Something Fishy in Santorini

When it comes to bohemian spa treatments in foreign countries, I’m a bit of a daredevil.  If you believe, as I do, that traveling should be about awakening the senses and embracing the unknown, then what better opportunity to slip outside one’s comfort zone? Hot oil scalp massage in Mumbai. Check. Soaking in volcanic waters at Pamukkale. Check. Aztec mud treatment in Taos. Check. When on vacation, I’m game for virtually anything. Or so I thought…

Then I heard about fish pedicures.

It’s not that I fear exfoliation per se. A licensed pedicurist holding a sterilized razor blade is one thing. A tank full of ravenous, unregulated little carp is…, well, an entirely different kettle of fish! Somehow I couldn’t overcome the Ick Factor – the fish pedicure just seemed like a bacterial lovefest.

Having passed on the opportunity to let so-called “doctor fish” chomp on my dead skin in both Shanghai and London, I finally summoned the courage to dip my callused toes at the Kissing Fish Spa in Santorini, Greece.  Given the modest cost — 10 euros for 10 minutes — I figured I could “cut bait” without too much guilt if the experience suddenly became torturous. Nevertheless, I wasn’t about to remove my shoes without a little prior reassurance.

Enter spa owner Giota Simistira, a 27-year veteran of the cosmetics industry. First Giota de-bunked the most common myth about fish pedicures: the Garra rufa, she said, are actually toothless; they don’t eat the dead skin at all. They simply remove it, then spit it out.

Giota also explained that a fish pedicure constitutes far more than a simple beauty treatment. “It’s actually therapy for your limbs,” she said, “Your acupuncture points will be energized, your nervous system will be rebalanced, and your whole body will relax.”

Energized? Rebalanced? Relaxed? In exchange for a mere 10 euros and 10 minutes, she was basically offering me nirvana.

With that, dear Reader, I was hooked!

Suspending all reluctance (see “bacterial lovefest” above), I plonked one foot, followed by the other, into the tank.

The fish swarmed — suddenly 150 little mouths were eagerly nibbling at my heels, my toes, and even the incredibly private spaces between my toes (eeek!). It was as if I had plummeted down the universal food chain…and emerged as the Garra rufa’s afternoon snack.

In contrast to this rather unnerving visual experience, the physical sensation of a fish pedicure is far more pleasing. It’s tingly, and slightly tickle-inducing – like tiny jacuzzi bubbles on your skin. I daresay I enjoyed it.

Inspecting my feet afterwards, I regret to report that there was no significant reduction in calloused skin. And as for the aforementioned nirvana…? Honestly, yes! – however I attributed my (temporarily) blissful state of being to the accumulated effect of 7 relaxing days on the enchanting island of Santorini…and NOT to the 10 specific minutes my feet spent dangling in a fish tank.

A final word about bacteria:  Although the risk of infection from a fish pedicure is thought to be quite low -particularly in a spa like the one described above, which purifies its tank water with constant UV radiation – any fish tank may contain a variety of disease pathogens. To be on the safe side, according to health experts, fish pedicures should be avoided by people with open sores or skin cuts, diabetes, or compromised immune systems.