HENDAYE - The French have an expression about seaside vacations: Go to the Côte d'Azur to be seen, the southwest beaches to hide. One is the playground for the rich and Paris Match paparazzi. The other is for those seeking peace amid nature's riches, from the scent of pines mingling with ocean air near the Bay of Arcachon to the spray of robust Atlantic waves on cliff-hugging walks farther south in the Basque region.
A half-mile from the Spanish border, I found Hendaye's beach in early July dotted mostly with surfers riding waves toward a view of The Three Crowns - a triple-humped, emerald section of the Pyrénées mountains. An intermittent drizzle pushed me indoors, where I still hoped to capitalize on the benefits of the sea at Serge Blanco Thalassotherapie, a spa that faces the beach and marina.
If I had any doubts I was on the right coast for this sort of adventure, a gray-haired woman donning a fluffy bathrobe reassured me near the marble-floored entry. Like many Swiss clients she has met, she and her husband leave Nice each year for a week at the Hendaye spa - even though there are similar establishments on the Mediterranean.
"Oh, but it's not the same! Here, the air, the Atlantic - it's more invigorating, more tonic!" she said, pumping her fist in the air.
That's the foundation of thalassotherapy - a term that comes from the Greek word thalassos, or sea, and was coined by a French doctor from Arcachon in the mid-1800s. At the time, a wealthy clientele began building second homes in the town because the sea air and mild climate were reputed to cure an assortment of joint, skin, and respiratory ailments.
By the turn of the century, France's first thalassotherapy center opened in Roscoff, Brittany, where heated seawater was used in medical treatments. French cycling champion Louison Bobet, who credited his recovery from a car accident to treatments at Roscoff, brought thalassotherapy into the national spotlight in the 1960s, when he opened an institute in the Brittany peninsula town of Quiberon.
Today, there are more than 50 centers along the French coasts, often connected to hotels and offering "cures" of as long as a week to help stress, back pain, weight control, cigarette addiction, and even to reenergize new mothers.
To meet the International Federation of Thalassotherapy guidelines, the spa must be no more than two-thirds of a mile (a kilometer) from the shore; have medical staff on site; and use sea products and seawater that's pumped in daily from a specific depth. The water is filtered and then heated to 94 degrees - the temperature at which minerals and trace elements from the sea are believed to effectively penetrate the skin and replenish the body.
I had blocked off the morning for this visit, knowing I was planning another half day the next week at Thalazur Arcachon two hours north. But would it be enough?
"If you do a few treatments in one day, it's still good, but it's like medicine: If you take it for six days, you'll feel better than just one," said Marie Marchese, director of Thalazur Arcachon. "But we have couples who come in for just one treatment and use the pool. It's less expensive than going to a restaurant."
Had I come a day earlier to Hendaye, I could have joined other guests for complimentary Monday aperitifs with Serge Blanco, the former French rugby star who opened the spa complex and adjacent Hotel Ibaia in 1991.
Eager for my first treatment, a hydromassage, I checked in at the reception desk, where employees spoke little English. The brochures are written in French, but anyone with a good English vocabulary and French dictionary could discern the treatment options.
I collected a locker key, robe, and slippers, and changed before heading to a small atrium with a Japanese garden. Within minutes, a petite woman with two dark pigtails called me. She introduced herself as Natalie, led me to a room with a deep tub, and instructed me to take off my bathing suit and step in. I asked, in French, whether there are guests who prefer to stay clothed. She said some hesitate, but usually oblige. And what if they don't speak French? "I use my hands to make them understand," she said.
Soon I was neck deep in warm seawater, my head resting on a suspended cushion. With one hand, Natalie held my right ankle under water while her other hand used a long hose fitted with a special nozzle to pummel water a few inches from the bottom of my foot. Slowly, she worked back and forth, across my ankles and up my legs, explaining that the massage would help circulation and relax my muscles. As she traced circles on my stomach, she noted the treatment is ideal for people with constipation and stomach tension. After only 20 minutes, the session left my body as relaxed as any 50-minute massage.
I slipped on my robe and was led to another room for a boues marines - a slathering of sea mud from the Brittany coast that is supposed to relieve joint pain and help reduce cellulite. A technician told me to lie on a bed covered with mirrored cellophane and cautioned that the gray goo would feel cold but then warm as it reacted to my skin. Within a minute of being coated from back to ankles, I felt warm, tiny bubbles popping behind my neck and along my shoulders. With the sheet wrapped into a loose knot at my chest, I let the heat and soft music lull me into the kind of 20-minute nap I crave on a sunny beach.
After a thorough rinsing, I couldn't imagine my skin feeling softer . . . until a final 20-minute massage with oils infused with algae and lavender. My only regret was that I felt so polished and revitalized that I no longer wanted to test the various massage jets of the indoor pool.
I decided to space my treatments in a more leisurely fashion at Thalazur Arcachon, which is nestled among tall pines just a half-mile from a bay ruled by sailboats and beachgoers in summer. Two days earlier, I had met with the English-speaking reservation clerk who suggested the Mother's Day Special that had been brought back for summer. The two-treatment package sounded like nouveau cuisine gone bad: a cocoa and coffee-infused algae wrap, followed by something called a precious bath. But I was intrigued enough to try.
After 10 minutes in the steam room to open my pores (my idea), a technician coated my body in the algae concoction that looked and smelled like melted milk chocolate. As she wrapped me in cellophane and a padded, thermal blanket, she told me the cocoa butter would hydrate my skin, while the algae and coffee would "reaffirm tissue and eliminate toxins." In the first five minutes of my 20-minute bake, my legs tingled, but the sensation slowly disappeared into relaxing warmth while I dreamed of chocolate bonbons.
Hosed off, I slipped on a mandatory swim cap before entering the spacious indoor pool. I followed the lead of a handful of clients who clung to the perimeter, where various jets pulsed legs, back, and shoulders. Soon, a technician came to lead me to a room where she handed me a small pot of yellow cream: shea butter and honey. I was to coat my body, but not rub it in while she smeared my back. As she filled the tub with warm water, she asked which circuit I preferred: relaxing or tonic, back or leg therapy? She set the program for tonic, turned the lights low, and instructed me to push a call button if needed. Soon, I was chin high in bubbles, while underwater, jets pounded my feet, legs, bottom, and back for 20 minutes of invigorating luxury.
I thought I could have done without my final treatment, an oscillating shower in which six jets rained on my backside at varying intensity for 15 minutes. I couldn't help thinking I was stuck in a drive-through carwash; but afterward, my back and legs appreciated the massage.
I ended my day with another trip to the pool, where I counted four couples, including a 40-something pair in lounge chairs to my right. The husband explained that on a whim, they took the day off, and drove two hours from their native Agen to sample algae wraps and hydromassages for the first time.
"It was her idea," he said, smiling at his wife. "But I'd do this again."
Susie Woodhams, a freelance writer in Tampa, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.