The chill-out zone: the complete guide to Spas

January is traditionally detox time. For those of you who are allergic to New Year resolutions, Aoife O'Riordain has a complete guide to the rather luxurious alternative. Spa holidays
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The Independent Travel

You're tired, you're in need of some rest and relaxation. You may even be in need of some serious body maintenance. Yet the thought of all those diets and exercise regimes or even taking out yet another gym membership is just so boring. The more spartan among you may actually enjoy keeping all those New Year's resolutions. But for the sybaritically inclined, perhaps a more pleasurable route to kick-start a new regime is a spa holiday.

You're tired, you're in need of some rest and relaxation. You may even be in need of some serious body maintenance. Yet the thought of all those diets and exercise regimes or even taking out yet another gym membership is just so boring. The more spartan among you may actually enjoy keeping all those New Year's resolutions. But for the sybaritically inclined, perhaps a more pleasurable route to kick-start a new regime is a spa holiday.

Doesn't a spa have something to do with smelly water?

Not necessarily, but by definition it's a location of mineral-rich pools. The word spa comes from the thermal water-rich town of the same name deep in the Ardennes in Belgium. Historically, many of the spa towns throughout Europe, such as Baden Baden in Germany, were particularly popular with the aristocracy. These days, however, a spa can mean a rainforest lodge on a remote island off the coast of Malaysia, offering shiatsu massage and acupuncture, just as easily as a sulphur-rich town in the Black Forest.

The modern spa is all about relaxation and the banishing of knots in your neck, rather than bracing cold showers. Practically all spas have Jacuzzis, saunas, steam rooms, swimming pools and dozens of activities as a matter of course. They are also fast becoming some of the most glamorous spots for a holiday. Add to this a bit of serious stress-busting, and you have an unbeatable combination.

For instance, the Shambhala Spa at Parrot Cay in the Turks and Caicos islands in the Caribbean is popular with Julia Roberts, Liam Neeson and Donna Karan. The spa offers an extensive range of holistic treatments such as reiki, acupuncture and therapeutic massages, morning meditation on the beach and candle-lit yoga classes by night. Seven nights cost from £2,260 per person, including flights, transfers and accommodation, with Abercrombie & Kent (0845 070 0613; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk).

Hmm ... I rather fancy chilling out in an exotic location

The Indian Ocean has seen an unprecedented number of new spa openings over the past few months, and of course, each one sounds more idyllic, exotic and relaxing than the one before. One of the newest is Soneva Gili on the island of Lankanfushi in the Maldives. Set entirely on stilts over the surrounding waters, it's the ultimate eco-spa getaway. Seven nights start at £1,993, including return flights, seaplane transfers and accommodation on a room-only basis, with ITC Classics (0870 751 9320). At the Hilton Maldives Resort and Spa Rangali Island, treatments are given in glass-bottomed rooms where you can watch multi-coloured tropical fish lazily gliding below you. Seven nights cost from £1,653 per person, with ITC Classics (details as above).

The recently opened Angsana Resorts and Spa on the eco-island of Ihuru, also in the Maldives, offers tomato body wraps and honey and sesame scrubs. If that sounds a bit too self-indulgent, you can ease your conscience by helping with some of the resort's environmental projects, such as preserving the surrounding coral reefs and monitoring turtles. Seven nights cost from £1,623 per person, including international flights and accommodation on a full-board basis. For reservations, call 01494 874106 ( www.angsana.com).

The island of Mahe in the Seychelles houses a recent addition to the Banyan Trees group of spas. Here, among granite boulders, you can be massaged and exfoliated to your heart's content. Five nights cost from £2,268 per person, with Kuoni (01306 747001; www.kuoni.co.uk), including international flights and accommodation on a room-only basis.

Merely reaching the newly opened spa at the Four Seasons resort of Kuda Huraa in the Maldives is a bit of an adventure. You have to take a dhow to the spa, which is located on an island. Once you're there, Ayurvedic and Balinese therapies are available, as well as indigenous Maldivian treatments, such as the Monsoon Ritual, a body scrub of sandalwood followed by a rosewater rinse and herbal massage. Seven nights cost from £1,690 per person, with Abercrombie & Kent (0845 070 0616; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk), including flights, transfers and accommodation.

