The Complete Guide To: Spa towns

Since the earliest Roman times we've been taking the waters – and enjoying the health benefits. Harriet O'Brien packs her costume and gets all steamed up


Whale music and well-being?

That may well be today's take on the spa concept, but soothing holidays are nothing new – as the extraordinary diversity of the British spa-town scene testifies. What's more, their counterparts further afield are just as striking. But before we turn to them, a little history.

The creation of centres for healing and relaxation was very much the stuff of ancient history. In fact, in some respects, civilization could be said to start with the act – the art, even – of therapeutic bathing.

The first known hot-tub was made for King Phraortes of ancient Persia in about 600BC. The Greeks were enjoying the pleasures of hot water and hot air baths a century later. But it was the Romans who decadently finessed the sybaritic soak by creating extravagant thermae. These splendid bathing facilities were built over hot springs and functioned, too, as social centres – and so, in turn, the spa town evolved.

Through the ensuing centuries, hot and cold mineral springs have been periodically forgotten and rediscovered, and new ones uncovered from time to time, with the towns that developed around them falling in and out of fashion, in line with the prevailing medical theories. In Britain, the peak periods for seeking cures were in the Middle Ages and during the Georgian and Victorian eras.

Today in Europe, some Roman and medieval bathing sites remain but what you see in the majority of spa towns are 18th- and 19th-century buildings with modern additions. Having been devised as the resorts of rich, if ailing, visitors, most of these places have an air of moneyed elegance – an attribute shared by other mineral-springs centres across the globe. And as therapeutic treatments have become ever more popular, so spa towns have seen a renewal of fortunes.

Show me the best of British

Mighty Roman bathhouses; curving crescents of neoclassical grandeur; lovely terraces built of honey-coloured stone – Bath is packed with sights. Even during the times when this small city lacked facilities for bathing in the thermal waters on which its fortunes were made, it was still considered the apogee of British spa towns. Bath has just celebrated, however, the first anniversary of the reopening of some of its 18th-century baths, which were unveiled last August alongside new spa buildings.

The city's last thermal baths had closed, partly for health reasons, in 1978. For nearly two decades the fact that Bath was not using its most valuable natural resource remained an emotive issue. In 1997, funding was put in place for a major spa redevelopment as a millennium project.

The work was dogged with controversy over building standards, and it opened three years late. The final result, though, is a triumph. Thermae Bath Spa (01225 33 1234; www.thermaebathspa.com) consists of four natural hot spring baths: the 18th-century Hot Bath and Cross Bath and two modern facilities in a striking new stone-and-glass building. The waters come from Bath's Hetling, Cross and King springs, which together provide about one million litres daily at a temperature of around 45C. Spa sessions start at £12. The high point – literally – is the rooftop pool, with views across the city and to the surrounding hills.

While in Bath, visit (but do not bathe in) the ancient Roman complex nearby (open daily 9am-9pm until end August, then 9am-6pm; adults £11.25 until end August, £10.25 thereafter).

Bath has more thermal developments in the pipeline. The Danubius group, which dominates the medical and therapeutic spa scene in central Europe, is currently working with a consortium to transform the listed Gainsborough building near Thermae Bath Spa into a luxury hotel and spa, scheduled to open in 2009. Uniquely for a Bath hotel, the spa facilities will use the city's thermal mineral waters.

Grand designs?

Make for Harrogate in Yorkshire and step into 19th-century spa life at the wonderfully exotic Royal Baths, which first opened in 1897 and did indeed once attract royalty from across Europe. Originally, there were more than a dozen bathing and treatment options here, of which the opulent Turkish Baths, complete with glazed brickwork and painted ceilings, remain. These were magnificently restored and redeveloped a few years ago and you can once again work up a sweat in a steam room, then take a dip in the plunge pool before gradually proceeding through three interconnecting hot chambers and then cooling down in the relaxation room (open daily; for timetables call 01423 556 746 or see www.harrogate.gov.uk; session prices start at £11). Harrogate's makeover continues over at the magnificent, 1903 Royal Hall – theatre, dance hall, concert venue and more – which is also being restored and is due to reopen in April next year.

Where else can I take a dip?

Bath's claim to offer the only hot springs in Britain is disputed in Derbyshire's scenic little town of Matlock Bath, south of Buxton, where warm thermal springs produce water at a temperature of 20C. These were discovered in 1698 but it was not until the late-18th century that the town started to become a fashionable resort, with much of its development taking place during the Victorian period. Today its 19th-century Hydro building somewhat eccentrically houses an aquarium. Here you can see large koi carp luxuriating in the building's original thermal pool – one that is still fed with water from the warm springs (open daily 10am-8.30pm, adults £2.40).

