Spas have become so commonplace now that it’s unusual to find a smart hotel that doesn’t have one. The word spa has become synonymous with pampering, with elaborate ‘rituals’ and esoteric beauty treatments. But it wasn’t always so. The original spas were built with serious healing in mind. They were usually sited in places with natural springs where people would ‘take the waters’ – drinking or bathing in water rich in minerals, or being daubed with its mud. Far from being ‘feelgood’ places, they were often quite draconian in their treatments. I clearly remember enduring all kinds of torture (including freezing showers and being wrapped in wet bandages) at Tyringham Hall, an erstwhile naturopathic spa. There was no concept of picking and choosing your treatments – you were given what the doctor thought you needed, no more, no less.
Now we’re seeing a move back to this more focused therapeutic function with some spas building up impressive reputations for treating specific problems. People flock to them, not for sybaritic pampering but to get to the root of thorny health issues. Holiday as healing? Absolutely.
‘We’re noticing an increase in people coming to us with specific health issues,’ says Stella Photi, Managing Director of spa holiday experts, Wellbeing Escapes. ‘Stress and burn out, weight gain and sleep problems are definitely among the most common. It seems people want a more holistic wellbeing experience that goes beyond beauty and relaxation treatments. They want to be active and fitter, they want to put health-enhancing, nourishing, food into their bodies and most importantly they want to find ways to cope with the stresses and strains of modern life.’
Caroline Sylger Jones, author of Body & Soul Escapes (Footprint Books) and founder of the Queen of Retreats website agrees: ‘The increasing attraction of spas is their ability to make us feel better from the inside out. And there are now hundreds of spas all over the world vying for our attention with dedicated wellbeing programmes designed to sort out our sleep, bad backs, eating habits, weight problems, immune systems, mental states and much more.’
With so much choice, it can be tough to find the right spa. So we’ve found ten of the best. You could call them the international spa service.
The problem: Stress
Why? Parkschlosschen, in the beautiful Mosel valley, is dedicated to the ancient Indian system of medicine, Ayurveda, and the spa’s stress reduction program is a huge hit amongst its high-flying business clientele. Although the philosophy and bodywork techniques are ancient, the team keeps right up to date with current research. It really is the perfect blend of old and new. A stay starts with a consultation with one of the team of ayurvedic physicians who will (amongst other things) check a series of pulses (ayurveda recognises several) to determine your bodymind type and which element – or dosha – is out of balance. The food is vegetarian ayurvedic (but no, not just curries)and absolutely delicious. The chef often runs hands-on workshops for those keen to learn. Yoga classes are excellent and you can further unwind in the beautiful countryside around the spa.
Mustn’t miss: The ‘four handed’ massage treatments, where you are slathered in spiced oil and massaged by two therapists working in total accord, are totally sublime.
Downsides? Expect headaches as you detox from tea and coffee. Herbal remedies don’t always hit the spot.
For more info: http://www.parkschloesschen.de/en
Also try: Grayshott Spa, England (see Fatigue). Kamalaya, Thailand (www.kamalaya.com)
The problem: Digestive issues/IBS/colitis
The spa solution: Viva Mayr and F X Mayr and More, Austria
Why? These two spas, on the shores of Lake Worth, both subscribe to the regime of famous physician Franz Xaver Mayr who believed that the majority of health problems have their source in a poorly functioning digestive system. The process is highly regimented with a focus on re-educating eating habits, above all learning how to chew (digestion starts in the mouth). You have an initial consultation with one of the doctors and are given a strict programme and diet based on your individual requirements. Expect plenty of Kneipping (hydrotherapy, applications of hot and cold) and abdominal massaging. Not for the faint-hearted but results are superb. Weight loss is a pleasant side effect.
Mustn’t miss: Nordic walking in the countryside around the lake; lake swimming in summer.
Downsides? Portions are small (to put it mildly) and meal times not generally a cause for excitement. Some treatments are quite uncomfortable – I nearly cried during my nasal reflex therapy at Viva Mayr.
For more info: Viva Mayr: www.viva-mayr.com
F X Mayr & More: www.mayrandmore.com
Also try: Grayshott Spa, England (see Fatigue).
The problem: Insomnia
The spa solution: LaSource, Grenada
Why? I’d challenge anyone not to sleep well here. Set on a private Caribbean beach, the spa not only ranks high on the pamper factor but is deeply holistic in its approach. A resident naturopath winkles out the reasons behind your insomnia alongside a soothing programme of yoga, tai chi, Pilates and meditation. Sleep specialist Dr Guy Meadows of The Sleep School (www.sleepschool.org) runs a dedicated Sleep Retreat here with five two-hour classes over five consecutive days (plus classes, treatments etc) and participants report significant breakthroughs. However, even when Dr Meadows is not around, the spa can help you ease into healthy sleeping habits.
