Travel: Where health and wealth go together

In search of clean living or a looser waistband? Try taking a luxury New Year break at a health farm
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The Independent Culture
Turkey, mince pies, port and Stilton - and so the rich list goes on. By now the lean, spry, energetic pre-Christmas version of yourself that you liked so much has probably vanished, taking a good bit of your self-esteem with it. Time for a drastic remedy. Time, perhaps, for a visit to one of Britain's growing number of health farms.

If you want to take the hair-shirt route back to health and loose waistbands, your best bet is probably the Tyringham Naturopathic Clinic, just off the M1 near Newport Pagnell. Tyringham gets spectacular dieting results - a Mancunian journalist who weighed in at more than 20 stone shed nearly a third of this during a 15-week stay.

But it is definitely not for the pamper set. Austerity and alternative medicine are the distinctive features of the Tyringham approach. Diet is strictly vegetarian and alcohol, chocolate and even coffee are off limits. Tyringham's alternative therapies, available alongside the more usual exercise facilities, include acupuncture and homoeopathy, and there is also a range of bath therapies you wouldn't even find in the Time Out classifieds section. One of these involves putting your bottom in hot water and your feet in cold, and then doing the reverse 10 minutes later. There's nothing like it for getting your lymph drainage system moving.

For anyone with motivation problems, the solution is the Galway Health Farm set in a deer park overlooking Galway Bay on Ireland's Atlantic coast. Galway isn't just about slimming. Your entire lifestyle is up for grabs and one of the first things that happens is a consultation with a psychotherapist to look at how you live, what you want out of your life, and what usually turns out to be the considerable distance between the two. The Galway treatment is extremely personal, with only eight to 10 guests staying at any one time.

Its other secret weapon lies in the figure of its proprietress, the formidable Margaret McNulty. Mrs McN describes herself as a type of "big matron" to her charges, and ex-residents testify - with an affectionate awe - to her outstanding powers when it comes to galvanising the sluggish. "Every time you turn round, she's there just behind your shoulder," said one. Even just 10 minutes talking to her on the phone to check a few details left me with a vague sense that I ought to go out for a run.

If all this sounds too much on the spartan side, there are some gentler alternatives. "Medical but pampering" was how a health-farm expert described Grayshott Hall, near Hindhead in Surrey. Grayshott boasts two dining-rooms; a light diet one and one offering less waistline-friendly fare for the days when you can't quite see what the point of all the self-discipline stuff is. Health and dietary consultations are highly rated here, with a team of experts who are older and more experienced than the norm, and the treatments on offer go well beyond the usual beauty and fitness collection. More off-the-beaten-track therapies include reiki, shiatsu and cranial osteopathy. This latter treatment is a mysterious, if effective one.

The therapist lays their hands on your head, applying gentle pressure. After 20 minutes or so you begin to feel a warm glow suffusing your body, and any stress you are feeling seems to melt away, leaving you either with a powerful desire to laugh or, more commonly, shed cathartic tears.

Even more luxurious than Grayshott is Champneys near Tring. One look at its car park full of Rollers, Jags and BMWs tells you that this is the cream (if one is allowed to use such a term) of health resorts. Speak to people about Champneys and the agenda shifts subtly from the kinds of thing you'll hear about other health spas. Yes, the treatments and the therapists are all absolutely top notch.

Yes, the gym equipment is state of the art. But the real news about Champneys is the sumptuous pounds 6.5m refurbishment and the new dining-room which could compete with any Michelin-starred competitor in town. Being a luxury hotel seems to be at least as important to Champneys as being a health resort and, coming here, you get the impression that gain doesn't really have to involve pain at all - as long as around pounds 200 a night for a twin room doesn't present problems, that is.

Luxurious, pricey Champneys is one extreme, but what if you want to have a laugh while doing yourself some good? Topping the fun farm category comes Henlow Grange near Hitchin, which has become increasingly popular with groups, notably hen parties, in recent years. Activity is the order of the day here, with group aerobics high on the list of activities.

This is definitely not the place to go if meditative unwinding is what you are after, but if you want to do your suffering in good company, and with a broad grin on your face, Henlow Grange is unquestionably a very good bet.

For further information or to make a booking for the Tyringham Naturopathic Clinic, Galway Health Farm, Grayshott Hall, Champneys and Henlow Grange, contact Healthy Venues on 01203 690300. This is a free health-farm advisory and reservations service working with 18 residential health farms and 80 spa venues in Britain and Ireland. Anyone making a reservation for the first time through the service will receive a pounds 5 discount voucher, and a pounds 10 voucher for subsequent reservations

Fact File

Getting there: By rail: Eurostar/TGV return from London Waterloo via Lille or Paris to Marseille or Nice is pounds 129. Then travel on a ferry operated by SNCM. You can book the whole trip with Rail Europe (0990 848 848). By air: No direct flights, but Air France (0181-742 6000) offers links via Paris. The best bet may be air/sea combined, using EasyJet (0870 6 000 000) from Liverpool or Luton to Nice for around pounds 110 return, then transferring to the ship: you can bo ok the boat through Southern Ferries (0171-491 4968). More details from French Travel Centre, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244123, a premium-rate number)