better seating option opens up and consider checking out the rooms and pool when seating is scarce. Once I felt at home in the Thermal Suite, I rolled with the seating options a lot more and found that ideal configurations such as two soft loungers with a table in between opened up after just a bit.
Pools and tubs
When you want be a bit more active, there’s a heated pool (it’s 96 degrees) and a hot tub. I’m guessing the jacuzzi is there because people would complain otherwise. I got into both and I have no idea what the difference is. The much bigger pool had buttons on the side that turned on bubbles in that section, so the whole pool was a giant hot tub with the added benefit of offering space for a little swimming. There was even a section in the back with bubble-making pipes configured in a very long bench that you could sit on. In the center, there was a fountain that would release a metric fuckton of water if you pressed a button; I attempted to stand under it after getting a back massage and almost fell over lol.
The body benefits of the pool were legit. I sank in after a 10-mile walk split between the beach and the sidewalks of Cocoa Beach, and the warm water coupled with light movement had me feeling great before dinner.
When I got tired of zooming around in the pool, I liked to check out the various rooms in the Thermal Suite. My favorite room by far was the steam bath, which was a wildly hot room filled with essential oil-laced steam. It cleared my sinuses after about 30 seconds, but it was hotter than the hell and I couldn’t last long in there. There’s a salt room that didn’t really get me excited. I skipped the single-gender dry sauna — in fact, I don’t even remember seeing it. The snow room was a fun experience
Hours and busy times
The Thermal Suite opened the day we left New York at 3pm. We actually jumped into our suits and slid into the tub before we even sailed under the Verrazano Bridge. Each day thereafter, the Thermal Suite was open from 8am until 10pm (but only until 8pm on the final day). Having both opened and closed the Thermal Suite, I can highly recommend being an early or latecomer — on some days, we’d have the whole place to ourselves for a few minutes. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the spa is busiest at the times there are the most people up and about on the ship: midday and sea days.
Some less fabulous parts: wet floor, pool chemicals, and chair reserving
As you can imagine, the floor in the Thermal Suite is pretty much continuously wet. Staff are constantly mopping and arranging signs, but this isn’t the place to wear your slippery sandals. I didn’t find the floor to be especially slick, but I made sure to walk gingerly.
I found that the pool chemicals left my skin dry and kinda irritated. The water in the thalassotherapy pool is fresh water, unlike the regular pools, which are filled with treated salt water. Given that our sailing had an issue with a cold virus of some sort spreading around, I especially get why the chemicals are needed, but this is something to keep in mind if you have sensitive skin.
Particularly in the beginning of the voyage, it was tricky to nab a few chairs in a row due to people dumping their towels and…walking away? Going into the pool? Heading to their cabin for a multi-hour snooze? I don’t even know tbh. It did seem that staff eventually cleared chairs with only towels left on them when they’d clearly been abandoned. A tighter turnover system with countdown markers would really help the chair situation on busy days in both the Thermal Suite and on the pool deck.
Locker rooms, robes, towels, and beverages
The thermal suite is down the hall from locker rooms for men and women. Both had enclosed showers, bathrooms, and plenty of lockers. Robes and towels could be grabbed from the locker rooms or from the entrance to the thermal suite with the exception of the period at the end of the cruise when procedures changed in order to contain the spread of a bug. At that point, an attendant handed out robes, towels, and spa water. We liked the fairly basic, but still fluffy towels enough that my husband begged for us to buy some nice towels for home — I splurged on some monogrammed Frontgate bath sheets once we returned to keep the spa feeling alive post-voyage.
Spa water is the iced water with citrus slices floating in it that pretty much every spa serves; most of the time it’s available in self-serve containers in the thermal suite. It’s not possibly to order soft drinks or alcoholic beverages in the spa. I lazily brought my favorite Zojirushi mug into the spa to keep my water intake up, and that didn’t seem to be a problem.
