Roman emperors liked spas. Emperor Marcus Agrippa is credited with building the first thermae, or hot baths, around 25BC. Not to be overshadowed, emperors Nero, Titus and Constantine continuing the theme, building spas to gain favour with their citizens and as memorials to their rule.
Fast forward 2000 years, the emperors might no longer be here, but spas are still as popular as ever. Despite last year’s still uncertain economic environment, online luxury holiday auctioneers Luxury Link sold 50% more spa packages in 2010 than in 2009. Wellbeing Escapes, who tailor make luxury spa stays, has been enjoying strong growth over the last two years.
“Many are frequenting spas because staying healthy and fit is crucial to keeping stress in check,” says Susie Ellis, the first spa director at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Estate in Florida and who is now president of the online service SpaFinder.
Much of this renewed demand is being driven by the health and fitness aspects of spas, rather than their pampering image, say experts. Diane McDavitt, president of Luxury Link, says, “The appeal has moved from pampering to wellness, rendering spas less guilt inducing.”
Wellbeing Escapes says it often organises very discreet spa stays for TV and music personalities looking to shed a few pounds. Typical of the trend is Herb House, a recently opened luxury spa in the New Forest in southern England. The spa offers a lifestyle assessment programme with follow-up calls from a personal therapist after guests have left.
“High fliers who know they need to be at their best to cope with the challenges of today’s business world are investing more of their precious time on holidays to keep them at the top of their game. It’s about luxury with a purpose that brings benefits long after their tan has faded,” says Stella Photi , founder of Wellbeing Escapes.
Paul Joseph, director of bespoke travel company Health and Fitness Travel says European spas are becoming much more innovative as they attempt to attract more discerning clients. He adds that many spas are offering courses in stress management, life coaching, meditation techniques and cosmetic treatments, next to the more typical wraps, scrubs and facials.
“In the last five years, we’ve seen a flood of new spas appear on the scene which have become very popular, very fast. More bankers and company owners are now visiting them. The treatments are becoming more unique and diverse.”
One of Switzerland’s grandest hotels, the Dolder Grand, renovated its spa at great expense in 2008. Enlisting the services of architects Foster + Partners and spa designer Sylvia Sepielli, the new design won a host of awards from style and travel magazines. It includes a snow room, a granite pool and panoramic views of Zurich. Top architect practices like Foster’s are among an increasing number of well known designers involved in creating innovative new spas.
Winner of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, Peter Zumthor was responsible for the thermal bath building at Therme Vals in Switzerland. Vals is known throughout Switzerland for its spring water, but its beautiful minimalist spa has also attracted a lot of attention and is now a listed building.
The Tschuggen Grand Hotel in Arosa, also in Switzerland and known as the Bergoase, or mountain oasis, was designed by another prominent architect Mario Botta. The roof’s opulent filigree sails in glass and steel, allow light into the rooms below during daytime, while at night, bathing the idyllic mountain village of Arosa in a warm glow.
Spas might be embracing health and fitness as a common theme these days, but that has not stopped them also offering fine dining options. France’s Hotel de Charme Les Airelles in Courchevel, Hotel Adlon Kempinksi in Berlin and Capri Palace Hotel on the island of Capri all have Michelin star restaurants.
Visitors to Masseria Torre Coccaro, a 500-year-old farmhouse spa carved out of a stone cave in Puglia, can enjoy food and spa treatments direct from the property’s vast gardens, orchards and farm. In the evening guests receive spa treatments derived from olives they handpicked themselves that morning.
The origins of many European spas are rooted in centres of medical healing, which capitalised on local springs or expertise in alternative treatments, and many are now taking this heritage into the 21st century, introducing medical, dental or cosmetic treatments. At Clinique La Prairie in Switzerland, rejuvenating treatments include a cellular bust emulsion based on advanced skin care treatments, which mix mountain waters with cells from the German iris plant.
Brenner’s Park Hotel and Spa in the historic spa town of Baden-Baden in the Black Forest region of Germany offers treatments like lymph drainage, physiotherapy and osteopathy. Sleep health consultations are also on hand.Another favourite is seawater therapy, or thalassotherapy – literally meaning “seawater to cure” and tracing its origins back to the ancient Greeks. The Thalassa Boutique Hotel & Spa in Cyprus offers treatments incorporating ancient Greek and Roman techniques such as ear candling and an Aphrodite’s Secret facial, while Italy’s Terme di Saturnia with its 60 treatment rooms, has four thermal water pools and a thermal spring.
The SHA Wellness Clinic, just outside of Alicante on the Mediterranean coast, has enlisted the services of Michio Kushi, a macrobiotic guru, who helps create and supervise the spa’s treatments and programmes. The spa was recently voted Condé Nast Traveller’s best international medical spa.
In a bid to offer ever more privacy some spa hotels include high security rooms with their own private spas within them. Brenner’s Park Hotel recently added a new spa suite that can be used by a family or private group. It has a laconium sauna – a low heat sauna – a whirlpool for two, a Japanese blossom steam bath, and a Finnish sauna with individually adjustable therapeutic lighting. The suite, which can be booked for a full or half day, also has a private terrace, a multi-media centre, a mini-bar, and a private spa butler.
Villa Le Terme in Tuscany, available through luxury travel specialists Abercrombie & Kent, has a private spa, with jacuzzi, steam room and sauna.
Roman emperors would no doubt give the thumbs up to such luxury and exclusivity.