Bali is another popular spa destination. Steppes East (01285 651010; www.steppeseast.co.uk) is offering seven nights' stay at The Chedi, a chic hideaway on a hillside near the town of Ubud, for £1,130. The price includes flights, accommodation and transfers. Also near Ubud is Begawan Giri, where guest rooms resemble luxurious tree-houses. Its spa, The Source, offers a range of holistic treatments. Choose between the Balinese massage or an almost coma-inducing Javanese lulur. Seven nights cost from £2,430 per person, including return flights, transfers and accommodation on a b&b basis, with Elegant Resorts (01244 897888; www.elegantresorts.co.uk).

Still on Bali, the spectacularly located spa at the Four Seasons Resort, Sayan, which overlooks Ayung river, also offers various indigenous treatments, such as rice scrubs and the lulur baths favoured by Balinese princesses. Seven nights at the resort cost from £1,530 per person, on a room-only basis, with Seasons in Style (0151-342 0505; www.seasonsinstyle.co.uk).

At The Datai, a spa and resort set in virgin rainforest on the island of Langkawi in Malaysia, one of the specialities is the Mandara massage, which involves being massaged by two people at the same time. Abercrombie & Kent (0845 070 0616; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers seven nights from £1,375 per person, which includes international flights, transfers and accommodation based on two people sharing.

It sounds very luxurious, but I'd like something more serious and holistic

Chiva-Som in Hua Hin, Thailand, takes a decidedly medicinal approach and combines the principles of Western medicine with Oriental and other alternative methods of healing. On arrival, guests are given a full medical assessment and goals are discussed before any treatments are administered. But don't let that put you off – the resort is modelled on a Thai village and offers every available luxury. Tropical Locations (020-7724 6644) offers five nights at Chiva-Som, from £1,653 per person, which includes international flights, three spa meals a day, an initial health and fitness consultation, and a choice of daily massages.

High-altitude healing can be sought at India's newest spa, the Ananda, set in the foothills of the Himalayas overlooking the Ganges. The Wellness Centre includes special pebble pools you walk through to massage the feet, and other treatments devised with the help of on-site nutritionists and medical staff. Yoga and meditation classes are also incorporated to complement the Ayurvedic treatments available. Greaves Travel (020-7487 9111) offers seven nights for £1,575 per person, which includes flights, transfers and accommodation, plus $175 to use against spa treatments.

What exactly are Ayurvedic treatments?

Ayurvedic medicine is one of the world's oldest systems of healing and is widely practised in India. Ayurveda aims to restore the body's natural state of equilibrium through diet, medicinal herbs, massage, yoga and meditation. According to its philosophy, every person is made up of three dimensions or doshas: vata, pitta and kapha, one of which will be dominant. When your personal dosha has been determined, treatments can be tailor-made to suit you. As testimony to the system's current trendiness, the supermodel Christy Turlington last year launched an Ayurvedic skincare range, Sundari, and plans to open an Ayurvedic spa in Miami.

At Kairali Ayurvedic health farm in Kerala, you can take part in an 11-day rejuvenation and detox programme. This begins with a fitness evaluation and continues with four Ayurvedic treatments every day for seven days. Indus Tours and Travel (020-8901 7320; www.industours.co.uk) offers a package from £1,185 per person, which includes flights, transfers, full-board accommodation and some treatments.

Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk) is offering seven nights at the well-regarded Ayurvedic centre at the new Kumarakom Lake Resort in Kerala for £945 per person, including flights, transfers and accommodation (treatments cost extra).

And what's the newest kind of therapy?

"Indigenous" is a buzz-word in spa-land. The Spa of Peace and Plenty on Dunk Island in Queensland, Australia, offers treatments derived from Aboriginal rituals. The island was once home to the Djiru tribe, and the spa uses herbs known to the tribespeople, as well as raw materials harvested from the sea. The Mermaid's Song treatment, for example, combines a crushed pearl exfoliate with salt and aromatic oil to polish the skin. Seven nights here cost from £1,250 per person with Austravel (0870 166 2070; www.austravel.com), which includes flights and accommodation.

At the new Fairmont Princess Resort on the edge of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, treatments include preparations derived from the herbs found in the surrounding countryside. La Stone therapy is among those on offer; it involves being massaged with smooth, warm basalt river stones, which may sound strange, but the effects are blissful. One night's accommodation costs from £261 (based on two people sharing), with Fairmont Reservations (0800 515 070; www.fairmont.com).

Do I have to go long-haul? Can I chill out closer to home?

