A day at a spa can be as rejuvenating as a week's holiday. But choose badly and the result can be an expensive waste of time. Our panel sorts the rough from the soothe

WE'VE ALL done it: fantasised about a few hours of indulgence in a hot tub or sauna, soaking off the tensions of modern life, away from ringing telephones and pestilent fax machines, and complete with a slave to pamper and revitalise those ergonomically-challenged back muscles and that drawn, haggard face. But how many of us get round to booking a spa day? And which is the one that will leave you rested and raring to go after weeks of feeling wrecked? We put six luxury packages to the test.


I joined the stressed-out sybarites on the panel who included Brendan Harnett, a physics teacher, and his wife Claire, a primary schoolteacher, who were both more than ready to test the spas over their half-term break; Tony Whittome, a director at Random House and a spa first-timer; stressed young professional Natasha Kahn; literary agent Dawn Fozard, who welcomed the pampering after lugging heavy boxes for a recent house move; and Beth Macdougall, head of a public relations company and an old hand at spas.


When you've made the decision to splash out, service is key. We looked for courteous staff, hassle-free surroundings and a calm, unhurried atmosphere. Tasteful decor and cleanliness were expected, but points were given for services on offer and for quality of treatments. Value for money was critical.


pounds 230 for women's spa day, pounds 180 for men

"Definitely Rolls-Royce treatment - or BMW at least," was Tony Whittome's description of his experience at the Dorchester. Both he and Natasha Kahn were impressed by the closeted environment, with no clocks in view. "You wouldn't know if there was a war going on outside," said Natasha. The day included use of the spa, Jacuzzi, sauna and gym, a massage, facial, manicure and pedicure, make-up (girls only), hairstyling and champagne lunch. Natasha loved the big, fluffy robes and heated "gnome shoes" for the pedicure, while the warmed paraffin-wax facial was the highlight of her day. "It's quite an amazing feeling, even if my skin was awful for weeks afterwards - I think my face caved in on the holes left by the removed blackheads." Both commented on the privacy: "You never felt exposed because they are so discreet," said Natasha. Tony agreed: "I hardly saw another person throughout my time there. I had scrupulous care and attention in all the treatments. Even the whoosh of the hydrobath wasn't as much of a shock as it might have been." A minor niggle was the music soundtrack, which got stuck when he was left to soak, but the only real drawback with the Dorchester was the price, almost double that of Harrods. Natasha's verdict: "I felt that I was intruding on the world of the rich and famous, those who go to spas all the time, who devote their lives to this kind of thing."


pounds 175 for top-to-toe day

This famed health-club boasts a smorgasbord of treatments and facilities, from aerobics and Alexander Technique to bust treatment and waxing. Dawn Fozard, a veteran of the Sanctuary, went with high hopes. Sadly, she reported, there was more mayhem than magic there. "It doesn't really cater for luxury in the same way as the Sanctuary," she reported. "It's plush, but a bit impersonal, like a very posh gym. There weren't enough sofas." Sitting in just a robe for lunch made her feel vulnerable. "There were executive types wandering through with squash rackets, and I felt a bit silly. To get to the toilets, you have to go down the stairs and through the gym; all these people on bicycles are sweating and staring at you." But the massage and facial were in a league of their own. "They were absolutely brilliant; there was lots of freebie cotton wool and shower caps, and the facial was the best I've ever had. The beautician gave me lots of really good tips about which products to use. I asked if she would tidy up my eyebrows; she was wonderfully accommodating." Dawn concluded: "There's no opportunity to forget about real life. There are phones going off, and I even opened one door on to a cleaner's head. It was functional luxury; it's not the place to go for a hen party."


pounds 49.50 day fee; pounds 41 for aromatherapy

Claire Harnett, for whom a spa day was a rare treat, found this women- only centre exceeded all expectations: staff were friendly, attentive and informative. "You were given a key to your locker, and a bag to put all your bits and pieces in. The decor looked new and fresh, and wherever you went, there were clean towels. They had maps to show you where everything was, but the staff never just directed you; they always took you to where you wanted to be. When I left, I was given a questionnaire to fill in on how they could improve." Claire found the aromatherapy session, which lasted an hour, just as professional. "The woman told me exactly what it was doing to my body. They also had these massage seats with rollers to go up and down your body - that was hilarious. When I went there, it was the end of term and I was tired from having to entertain the kids," she went on. "It was time for a day away, and this was really special."


