SPRING is the time to put foodstuffs on your body rather than in. Honey, yogurt, rice, coconut and spices slapped on the skin by experts in a calming, scented ambience can be very relaxing.
Personally, I'm hooked on the Nineties notion of a spa as the complete holiday, where the body is pampered and pummelled in surroundings far removed from the carrot juice and endless aerobics of Seventies fat farms. I have four favourites that instantly induce serenity: Chiva Som in rural Thailand, Stobo Castle in Scotland, and - for inner city calm - the Banyan Tree in Bangkok and Tethra in Dublin.
When guests arrive at Chiva Som, they are handed credit card-like stress counters, which change colour according to your level of stress. In my case, the three-hour drive from Bangkok to Chiva Som in Hua Hin - behind a queue of lorries - produced an angry red blob when I pressed the card. This would soon fade, though, to a blissful blue, after I had settled in among the lotus pools, pointy-roofed pavilions, open-sided massage platforms, patios with terracotta friezes, Buddha statues, and the big ocean-side pool with its little shrine to the gods.
In the spa, girls in crisp white trouser suits took me by the hand, wrapped me in gowns, slipped on slippers, anointed me with oils, plied me with mineral water, guided me from computerised massage chairs to treatment beds, set me adrift in the darkened conical flotation room. I felt like an alien, cosseted and treasured yet not quite to be trusted.
Stobo Castle is Scottish country house-style relaxation. A constantly updated treatment menu is offered, including something called Caci, which eases out tiny facial wrinkles with computerised micro- currents. The "castle" is a 19th-century baronial conceit complete with turrets and mock dungeon, now the site of treatment rooms and pool. Wellies and sports equipment clutter the hall below a suit of armour. Between treatments I sip herbal tea by log fires or wander lonely as a Wordsworthian cloud on the adjoining estate, following bouncing burns and hill sheep along the empty tracks. Meals are excellent: plenty of vegetables, fruit, local game and fish - chef's cookery demonstrations provide healthy take-home ideas.
Traffic-polluted Bangkok is the last place I would go for relaxation, but bird-flight-high on the 51st-54th floors of the Westin Hotel, the Banyan Tree spa is one of the best. Treatment rooms here are dotted with oriental artefacts mostly from Bangkok's Sunday market; there's a gentle sound of trickling water, white orchids float in black granite tubs, aromatherapy oils burn and dolphin song seeps from hidden speakers. The end of a treatment is signalled by the gentle clash of Tibetan temple bells.
Finally to Dublin, a city laid back enough on its own to de-stress anyone. The new Merrion Hotel, in listed Georgian houses where the Duke of Wellington was born, has the Tethra spa (the legendary land of the young). It boasts the best city hotel pool anywhere; 18 metres of edge-lipping, ozone-filtered water (no nasty chlorine) set in French limestone with 18th-century style trompe l'oeil country house scene on the far wall. After an initial detox in the marble steam room alongside the pool, I was taken into care in the treatment rooms for top and toe improvement. E'Spa products are used for relaxing and revitalising: seaweeds, cleansing muds (pink mud for dry hair) and oils that include Bulgarian rose otto, frankincense, myrrh and wild camomile. I fell asleep under my facial mask while my feet were smoothed and polished.
Those are my favourite four, but the world needs more than four spas. Here are a few of the more interesting spa treatments I have encountered, starting with the Lygon Arms spa in the Cotswolds.
The only squeals now heard in this former abattoir are from the jacuzzi tubs foaming at the end of a long, slim Grecian-styled pool. The walls may still be blood red but the adjacent therapy rooms are clinically white, the setting for pounds 95-a-day packages. The Thalgo day, my favourite treat, starts with a Blitz shower - a needling blast that activates the circulation and recontours the body. This is followed by a detoxifying and ache-relieving marine algae body wrap, and ends with a rehydrating collagen facial. Freed to concentrate on its narcissistic self, the mind inevitably dwells upon the next - healthy - meal.
On the subject of food, spas these days are serving some of the best anywhere. Top raters in this category include Champneys, which divides its relatively clinical dining room between the haves and have-nots. The have-nots - those wanting weight loss - have wheel-sized Wedgwood plates marked in sections for protein, vegetable and carbohydrate allowances.
