It’s hard not to be a sucker for the promise of a spa hotel. In a frazzled world, the spa offers visions of candle-lit corridors, ancient forests and limitless quantities of chamomile tea. A place where clocks don’t exist, staff talk to you like you’ve just been resuscitated from a coma and you have a legitimate reason to be wearing a dressing gown in public after lunch. That dark steam room is basically our version of the primordial swamp, just within easy access of the M25. But the promise, particularly in England, doesn’t always match the reality.
The first sight that greets you when you enter is a shop that looks like the expensive aisle in Boots. And a reception desk not so different from an above-average dentist’s. On a recent spa trip, one of those massive yellow plastic signs warning of a wet floor was blocking the doorway.
Your first job is to complete a questionnaire. If you were feeling good before you came in, there’s nothing like a two-page checklist of every major disease known to Western medicine to take the shine off. Is it really necessary to know my uncle’s propensity for hypertension before I’m approved for a 30-minute “restorative facial”?
This sketchy science came into its own at a “luxury” hotel spa in Surrey, when I once made the mistake of ticking a box admitting to a recentish cancer treatment. I should have known it would trigger the kind of code red alert not seen since they ran out of sandalwood potpourri. The form was rushed into a back office and my therapist returned with an expression now combining panic with training-manual sorrow.
“I’m so, so sorry, but we won’t be able to go ahead with your treatment today,” she said, as if telling a toddler he can’t have any more Jelly Tots. “It’s a particularly invigorating massage that stimulates the blood cells and may actually bring the cancer back.”
Wow. If only doctors could be persuaded to look into the powerful and mysterious forces of hot stones and try to harness them for good. I was ushered through a curtain and offered a plate of dried fruit by way of apology.
If you do make it through the red tape, chances are you’re now running late. And having gone to all this trouble, you’d ideally like the hour you paid for. Especially given you now need to tackle the locker system, untangle your robe, decide whether to bring your phone and then negotiate the slippery marble floor in near darkness while shuffling around in tiny towelling slippers.
In the treatment room, those spa industry norms really kick in. The playlist that hasn’t been updated since Zero 7 were big. That weird knocking routine whenever your therapist wants to come in. Being left alone with a set of instructions you weren’t really listening to. Do I have to wear those odd paper pants? Which way round do they go? And crucially for all involved, will she start knocking again before I manage to get them on?
The final challenge requires high levels of skill and dexterity: to neatly place a towel over your own back while lying on your front, under time pressure. When the knock comes, you freeze like a kid pretending he’s asleep.
Maybe the massage itself will help get my heart rate back down but, of course, it brings its
own questions. Is it too late to ask them to apply more pressure? Am I enjoying this enough? Am I the only person alive who will leave this spa less relaxed than when I arrived?
Yes, I’m clearly expecting too much and bringing my own baggage with me. As a man, I also carry a vague unease that the spa isn’t my natural home, that I will never belong. But I do know that a great spa can be life-affirming, lifeimproving and possibly even life-lengthening, if Hippocrates and countless other philosophers and physicians throughout history are right.
Perhaps the English just aren’t suited to doing it well. With nothing equivalent to the Turkish hammam or Japanese ryokan traditions to draw on, our versions can feel forced and institutional. And as guests at the receiving end, we aren’t exactly naturals at demanding high levels of service without even higher levels of awkwardness.
So we end up with a halfway house between functional and decadent: a pseudoluxury world that has you queueing for the sauna with a hen party. Hell is other people, said Jean-Paul Sartre. And it’s likely he’d just come back from a two-for-one spa day, complete with free half-bottle of Prosecco.
True relaxation comes from not having anyone else around. At Pine Cliffs in Portugal, I didn’t see another person for the entire time I was in there. No one using the ice bath when I wanted it. No staff mopping the floor. No one in visibly better shape than me to make me feel bad. I started to feel as if there might have been a natural disaster outside, and at the time I wasn’t overly bothered.
The Aman Resorts group continues to set a high bar for creating ultra-luxury spas that match even the most unrealistic expectations. And in London, the Bulgari Hotel and Spa in Knightsbridge is one English hotel that has the modern spa nailed: a basement hideaway purpose-built for dodging your to-do list for an hour or two. What the best spas all have in common is service that matches the hype, and that’s clearly not easy to achieve.
In the relaxation area of a particularly expensive hotel in Berkshire, I once took the chance to lie back and try some presentmoment awareness. If I couldn’t do it here, where else? I looked at a tree in the distance. I imagined a branch. A leaf. A drop of water on the leaf. I placed all my attention on it — right now — and when other thoughts appeared, I observed them and came back to the tree. It went pretty well for 90 seconds or so.
Then a Staff Only door opened in the corridor behind me. “I was so shit-faced last night,” said a disembodied voice. “I’m desperate for a bag of Monster Munch.”