Whether you’re in the Douro Valley or the Mexican Riviera, there’s one thing any hotel spa needs: space. Guy Woodward dons a fluffy towel and lies on the couch
What’s the first thing you look for in a spa? The variety (and cost) of the treatments? The quality (and brand) of the products? The holistic nature of the zen? These are all important and enticing elements, of course. But in the scheme of things, they are mere window-dressing compared to the single most important aspect: space.
For most of us, the payback for donning fluffy robes and paper underwear is to leave all our stresses – and a degree of dignity, perhaps – at the door. It follows that if there is plenty of physical space within the environment, mental space will follow.
One of my more underwhelming spa experiences came at the otherwise charming Ellenborough Park, near Cheltenham. The marketing materials promised ‘a capsule of serenity’ – and my senses duly eased into standby mode. Unfortunately, the ‘capsule’ turned out to be a cramped, unloved space where half a dozen of us crowded round a whirlpool, or perched in a ‘relaxing area’ which had the feel of a funeral parlour waiting room. There was a similarly depressing, claustrophobic and irregularly attended changing room. By the time I left, I felt more stressed than when I had arrived (luckily, the evening meal restored my equilibrium – it’s the food, not the ‘luxury spa’, that is deserving of star billing on the Ellenborough website).
Ultimately, when it comes to a spa, we’re all seeking that sensual escape – from the office, the phone, from people in general. “The philosophy of a spa is an opportunity to stop time,” says Michael Newcombe, global head of spa and wellness for Four Seasons. “The best spas understand how to momentarily halt the relentless connectivity and daily overload to our senses that define our lives.” It figures, then, that the fewer people who are around, the easier it is to disconnect. And the best way to ensure there are few people around is to have them spread out over a large area. After all, you’re unlikely to feel relaxed when jostling for space in the changing room with someone who has no nudity concerns, or constantly shifting along the squelchy tiled bench in the steam room.
One other thing to be wary of: the constant quest for the newest, most ground-breaking treatments. Spa menus are like wine lists – it’s easy to be seduced, if somewhat bewildered, by impressive-sounding but meaningless terminology. ‘Neurocosmetic ingredients act on a cellular level while Express Radiance ice stimulates the skin’s holistic properties.’ Eh? Sometimes, a pared-back list of uncomplicated, authentic treatments is more reliable and easier to navigate. Just as a great bottle of Aussie Chardonnay is often a better option than that funky ‘natural’ wine, so a core, signature treatment – if done well – will be far more rewarding than being cocooned in a revolutionary new detoxifying wrap of seaweed infused with bee propolis. ‘Keep it simple is my mantra,’ says Newcombe. ‘Signature spa treatments can be guilty of over-promising.’ Here are five that won’t disappoint.
Rosewood Mayakoba, Riviera Maya, Mexico
Not so much a spa as a sanctuary within a rainforest, the spa at Rosewood’s sensationally comfortable property is secluded from the main action, on its own island within the lagoon-based resort. Notwithstanding the spectacular setting (and this is not a habit I would encourage) I could happily spend hours in the changing rooms alone – replete, as they are, not just with plunge pools, steam grottos, saunas and tropical shower experiences, but wide-spaced changing and grooming areas, an array of products, and a constant supply of fresh tropical juices and reading material. Once you drag yourself away from there, there is an equally tranquil relaxation deck, meditation platform and a sizeable pool, enclosed in its own tree-encircled enclave, as well as an extensive gym. The treatment rooms are separate cabins, each reached by stone paths through the engulfing greenery. The result is that you feel totally cocooned away from the buzzy, vibrant, but no less lavishly appointed main resort.
Check out our Mexico Travel Guide before you leave.
Pennyhill Park, Surrey, UK
Just 30 miles from London, this 45,000sqft treat, set within 123 acres of Surrey parkland, provides a space – and value – that you don’t tend to find in the city. Within its generous proportions, there are 11 cabins offering thermal exposures via varying temperatures, humidities and aromas – from heated ceramic recliners (I could sleep for hours) to an ice cave (it stimulates circulation, apparently). The biggest pool, at 25m, features underwater music and fibre-optic lighting, but there are eight others, some indoor, some outdoor, and some both – the heated hydrotherapy pool, accessed via a swim-through entrance, is, along with the Canadian hot-tubs, a thrill at night or in colder months. Meanwhile, the main outdoor pool comes alive in summer, when a whole day can easily be whiled away with snacks (quinoa salads for the abstemious, scones and cake for the less virtuous) from the on-site restaurant. No wonder the England rugby team choose to rest their battered bodies here during tournaments.
Check out our England Travel Guide before you leave.
Les Prés d’Eugénie, Landes, France
Michel Guerard’s spectacular but understated cuisine (the signature restaurant has held three Michelin stars for an astonishing 40 years) is the headline act here – though his genuinely groundbreaking Cuisine Minceur (‘slimming cuisine’) arguably merits just as much attention . The latter (flavourful, filling, three-course meals clocking in at 500 calories) sets the tone for what is an intensive health retreat, but one that doesn’t stint on comfort. ‘Beauty as therapy’ is the mantra of Guerard’s wife Christine Barthélémy, who oversees the hotel’s interior design and the spa, which is set in a wooden timbered farmhouse. Here Barthélémy manages to happily marry a homely, convivial ambience with a host of rigorous, invasive treatments. The kneading shower and white-mud bath are not for the body-shy but any hint of self-consciousness is quickly diluted by the expert hands – and charming manner – of the therapists, who are constantly on hand in between treatments to serve various tea infusions by the fire. At the heart of the treatments is use the region’s natural spring waters, first embraced by Eugenie, the wife of Emperor Napoleon III, in the 19th century.
Check out our France Travel Guide before you leave.
Calistoga Ranch, California, USA
Set in a particularly secluded canyon of the idyllic Napa Valley, the only challenge you’ll encounter when it comes to the ultra-exclusive, 157-acre Calistoga Ranch is finding it. Once there, you’ll forget about the outside world. The spa, itself set away from the main resort, up in the forested hills amid the moss-clad oaks, exploits its primal setting via open-air showers, baths, relaxation areas and pools. As for the treatments, it’s a while since I’ve been as excited to have another man’s hands exploring the contours of my body as with the perfectly monikered Hans. The post-spa meal, again taken al fresco, in the dedicated space looking out over the resort’s lush green backdrop, was consumed in a state of hypnotic bliss.
Check out our California Travel Guide before you leave.
Six Senses, Douro Valley, Portugal
From the moment you check in at the Six Senses, the focus is on health and wellbeing – from eucalyptus-infused sheets and bamboo dressing gowns to REM, luminosity and noise monitors to optimise sleep patterns. The spa is at the heart of the property, and operates on a diagnostic as well as recuperative basis – expect to come away with – and having addressed – a comprehensive prescription. The indoor and outdoor pool and various steam and dry heat chambers provide further relaxation options, though to be honest, you can’t help but feel revived simply by taking in the panorama over the Douro Valley – as revealed in all its glory from the 10 treatment rooms.
Check out our Portugal Travel Guide before you leave.