Over at Matlock's New Bath Hotel on New Bath Road (01629 583 454; www.brook-hotels.co.uk; doubles from £130 including breakfast) you can step into warm-springs water yourself. Here, in unsung glory, there's an indoor 18th-century thermal pool still in use and a larger outdoor pool. Entry is complimentary for hotel guests, otherwise day passes cost a modest £4 for adults, £2 for children.

There are more untrumpeted therapeutic facilities at the intriguing Worcestershire town of Droitwich Spa. The area has been recognised as an important source of salt since Roman times and even before. Current treatments, though, date back to the Victorian era when brine from an underground lake started being pumped up to floatation pools. The salt content is extremely strong, similar to that of the Dead Sea, and you can learn about its healing properties and more at the little Heritage Centre-cum-tourist office (Monday-Saturday 10am-4pm, free; 01905 774 312; www. droitwichspa.com) housed on the site of the Victorian brine baths on Victoria Square in the centre of town.

In 1985, a new spa was built at Droitwich, and its brine bath is today used for both medical and relaxation purposes. The Droitwich Spa Brine Bath Complex is on St Andrews Road and is open Mon-Fri 11.30am-9pm; Sat 10am-5pm; Sun 9.30am-4pm; admission £8.

What's the source of "spa"?

The mother of all spas is a town in Belgium, or at least it's from there that the term "spa" is derived. The healing properties of the waters of Spa were first discovered by the Romans, but its elegant streets date from the mid-18th century when the town started to become a thriving resort. Spa has recently been 3 7 revamped, with a swish new Thermes de Spa complex near the town centre (at Colline d'Annette et Lubin; 00 32 87 77 25 60; www.thermesdespa.com; open daily 10am-9pm, Fri until 10pm and Sun until 8pm; day ticket €27/£19.30, entrance for three hours €17/£12.15). The best international gateway to Spa is Brussels, served by Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com); and a number of airlines including British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Heathrow and BMI (08706 070 555; www.flybmi.com) from Heathrow, Leeds/Bradford, Nottingham and Edinburgh.

Give me old-world glamour

No prizes for guessing that Italy offers a host of spa towns. The most stylish is widely held to be Montecatini in Tuscany. The nine splendid spas here are palace-like establishments with marble pillars, generously large halls and tranquil gardens. One of the oldest is Tettuccio, dating back to the 14th century, grandly rebuilt in the 18th century and adorned with paintings and ceramic pictures in the 1920s (more information on this and other spas from Montecatini Tourism 00 39 0572 772244; www.montecatini.turismo.toscana.it).

Pisa is the most convenient airport for visiting the town, and is served by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Manchester and Gatwick; Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted; and easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Gatwick and Bristol.

For legendary lustre, head to Baden-Baden in Germany's Black Forest, so good they named it twice – although pragmatic locals explain that it is so-called because it is the town of Baden in the province of Baden, emulating New York, New York.

The hot springs here were first exploited by the Romans but it was not until the early 19th century that Baden-Baden became a really ritzy resort, subsequently visited by Victor Hugo, Johannes Brahms and Queen Victoria. There is no charge for sampling the town's mineral waters, piped in hot from the source, at the ornate pump rooms, or Trinkhalle, on Kaiseralle. Baden-Baden's lavishly decorated 1820s casino, the Kurhaus, is next door. To take a thermal dip make for Römerplatz where Caracalla-Therme is a huge modern spa complex that opened in 1985. Friedrichsbad, meanwhile, is a 19th-century Roman-style extravaganza with hot and cold baths, steam rooms, saunas and more (further information on the town and spa facilities from the tourist board: 00 49 7221 275200; www.baden-baden.de).

Baden-Baden has its own airport, misleadingly labelled Karlsruhe by the only airline to fly there from the UK, Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com). Flights from Stansted connect with local buses that run to the centre and the main spa area.

How about a soothing curative?

Since at least medieval times, central Europe's mineral springs have been used for medicinal purposes, with its spa towns prospering, particularly in the 19th century. Most spas here still have no-nonsense, clinical overtones, although over the last 18 or so years since the Berlin Wall came down a note of luxury and pampering has been creeping in.

Hungary's most renowned spa town is Heviz, set in the west of the country on the world's largest warm-water lake. Mud from the bottom of these waters is used in treatments across Hungary and is said to be particularly effective for rheumatism. The town boasts a number of spa hotels as well as Roman ruins and two excellent art galleries. The health holiday specialist Thermalia (0870 165 9420; www.thermalia.co.uk) offers four nights' half-board at the Danubius Thermal Hotel Heviz from £311 per person. The price also covers Ryanair flights to Balaton from Stansted (based on a return fare of £80); consultation with a doctor; and two treatments a day for three days.

