What I’ve learned about spas (from the man who visits over 30 a year)

The Spa Man

I have been visiting spas for over a decade and am privileged to visit some of the world’s most incredible spa and wellness destinations. From medi-spas in Switzerland and holistic retreats in Thailand to the warm healing waters of the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, it’s been an incredible journey. In my time as a spa writer I have visited over 300 spas and had well over 1000 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.

The Spa Man

COMO Point Yamu, Thailand

I’ve had my chakras balanced in Greece, meditated on a mountain in the Seychelles, let go of guilt in Italy and had an out of body experience in Mauritius. But in all seriousness, I have come to learn that it’s possible to reboot and reset your mind, body and soul in the spa. Done correctly it can be truly lifechanging. I know, I have had a number of experiences that have brought me back from the brink of anxiety, stress and depression. It’s true that you reap what you sow, so to gain the greatest benefit you should be open to all new experiences and 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 present. 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, afternoon tea and you definitely don’t need to fast (unless you want to). Here’s an insight into what I know.

the Spa Man

AMANPURI, Thailand

What makes a great spa experience?

A great spa is much more than a grand building, wonderful waterfalls, jacuzzies, steam rooms and saunas. I have been to the largest and most expensive spas in the world and had terrible treatments yet visited humble locations and had mind-blowing therapies. I firmly believe that it’s the people in the spa who make a great spa experience. So, for me it’s all about the connection with your therapist. When its right – magic really happens. The healing hands of an excellent therapist can be life affirming, working to relieve stress and tension, whilst uplifting the mood, melting away your troubles. I always try to make a connection with my therapist, to engage with them giving them a clear idea of what troubles me and what I hope to achieve. I suggest you do the same. With this knowledge they can work to deliver a great result.

The Spa Man

Song Saa Private Island, Cambodia

What to expect when you visit a spa?

You will be greeted at the spa reception by a spa guide or attendant, given a small tour of the facilities and told what your treatment or spa day/visit includes. You will need to complete a consultation – be open and honest with this – it allows the team to deliver the best for you. Remember to pack your swim wear so you can enjoy the pool, sauna and steam room (these are basic elements I expect from any spa). In the treatment room you will be asked to strip down to your underwear or asked to wear disposable underwear. It’s the normal protocol so go with it. It will ensure you have a great treatment that maintains a continuous flow. Don’t feel obliged to speak or make conversation. If you don’t want to chat, make it clear from the outset. You may be given a choice of music style (jazz, nature, chill), if you don’t like it you can opt to have it switched off or turned down. If the room temperature is too hot or cold, don’t suffer in silence. The same with the bed – I always get too hot so ask for the temperature to be turned down.

The Spa Man

The Bath house, London

What to look for when booking a spa break?

I always look a for a spa that has a 15 – 20 metre pool so I can swim properly. Then a jacuzzi, sauna and steam room. I love being connected with the outside world, so a spa garden is always appreciated – relaxing in the open air after a treatment looking at nature is one of life’s great pleasures. Find out if there any free classes like yoga or meditation. If you are booking a package – be clear about what’s included. What meals are part of the plan, does it include the use of facilities? Beware that lots of locations charge for the use of the spa in addition to the room rate. And what treatments come as part of the all-inclusive break? Steer clear of 25-minute massages. 50 minutes is the bare minimum to allow your body to unwind and your mind to disconnect before you truly benefit from the therapy. A 25-minute facial is ok but longer is better.

The Spa Man

Song Saa, Cambodia

How to find a good deal

Research, research, research! Tripadvisor can be your friend and foe. I always take a straw poll of about 10 reviews. If the poor reviews are consistent, avoid it. There’s always somewhere better nearby. Spa Breaks is great for reasonably priced packages in the UK. Healing Holidays, Wellbeing Escapes and Healing Hotels of the World will give you an all-inclusive deal (often with flights) to some of the world’s best healing properties that promise life changing results. They say you get what you pay for and this is the same in the spa world. There are deals to be had and calling the spa direct can often yield great offers too.

The Spa Man

The Spa at South Lodge, UK

How to choose the right treatment

Around 80% of all treatment bookings in the spa are massages. Which are fabulous and I love them, but when you next visit the spa – have look around the treatment menu as there might be something that includes massage with a body scrub, some reflexology, or reiki. Have you tried sound therapy, singing bowls, or a bamboo massage? How about an invigorating Hammam (my all-time favourite treatment). Be adventurous.

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. If in doubt about a treatment – ask in advance. Call the spa or book time with your therapist, this is an option in some of the more luxurious spa hotels. You book time with a therapist, you explain what troubles you and they develop a tailor-made session to suit. It’s brilliant.

Toskana Therme, Bad Shandau, Germany

It’s ok to cry – getting emotional during your treatment

Spas are pampering and relaxing, but they can be an emotional rollercoaster. The physical nature of the treatment combined with the power of touch through massage can make you feel vulnerable. It can unleash powerful emotions and you could end up crying. Not because it hurts, but due to the emotional release of pent up angst, anxiety and stress form the body. Fasting programmes and Ayurveda retreats can produce similar results. I have cried in the spa on many occasions. During a facial, a massage, on a fasting retreat and during a bodywork session to release trauma in the body. It’s ok, let it go. Therapists are trained to handle this.

The Spa Man

Sri Panwa, Thailand

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 rigour 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/flip flops.

the Spa Man

Aqua Sana Longleat Forest, UK

Pay as you go

Charging for the use of spa facilities is becoming more common and while I understand the business case for this, to charge for this on top of your 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.

The Spa Man

Ruddying Park, UK

When it all goes wrong – how to complain

If something doesn’t feel right, its probably isn’t. It’s your time so take ownership of it. It should be your safe space. So in the treatment room if you don’t feel comfortable with something say immediately.

If you don’t like an area of your body being touched – let your therapist know. I hate having lip balm applied to my lips in a facial. I always say. If you are unhappy after your treatment you should approach the spa manager as soon as possible so any issues can be rectified on the spot. Or afterwards a polite but firm note or email will suffice, explaining the situation and complaint.