The complete guide to spa holidays

If the word "spa" says boot-camp to you rather than relaxation and rejuvenation, then reassess your outlook. The new spas are sophisticated places to escape to, more likely to offer camomile tea and massage than high-impact aerobics and rice cakes for breakfast. By Aoife O' Riordain
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Indy Lifestyle Online
WON'T A SPA BREAK BE ALL CARROT-NIBBLING AND STERN WOMEN IN WHITE COATS?

Not necessarily. European spas particularly have these kinds of connotations since, traditionally, if you showed signs of illness, you were quickly dispatched to the nearest spa town to take the waters or local cure. The spa itself would be open to the public so that everyone could take advantage of the mineral-enriched waters. While even the spas in these towns have gone more the way of luxury than "medicine" (often designed for those wanting to relax and detox rather than heal a particular problem), they are still a popular place to unwind.

One reason for this is that they tend to be set in stunning areas. One such place is Baden Baden in Germany's Black Forest. Its two thermal baths have played host to everyone from Queen Victoria to Napoleon III. Similarly revered, Vichy in France boasts 13 underground hot springs - and the Hotel Les Celestins (00 33 470 30 82 00) where double rooms cost from FFr1,170 (around pounds 115) and the spa treatments on offer include balneotherapy, a therapeutic bath in the town's pungent waters.

In Evian, the Domaine Du Royal Club (00 33 450 26 85 00) is a large complex that sits at the southern edge of lake Geneva. If you stay in this spa hotel, make sure you take an evening swim in the outdoor heated pool with the mountains and stars as a background. If you're looking for a traditional spa-town break, contact Thermalia Travel (0171-483 1898), which specialises in European spa holidays.

I'D HAVE TO DOWN A COUPLE OF PINTS OF MINERAL-ENRICHED WATER JUST TO COPE WITH STAYING IN A PLACE LIKE THAT...

In that case you need the modern alternative. The 90s spa has developed more along the vein of rest, relaxation and restoration and less along the "no pain, no gain" school of well-being. Most of us have the means to reshape either our lifestyle or simply our stomach muscles, on our own territory. So, when we visit a spa, we want to be massaged and pummelled, eat what we like and spend the entire day lounging in a great white fluffy bathrobe, deciding only between which to have first, a seaweed wrap or a shiatsu massage.

The Americans were probably the first to address the "why spend your hard-earned cash being forced to eat carrot salad and getting up at 6am, when there are easier and more pleasurable ways of getting fit?" question. They were certainly on to something and now any resort worth its salt (sea-salt that is) is following suit. The growing popularity of "alternative" methods of healing and fitness, such as yoga, t'ai chi, pilates, massage, water therapies and meditation, have all had an effect on what spas offer, and the emphasis is now firmly on promoting well-being and stressbusting.

It's no surprise to discover that some of the world's most glamorous destinations are now homes to health spas (isn't it much nicer to be massaged on an open-air massage table in Thailand than staring out at a drizzly grey day in England?) and now even architectural design is part of the health process.

Thailand is becoming one of the top spa destinations. Chiva Som in Thailand (00 66 32 536 536), for example, cost about pounds 16.8m to develop and was built to resemble a Thai village. The resort offers a massive menu of treatments, from hydrotherapies to rejuvenation programmes, and the emphasis is very much on East meets West and holistic healing. Less relaxing is the price: five nights at Chiva Som plus two nights at The Peninsula hotel in Bangkok costs from pounds 1,249, based on two people sharing, through Airline Network Holidays (01772 760 555).

Another spa resort in Thailand is Banyan Tree, in Phuket (00 66 76 324 374). Here you can enjoy outdoor massages, surrounded by frangipani blossom or take a yoga or meditation class at the Fitness Pavilion before munching a delicious calorie-controlled meal. A stay here costs from $330 (pounds 205) per person, through Small Luxury Hotels of the World (0800 964470).

WHAT DOES A SPA BREAK ACTUALLY INVOLVE?

Depending on where you are, it can vary greatly from rising at 6am for two hours of yoga and a day of rigorously scheduled activity, to a leisurely late-morning dip in the swimming-pool followed by a gourmet organic lunch.

