It is 6.30 on a freezing London morning, and I am standing in my pyjamas, spitting into a plastic test tube. It is one of four I have to fill, part of a medical kit whose contents (which also include multiple drops of my blood, distributed inexpertly across labelled cards) will be shipped to a lab and analysed for hormonal, glycemic, and nutritional imbalances, in preparation for a detoxification programme a few weeks hence at Vita Health, a new wellness centre at Rocco Forte’s sleek Sicilian resort Verdura.
It’s no small task, generating a vial’s worth of saliva before dawn, but I console myself with the thought that the Sicilian surroundings will go a long way towards mitigating the mild discomfort of this expectorating ritual. Opened in late 2009, Verdura is arguably the finest resort on the island. Designed in the low-slung local vernacular by Italian architect Flavio Albanese, it has elegantly austere suites (linen-canopied beds, honey-toned concrete floors, potted lemon trees in the private courtyards), a long white sand beach, an 18-hole golf course designed by Kyle Phillips, and a 44,000 sq ft spa with hydrotherapy pools, hammam and beauty centre. Vita Health, which launched in November, adds a serious wellness component to the luxury already on offer, with programmes that deploy clinical diagnostics, nutritional consultation, and advanced electromagnetic therapies.
It is also testament to the paradigm shift at the top end of the spa industry over the past few years – one that has seen conventional regimens of massages, facials, and low-calorie meals complemented (and in some cases replaced) by medical analysis and treatment, cutting-edge light and laser technology, hormone and intravenous infusion therapies, and surgical procedures. Recently launched “medi-spas” include SHA Wellness in Alicante, Longevity in the Algarve, and ESPA Life (within the Corinthia Hotel in London, Gleneagles in Scotland and, as of later this year, at Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore). Last year Bad Ragaz, the Swiss spa resort, began offering plastic surgery at its Medical Health Centre, where other procedures include osteopathy, fertility treatments, and teeth whitening. Treatments once only available to those prepared to be sequestered in a private clinic are now becoming available at spa resorts that also offer restaurants, activities and entertainment for partners and families too.
Dr Nyjon Eccles, Vita Health’s medical director, also runs the Chiron Clinic in London’s Harley Street and several days before I left for Sicily we met to go over my test results and responses to a 13-page questionnaire (for clients not based in the UK, he conducts pre-arrival consultations by phone or on Skype). After discussing my results, Eccles suggested supplements I should begin taking before departure. Meanwhile, Vita Health, with my diagnoses in hand, had started to customise my stay.
More tests on arrival included body composition analysis, an arterial stiffness test and 3D heart mapping, to reveal any electrical imbalance or inflammation.
Vita Health specialises in non-invasive therapies: no facial needles, no Epsom-salt purging, no intravenous ozone therapy, no colonics. Instead, the doctors favour electromagnetic and light technologies. Supplements are prescribed individually as are courses and intensities of treatments: I was prescribed 25-minute daily sessions in the far infrared sauna (which purportedly accelerates detoxification), as well as advanced pulse light therapy, which replaces conventional manual lymphatic drainage massage. Pulses were positioned over lymph nodes at my collarbone and groin, and I was left to doze for half an hour while toxins were circulated and expelled.
Anti-ageing treatments similarly spurn injections, facial lasers or fillers. Rather than traditional mesotherapy, which entails dozens of hypodermic injections, and can result in at least a couple of red-faced days, Vita Health offers mesoporation, which uses a combination of opposing electrical charges and pH balance manipulation to open facial pores and to introduce hyaluronic acid, collagen and vitamins into the lowest layer of the epidermis, triggering cell regeneration. It proved painless, the results were instantly visible and improved over the course of a few days.
Polarity massages – which employ homeopathy and electric currents to target individual “sluggish” organs for specific attention – were also factored in to my programme daily. Classes in the fitness centre are voluntary, ranging from Pilates and stretching to aqua-fitness in the Olympic pool (the only somewhat lacklustre element of the programme, though my experience of them was admittedly limited).
Perhaps most unexpectedly, I was prescribed an electromagnetic amulet, fastened into my underwear, to be worn 24 hours a day during my stay. Eccles cites studies attesting its efficacy in reducing stress and premenstrual and menopausal discomfort, and helping to stabilise sleep patterns.
It is on the nutrition front, though, that Vita Health has a real ace up its sleeve, in the form of executive chef Fulvio Pierangelini. His restaurant in the Tuscan Maremma, Gambero Rosso, was a fixture on the world’s best lists for nearly a decade; he has been consulting chef for Rocco Forte Hotels since 2008.
“She told me what, I decided how,” was his gnomic response when asked about his working method with the London-based nutritionist Amelia Freer (she provides extensive lists of approved ingredients, and Pierangelini combines them as he sees fit, adhering only to proportion guidelines – 25 per cent protein, 50 per cent vegetables, and so on). Off the menu are wheat, red meat, dairy, sugar, salt and all fats except olive oil, as are caffeine and alcohol. He estimates about 85 per cent of the produce comes from Verdura’s organic kitchen gardens (the lemon in my daily hot water came from the tree in my suite’s courtyard). Dishes are as seasonal as possible; thus during my visit this month tomatoes did not feature prominently, but a pumpkin smoothie was delicious, and artichokes were in gratifyingly heavy rotation. There are three meals a day, portions are generous, and presentation is exquisite (one aspect unchanged from Pierangelini’s former life as a star-chef).
Vita Health’s other ace is Verdura itself. Far from requiring sequestration inside the spa (though if that’s the best way for guests to stay on the straight and narrow, it’s a gorgeous, light-saturated place to be), the programmes have been designed to work across the resort – and even across the island. When I inquired after a fellow detoxer absent at breakfast, I was told she had rearranged her therapies to go sightseeing in Palermo for a few hours. Pierangelini had packed her lunch, and the concierge had sent her off with a guide and picnic-spot recommendations. (I asked if my smoothies could, in theory, be delivered to me on the golf course; ma certo they could.) All the resort’s restaurants, except the pizzeria, are stocked and equipped to prepare Vita Health menus, so programme participants can dine where they like – which means couples can integrate their stay, even if one is doing Vita Health and the other is enjoying a generous regimen of pasta and steak washed down with Nero d’Avola.
It’s an integrated model that might not appeal to those seeking extreme, quick-fix, cures. For others, though, Vita Health may provide a kick-start to a health drive, with some useful lessons to take home and continue. I lost 1.6kg in three days, and still have notably improved sleep patterns three weeks on.
Maria Shollenbarger stayed as a guest of Verdura Golf & Spa Resort (www.verduraresort.com). Vita Health offers three-, five- and seven-day programmes from €1,200 (inclusive of food, treatments and unlimited use of spa facilities) in addition to room rates, which start at €265 per double
The ‘evil sauna’
Where once spa visits revolved around heat – in saunas, steam rooms and solariums – there is now growing enthusiasm for treatments that involve getting very cold. Hotel spas from Caesars Palace in Las Vegas to the Dolder Grand in Zurich offer snow-filled rooms, while an Austrian company is marketing a real-snow shower. Benefits include boosting circulation and reducing inflammation, but a more extreme version is also on offer. Whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) involves stepping into a chamber cooled to minus 80C or below. The treatment has long been used in eastern Europe, and more recently by professional athletes (the Welsh rugby team dubbed it the “evil sauna”).
It is now becoming increasingly available to the public at venues including the Sparkling Hill resort in British Columbia, US Cryotherapy in Roseville, California, and Champneys spa in Hertfordshire, UK. CryoClinics in London report a surge of interest following Mo Farah’s use of WBC while training for the Olympics.