Spa Review: Australia’s Chuan Spa

Ancient healing traditions meet modern luxuries at Australia’s posh Chuan Spa.

Courtesy Chuan Spa at The Langham Melbourne

High above the hustle and bustle of Melbourne’s central district and the sparkling energy of the Yarra River, sits the enchanting Chuan Spa at The Langham Melbourne hotel. Outside, chic Aussie women in platforms and dyed bobs saunter down cobblestone lanes. But inside, I find myself surrounded by young men and women sheathed in black, Mandarin-collared jackets. They quietly pad through the halls, past embroidered silk screens and under a moon-shaped gate, the melody of a lone zither floating through the air.

I might be in the land of Crocodile Dundee, but I’ve suddenly been transported to Ming-Dynasty Shanghai, circa 1600. And that’s by design. The Chuan Spa prides itself on offering clients a “complete journey” from this Western metropolis to fabled China, says Barry White, group director of spa for the Langham and its seven Chuan spas all over the world.

Introducing traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)–focused spas was a strategic identity decision made by the Langham Hotel Group’s Hong Kong–based owners. And the Chuan Spa communicates its brand by considering every detail, from the way therapists interact with clients to the intriguing treatment menu.

“We offer 19 signature services and rituals based on the principles of traditional Chinese medicine,” White explains. “We see it as an opportunity to bridge ancient practices with a five-star experience.” By example, imagine a practitioner administering Chinese cupping (the process of removing toxins by creating suction with heat and glass cups applied to the back) in a luxurious room filled with Chinese-themed music and the aroma of custom-selected essential oils, as the entire process is explained to the guest in English.

“Although we offer manicures and pedicures, this is not a girly spa. It’s a well-being center. We take a holistic approach to health.”

The 25-story, 387-room Langham Melbourne opened in 2005 after a complete overhaul (it was formerly a Sheraton). The posh, but relaxed environment includes such signature Langham touches as ginger-and-floral scents, challenging artwork and progressive floral arrangements that give the sizable property a boutique élan. Local highlights include the Royal Botanic Gardens and the National Gallery of Victoria, as well as 19th-century cafés, teahouses and boutiques just a short walk across the Yarra bridge.

When I get to the spa on the hotel’s ninth floor, I am first led through the boutique, which hosts a display of self-help books and upscale French skincare products. I also notice a large number of grooming products and literature for men. “A lot of our returning clients are men so we want to make sure they feel included,” says spa director Micheline Trigg. “Although we offer manicures and pedicures, this is not a girly spa. It’s a well-being center. We take a holistic approach to health.”

Chuan means “flowing water,” and the spa’s philosophy is that water helps to calm and balance the mind, body and soul. Thus, all clients are encouraged to arrive at least 30 minutes early to indulge in the spa’s “tri-bathing ritual.”

In the softly lit, wood-lined locker room, I slip on my swimsuit and take a salt-water Jacuzzi soak on the open-air deck (gazing at the stunning views of Melbourne) before heading for a traditional sauna in the indoor bathing area. Next, I pop into the river-stone snail shower, a beautifully tiled, S-shaped rain-and-steam enclosure that forces some 12 jets of warm water onto separate muscle groups. It’s a transporting experience. The one disconcerting note? The bathing area is co-ed. A male client might walk in at any time to see me lost in a sensory deluge and in my bathing suit—not the most relaxing thought!

After changing into a robe I meet my therapist Daniel, a quietly handsome Melbournian, who guides me to the Contemplation Corner, a room of muted beiges, natural textures and tempting chaise lounges. I’m offered tea—oolong, green or chamomile—as Daniel asks me to fill out a short Five Elements questionnaire, a TCM-based inquiry meant to determine my current state of mind and body, as well as the Chinese element (wood, fire, earth, metal or water) I need for balance. Questions include: “What season do you prefer most?”, “What color do you prefer?” and “Over the last week have your found yourself becoming angry, overexcited, anxious, melancholy, fearful?”

“We don’t tell clients at first what’s in each oil. We have them close their eyes and smell. That way the body chooses what it needs.”