Programmes and prices vary according to the spa, so make sure that you agree in advance what is included in your stay and what you will have to pay for. Some spas operate very much like a hotel whereby you pay for your food and accommodation and then add on treatments and activities. At others, you choose from various listed programmes, either by the day, the weekend or the week and then there are others where, with the help of the staff, you design your own schedule.

At Chiva Som (see above), for example, the basis is medicinal (of an utterly luxurious kind) so you are given a detailed initial consultation that involves going through your medical history and a discussion on what exactly you wish to achieve during your stay, whether you want to gain weight, lose weight, give up smoking or simply unwind. A programme is then devised for you, complete with holistic food recommendations and what drinks you should order if you want to detox. At the end of your stay, you are weighed again, your goals are reassessed and a maintenance programme worked out for you to help you stick to the appropriate lifestyle on your return home.

One thing to bear in mind is that, if you are hoping to lose weight rather than just spend some time indulging in unadulterated pampering, make sure in advance that the spa you have chosen offers some sort of facility for fitness assessments and consultations rather than simply offering the usual beauty treatments.

ISN'T THAT ALL VERY EXPENSIVE?

Spa holidays are not exactly budget breaks. As with personal trainers, encouragement doesn't come cheap, but it can be no more expensive than staying at a five-star hotel and lying on a beach for a week, since most resorts, like hotels, run special packages.

A week's trip abroad will leave you with little change out of pounds 1,500, but staying in Britain can greatly reduce the costs. In most cases, use of facilities such as gyms, saunas, steam rooms and so on are included in the room rate and some spas will also include a certain number of treatments and a consultation in their prices. Treatments in the UK start at about pounds 20 per session, so the spas where the emphasis is on fitness rather than pampering tend to be better value.

Grayshott Hall (01428 604331), in Surrey, was once home to Alfred Lord Tennyson and costs from pounds 180 per person. For an additional pounds 95, you can enrol in the Stop Smoking course. Ragdale Hall in Mowbray (01664 434 831) includes juggling, line-dancing and fencing as well as the usual activities on its lists, and costs pounds 225 per person (minimum two nights). For something a bit different, Cedar Halls Health Farm in Taunton, Somerset (01823 433 233), has a traditional country-house feel but some very New Agey treatments (iridology, Indian head massage and neuro-linguistic programming among them). Seven nights here costs pounds 613 per person and includes a facial, a massage and an E'SPA detox.

For a really stylish UK break, St David's Hotel & Spa (01222 454045) is a newly opened spa in Cardiff Bay that costs from pounds 98 per person and offers a range of treatments including reflexology, algae wraps and E'SPA treatments.

To assist in your search for the place that fits the bill, www.spafinder.com is a website that gives details of spas - predominately American spas, but it's worth a look for UK destinations too.

WHAT IF I DON'T HAVE MUCH TIME?

Opt for a weekend package such as the three-day Relax, Unwind and Detox at Chewton Glen in Hampshire (01425 275 341). For pounds 400 per couple (from Sundays to Thursdays) you can enjoy one-to-one fitness, beauty therapies, a swimming- pool, walks by the sea, golf and tennis. Lucknam Park (01225 742 777), a grand country house in 500 acres near Bath, is very much of the pampering mentality and offers breaks from pounds 220 per person (from Sunday to Thursday).

If time is really of the essence, there are plenty of one-day spa packages available but it's wise to book in advance. London is a good place to start, although most spa centres will do day packages. The Sanctuary (0171- 497 0410) in London's Covent Garden is exclusively a day spa (open only to women) where day membership costs pounds 53. This entitles you to reduced prices on treatments such as Aveda and Thalgo, reflexology and massage and use of all the facilities (which include a fitness club and Therapy Pool). The Dorchester Spa (0171-495 7335) underneath the Dorchester Hotel, also offers a day treatment, the Thalgo Spa Day (pounds 184). In around four hours you get a heat treatment, hydrotherapy bath, full body massage, lunch and a facial. And, the Elizabeth Arden Red Door Salon in Mayfair (0171-629 4488) offers a range of day spa treatments, from the Beauty Break (pounds 70) to the Arden Spa Day (pounds 195) which includes a salt- glow body polish.