Mustn’t miss: Chavutti massage – the Indian ‘rope’ massage in which the therapist uses his or her feet to massage your entire body. You lie on a mat on the floor, the therapist uses an overhead rope for balance. The ultimate relaxation.
Downsides? The Dr Guy Meadows programme only runs infrequently.
For more info: www.theamazingholiday.com
Also try: Lefay, Italy (see Rehabilitation). Kamalaya, Thailand (www.kamalaya.com). Almyra, Cyprus (www.almyra.com). Grayshott, England (see Fatigue)
The problem: Skin problems
The spa solution: Danubius Spa Smrdaky, Slovakia
Why? This old school spa has gained a serious reputation for treating skin diseases (eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis and acne), as well as arthritis/rheumatism thanks to its natural asssets – hydrogen sulphide mineral water and sulphurous mud. It may be effective but, as you might imagine, it doesn’t smell great (think bad eggs). The spa is all medical efficiency, rather than pampering feelgood – you start with a medical consultation and should expect a programme based on packs and baths rather than journeys and rituals (although the spa does have beauty treatments on offer for downtime). Children are also treated so don’t expect an adult-only ambiance. Ideally you would stay for 3-4 weeks for best results but a shorter stay should let you gauge if it’s for you.
Mustn’t miss: The mud packs are an interesting experience. And the paraffin packs are deeply soothing.
Downsides? The smell. Plus some people might blanch at the brisk, medical approach.
For more info: www.spasmrdaky.sk
Also try: Grand Park Hotel, Austria (see Rheumatism)
The problem: Heart problems/cardiac rehabilitation
The spa solution: Danubius Health Spa Resort, Margitsziget, Hungary
Why? Cardiac doctors can perform diagnostics and work out rehab programmes, but the spa (set on Margaret Island in the heart of scenic Budapest) is also renowned for its natural thermal springs (so it also scores higly for musculo-skeletal problems). It’s old school European with hardcore therapeutics (the usual baths, Kneipping, mud packs, salt cave etc) yet also understands the need for a bit of pampering too (good Thai and aromatherapy massage here and some indulgent baths alongside the standard stuff).
The hotel is a bit bland so, if you fancy a bit of turn-of-the century opulence and epic luxury, book into sister-hotel, the Danubius Grand Hotel. A heated underground corridor links the hotel with the Spa Resort’s spa complex so you get the best of both worlds.
Mustn’t miss: The pools – indoor and outdoor swimming pools, adventure pool, gymnastics pool, traction and thermal baths. There’s a lovely running track too.
Downsides? It’s big and both hotels also host conferences, so you don’t get an intimate experience.
For more info: www.danubiushotels.com
Also try: Hotel Wiesenhof, Austria (www.wiesenhof.at)
The problem: Weight gain
The spa solution: Phuket Cleanse, Thailand
Why? If you’ve got to lose weight, this has to be the best way to do it – and by far the most gorgeous setting. Much more than a diet programme, this place is on a mission to transform bodies (and minds) in the nicest possible way. The team’s enthusiasm is contagious and they are always trying new things and adding them to the programme if they find they work. Food is integral here – whether you’re juice fasting or sampling their heavenly raw veganism. Expect to move as well – not just yoga but Box Fit, Crossfit, TRX (torture on two straps), Bootcamp, spinning, cardio tennis etc. etc. etc. And you’ll learn too – with cookery classes, mind workouts and meditation. All set in heaven, of course. Truly transformational.
Mustn’t miss: Crossfit on the beach on Saturday night – a serious cardio workout with cooldowns in the ocean.
Downsides? The lengthy flight.
For more info: www.phuketcleanse.com
Also try: Viva Mayr, Austria. F X Mayr & More, Austria (see Digestion). Longevity, Portugal (see Ageing), Grayshott,England (see Fatigue)
The problem: Ageing
The spa solution: Longevity Wellness Resort, Portugal
Why? The focus here is on preventative healthy ageing with the programme overseen by Dr Claude Chauchard, one of the world’s specialists in Preventative Medicine and Ageing Management. Expect a thorough examination and evaluation to start, including various tests and analysis (blood, urine etc). The results determine your personal plan which could include breathing and stress management, exercise protocols or vitamin injections. The spa blends a top-class luxury hotel with cutting edge treatments – a heady mix.