Around pounds 130 including facial, massage, manicure and body wrap

This Art Deco-style spa centre, which includes steam rooms, sauna, hot tub, swimming-pool, kidney-shaped cool pool and an area to read papers and eat lunch, was rated as relaxed but basic by testers Brendan and Claire Harnett, who went to a unisex session on a Sunday afternoon. "It was how you'd imagine a Victorian spa," said Brendan. "There wasn't the impression of sumptuous luxury, but it was affordable and the massage was brilliant." Claire found the service impersonal: "There didn't seem to be many attendants, and they weren't that interested in what you were doing." No comprehensive advice was given on using the facilities; there was just a list of dos and don'ts on the wall. Even worse, there seemed no escape for non-smokers - "They were actually handing out ashtrays," said Claire, who continued, "Although the view when you came in was lovely, overall it was a bit drab, and they only had one toilet, which wasn't well signposted." Clients also have to carry money for lockers and lunch, although two towels and a thin wrap are handed out on arrival. Brendan added: "If you don't have any of the treatments, it's quite cheap just to go in."


pounds 130 for women

Beth Macdougall, having been to various other spas, was expecting the best from Harrods: exactly what she got when she joined me there. "We were made to feel special and at home. They were very friendly, and really knew what they were doing," she noted. Clients are ushered through for 20 minutes in a hydrobath, followed by a massage and facial, all the while guided by discreet, deferential attendants. "I was boiled, scrubbed, and peeled," said Beth. "The massage was quite strong, and I came out of the facial feeling my skin was brand new, even though I treat it abysmally." For those not used to being treated like royalty, the level of attention is almost embarrassing, although after each stage of the treatment you're left alone for a while in a darkened room "to relax". Clients pick lunch from a menu, and we were led to a quiet area with only Vogue and Tatler for company. A wash and blow-dry, courtesy of Christopher and Claudio, finished the day after five hours. "I only had two minor criticisms," said Beth. "The changing-rooms were a bit poky, and having to go through main reception in your robe wasn't too good." But she concluded: "For a day's pampering it was wonderful, and it's immensely good value. It was like being in another world."


Around pounds 125 for spa package

While testers Natasha Kahn and Tony Whittome agreed that this wasn't "out-and-out" luxury, staff were courteous, chatty and down-to-earth. The four-hour package included massage, facial, manicure and make-up. "It felt like a good lady's hair-salon, with carefully chosen classical Muzak - gentle, formal Bach for the facial, livelier Mozart wind quintets for the more energetic body massage," said Tony. Natasha thought her massage "truly wonderful", but found the changing-rooms quite cramped and the robes ungenerous ("if they're not oversized, they don't feel luxurious"), and it was a long trek to the toilets. She also felt pressured to buy Elizabeth Arden products throughout the session ("not what you need when you're trying to relax"). She added: "I didn't want to be sold to on that kind of day." Tony, meanwhile, had "a feeling of pass-the-parcel. It was slightly crowded at the manicure stage, with another client being treated on the same sofa, which made for friendliness but not privacy." Natasha felt it wasn't bad value for money. "It was realistic, and I can imagine going back there but only for a specific treatment," she said.


The Dorchester Spa 0171 495 7335; Champneys Piccadilly 0171 255 8000; the Sanctuary 0171 420 5151; Porchester Spa 0171 792 3980; Harrods Health and Beauty Centre 0171 730 1234; Elizabeth Arden Red Door 0171 629 4488. !

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