Robe sizes: ehh
I think that for most plus size women, the robes aren’t exactly ideal; when I went for a massage, I wore my own kaftan to the treatment room rather than flash my bits thanks to a too-small robe. The robe was fine for over a swimsuit in the Thermal Suite, but it didn’t provide enough coverage for when I needed to walk around otherwise naked. I asked if the spa has a stash of larger robes: no dice. These days I’m “average” in the US, and only stocking straight sized robes in 2019 is an interesting business choice. My sense is that some more robe size options would help Norwegian sell pricey treatments like massages; if people are concerned about the walk from the locker room to the treatment room, they’re going to be far less likely to book a service.
Facilities for spa patrons with motor disabilities
The bathroom stalls in the locker room were larger to allow for mobility aids like walkers, but a true wheelchair bathroom with a mechanical door is not located within the spa itself — it’s in the hallway outside the Mandara Spa between the stairs. The locker room has plenty of lockers, but not a ton of spare space for changing with assistance without being in a walkway and potentially more exposed than one would prefer. A mobility assistance chair on an arm seemed to be available to assist patrons with entering the pool without using the steps, but I saw in a Bliss-focused Facebook group that I’m in that it was non-operational on at least one sailing in the past. The thalassotherapy pool can be accessed via stairs, which have a railing on the right side; there’s no need to use a ladder (while the adult pool open to all and exposed to the sun on deck 16 does require use of a ladder). I didn’t see special seating for Thermal Suite patrons with motor disabilities, and it’s my sense that the wet floor and somewhat tight chair configuration might make the space kinda difficult and unsafe to navigate for cruises using things like canes and walkers.
Gender breakdown in the Thermal Suite and vibe
I found the thermal suite to be popular with men and women. On our sailing, it was mostly frequented by couples. It looks like some sailings have had issues with drunk, loud, or chair-reserving Thermal Suite patrons, but our voyage was very chill and enjoyable. One of the things that was most refreshing was the diversity of body sizes, ages, and shapes. As someone who has lost quite a few pounds, I really had to gear myself up for wearing a swimsuit in public because of loose skin, but people were focused on their relaxation, not my bod. It was a positive environment for reconnecting with the me that loves swimming.
Mandara Spa services: mostly pass
Having had everything from massages to acupuncture to teeth whitening in NCL Mandara Spas, I feel pretty confident in telling you that it’s an easy pass unless you really love shipboard treatments and don’t mind a big bill. On this sailing, I went to the spa tour, signed up for the raffle, and actually won the grant prize: a gift certificate for a spa service of up to $250. That said, every spa service automatically requires a gratuity of 18%. I’m all about fair tipping, but when a gratuity is required, I always feel the need to add quite a bit more in case the full fee isn’t being passed on to the employee. So my free hot stone massage, which was actually pretty great, was nowhere near free.
I loved the service, but the attempt to sell me Elemis products and skin-firming radiowhatever treatments mid- and post-massage fell flat. My sense is that services are super marked up so that various “deals” make them feel affordable, but the final cost is pretty wild compared to land-based spas. For less than the cost of a single hot stone massage, you can get 8 days in the Thermal Suite. And unlike many wonderful spas like the luxury historical spa at Colonial Williamsburg, purchasing a service does not allow you to access the Thermal Suite for the rest of the day for free (it may be possible to pay an extra $20 to add a pass on the day of your service).
To me, the decision is easy: the Thermal Suite is a much better deal than marked-up spa services.
How I bought it
I used a pile of Chase Ultimate Rewards points from cards such as Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Freedom Unlimited to pay for 1/3 of the cruise fee. Cruises aren’t anywhere near the best travel redemption for reward points, but as someone looking to maximize the cash that remains in my wallet while getting out of town to feel some sun, it was a redemption that worked for me.
Once I booked the cruise, I used the Capital One Venture card to book our Thermal Suite passes online. The sign-up bonus of 50,000 points nicely covered the $249-per-person (including all taxes) charge for an 8-day cruise to the Bahamas. I used the Venture card’s travel purchase eraser to use 49,800 points from the welcome bonus to wipe out the whole Thermal Suite charge after it settled. So I “paid” for spa access, but didn’t actually hand over any of my cash money, just how I like it.
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