Mustn’t miss: Integral Skin Rejuvenation with Microneedle Therapy. Developed by anti-ageing specialist Dr Boavida, this state of the art treatment is touted to help improve skin texture, reduce wrinkles and soften scarring.
Downsides? The gym is small and classes are held in a small room. The spa area can get very busy.
For more info: www.longevitywellnessresort.com
Also try: Clinique la Prairie, Switzerland (www.laprairie.ch )
The problem: Fatigue
The spa solution: Grayshott Spa, England
Why? Classic country house spa run on naturopathic principles. Established over forty years ago, Grayshott has kept true to its holistic principles and offers a serious programme that addresses many key health issues (fatigue, stress, insomnia, weight loss, digestive problems etc). Expect a battery of diagnostic tests and consultations (with nutritional therapists, herbalists etc). Diet is the bedrock of a stay at Grayshott (they’re big on the 5:2 semi-fasting protocol) with gentle exercise (yoga, tai chi, walking, swimming) also a key part of the package. Treatments tend to the therapeutic (compresses, hydrotherapy, massage, steam) although there are plenty of additional therapies and beauty treatments that can be added on.
Mustn’t miss: Sports massage is good here. Abdominal massage is a mainstay of the programme but the deep tissue massage is also highly recommended. Walking in the beautiful grounds is a must.
Downsides? It’s big (36 treatment rooms alone) and, alongside the spa, there is a golf course and tennis academy (plus people visiting on short stays and drop-in), so it’s not an intimate experience. Vegetarians aren’t well catered for.
For more info: www.grayshottspa.com
The problem: Rheumatism/arthritis
The spa solution: Grand Park Hotel, Austria
Why? This hotel spa in the Austrian Alps has gained an impressive success rate with issues such as rheumatism, arthritis, fibromyalgia and ankylosing spondylitis thanks to its programme of diet, hydrotherapy and visits to the nearby Gastein Healing Caves. The unlikely ingredient in the programme is radon, a gas which, in high concentrations is linked with cancer. Yet the spa insists that the low levels of radon used are perfectly safe and guests report a 90 percent success rate, with long lasting pain relief and reduced need for drugs, lasting up to a year. Studies by Maastricht and Leipzig universities found significant improvements in both pain relief and function. The spa is also renowned for helping skin conditions.
Mustn’t miss: The cave experience – it really is the USP of this spa (although be advised it is not actually at the spa, but a short drive away). Dr Liane Weber is highly rated.
Downsides? Some might find the cave experience uncomfortable – you’re a mile into the mountain with high humidity (but there’s a panic button and therapists are on hand to help).
For more info: http://www.grandparkhotel.at
Also try: Danubius Spa Smrdaky, Slovakia (see Skin Problems) Grayshott Spa, England (see Fatigue)
The problem: Sports injuries, rehabilitation
The spa solution: Lefay, Italy
Why? There’s a comprehensive array of rehab facilities here but it’s a far remove from some of the highly clinical sports rehab centres. Set in a stunning spot on Lake Garda, the spa combines the best of eastern and western medicine, under the auspices of Professor Maurizio Corradin, a specialist in sports medicine who also majors in Chinese medicine. Although the spa excels in many areas, it’s particularly strong on rehabilitation – osteopathy and physiotherapy are superb here with Back School and McKenzie Method offered alongside specialist postural, myofascial and cranio-sacral treatments. They don’t just look at the physical either – expect psychophysical stress check-ups and dietary intolerance testing. The spa is beautiful inside and out, with grottos, small lakes and trails as well as swimming pools and saunas.
Mustn’t miss: Massage is good here with a wide variety of different styles. Deep tissue is strong (some might say uncomfortable) but effective while the Hawaiian Lomi Lomi massage is the exact opposite – deeply soothing.
Downsides? Almost too much choice of treatment – can be bewildering.
For more info: www.lagodigarda.lefayresorts.com
Also try: AlpenMedHotel, Austria (www.alpenlove.at)
Wahanda (www.wahanda.com) often offer great deals to certain spas – including Longevity and Grayshott Hall.
Queen of Retreats (www.queenofretreats.com) is a website offering honest reports and advice by independent health journalists on spas and retreats worldwide. You can call up to discuss your needs and even book (with great offers) on the site.
Note: this feature first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail
(c) Jane Alexander
Jane Alexander is the author of numerous books on wellbeing and health. See her Amazon page here.