Spas are supposed to be relaxing. You pad around in a regulation robe and too-big slippers. Everything is beautifully soft, crisply white, low lit. There are loungers for flopping and glasses of tea —pale yellow and herbal, not builder’s. Towels are everywhere.
It’s rehydrating, restful, rejuvenating. Music tinkles in the background; occasionally a cymbal resounds. The treatment list has huge promise. You will emerge looking glorious or at least a shinier — hopefully slimmer — version of yourself. Medical spas go further still. Your liver will be grateful, your skin more youthful, your lumps and bumps smoothed, your outlook revolutionised.
Ten years ago, spas were thought to be a bit peculiar. Today, they are widely accepted as places of wellbeing worship where women gather to bond and beautify — then ruin it all in the evening with a giant glass of wine. A spa is a treat. Or is it?
Over dinner with two girlfriends last week, we came to the conclusion that spas — most especially spa treatments — are just embarrassing, particularly for we British who don’t always cope well with communal nakedness and are thrown by paper pants. Even on your own, it’s a bit strange to strip off and chew the fat while the therapist pummels yours.
On holiday, we might want to try something a bit different, embrace local culture — even if that entails a scrub-down by a stranger. But it’s awkward isn’t it? Visit a Turkish or Moroccan hammam and it’s hard to know where to look or how to behave. It’s a far cry from the brisk, purposeful nudity of a noisy swimming-pool changing room.
On a weekend with two friends in Istanbul, I spent a Sunday morning in a very bright, light-filled chamber, with a number of other women and a lot of flesh on display. Here we were repeatedly doused with pillowcases full of soapy water by women in wet-weather wear — strappy tops and shorts. We emerged sparklingly clean, but the most relaxing part came when we had our clothes back on and a cup of tea in hand.
Then we could discuss our conversations with the washerwomen. Because you can’t just sit there and say nothing when someone is vigorously scrubbing the back of your neck, breathing heavily into your ear. ‘So sorry, I know that looks like dirt, but it’s actually fake tan.’ ‘Do you live locally?’ ‘What sort of soap do you use?’ But that’s not nearly as mortifying as the Indian massages my friend had in Hampi, Karnataka, where the wife was cooking supper and the children watching TV next door while she slithered about, doused in oil, on what must have been their dining-room table.
Maybe we’re not taking the whole thing seriously enough. The Romans might have socialised in steaming waters, but we’d rather gossip in the pub. Smart French women visit spas regularly, like cars going in for an MOT. Emmanuel Macron’s wife must, surely, be a devotee; look at those knees! They are knees to aspire to. And proper spa-goers, who really want to lose weight and perhaps have a colonic, go to such institutions alone.
The last time I went on a detox (rather by accident) with a friend, we broke free to find a local pizzeria and, by the end of the weekend, had both gained weight.
Part of the problem is that hanging around in a towel robe makes me feel sluggish and sloppy. I only ever wear a dressing gown during the day if I’m unwell. Then there’s the lolling about in water getting wrinkly — how many times can you circuit from hot to cold, tepid to icy, before getting bored? For my boyfriend, the answer is once. He treats it like a triathlon. Gets in a sauna on full blast for as long as he can handle, slathers himself in ice — then wonders what he’s doing there and goes for a run.
He would never countenance a couple’s treatment. And on this, I am with him. Instead I’ve shared a tea-infused bath full of rose petals in Sri Lanka with one of my oldest friends (we were in our swimming cossies, since you ask, drinking port because that’s what you do). Before long we were too hot, the petals in unwanted places. Few baths are built for two. Cycling around the tea estates dodging tuktuks was more restful.
After a recent hike to the base of the Torres in Patagonia, it was blissful agony to have a deep massage. But to spend a weekend being prodded and pummelled, led on scented journeys chasing dreams of relaxation and the perfect body? I’d rather have a bath on my own, without rose petals but with the port.