The most sophisticated spa meals are served at the Hotel Trianon at Versailles where Madame Mitterrand often dines. Overlooking Louis XIV's park - fine for jogging - the hotel contains the Givenchy spa, a three-floor complex embracing a huge cruciform indoor pool, Moroccan-style marble and Givenchy beauty floor. Seaweed and marine mud wraps, pressure therapy and lymphatic drainage are among specialist treatments. Two-Michelin-star chef Gerard Vie invents individually computer-calculated calorie-counted menus alternating meat, fish and vegetables.
For offshore spas, my favourite water wallow is on the QE2. In the sixth- deck spa, there is a complete DIY thalassotherapy treatment. In chest- deep water, one paddles from one type of shower jet to another, clinging on to bars, ducking into little backwaters fierce with battering showers, clam- bering on to metal rollers, again sluiced with water. In a mid-ocean gale, the effect is even more impressive.
Not that real spa fanatics would find anything particularly impressive about mainstream treatments such as that: recently, I have been trying some of the odder treatments on offer. On a low calorie diet it can be tempting to lick the stuff they put on your skin at the Banyan Tree spas, which include body wraps of honey. It's the same problem over at the Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay, Bali, where skin scrubs include appetising blends of rice or shredded coconut, vanilla beans and coconut milk. An ancient
royal-wedding-day ritual includes a body scrub of turmeric, herbs, ground nuts, yogurt and a herbal bath.
As for Bangkok's Oriental Hotel spa, there I was wrapped up like a suckling pig for the oven in 21 freshly chopped herbs mixed with oil. Such treatments are not exclusive to the Far East. Back in London, the Berkeley Hotel's spa treatment combines sea salt with dried seaweed, aromatic oils and skin-smoothing fruit enzymes.
Other odd substances include the Thalgo rehydration facial of heated gelatine and verbena, applied at the Dorchester's art deco spa.
The oldest idea I've tried - dating back 5,000 years - is Indian ayurvedic massage at the simple cliffside centre of Somatheeram, near Kovalam in Kerala. The masseuse hung from a ceiling rope and worked coconut and herb oils into parts of me other massages never reach with the side of her foot! At Coconut Creek's ayurvedic spa in Kerala's backwaters, massage was a laying on of hands by three girls simultaneously, one of whom sang mournful love songs. Pancha Karma, or synchronised massage, is also practised at the Oberoi Rajvilas in Rajasthan, where an alternative is sirodhara - the pouring of aromatic herbal oils, milk or buttermilk over the head to stimulate the pituitary gland.
If that sounds a little decadent, why not try being buried up to your neck in sand at the Oberoi spa on Elephantine Island in the Nile at Aswan? Searing silky sand from the Nubian desert was shovelled over me. Attendants wreathed my protruding head in chilled towels and kept solicitous guard for the maximum 20 permitted minutes. After a shower and rest in a shaded room, I sipped the local red tea, karkadeh, said to reduce blood pressure, before setting off for a tranquil evening felucca sail on the Nile.
Moving to the other end of the time-scale, the most modern spa idea I tried was at la Prairie in Switzerland. This was the lazy person's way to fitness, using NASA's astronaut health therapies. A pulsator clipped to my ear lobe in the "Corpomed" treatment synchronised massage and cardiac rhythms. The Corpotrim variation stimulates the muscles, enabling up to five centimetres to be lost in a 17-minute treatment! The Corpolux variation, on the other hand, uses light absorbed by the skin pigment to help stress, wrinkles, acne and flabby skin. They all beat doing press-ups.
spa fact file
Stobo Castle 01721 760344; Chiva Som 0171 584 5018; Banyan Tree and Four Seasons, Bali resorts bookable through Seasons in Style 0151 342 0505; Champneys 01442 863351; Lygon Arms, Hotel Trianon, Oriental Bangkok and Royal Club Evian bookable through Leading Hotels of the World 0800 181 123; Merrion Dublin 353 1 603 0600; Berkeley 0171 201 1699, The Dorchester Spa 0171 495 7335; spas in Kerala bookable through Cape Travel 0181 943 4067; Oberoi properties 0181 788 2070; la Prairie and other spa holidays can be booked through specialist Erna Low Travel 0171 584 2841.
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