Top UK spa writer, Mark Smith, on what he’s learned about how to create an experience that surpasses the standard.
By Mark Smith
I’ve been reviewing spas for over a decade and have visited over 300 to date. In that time, I’ve had well over 1,000 treatments including countless massages, body scrubs, facials, reflexology, reiki, holistic healing, and trauma therapy. I’ve been scrubbed, soaked, stretched and starved, pampered, poked, prodded and even pricked with an IV drip. From the world class medi-spas of Switzerland and ancient healing retreats in Asia to the healing waters of the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, I really have tried it all.
Writing for the likes of Asia Spa, The Daily Telegraph, Vogue and European Spa, I have learned that – done correctly – spas can be life changing. It’s true that you reap what you sow, so to gain the greatest benefit you should be open to all new experiences – don’t be a passive recipient of the treatment, prepare yourself mentally and physically in advance. Before a massage, do some breathing exercises to ground yourself in the moment and use the sauna and steam room to warm and relax your muscles (allowing the therapist to work deeper into the body). It’s all about attitude and your ultimate goal.
That said, you can still enjoy a glass of bubbly or an afternoon tea, and you definitely don’t need to fast (unless you want to). Here’s an insight into what I know.
What makes a great spa experience?
A great spa is much more than a grand building with cutting-edge design. That’s just one part of the puzzle. I have been to some of the largest and most expensive spas in the world and had terrible treatments yet visited humble locations and had mind-blowing therapies.
The unsung heroes of the spa are the therapists, and they can make or break your spa experience. I know it can be a bit hit and miss at times, but when you truly connect with the healing hands of an expert, magic really can happen. Put in a little effort yourself to connect with your therapist and set out what you hope to achieve.
I always look a for a spa that has a 20-metre pool so I can swim properly. A jacuzzi, sauna and steam room are essential too. I love being connected with the outside world, so a spa garden is ideal and there are more popping up across the UK (check out Cowley Manor or the new Spa at South Lodge). Relaxing in the open air after a treatment looking at the trees or a gentle flowing river is one of life’s great pleasures.
As a rule, I always steer clear of 25-minute massages and am no fan of express therapies. 50 minutes is the bare minimum needed to allow your body to unwind and your mind to disconnect before you truly benefit from the therapy. I always forget how relaxing a facial is, until I have one. The gentle touch of the therapist’s hands is cleansing, calming and soothing. A half-hour facial is okay, but longer is better.
It’s okay to cry – getting emotional during your treatment
Spas are pampering and relaxing, but they can be an emotional rollercoaster too. The physical nature of the treatment, combined with the power of touch through massage, can make you feel vulnerable, unleashing powerful emotions. The emotional release of pent-up angst, anxiety and stress from the body can lead to a flood of tears. Fasting programmes and Ayurvedic retreats can produce similar results. I have cried during a facial, a massage, on a fasting retreat and during a bodywork session to release trauma in the body. It’s okay, let it go. Therapists know how to handle this.
Let’s talk about paper pants
The paper pants in the spa treatment room serve a purpose – I know, I know! But they leave little to the imagination and are virtually useless. I actually prefer to be naked (de rigueur in most of continental Europe). It is less fussy and more environmentally friendly. On that note, spas can be very wasteful places – I try to only use one towel during a spa visit and take my own slippers or flip-flops.
Pay as you go
Charging for the use of spa facilities is becoming more common. While I understand the business case, the addition of a spa fee on top of a hotel room rate is a worrying trend. It puts me off and I’m sure it’s an affront to many guests who might be expecting a quick dip in the pool before dinner. Hotels take note.