Travel: Feelgood factories Anna Pasternak
Europe’s best spas can work miracles on jaded bodies and minds, says Anna Pasternak. And if you can’t afford their prices, there are more modest alternatives closer to home
We are light years from the days when a country house hotel boasting a Jacuzzi, a sauna and a mediocre massage could legitimately call itself a spa. The current spa industry is a booming, multibillion-pound heavy hitter in the wellness and travel business. The world’s top spas are often in stunning locations (jaw-dropping views are essential) and offer medi-clinics, Zen retreats, sophisticated detox centres and spiritual odysseys. The buzz word is awakening: awakening from the torpor of a sluggish, unhealthy existence and moving towards optimum health and fulfilling your potential for greater longevity.
Thankfully, we’ve moved through the Eighties phase of deprivation and the Nineties fad for over-exercise. Punitive starvation is passé. Yes, we may want to shift a few pounds and tone some flab, and there are military-style fitness boot camps to knock us into shape, but modern spas are educational and even life-changing, recognising that we need a proper evaluation of our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health.
The finest spas are like holistic healing hospitals with staggeringly impressive diagnostics. They don’t claim to heal illness but to act as siren calls. Blood tests, ECGS, hormonal checks, even tests for predicting Alzheimer’s can be provided. The choice can be dizzying, so you need to match your needs with the right spa. That way, you won’t leave feeling wiped out, personally or financially. Some of these spas do not come cheap – they can cost around €3,000 (£2,600) a week – but by now don’t we all agree that good health and a fighting spirit are priceless?
BEST ANTI-AGEING SPA PALACE MERANO
Nestled in the foothills of the Italian Dolomites, this grand former palace is luxury personified: all tapestries, Louis Quinze furniture and Eurocracy guests. Get over the loitering bodyguards, as the staff are unfailingly kind and the doctors outstanding. You will leave slimmer, fitter and with an encyclopaediac knowledge of your body. They have a laboratory for testing your DNA so they can predict future genetic weaknesses and potential for disease. Bone-density scanners will tell you the ‘age’ of your spine, your chances of getting osteoporosis and, no matter how thin your thighs, scare the hell out of you by alerting you to fat around your vital organs. Sophisticated hormone analysis will explain why you’re always shattered.
Through a week of raging hunger (the detox diet delivers tiny mouthfuls of exquisite food), the miraculous Chenot Method, a remarkable massage technique which includes cupping and acupressure to eliminate toxins, the re-energising sessions where more currents of electricity are zapped through you than an electric fence – energy is reignited. You’ll be hooked up to couture vitamin drips and wired daily to ozone therapy, where your blood will be sloshed about and pumped up with stressbusting, circulation-boosting oxygen.
The first three days are a hellish combination of hunger and headaches but stay with it – the results are meteoric as you leave looking and feeling a decade younger.
A one-week stay costs from £3,690 per person, full board, on a six-day detox programme; www.palace.it.
THE CHEAPER OPTION MIDDLE PICCADILLY
This is a wonderful vegetarian retreat centre in rural Dorset with basic accommodation and superb intuitive treatments which offers a sensible detox. Six nights cost £600 per person; www. middlepiccadilly.com.
BEST DIAGNOSTIC SPA PARKHOTEL, IGLS
Parkhotel in Igls, Austria, is a modern diagnostic detox spa overlooking the mountains. It has a clinical feel but manages not to be depressing. Here they practise the Modern Mayr cure, devised by Austrian doctor Franz Xaver Mayr (1875-1965), who believed that good health begins with a properly functioning digestive system. There is much research emerging concerning a connection between an overtaxed and toxic system and the development of neurological problems, especially Parkinson’s disease.
Today’s guests, fifty per cent of whom are over sixty, come because of the outstanding level of health analysis. It is
like staying at a private hospital aimed at preventative medicine. It offers an exclusive test to see if you are predisposed to dementia, as the result of its exclusive relationship with a wellestablished MRI institute in Innsbruck, which scans the brain, then sends the results to a highly qualified research centre in Hamburg where the results are calibrated.
You can have this done privately in the UK for around £1,500 but in Innsbruck, instead of waiting months for the results, they come back in three days. The diagnosis is clear – yes, you are likely to get the disease, within the next seven to ten years; or no, you definitely will not get the disease in the same timeframe. Peace of mind does not come cheap – the test costs €1,750 (£1,520).
After a week here, patiently chewing on dry bread rolls and slurping deliciously original soups, you leave with a gut restored from toxin overload. Ideal for those with heavy, bloated stomachs who want to regain their waistline and zest for life.
One week’s Mayr de-stress package costs £2,459 per person, including breakfast; www.parkhotel-igls.at.
THE CHEAPER OPTION AYURVEDA RESORT SONNHOF
Also in Austria, this spa is a mixture of Germanic efficiency and spiritual support. It offers superior massage, daily yoga, and specialists in nutrition, anxiety and psychotherapy, combined with vegetarian cuisine adapted to your body type.
A three-night taster programme costs from £575 per person, full board; www.sonnhof-ayurveda.at.
BEST FOR WEIGHT LOSS BUCHINGER WILHELMI, MARBELLA
Finally, a medical spa that is truly holistic. Based on German doctor Otto Buchinger’s therapeutic fasting, this is a revelatory detox centre outside Marbella. Its hard-core ten-day fasting cure is aimed at specific medical issues, from arthritis and IBS to lowering stress, blood sugars and blood pressure, while shifting significant weight. Buchinger’s belief that when we fast the ‘inner physician wakes up’ defines the ethos. While the weight loss – an average of 10lb in 10 days – leaves you euphoric, the inner self-healing journey is surprising too.
If you are fasting, you’ll see the nurse for daily weigh-ins, blood pressure checks and enemas, then be tucked into bed for an afternoon’s rest and hot liver compress. German efficiency with nurturing. You’ll survive on 250 calories a day of liquid for six days, drinking buckets of the signature apple tea and boring broths. You’ll endure the ‘Buchinger breath’ – they suggest couples come separately, not because of their stinky detox breath but because the fast is seen as a spiritually rewarding experience for the individual.
But the real lure is the therapists. They are amazingly intuitive, as if they have been corralled from some international spiritual elite. This is the place to visit to clear emotional issues and soothe a shattered psyche. The Tibetan singing bowl treatment, in which bowls are placed on your body and angelic vibrations zing through your cells, clears stress, grief and shock. Claudia Hanisch for craniosacral treatment is worth the flight alone. She’s like a highly attuned body whisperer who listens to your aches and pains, then calmly rebalances your entire being.
This a wonderful place to relax and rejuvenate. The gardens are pretty: wafting jasmine and banks of bougainvillaea. Daily coach trips ferry you to the Marbella seafront for organised power walks. What’s brilliant is that if fasting isn’t for you, you can follow a scrumptious, organic, vegetarian diet. You sit in a separate dining room – which may be the saviour of your marriage if your husband is fasting and you need calm and nourishing. You may both initially be starving on the fast or low-calorie diet but you won’t go short on soul food. You’ll rediscover your cheekbones and leave emotionally, physically and, especially spiritually, renewed.
A ten-day basic fasting cure costs from £2,900 per person; www.buchingerwilhelmi.com.
THE CHEAPER OPTION THE CLOVER MILL
The Clover Mill, near Worcester, is said to be the UK’S first boutique ayurvedic spa retreat. Accommodation is in modern eco lodges. It offers rebalancing with a retreat of yoga, ayurvedic massage and nourishing vegetarian food. A threenight retreat costs from £795 per person, full board; www.theclovermill.com.
Spa treatments offer an awakening from unhealthy living