Finally, if both time and money are a problem, the solution is to DIY. Thalgo's (call 0800 146041 for stockists) products are derived from marine algae and E'SPA products (stockists, 01253 741 600) are favourites in spa resorts. Alternatively, recreate the steaming geothermal pools of Iceland's Blue Lagoon in the comfort of your own bath. The pool's mineral- rich silica mud is now available to non-visitors for $15 (pounds 9) from Blue Lagoon International Ltd (00 354 426 8800) or at: www.bluelagoon.is

BUT I WANT IT TO BE A HOLIDAY...

Great, because most of the spas are in areas of real beauty and the resort developments offer the closest thing to Sybaritic paradise. Here are some of the best:

Vals Therme (00 41 81 926 8080), in south-east Switzerland, is definitely worth missing a day on the piste for. Its ultra-modern design (by architect Peter Zumthor) is worthy of the SFr24 (pounds 10) admission, and that's before you've even dipped a manicured toe in one of the six different-temperature thermal baths.

The Lodge and Spa at Inchydoney Island (00 353 23 33143), off the coast of West Cork, Ireland, costs from pounds 80 per person and houses Ireland's only Institut de Thalassotherapie as well as offering aqua-aerobics, reflexology, spectacular sea walks and possible respite from too much Guinness.

High in the mountains in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, USA lies the new resort of Amangani (001 307 734 7333), with suites from $450 (pounds 280). Aman means "peaceful" in Sanskrit and gani means "home" in the language of the Native American Shoshone tribe. The outdoor swimming-pool is certainly a peaceful home, heated in winter to a balmy 30C. There are also seaweed wraps, yoga, meditation and, if you're feeling energetic, skiing.

A weekend in Stockholm could be combined with a trip to the Japanese- inspired Hasseludden, Konferens & Yasuragi (00 46 87476100), 20 minutes outside the city centre. Built as a conference centre in the Seventies, you can now unwind with a hot spring bath and a massage in this sleek establishment or make one of its 150 bedrooms your city-break base.

Wine-loving health freaks (if that isn't a contradiction) will be pleased to hear that, for the first time, they can combine their obsessions at Les Sources de Caudalie (00 33 5 57 83 8282) near Bordeaux, the first Vinotherapie spa of its kind. Treatments here include all manner of grape extracts which are combined with other plant extracts and spring water, some even occurring in barrels. Afterwards, you can ingest some of the chateaux's 10,000 bottles of wine or tour the surrounding areas.

A trip down under could encompass a visit to Couran Cove Resort (00 61 7 559 7900) situated on Australia's Gold Coast, 45 minutes from Brisbane. Opened in September 1998, this eco-resort occupies a 150-hectare site on South Stradbrooke Island which is reached by a special water-taxi service. This is combined with Spa Island - the heart of the resort housing the water-based facilities plus the Total Living Centre, a specially designed centre offering treatments, consultations, t'ai chi, yoga and meditation. The resort runs a special five-day Total Living Program (from $1,250 for five days) which is a holistic course of energetic exercise classes (anything from aqua aerobics to volley-ball), art classes, massage treatments, guided nature walks through the local rainforest. In addition to the classes there are nutritional and health assessments. Some of the guest accomodations are specially designed eco-cabins which are partly solar-powered. To encourage guests to give something back to their surrounding environment, a prize is awarded to the person or group that manages to deplete fewer of the available natural resources such as water and electricity.

Finally, the Bliss Spa (00 1 212 219 8970) has created a stir in New York; the coolest of the city's hip and fashionable residents are practically queueing up to sample the various treatments (which range from the "blissage" to "the rough stuff slough"). But make sure you book long before your arrival in the Big Apple as wiley Manhattanites are known for their block booking. For those who can't make it there, but still want to try the specially devised unguents, order the BlissOut mail- order catalogue on 001 888 243 8825.