Grape seed extract is the hot new ingredient in treatments on offer at the many spas in California's wine-producing areas, but you can try the same thing in France, at Les Sources de Caudalie, near Bordeaux. The by-products of the Smith Haut-Lafitte vineyard are used in specially devised vino-therapies, such as the Cabernet Body Scrub and the Crushed Merlot Wrap. Afterwards, you can sample wines from the chateau's 10,000-bottle collection. Double rooms cost from £125 per person per night. For reservations, call 0033 5 57 83 83 83 ( www.sources-caudalie.com).

Or would you prefer to loll around in thermal waters? According to Miro Sajfert, founder of spa holiday specialists Thermalia Travel, one of the most popular destinations in Europe is Abano Terme in northern Italy, where you will find a vast array of treatments, from mud wraps to facials. Five nights at the resort cost from £986 per person, including full-board accommodation and the "intensive beauty and anti-cellulite" package, through Thermalia (020-7483 1898; www.thermalia.co.uk).

Erna Low (020-7584 2841; www.ernalow.co.uk) offers five nights at the elegant thermal resort of Marienbad in the Czech Republic from £710 per person sharing. The spa – which is source to more than 40 springs, each containing their own unique mineral constituents – was popular with the likes of Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Goethe and Chopin. The price includes a medical examination and three to four treatments per day.

Thalassotherapy has long been the French nation's secret weapon when it comes to staying young and beautiful. It is considered le norm for both men and women to head for the seaside, to be submerged in warm sea-water baths and wrapped in marine algaes for a couple of days. The Breton coast alone has 11 thalassotherapy centres. A three-night break at the Novotel Thalasso in the town of Carnac costs £281 per person sharing, which includes three thalasso treatments per day and access to all amenities. For further information contact Brittany Tourism on 0800 085 7739. Seven nights' stay at another popular thalassotherapy centre, the Sofitel Vilalara in Lagoa, Portugal, costs from £1,325 per person with Thermalia Travel (details as above). To help kick-start any New Year's resolutions, the price also includes a "stop smoking" programme, which uses a variety of methods, including acupuncture, marine sprays and exercise, to help smokers beat the habit.

The newly opened Mountain Lodge and Spa in Delphi, Connemara, Ireland, which is set in a remote area on the west coast, promises a complete escape from reality. Yoga and t'ai chi are available in addition to the treatments in the holistic spa and activities such as dolphin-watching, pony trekking and water-skiing. You can also take plenty of bracing walks through the wild Irish countryside. A three-night break with Erna Low (details as above) costs from £585 per person and includes a spa indulgence programme.

For a chic UK spa break, St David's Hotel and Spa (02920 454045) in Cardiff offers a range of therapies, including reflexology, algae wraps and E'spa treatments. One night's stay costs £175 per person, based on two people sharing, including all meals and a selection of treatments.

And all I have to do is lie there. What about something a bit more active?

The spa at Les Fermes de Marie, a gingerbread-house-like hotel in the French ski resort of Megève, is proving to be a bit of winner with those coming in from the slopes. Seven nights cost from £1,170 per person, with Elegant Resorts (01244 897333; www.elegantresorts.co.uk), including flights and accommodation.

Deep in the South African bush, reiki, reflexology and aromatherapy are available after a day on safari at Garonga Safari Camp. Seven nights cost from £1,195 per person, including accommodation, flights, transfers and activities such as game drives and trekking, with Steppes Africa (01285 650011; www.steppesafrica.co.uk).

Any other trends?

Current thinking is that day spas will become increasingly popular. Peter Crome, managing director of Chewton Glen in Hampshire, predicts that in a few years' time, every high street will have one. Of course, the idea is anything but new in Baden Baden, where you can visit the Caracalla Therme for a couple of hours in much the same way as British families go to the swimming baths (but without the noise and the divebombing element). There are whirlpools, grottoes and water jets, and the layout allows you to swim from the indoor to the outdoor pool and back again. Admission costs around £5 per person. Children will love it, but note that the under-threes are not admitted to the thermal baths. (There is a creche, however.) For details, go to www.baden-baden.de.

And finally?

One of the most exciting spa prospects for 2002 is the reopening to the public of the UK's only thermal springs. The spa is in Bath, 100 yards from the original Roman baths, now a World Heritage Site, and is scheduled to open in October. For further information, visit www.bathspa.co.uk.

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