Pamper yourself. You know you deserve it

It's hard work sampling five of the world's most luxurious health spas but someone's got to do it. Valerie James takes on the task




I am an eternal optimist. I expect every spa visit to magic away flab, every massage to banish stress and tension permanently, and every facial to take 10 years off me. None of these miracles has happened yet, but my list of problems (dodgy back, skin that reacts to over-rich creams, and shoulders tensed in the region of my ears) has been presented to many, many spas. These five are among the best: for their treatments and, however fleeting their effects on me, for their ambience.

Banyan Tree Hotel, Phuket, Thailand

This glorious resort is created around an artificial lake with its back to the sea. Guests stay in individual villas ­ some have private lap pools and raised sundecks ­ with polished teak floors and furniture softened by Thai silks. Inside is a shower and outside a bath in a courtyard, shaded by bougainvillaea and lotus blossoms.

Tearing myself away from the villa, I went to the spa building and waited for my appointment by one of the main pools, sipping fresh ginger tea and observing that the huge Western guests dwarfed the tiny, elegant Thai therapists.

I confessed to my masseuse how gargantuan I felt. She giggled and said: "My name means tiny," holding up her child-size hands for inspection, "but you will see." She led me to an open-air massage room, screened by blinds. As I lay on my stomach on the table, she took away the towel from the doughnut-shaped face ring and I stared at the floor, where a bronze bowl containing a perfect lotus flower had been placed. Tiny's childlike fingers were made of steel, and as they smoothed the oils and muscles into harmony, I thought that here I might drown in beauty.

A week at the Banyan Tree with Elegant Resorts (01244 897888; www.elegantresorts.co.uk) costs from £1,425 per person, including return flights and room-only accommodation.

Merv Griffin's Resort & Givenchy Spa, Palm Springs, California

Palm Springs is Hollywood's playground, and the spa at Merv Griffin's allows you to mix with visiting movie high-rollers. The hotel, spa and gardens are designed in the style of Versailles, with much use of marble, colonnades and arched windows, and beautiful rose gardens, full of bowers, rills and fountains. Rooms are all large and comfortable, decorated in cool beige tones, with views, as everywhere in Palm Springs, of the mountains.

The therapists, from 10 different countries, gave an interesting insight into differing attitudes to health and beauty. Givenchy products are used exclusively; my facial, which certainly did abolish all signs of jetlag, was done by a Frenchwoman, and a La Stone massage, using local lava stone, by a Mexican. This latter treatment was the star turn. I was unsure at the beginning about the weight and heat of the stones, but they turned me to jelly and afterwards I slept for 11 hours.

Merv Griffin's Resort Hotel & Givenchy Spa is a member of Leading Hotels of the World (00800 2888 8882; www.lhw.com). Rooms cost from US$199 (£140) per night.

Oberoi Hotel, Mauritius

The Oberoi is one of the newest hotels on the island, and follows its parent group's usual style of individual villas, Indonesian longhouse restaurant and much use of thatch. Set on a beach at Baie aux Tortues, it has a view of the mountains, white sand and unforgettable sunsets.

The spa, too, is a thing of beauty: a teak construction with long corridors, indoor and outdoor treatment and rest areas, and cooling fountains. The Mauritian therapists are charming, and the treatments are based on local ingredients and traditional Ayurvedic principles. My favourites included a body exfoliation with a coconut husk (rough) followed by a massage with fresh coconut flakes, finished off with a papaya-based cream to give my skin a smooth, silky polish. The next day I had an Ayurvedic massage, then a steam treatment and finally the shirodhara ­ warm oil trickled on to the "Third Eye", in the centre of the forehead ­ the ultimate relaxation therapy, calming the mind and reducing blood pressure.

Five nights at the Oberoi Hotel, Mauritius with Abercrombie & Kent (0845 070 0611; www.abercrombieandkent.com) cost from £1,770 per person, including return flights and b&b accommodation.

Hasseludden Conference & Yasuragi, Stockholm

Located in an old school, on an island in the Stockholm archipelago, this Japanese spa represents an extraordinary juxtaposition of cultures. The rooms are furnished with tatami mattresses, and in the larger ones, sliding paper screens separate living and sleeping quarters. A special treat is breakfast in your room, where a Japanese feast is laid out on low black tables for you to enjoy as you watch the huge ferries sailing by outside.

Treatment areas are on a lower level, arranged in a square around a collection of sacred stones. It was here that I delivered my dodgy back to Mr Chau, a Chinese Tuina therapist. He said he would sort it out and he did, almost permanently, with one manipulation and a massage. He also advised me to relax in the outdoor hot tubs, set on balconies among the snow and the pines ­ very Japanese, very Swedish ­ and swim a little, which I did, back eased, in the huge pool, Mozart trickling through the speakers, happily and totally culturally mish-mashed.

For further information about the Hasseludden Conference & Yasuragi, contact the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council (00800 3080 3080; www.visit-sweden.com).

The Lygon Arms, Broadway, Worcestershire

The Lygon Arms couldn't be more English. Dating from the 16th century and set in one of the Cotswolds' tourist-trap villages, it is built in the local honey-coloured stone and has beamed ceilings and traditional furnishings. Its history includes visits from both Charles I and Oliver Cromwell (at different times).

The service ­ presumably because the hotel is part of the Savoy Group ­ is impeccable, and also very English. But make your way down the lavender-edged path to the Lygon Arms Country Club, with its gym, colonnaded pool and spa, and you are transported to Italy. Treatments here use Dermologica, Borghese and Versace products. Borghese is exclusive to the Lygon Arms and includes thermally treated Fangoactive mud.

I could have tried Detoxicura, but I chose Curacorpo (the treatments even sound more effective in Italian), a mud-wrap to detoxify, firm and reduce cellulite, all of which means sleeker and slimmer. I followed that with a mud facial. Bliss, utter bliss, and an English afternoon tea in front of an open fire only yards away.

B&b at The Lygon Arms (01386 852255; www.savoy-group.com/lygon) costs from £120 per night single or £175 double.

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