In the Czech Republic, the Bohemian town of Marienske Lazne (also known by the German name of Marienbad) has a number of mineral springs, along with particularly flamboyant architecture and a lovely setting amid forested hills. One of the most striking of the spa hotels here is the Danubius Health Spa Resort Nove Lazne, an architectural confection opened in 1896 and still retaining its colonnaded mineral pools. Spa specialist Erna Low Body and Soul Holidays (020-7594 0290; www.bodyandsoulholidays.com) organises breaks here, with medical consultation, at £870 per person for seven nights, including flights to Prague from Heathrow or Gatwick, transfers, clinic assessment, and three to four spa procedures.

Any new developments elsewhere?

Danubius is involved with another consortium, which is creating a new hotel and spa in the Peak District town of Buxton. Best known for its bottled mineral water, this lively town looks in part like a mini-Bath.

Its mineral waters were first discovered by the Romans, and were allegedly of therapeutic help to Mary, Queen of Scots who visited in 1573, seeking a cure for rheumatism. But it wasn't until the late-18th century that Buxton started to become really fashionable. In the 1780s, a sweeping crescent, similar to the Royal Crescent in Bath, was commissioned by the 5th Duke of Devonshire to house the many visitors coming to take the waters.

Clearly the aim is for Buxton to start attracting numbers of health tourists again: today, this grand curve of architecture is being revamped into Danubius' new leisure resort, The Buxton Crescent Hotel and Thermal Spa, which is slated for completion in 2010 (more information on www.buxtoncrescent.co.uk).

Meanwhile, you can sample Buxton's waters free at St Anne's Well, a small fountain opposite The Crescent and adjacent to the old Pump Room, which houses the tourist information centre (01298 251 06; www.highpeak.gov.uk).

Further afield?

From Saratoga Springs, New York, to Desert Hot Springs, California, the United States is dotted with mineral springs resorts. One of the most historic is Hot Springs in Arkansas, the childhood hometown of former president Bill Clinton.

On Bathhouse Row you'll find Fordyce Bathhouse, which serves as a visitor centre for the surrounding national park as well as a local museum. To step into the thermal waters, head for Buckstaff Bathhouse on Central Avenue, an imposing white building dating from 1912 where men still bathe on the first floor, ladies on the second (details from the tourist office on 001 501 321 2277; www.hotsprings.org). The most convenient international gateway for Hot Springs is Dallas Fort-Worth, served direct from Gatwick by American Airlines (08457 789 789; www. americanairlines.co.uk) and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com).

For the ultimate choice of spa resorts, however, head to Japan. In a country well-endowed with geothermal activity, social hot-spring bathing is very much part of the national culture and onsen, or thermal spas, feature throughout the country.

Kusatsu, north of Tokyo, is perhaps the most famous of Japan's spa towns and is spectacularly set near Mount Shirane volcano. Inside Japan Tours (0870 120 5600; www.insidejapantours.com) offers a 13-night self-guided onsen trip that takes in Kusatsu as well as Tokyo, Kyoto and three other classic Japanese spa towns. The holiday costs from £1,385, which covers accommodation, transport by bullet train, other rail and car transfers, and seven evening meals.

Tasting the waters

Take your pick of British spa towns where you can still sip the waters – some more palatable than others. Malvern reputedly has the purest in the UK, a claim that gave rise to the 18th-century saying these waters were " famous for containing nothing at all". The tourist office (21 Church Street; 01684 892 289; www.malvernhills.gov.uk) will supply you with a map showing the springs and fountains around town.

In mid-Wales, Llandrindod Wells has springs rich in salt and iron, and you can sample these waters at the drinking fountain in the grounds of this attractive town's Rock Park.

Strathpeffer, north-west of Inverness, became a spa centre in the early 19th century. The old Pump Room has been refurbished and between May and September is open for visitors to try its rather sulphurous mineral waters.

In Kent, summer sipping of mineral water is something of a tradition at Tunbridge Wells. The town's Chalybeate Spring lies at the end of its 18th-century colonnade known as The Pantiles and here, from Easter to September during the day, Georgian-costumed assistants or "dippers" are on hand to fill wine glasses with water for a fee of 40p.

Meanwhile, in Regency Cheltenham, there is no charge for sampling the alkaline mineral waters at the old Pump Rooms in Pittville Park.

A short way north-east, at Warwickshire's Royal Leamington Spa, the town's mineral water drinking fountain just outside its 19th-century Royal Pump Rooms is currently out of action due to recent flooding. But you can content yourself instead with exploring the Pump Rooms' excellent art gallery and museum (Tues, Wed, Fri and Sat 10.30am-5pm; Thurs 1.30-8pm; Sun 11am-4pm; free), which occupies part of the building's former Turkish baths.

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