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Travel view

Nice face pack, Mel

Joanne O'Connor, acting Travel editor
Sunday January 5, 2003

On a trip to New York last year, I decided to treat myself to a session at one of the city's swankiest spas. After being stripped and taken to a tiled cell which would not have been out of place in a South American military junta's interrogation suite, I was drizzled with honey, rubbed with grated carrot, wrapped in foil, baked, hosed down, scraped with rock salt, squirted with lemon juice, garnished with parsley and sent out into the 'dream chamber' where white-robed women grazed from a buffet of chilled cucumber. Shell-shocked and shiny-faced, I handed over my credit card and left, minus 125 and the outer layer of my epidermis, and with the rather uneasy feeling that I'd been had.

Now, I understand the benefits of eating lots of fruit and veg but having a carrot rubbed into your skin to a soundtrack of whale music? Caviar facials? Champagne manicures? Marmalade body peels? Isn't this whole spa thing getting just a little bit, well, silly?

To add insult to injury, every hotel with some spare room in the basement has decided to jump on the spa bandwagon. And it's no longer enough to offer a brisk Swedish massage and a face pack. In their quest for ever more elaborate ways to relieve guests of their money in the name of 'wellbeing', hotel spas are calling upon everyone from Tibetan monks to American Indians.

Take for example, Seaham Hall's Arabian Jewel Ritual available at its new Oriental Spa in Durham where couples apply therapeutic mud to each other, followed by an Exotic Frangipani Body Nourish Wrap washed off in a 'warm tropical drizzle' (aka a shower). A snip at 340 per couple. Let's see how relaxed and nurtured they feel when they pick up the bill at reception.

Not to be outdone, Gleneagles in Scotland is enlisting the Celts. Apparently, not only were the Celts fearsome warriors, but they were also partial to a spot of pampering and left behind them a rich legacy of scented body buffs and seaweed wraps. The Celtic Life Ritual allows you to choose between Purification, Rebirth or Restoration (aka exfoliation, mudpack and massage), or, you could opt for the whole lot for a mere 245.

You could almost forgive the preposterous names of these treatments if they were good value for money. But at the three-star hotels they are invariably done badly (Kelly in a broom cupboard with an Enya CD) while at the luxury joints they tend to be good but extortionate (purification of mind, body and wallet). For too many hotels a spa is less about 'wellbeing' than about making a fast buck out of your customers. Life membership of the swish new health club at Surrey country house hotel Pennyhill Park is a cool 50,000 - you'd have to go some to notch up a similar bill in the minibar.

Flicking through another spa brochure, I am stopped in my tracks by a treatment called a Touch of Spam. Has it come to this? That people are paying good money to have luncheon meat pasted on to their bodies? On closer inspection I realise my mistake. It's a Touch of Siam. But surely it's only a matter of time...


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