Spa devotees everywhere owe a heartfelt nod of gratitude to the Romans, for both their ingenuity and their penchant for expansion. As they traveled from conquest to conquest, they left behind a trail of spas, built at the sites of natural thermal and mineral springs. Soldiers immersed themselves in the healing waters, bathing their battle wounds, resting and recuperating. When the Romans chose to stay long enough in a place, as they did in Bath, England, they left magnificent columned and frescoed tributes to the culture of all things water. The word spa, in fact, derives from the Latin phrase sanus per aquam, or health by water.
While the historic Roman Baths are still one of the city’s more fabulous features, the spotlight has more recently swung its beam to settle on the 5-star MacDonald Bath Spa Hotel. Located a pleasant 10-minute stroll from the ancient bathing ruins in the center of town, the MacDonald is a gracious and sophisticated Georgian mansion set amid seven acres of landscaped gardens and lawns that slope towards the waters of the Kennet & Avon Canal.
Flower arrangements spill from every table in the grand lobby, and the aroma from a thousand blossoms follows me as I make my way to the back of the building and across a small courtyard to the Imperial Suites. My ambitions are admittedly less than lofty, and involve nothing more taxing than lolling about in soft slippers and a thick robe while someone brings me tea. That someone turns out to be my butler, Simon Pearson, who trained at Buckingham Palace. He informs me that the theme of bathing can be further explored in the privacy of my suite should I choose, and leaves me to peruse a menu of aromatherapy baths that will be drawn at my whim as part of the butler service.
The tea is perfect, and I leave Simon to deal with the contents of my suitcases as I head off to visit the recently opened spa on the ground level of the main building. Part of extensive renovations completed in the summer of 2006, the six treatment rooms and lounge are sleek and smart, while managing to perfectly complement the atmosphere of the 170-year–old main building. Nutmeg, coffee and cream tones create a warm and relaxing environment.
German-based luxury cosmetic company Babor has created a number of signature treatments and therapies exclusively for the MacDonald, most of which feature a synergistic blend of the line’s natural ingredients and herbs and incorporate Celtic healing traditions. I’ve chosen the 100-minute Highland Healing treatment. My therapist begins by using a sweetly scented heather blossom peel to exfoliate my body. Next up: an herbal massage with sea buckthorn that includes oils and Celtic stones to loosen the tight space between my shoulders and in my lower back. Afterward, as I doze in and out of consciousness, the therapist performs an acupressure massage on my face, which leaves me in a sublime state of euphoria.
When the treatment ends, an escort accompanies me to the lounge where I rest and indulge in a beautifully displayed selection of teas and fresh fruit. I enjoy the quiet while sipping a fruit-infused tisane — grateful that the clientele here seems to understand the concept of silence.
In the morning, a post-breakfast stroll brings me into the center of town, straight to the source: the Roman Baths. Called Aquae Sulis by the early people who lived here and made use of the steamy waters, the ornate carvings and inscriptions of the crumbling walls surrounding the columned bathing areas and temples date back 2,000 years. Archeologists have uncovered evidence that a permanent settlement existed here as long ago as 863 B.C. Now a World Heritage site, Bath also was home to author Jane Austen, who set two of her novels against the city’s splendid backdrop.
Near the Roman Baths, just around the corner from the magnificent Abbey Chambers and Churchyard, the new Thermae Bath Spa complex provides an ultra- modern contrast to the ancient Roman bathing temples. A day-only destination (with twoand four-hour stays available), the dramatic, multi-level glass structure offers a host of traditional massages and treatments, plus a whole menu of thermal water and flotation therapies. I slip in for a Shiatsu massage, followed by a soak in the rooftop pool, while the spires and towers of historic buildings seemingly float on the horizon above the steamy waters. The service staff proves to be outstanding, and I’m impressed by the extensive menu, which includes wraps with Moroccan clay, green coffee, and Moor mud, along with peat, lavender blossom, and Alpine hay baths.
I enter the Kraxen Stove/ Alpine Hay chamber, a steam room in which the steam passes through packed hay behind the seating area. It’s aromatic and relaxing, and just what I need before the walk back to the MacDonald.
Later, I head to the resort’s fitness center, which is fully equipped with TechnoGym equipment. My personal trainer has provided me with an electronic key that automatically adjusts the settings on each machine to my particular needs, making the entire workout especially efficient. The gym also has treadmills, stationary bikes, rowing machines and free weights spread across a generous space. An enormous pool features self-massage cascades along the perimeter.
Having logged an extra mile on the treadmill — and feeling especially virtuous — I head back to the spa to enjoy the Thermal Suite, available to all guests at the hotel. The options include a rock sauna cave, ice room, infrared cabin, salt infusion room and aromatherapy steam room. I make a full circuit, imagining as I move from room to room what Bath might have been like back when Jane strolled the streets between dashing off chapters of Northanger Abbey. If I run into a robed and slippered Mr. Darcy in the lounge later, I may just be too relaxed to flirt.
MACDONALD BATH SPA HOTEL
Bath, Somerset BA2 6JF
tel 44 1225 444 424
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I had just taken off my sandals, stepping onto the white-sand beach for a late-morning walk to a secluded spot I heard about from a front desk clerk, when I glanced down and saw the time on my phone. It had just turned 11 a.m., which meant it was only 7 am back home, the perfect time to call and say good morning to by husband before he left for work. Not quite ready to head back to my room, I decided I’d test the WiFi signal and made the call as I continued walking toward the shoreline.
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