After considering my answers, Daniel determines I am either in need of the wood (unwind and relax) or earth (focus and direction) element. He presents me with essential oils associated with each: Wood uses a combination of lavender, sweet orange, rose and vetiver that purports to loosen muscles and calm the soul; earth is chamomile, lemon, lime, eucalyptus and rosemary meant to steady and refresh. I inhale both. Wood—and a calm soul—is my choice. “We don’t tell clients at first what’s in each oil,” says spa director Trigg. “We have them close their eyes and smell. That way the body chooses what it needs.”

Daniel and I sit across from each other as he leads me through the Chuan Breathing Ritual. Following his lead, I close my eyes and breathe in deeply and out slowly. He asks me to visualize green, the color associated with my element. “Our breathing ritual is an important part of the treatment,” Trigg says. “The client takes a moment to meditate, to ground herself and relax before she gets on the table.”

The spa has eight treatment rooms, four dual treatment rooms and the Spirit Suite for couples, which has two treatment beds, an oversized bathtub, a curtained-off lounge and a private stone shower. Depending on the time of year, Chuan Melbourne employs between 8 and 20 therapists, and always has a TCM doctor on call. Most of the therapists are Australians who studied at regional schools and were also trained on Chuan techniques by the spa.

Daniel leads me to a private treatment room, decorated with modern Chinese calligraphy scrolls. As he leaves the room momentarily, I shed my robe, lie facedown on the massage bed and pull a light blanket over myself. Daniel places a small bowl of wood essential oil below my face. For today’s service, I’ve chosen the popular Harmony Massage (60 min./about $140), which combines flowing strokes with a concentration on acupressure points. “We follow Chinese meridian lines and acupressure points,” Trigg says. “But we also work in Swedish massage techniques, too—a nice combination of Eastern and Western styles.”

With the soft Chinese music floating through the air and the aromatic notes of lavender and orange swirling around me, I feel completely transported, as if I am floating down Shanghai’s Huangpu River on a graceful wooden boat.

“Our clients are not only learning, they’re building a bond with us. We become more like a club, and that encourages our clients to come back."

Chuan promotes its treatments to hotel guests (spa menus are placed in each room), but a high percentage of repeat business comes from the local market, including corporate clients who have a membership to the hotel’s health club. The spa also does extensive marketing: advertorials in local newspapers and magazines, postcards to clients and seasonal promotions.

About 54 percent of clients book massages; 24 percent opt for facials. A good deal of the base is men, and treatments packaged just for them include Man’s Maintenance, a facial for about $160, with such add-ons as hair masks, scalp massages, eye treatments or salt scrubs; and A Man’s World, at $230, which includes a back exfoliation, the Chuan Harmony massage and a facial.

The spa’s free workshops on TCM and holistic self-care are another way it engages its base. “It’s an opportunity for people to ask questions and gain more knowledge about health and well-being,” Trigg says. “Our clients are not only learning, they’re building a bond with us. We become more like a club, and that encourages our clients to come back. This is part of our point of difference from other spas in the city.”

Another bonus: All spa guests have full use of the steam room, sauna, Jacuzzi, pool and health club. “You can come in, go for a swim, have lunch on the pool deck and make a whole day of it,” Trigg says. “We create a space for clients to relax. So as a result, a treatment here is a great value.” As such, the spa sailed through the recession with only a small dip in business. “We did well and I believe that’s because we focused on maintaining a quality service and offering our promotional packages.”

After my relaxing Harmony Massage, I slip my maillot back on, grab a book from the spa and head out to the pool deck. The Chuan experience is a bit like spa-going as theater. It’s a chance to play-act as pampered empress, but also to experience (and benefit from) the medical wisdom of an ancient culture. Or as Trigg says, “It’s like taking a vacation to a different world.”

It’s early evening now, and I’m looking out onto the sparkling city lights of Melbourne but my mind and soul still feel as though they are floating, blissfully, down the Huangpu.

Alison Singh Gee is an author and journalist based in Los Angeles.

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