There is nothing like sitting in the warm hug of a hot tub’s embrace – the water gently kneads your tight shoulders as the stress of your day is zapped from your body. Natural hot springs provide similar benefits, only intensified by about 1000%. Soaking in the healthy mineral waters of hot springs for a couple of hours will change your life and rock your world.
Alright, that last sentence may be a bit over the top, but I really have felt like a different person after a day spent soaking in natural hot springs. Not only does your body get massaged from the waters, but you’re also often surrounded by magnificent trees or green shrubbery infused with colorful flowers. If you are really lucky, you soak in an oasis in the desert like in Saline Valley, a word-of-mouth gem in the middle of Death Valley National Park.
What’s the catch? Well, for some people the “clothing optional” description is the only thing they need to hear to cross “local hot springs” off their travel list. This reaction is understandable enough – stories of slimy older men with long hair and a pot belly making their way across the water to chat up any woman under the age of 30 are certainly based in truth. Or, man or woman, some of us simply aren’t the type to strip down in front of the general public. Fair enough.
Having felt extremely uncomfortable the first few times I experienced clothing optional hot springs, I’d like to offer some advice on how to skip over the awkwardness and get straight to the ‘return to the womb’ feeling. Here’s how to deal with – and enjoy – going to clothing optional hot springs anywhere in the world.
Wherever you are traveling, before you go to the local hot springs, first and foremost find out if it’s clothing optional or not. Seems like a pretty common sense idea, but not always an obvious one.
Many places are clothing optional without them writing “clothing optional” on the sign out front (if there is even a sign). Ask the locals what the common practices are at this particular establishment. Then prepare yourself mentally and emotionally before you get there, being honest with yourself about your own comfort levels.
Luckily, there are varying degrees of “clothing optional” in different places. What clothing optional means in California (everyone is naked) is different than what it means at Xiagei Hot Springs in China (some women are topless). Europe is pretty free-wheeling, while you’d be hard pressed to find even completely natural hot springs with the clothing-optional tag in India.
>> Read about hot springs in Costa Rica
Best times for the least amount of traffic
There are definitely certain times that less people are going to be soaking in hot pools than others. Of course, this can vary widely depending on where in the world you find yourself, if it’s a hot springs spa versus a completely natural spring, and what types of people are attending (i.e. families as compared to old hippies).
In general, I tend to find early morning and late, late night to be the most traffic-free times at hot springs, where you will only share the pool with one or two other quiet, meditative people. If there are only certain hours the pools are open, the hottest part of the day tends to have the least people actually in the pool.
Weekdays tend to be better than weekends, and off-season is a great time to visit a hot spring without having to worry about a bunch of naked people running around.
>> Learn about hot springs near Eugene, Oregon
The importance of going in groups if you are female
If it is your first time going to a hot spring and you are a woman, I recommend going in a group, either all female or mixed. Though I’ve now visited many hot springs solo, I can distinctly recall my discomfort at being on my own when I wasn’t yet comfortable being nude or semi-clothed in front of strangers.
It seems like people zone in on you when you are alone and female. Even now, it’s easier when I’m with at least one other person, whether that’s because people are less likely to stare you down, or it’s just being able to ignore the stares and chat quietly with a friend.
Plus, there is a simple safety issue at hand. Though I’ve never felt threatened at a hot spring, I’ve had enough friends – female and male – be annoyed by over-zealous chatty fellows to warrant having an easy way out of a conversation by pointing to a friend and saying, “We’re here to celebrate our upcoming nuptials.”
>> Discover the best hot springs for cold winter months
Dealing with the “skeez” factor
On that last note, there is just going to be a “skeez” factor at least some of the time at clothing optional hot springs. Although I wish I could say this wasn’t the case, it is something that must be accepted and anticipated before going to soak.
Whether it’s some guy leering as you slide into the spring or it’s a couple sitting across from you getting a bit too touchy-feely, there are just too many people in the world that aren’t concerned with the people surrounding them.
When I first get to the pool or pools, I scan who is in there. Sometimes, I’ve looked and seen one too many a guy searching around, and too many couples making googly eyes at each other, so I’ve turned around and gone back later. If it’s a large pool, I eye the corner which seems the furthest away and with total focus, glide my way over to that spot.
Ignoring everyone else is occasionally necessary, as is putting your fingers to your lips to shush a person. Most hot springs have a spoken or unspoken rule to be quiet. It’s your right to have a relaxing time, and sometimes, you have to fight for it.
>> Find hot springs in Iceland
Don’t drink alcohol
Another common sense rule is to not drink alcohol before or during a dip in hot springs.
I don’t mean to be a drag, but this is smart for several reasons: the heat dehydrates your body, and you need to be hydrating it with drinking water, not dehydrating it further with alcohol (or you may have a medical emergency on your hands); hot springs are often thought of as an act of cleansing the body, and drinking alcohol has the exact opposite effect; alcohol makes you loosy-goosy in a situation you don’t want to be loosy-goosy in, plain and simple.
How to relax, enjoy yourself, and blot out whatever is going on around you
Remember, the whole point of going to hot springs is to get relaxed and hopefully, rejuvenated. I got so used to going to hot springs in California that my body craves them every couple of months now.
The more you feel the benefits of going to hot springs, the less you’ll notice other people looking at you or trying to chat you up. Over time, you won’t worry about other people being there at all because you are too busy feeling Zenned-out.
>> Read about another potentially embarrassing travel experience: a visit to a Turkish bath
Recommended hot springs and resources
Harbin Hot Springs
Possibly the most well-known clothing optional hot springs in the United States, Harbin Hot Springs boasts several pools, saunas and steam rooms, retreat centers, and an intentional community who lives on the grounds. Though it may not be the best hot springs to visit for your first clothing optional excursion, as it is almost always crowded, it provides a beautiful setting for both solitary and group retreats, or to just spend a day away from San Francisco.
Saline Valley Hot Springs
Saline Valley Hot Springs (pictured above) are almost impossible to find unless you go with someone who has been before. Located exactly in the middle of a valley in Death Valley, California, you’ll know you got there when you see the palm trees, since there is no other greenery for miles. Kept up beautifully by volunteers and visitors alone, be sure to visit before the heat sets in during May, and after it leaves in early October.
Both New Zealand and Australia offer a plethora of hot springs to choose from, some of which are clothing optional. New Zealand’s Hot Pools site offers over 100 hot springs throughout the country, 60 being all natural, non-commercial pools.
Europe has many choices when it comes to both clothed and clothing optional hot springs spas, such as Bad Gastein in Austria. Look for towns in both Germany and Austria that have the word “Bad” in their name, as this usually means they offer mineral hot spring facilities.
One of the many devastating effects of the recent earthquake and tsunami is the release of nuclear radiation into the waters of Japan, a country famous for its hot springs, known as onsen. Many of these hot springs are clothing optional, though they are mostly separated by gender. Hopefully, the onsen will be able to be used again in the future as they are a rich tradition embedded in the Japanese culture.