One of the more overlooked additions to cruise ships in recent years has been the spa's thermal suite: a collection of sauna, steam, shower and aromatherapy rooms that are generally grouped around a grotto of heated, tiled loungers -- all of it attractively designed and appropriately relaxing.

During a cruise on the Queen Mary 2 this year, I talked myself into an hour in the ship's version of the thermal suite, the AquaTherapy Center. After spending most of the day trying, and often failing, to connect to the Internet on the ship, I needed a break before the big, formal dinner.

Guests pay by the day for unlimited use of the AquaTherapy Center: It's $35 for one day, $55 for three days and $85 for five days. It's complimentary if you've already booked certain spa treatments that day.

The center's main event is the thalassotherapy pool. It kind of looks like an enormous, bubbling hot tub, with a large waterfall at the far end and two powerful water spouts. (A regular hot tub is located in a corner.)

Most thermal suites feature soothing, new age music, but here the noisy, falling water is the soundtrack. It drowns out most conversations, too, which is a blessing.

So, to the pool: I climbed in and was immediately pushed off to the side by an underwater jet of water. The pool is pretty deep; the water came up to my shoulders.

I tried to walk to the underwater loungers, but the force of the bubbly water was too strong. I figured a full-out, freestyle stroke was out of place in a glorified hot tub, so I ended up doing a sideways doggy- paddle to move around. After what seemed like an eternity, I reached the loungers. This pool is obviously not for the faint of (swimming) heart.

But it was wonderful.

All my energy, physical and mental, was concentrated on paddling and being pummeled by the jets, bubbles and waterfall, which pounded away at my tense shoulder muscles (the water from the spout was so powerful it practically pushed me underwater). I wasn't thinking about the Internet or whether I was eating too much during the cruise. The formal dinner seemed miles away.

After I dragged myself out of the pool, I tried the reflexology basins on my feet, which were tired from walking the 963-foot-long QM2.

Another nice thing about thermal spas in general: choice. I tried the steam room, then the aromatherapy room. Once I got bored, I tried the rain forest shower and the cold mist (yikes!) shower. Then I sat in the regular sauna for awhile and tried the cold mist again (yikes again!). The thermal rooms are coed, so bathing suits are a must.

Bonus: You can practically have these places to yourself if you go late in the day when most passengers are getting ready for dinner.

With massages easily costing more than $100 an hour, ponying up $35 or so for the thermal suite is a good spa substitute if you want to pamper yourself without breaking the bank. In the QM2's case, I might take the waterfall over a masseuse.

To contact Rebecca Tobin, managing editor of the print edition of Travel Weekly, send e-mail to [email protected].

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