I'm feeling very nervous – will I still have all my toes in half an hour's time? I am at Aqua Sheko, a new concept spa in Kensington, west London, where a tank full of tiny fish are desperate for a protein feast, with my feet providing the all-you-can-eat buffet.
These garra rufa fish, originally from Turkey, haven't been fed since last night and they're seriously hungry. But the spa's founder, Karen Ho, assures me that they have no teeth – just suckers that pull away loose, dead skin leaving your feet exfoliated, soft and clean.
As it turns out, the feeling is rather pleasant, like tiny bubbles dancing over my toes, and 30 minutes later, all my little piggies are refreshed – and intact.
The past few years have seen an increase in exotic and sometimes downright wacky spa treatments. Ilona Wesle from BeautifulBreak .com, who has been sourcing spa holidays for clients for more than 10 years, explains why. "This is a highly competitive industry and spas are constantly looking for unique ways to stand out and generate new interest," she says. "Guests are also looking for something more exciting than a facial or a massage. As a result, we've seen a surge in unusual treatments on offer."
There are certainly plenty of outlandish treatments to choose from – whether you want extreme, quirky or just relaxing. But experience has taught me that they aren't always pleasant. Here are five of the more oddball treatments that I've survived.
The deep freeze
Strip down to your underwear and step into a cryo-chamber for a sci-fi-style health and beauty experience at the AlpenMedHotel Lamm in Seefeld, Austria. Although the chamber is kept at minus 110C, it doesn't feel as cold as you'd expect. And the fuzzy, tingling sensation when you step out, as the capillaries expand and oxygen rushes through the body, is worth a bit of teeth-chattering. This unusual treatment is particularly favoured by sports people (the Austrian football team can often be found relaxing at this resort), as well burnt-out executives and sufferers from fibromyalgia.
A honey sauna in the Netherlands is a must-try for any spa fanatic (though beware, Dutch saunas are not for the shy because nudity is mandatory). Huddle shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the sauna crowd as an attendant flicks a towel to give you a strong waft of roasting hot air. Just when you think you can't take any more, tiny pots of honey are handed round and you're expected to rub the goo into your skin. Then, with a loud shout, everyone rushes out of the sauna and plunges into an ice pool. It's not as crazy as it sounds, because honey is renowned as an exfoliant, moisturiser – and an effective germicide.
The Moulay Yacoub Spa outside Fez, Morocco, was the location for one of the most unpleasant treatments I've ever tried. This dingy centre offers a range of water-based treatments including one that I never wish to experience again. Stand in a concrete "cell" that is open on one side and a therapist will aim a huge fireman's hose at you. The water is so cold and hard, you'll feel like you're being shot with a thousand tiny needles. My protests and attempts to cower in the corner were met with an angry glare – and even more blasts of water.
Relax with the help of harp strings and a kitchen table. The Wiesenhof in the Tirol, Austria, is the location of the world's only Alpine sound bed. Lie on the wooden table with harp strings secured underneath while a therapist pluck chords to create music that sounds like a didgeridoo. The idea is to relax you and slow down brain activity. I was sceptical at first, but even a workaholic such as I found my hyperactive mind no longer zooming around. Ideal, if relaxation and meditation are anathema to you.
Feel the burn
Use up 600 calories in 30 minutes? I didn't care what this therapy was about; with a claim like that I had to try it. Whatley Manor in Wiltshire has recently installed an Iyashi Dome – think large ceramic pizza oven. Lie inside it with your head exposed and the dome will heat you up using far infrared rays. It gets very hot, yet with your head outside and being cooled by a fan the experience is deeply relaxing. The therapist will give you a body-mass reading before and after the treatment. Sure enough, my fat and metabolic age were reduced.
Aqua Sheko (aquasheko.co.uk); AlpenMedHotel Lamm (alpen medhotel.com); The Wiesenhof (wiesenhof.at); Whatley Manor (whatleymanor.com); Moulay Yacoub (moulayyacoub.com).