Ever since Gok Wan went from making us look good naked to creating catwalk outfits for less than the price of dry cleaning a designer outfit, I’ve been pulling out my craft glue (and the occasional DIY supplies) to glam up New Look basics into must have “pieces”. I’ve even taken a couple of their comfortable wide fit shoes and made them into sparkling triumphs courtesy of Claire’s Accessories and some Superdrug nail varnish. I know, these are not names that generally inspire, but when the resulting sandals are mistaken for the latest season sandals from Dune (and are actually comfortable enough to walk in) I knew I was on to a winner.
Fast forward to a girlie weekend in Barcelona this March and a visit to a local spa and suddenly my mind was working overtime again.
As much as I love the idea of a long weekend at a luxury spa hotel, if I’m honest the prices have always put me off, and my recent experiences at day spas in Morocco and Barcelona have convinced me that you don’t need to pay through the nose for an exceptional spa experience. In fact the best massages I have had to date have been the cheapest ones:
– Around 32 pounds for a hammam, with a gommage “scrubbing”, followed by a rhassoul, and then the most relaxing massage I’ve ever had. I can’t tell you how long I was in there – only that the sun had gone down, I had lost all track of time, and I was on a completely different planet.
– Even in Barcelona, with the euro at an all-time high, the top rated spa cost us around 54 pounds for the hammam, (with extra hot steam room and plunge pool), followed by a gommage “scrubbing” and another extremely relaxing massage. Three hours of luxury for 54 pounds compared to UK prices is a total steal.
The fact is that in many cultures the local spa is an everyday (or at least every month) treat, which, combined with good exchange rates (when they are available), makes them a great bargain on holiday. So why aren’t we taking advantage of them? Well personally I think it’s because, whereas guide books are stuffed with restaurant, sight and hotel recommendations, very rarely do they spend any time on spas. The spa in Morocco was recommended by friends, and the spa in Barcelona was found with some pre-emptive internet research. Later in the year I’m off to visit China, which has some world class hotel spas, but also boasts a proud massage tradition, which leads me to hope that as well as the day spas I’ve been recommended (where prices are about a quarter of UK rates) I’ll also be able to find other more authentic bargains.
Which leads me to the hotel part of the spa and hotel break. One of the reasons that staying at a luxury spa hotel can cost so much is that you are paying for the option to use it 24/7. If, like me, you see your spa time as part of a whole trip rather than a destination in itself, you’ll probably find that one day spending 3-4 hours in a spa is enough (taking into account the detox effects) at least for a couple of days. So just by choosing to stay in a separate hotel you will probably save a hefty chunk of your holiday budget, and you’ll also avoid the temptation to stay locked up in your hotel for your entire stay and miss out on the local treats.
By then choosing an affordable hotel, reasonably close to your spa, which features the required level of pampering (slippers, robe, fluffy white towels), you can relax back in your room safe in the knowledge that you’ll be going home with a designer glow and a budget bill.
Of course this is not to say that there aren’t spa hotels offering affordable deals, but by being flexible and savvy you can make sure that your relaxation time isn’t spent feeling ripped off. And perhaps more importantly, by being more creative in choosing your hotel, you have a much better choice of spa. You are not limited to an in-house spa experience, very important considering the number of excellent day spas available, even in the UK. Take for example Spa London in Bethnal Green, voted 2010 Professional Beauty Awards “Day Spa of the Year”, where 3 hours of thermal experience will set you back 21.50 pounds at the top of the scale for non-members, down to 6.75 pounds for concessionary local members (including towel, robe and flip flop use) and which is truly a luxury experience compared to the slightly run down Porchester Spa. And then there’s Thermae Bath Spa, the only place in the UK where you can bathe in natural healing spa waters, voted 2010 “Best Spa in the World” by readers of the Daily Telegraph’s Ultra Travel Magazine for the second time running, where a 2 hour session in the New Royal Bath (recommended) will set you back 24 pounds (plus 9 pounds hire cost for towel, robe and slippers if you need them – and you get to keep the slippers!) Unlike many spas the Thermae Bath Spa also offers reductions for locals, disabled guests and their carers, so a local disabled guest (and carer) could pay as little as 9.50 pounds each for a 2 hour session in the New Royal Bath. (You can also buy a glass of spa water at The Pump Room for only 50p!)
Of course London and Bath are not known for their cheap hotel rooms, and certainly in central Bath you might be pushed to find availability, let alone an affordable room rate. However, if you widen your search to the surrounding area, you’ll also find some wonderful B&Bs which would put many hotels to shame, and where you can wake up to the sound of a horse clip clopping past, right in the heart of the countryside. Then it’s up to you whether you decide to explore some old fashioned villages, head back home refreshed and revived, or pop back to the Thermae Bath Spa for just a little more bargain relaxation.