The world has gone mad on spas – suddenly they are everywhere like incense in a temple. Industry gurus claim that 20 such establishments are opening every month – either as stand-alones or as part of a hotel or resort. Companies are raining money on their construction, interior décor and accessories, and even though the spa industry is still in its infancy, it is estimated to be worth a conservative $20bn. All of which is great for those of us who like to be pampered, soothed, smoothed and spoilt. We love going to places where our stressed-out bodies, rigid muscles and aching joints can be tended to in supremely comfortable surroundings full of sweet music, soft cushions and caring hands.
That’s the ideal. The reality is a little different. For while time and money can be lavished on the construction of such pleasure domes and while acres of silk and miles of muslin can be draped around them, what they are really about is not décor but treatments. Spa specialists and gurus have scoured the world for the finest, the most efficacious and the most esoteric therapies going. Ancient disciplines and traditions have been plucked from the four corners of the globe and brought to heel in spa central – a Javanese Lulur here (it’s a traditional cleansing and pampering ceremony for Indonesian royals), a lomi lomi there (a massage from Polynesia, which depends a lot on the elbow) and a spot of reflexology (a variety of Chinese foot torture) everywhere. Variety is all and this is an industry only too willing to oblige.
Just consider design. There are spas carved out of rocks, such as the Banyan Tree in the Seychelles, hidden deep under the ocean as in Huvafen Fushi in the Maldives, or simply perched on the top of a tree as in Kupu Kupu Barong, which is in Bali. Should you prefer a palace or a temple, then head for Boca Raton for a dead ringer of the Alhambra while the new Mandarin Oriental in Chiang Mai takes its design from the temples where Thai massage was first taught and practised. If you fancy a hammam in Halifax, no doubt you will find one or indeed an Oriental garden in Tenerife. Spas everywhere are a feast for the senses with Tibetan bells, floating lotus blossom and perfumed by ylang ylang and jasmine. Not even our hearing is left to chance with our poor ears being assaulted with crashing waves, birdsong, temple chants, Enya (although Katie Melua is the new favourite) and even the song of the humpback whale. Now all of this is charming, and seductive in a way, but in the great scheme of things none of it matters if the therapists are not of the right calibre. For while comfort is essential and luxury a bonus, what everybody who visits a spa is looking for are really good treatments – and all of these require thorough training and application as well as proper regulation.
For my contention is that no industry can train staff as quickly as the spa industry now needs them. Not properly anyway, especially with new and more exotic therapies being introduced the whole time. A gifted therapist is a rare and fine creature, and while I have been visiting spas for the past 20 years I can remember and name but a few of this calibre. I am not asking for a miracle worker, simply somebody competent, who understands the basic skeleton and knows how a body works, because the truth is that as much harm as good can be done to a body in the wrong hands. A week-long course somewhere in Norfolk learning the basics of Ayurveda is not enough, when doctors and nurses in Kerala spend between three and seven years studying this oldest of medical traditions. Because it is the current darling of therapies, every spa thinks it must offer a Shirodhara – my advice is don’t. Much damage can be done to the nervous system by the wrong and inaccurate temperature and volume of the pouring of this steady stream of oil on to the forehead – why do you think water torture is so painful? Not every spa offers acupuncture or tuina, both elements of traditional Chinese medicine, simply because they have not got fully trained staff, so why do they think they can offer elements of another, complex medical discipline?
Over the years the most successful spas are those that have either trained their own staff or have been super-selective in whom they have taken on. Take Chiva Som, for instance, the first resort spa in Asia, which has just celebrated its 10th birthday. It has always searched out staff of the highest calibre and continued to monitor and train. Or indeed the Oriental in Bangkok, which avoided the spa chain suppliers, and trained its own staff. Indeed it was here that I have had one of the best massages of my life, by a Thai master brought in to train the staff. It lasted almost two hours, was a near spiritual experience plus he was the only man who ever prayed before he touched my body! When Ananda in the Himalayas opened on its magical site in the foothills of the Himalayas overlooking the Ganges valley, it was not its location that drew envious and admiring guests, but its superbly trained staff – many of whom now have senior positions in spas from London to Singapore and beyond.
The Banyan Tree Group, which has had it own training school for some years and was in the forefront of staff training, is now in danger of spreading itself too thinly, not just with its own spas, but its younger, funkier brand, Angsana, plus the spas it is managing for other hotel groups. It is en route to becoming a cookie cutter producer of staff. It pains me to say so, as I have been a great fan of this group for many years, but I would prefer one of those frosty faced French nurses in white rubber shoes, from any of the thalassotherapy centres along the west coast of France, to hose me down ferociously and slap me on to a massage table, than an exquisitely mannered Thai therapist in whom I have lost confidence. The redoubtable Christina Ong knows what she wants and expects from her Shambhala spas, which offer a short list of therapies and a rigorous training schedule.
Indeed size is often a key – except in the US, where many of the resort spas are vast, 20 rooms plus, with therapists to match (and in the States these are always well-trained; they need to be at the prices charged). Anywhere else avoid a large menu of treatments, just as you would in a restaurant, knowing that most dishes will come out of the freezer and straight into a microwave. If there are four treatment rooms, three staff and more than 60 treatments on offer – just say no. And I do not exaggerate as this happened only last year in a new spa in the Seychelles. No therapist, no matter how gifted is going to be proficient in all of these. If only spas could or would edit their treatment list, and not pander to every passing whim of hot stone, crystal blitz or sand bath and concentrate on what they are good at before extending into the esoteric, our bodies would be oh-so-grateful. I can probably forego the joys of a vasthi (an ayurvedic warm red oil enema) for a good foot massage – couldn’t you?
Jo Foley is the author of ‘Great Spa Escapes’ (Dakini Books)
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