From a hotel manager penning personal notes to clients to a cabaret performer spying for the British and diamond pebble massages, Claire Adler speaks to families who own some of the world's most sumptuous spas
When Andrea Scherz was five or six, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton were regular visitors to his parents' hotel, the Gstaad Palace in the heart of the Swiss Alps. "I didn't enjoy meeting Liz Taylor," remembers Scherz, 38, now the hotel and spa's owner and general manager.
"She would always give me a huge hug and her fur coat had lots of hair that would get into my nose. But I do remember there were always photographers waiting outside for her."
Scherz's grandfather managed the hotel with his wife from 1937 until he bought it in 1947 with the help of 21 personal loans from friends and customers. Such was his commitment to the hotel that he even continued his marketing efforts while serving as a soldier guarding the Swiss border during World War II.
"I met someone recently who was in the army with my grandfather," says Sherz. "He told me some nights they were allowed to go out for a drink. But my grandfather stayed in to write notes to his guests to remind them of the hotel."
In the late 1990s and as recently as 2001, Michael Jackson would frequent the Gstaad Palace late at night, often walking around at 3am, so that he wasn't bothered by anyone. He was even interested in buying the hotel, says Scherz, but the family were never going to sell out.
"My challenge is to keep the business in the family for future generations. I have a son and daughter who are seven and eight and I have secret hopes for them," he says.
Today, the Gstaad Palace, with its new spa and health club, is arguably a more covetable property than ever. Thanks to an investment of €8 million, a newly designed hammam ritual, for couples or individuals, lasts two hours and extends over seven treatment rooms; a 60 metre long granite wall constructed from 50 tonnes of rock from the nearby Blausee region intensifies the feeling of being surrounded by the mountains, and a relaxation area fitted with a soothing fireplace overlooks vistas of the Alps and a sleek gym and pilates studio. The beauty products used are made by Cinq Mondes, Sisley and Clé de Peau Beauté.
The popular two hour hammam experience begins with a calming foot bath in a steam room, after which doors open automatically onto a peaceful blue infinity room, leading to a cleansing soap scrub body massage on hot tables, a shower of warm water, a steam bath and a dip in the floating pool which has an easy chair built into it. After a break in the private relaxation room, a hydrating oil massage completes the treatment.
"We have had an overwhelming response to the new spa since it opened in December 2007," says Scherz. "Our guests have been blown away by the design by a local architect, Peter Tschanz and a Zurich based interior designer Roland Schön.
"We used local rock for the main stone wall that runs the full length of the spa. There is a constant calming sound of water running from the stream along the wall. People love the way we have maintained the mountain style."
Another third-generation family-owned spa which has embraced the regional aesthetic and tapped into local talents to imbue it with individualism, can be found at the Es Saadi Gardens & Resort in Marrakech, Morocco. The original founder of the Es Saadi was a French businessman who had transformed and later acquired the Moulin Rouge in Paris.
"My late grandfather was an artist, acrobat and singer which enabled him to secure papers to perform in Germany during the war," says Jean Alexandre Bauchet-Bouhlal, who joined as assistant general manager of the Es Saadi Gardens & Resort in 2001.
"He used to spy for the British, giving radio information so they could bomb German cities. After the war, he created the dinner and show concept at the Moulin Rouge which was completely innovative in its time.
"Later he founded Beirut's first casino and when he fell in love with Marrakech, he bought a huge area of land here incorporating what is now Marrakech's biggest park – the Es Saadi Gardens. Today, my grandmother is president of the company."
When Jean Alexandre joined the business, the resort had a hammam and a sauna. But he felt a new kind of spa that engaged all the senses was needed. The result is the Oriental Spa, open from nine to nine daily. Treatments include a 50 minute Musical Spine Vibratory Massage and Jean Alexandre's favourite, the all-important high luxury version of a hammam treatment.
"We have reinvented the original Moroccan hammam – historically a treatment in a public hot room – for the luxury traveller. Our hammam is completely private. It starts with a black soap wrap in a hot room, using Moroccan fine olive, argan and eucalyptus essential oils sourced from a nearby village specialising in aromatic plant oils, which are removed with hot water.
Then in a lukewarm room the therapist dons Moroccan gloves for the scrub – "the best part", according to Jean-Alexandre. This is followed by a shower to exfoliate, an essential oil massage and a cold room relaxation session with fresh mint tea.
"The spa is now constantly fully booked. Guests routinely book their treatments when booking their suites at the Resort," says Jean Alexandre.
The spa is just one of many ways to relax at leisure at the resort. The hotel has 10 themed villas, each with its own garden, swimming pool and 24-hour private butler service. One pool was designed in a heart shape to incorporate a palm tree rather than cut it down. The ceilings in each villa have been handcrafted by Moroccan artisans, who took up to seven months to complete each one.
In addition, the main hotel building, known as the Es Saadi Palace, comprises 92 suites, all with large private terraces, marble bathrooms with jacuzzis and views of the Atlas mountains. The resort is also home to Morocco's first casino, built in 1952 and a night club.
In 2007, the Es Saadi hosted the seventh Marrakech International Film Festival and Leonardo Di Caprio and Martin Scorsese were among the Hollywood stars who stayed there.
All the Es Saadi's fruit and vegetables are grown organically in Es Saadi's nearby farm and oil comes from the resort's olive groves. Solar energy panels power the hot water system and heat the pool, while a recycling station provides water for the gardens. All of which suggests that the Es Saadi far more closely resembles an entire city in itself than it does a mere spa or hotel.
While you could easily stay at the Es Saadi for a week and not leave, the H Stern spa near the beach in Rio de Janeiro was designed in 2006 for a brief escape from urban existence and a few extremely precious hours of indulgence.
The H Stern spa's uniqueness stems perhaps less from the style of its pampering treatments – though they are reassuringly unusual – than for its setting in a two storey jewellery shop.
Founded in 1945, this second-generation Brazilian jewellery giant which often supplies jewellery for red carpet regulars Catherine Zeta Jones, Angelina Jolie and Drew Barrymore, and which has 600 specialised artisans and 270 points of sale in 31 countries, has recently taken the notion of experiential retail to the extreme.
While mini massages and aromatherapy are available in the jewellery store itself, the H Stern spa treatments favour the use of gemstones. They include a hot stone massage incorporating a silver pebble set with a diamond and a pearl powder facial.
The steam room bears real gold stars on the ceiling for the effect of a starry sky, while also alluding to the company name, Stern, German for star. Private treatment rooms are named after precious gems such as tourmaline and aquamarine. The products used are the result of a collaboration with L'Occitane, the French cosmetics brand founded in the French region of Provence.
"We focus on what women feel when wearing our jewellery," says Roberto Stern, president of the company since his father, German-born Hans Stern, the company's founder, passed away in 2007.
"Everything we do, from the sleek design of the spa to the range of top to toe treatments reflects that. Many
visitors come either for the spa or to buy jewellery. The ground floor of the store is divided between the jewellery store, the spa entrance and a bar."
So what possessed a global luxury jewellery brand to enter the world of spas? "Admittedly, when we first came up with the idea, pretty much everyone thought the idea was mad. But that's what we do.
"We're different. We challenge most people's perceptions of what a fine jeweller should be or how it should behave," smiles Roberto Stern.