THE TOP FIVE SPAS

Strawberry Hill

Blue Mountains, Jamaica (001 876 944 8400 or contact Island Outposts Reservations, 0800 614 790) Situated 3,100ft above sea level in Jamaica's Blue Mountains, Strawberry Hill is a haven of romantic Jamaican-style villas complete with an Aveda Concept Salon. Think wafting around in white linen, delicious coffee and chic colonial decor.

Price: from $280 (pounds 174) per night.

Chiva Som

Hua Hin, Thailand (00 66 32 536 536)

Chiva Som is, without doubt, the ultimate spa experience (see also main piece). Surrounded by lush greenery, tropical lakes and breathtaking views, even its massage therapists are trained by Thai monks. There is a staff- guest ratio of four to one so you've no excuses for not coming home a new person.

Price: five nights at Chiva Som plus two nights at The Peninsula hotel in Bangkok costs from pounds 1,249, based on two people sharing, through Airline Network Holidays (01772 760 555).

Canyon Ranch

165 Kemble St Lenox, Massachusetts (001 413 637 4100)

Canyon Ranch is where all the slick and stylish New Yorkers bolt to in the Berkshires to de-stress from their crazy, cosmopolitan lifestyles. If you are feeling a little out of sorts there are plenty of counsellors, psychologists (this is America, after all), and nutritionists, and a large array of relaxing pursuits to get you back on the road.

Price: there is a three-night minimum stay from $1,773 per person (around pounds 1,100).

Two Bunch Palms

Desert Hot Springs, California (001 760 329 8791)

Two Bunch Palms has played host to many an exhausted film star suffering from burn-out and trying to avoid the paparazzi. It's 44 cabanas are the perfect escape; most come complete with a Jacuzzi. There is also a hot spring, gushing from a geological fault, and you can try underwater massage, or "Watsu", to ease away the stresses of celebrity living.

Price: from $175 per person (pounds 110).

Four Seasons Resort Jimbaran Bay, Bali (0800 526 648)

The Four Seasons spa at Jimbaran Bay is designed to resemble a traditional Indonesian village, constructed with thatched roofs, exotic flowering plants and private villas, each with its own outdoor plunge-pool. Indonesian elixirs banish the stress and strain of modern existence.

Price: approx $525 (around pounds 330) per night, but there are also five- and seven-night packages available.

FIVE MOST FAR-OUT TREATMENTS

LaStone Therapy

Developed in Tucson, Arizona, basalt (volcanic) rocks are placed on different parts of the body - the stomach, legs and between the fingers and toes. You are then massaged all over with freshly heated stones and finally a lavender-infused stone is placed on your "third eye" to promote calmness.

Take me to: The Peaks Resort and Spa, Telluride, Colorado (001 970 728 6800); or contact the British School of Complimentary Therapy for practitioners in the UK (0171-224 2393)

G,5 Vibro Massage

An all-over body massage carried out with something akin to a vacuum cleaner (but an altogether more pleasant experience) which acts as a de- stresser for the muscles and also promotes lymphatic and blood circulation.

Take me to: Chiva Som, Hua Hin, Thailand (00 66 32 536 536)

The Minty Mud Mummy Mask

A full-body facial-quality treatment that is designed to reduce impurities, improve appearance and stimulate the circulation. Basically, it involves an oil-based scrubdown and then an application of a purifying minty body mask.

Take me to: Bliss Spa, New York (00 1 212 219 8970)

Japanese Shower Spa

The first of its kind in England, you are gently massaged by very relaxing swirling jets of water - a bit like a massage in a posh Jacuzzi.

Take me to: Rowhill Grange Hotel and Spa, Top Dartford Road, Wilmington, Kent, DA2 7QH (01322 615 136)

Javanese Lulur A traditional Indonesian massage followed by an exfoliation treatment and, afterwards, a soothing soak in a scented flower bath and a Jamu Elixir to finish

Take me to: Banyan Tree, Thailand (00 66 76 324 374)

Paraffin Wax Body Wrap

The warmth of the paraffin wax gently alleviates all your aches and muscular pains while in turn softening the skin.

Take me to: The Dorchester Spa (0171-495 7335)

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