Archive for the ‘Spas’ Category
I’m going to put my neck on the line here – nothing, absolutely nothing can beat a traditional hammam. I’ve had body scrubs and massages in 5 star hotels and lazed about all day in luxurious spa resorts but not one of them comes within an inch of a hammam. Centuries old, thank heavens the cleansing ritual is being kept alive, and right here in London at Casa Spa or Casablanca Spa as it’s also known.
Situated on the busy Edgware Road but actually closer to the leafy Maida Vale, the outside of Casa Spa couldn’t be more deceiving. It’s sandwiched between two shops and has a double white wooden door guarding the entrance. I rang the bell a few times like an absolute pillock till I noticed the latch and pulled at it.
Inside is a pokey little reception area with traditional Moroccan seating. The sound of the busy traffic whizzing past on Edgware Road is audible but muffled. I wasn’t turned off one bit as I’d read some reviews online including one from Time Out plus Casa Spa had been featured on an episode of Come Dine With Me – that’s a winning formula alone.
So why on earth did I drag myself out of bed early on a Sunday morning? It was for a ‘traditional hammam ghassoul experience’ - Moroccan style. I’ve had a Turkish hammam but it was explained the Moroccan way is slightly different in that they don’t swish foaming soap all over you but rub black soap and argan oil instead.
From where it originates from, going for a hammam is as common as getting your hair or nails done. It’s a beautifying process but also a way of socialising for both men and women (separately of course!)
Realising how windy it was outside, I was glad to be in the refuge of the spa. I was advised not to apply any oils at least 24 hours before treatment and to bring my own swimwear. Lockers, flip-flops, toiletries, hair dryers and towels are provided.
After getting changed, I was led down some stairs to where the spa is hidden. The first stop was the steam room where an assistant graciously laid a towel on a marble bench and asked me to be seated. I spent a good 5 – 10 minutes as the room steamed up, waiting for my pores to open and my skin to soften. At regular intervals a friendly lady kept coming in to check I was ‘ready’ – the result of not having such a treatment regularly meant it was taking longer than usual for my skin to become soft enough to scrub.
I then had Savon Noir (black soap with argan oil) smeared all over my skin in preparation for the exfoliation that awaited me. It does feel strange being told when to stand up and turn and have someone wash you, sort of like when you were a child being bathed by your mum. After I had been soaped up, I was told to relax for a few more minutes in the steam room.
When my time was up, the friendly lady appeared again before me and addressed me as Cleopatra. How nice! She began chatting to me and as I answered her questions, I was splashed in the face with cold water from something that resembled a chalice while the crazy shrills of the woman wailing like a banshee filled the room. This part is the actual hammam bit so it would be ridiculous to leave it out. If you’re a wallflower, then perhaps this kind of treatment might freak you out. You’ve got to have an open mind and respect the tradition but I assure you, it’s so worth it.
Once I had been doused, she disappeared and another lady followed with a Kessa glove. I lay on the marble bench as she exfoliated me with what felt like a scouring pad. Happily (or maybe disapprovingly), she showed me the amount of dead skin coming off the glove. They were actual lumps and it was so satisfying! You won’t get this kind of result through other salon treatments, believe me.
Finally came the full body mud mask or the ‘Purus Ghassoul’. The therapist applied the mud all over including my hair and massaged, before leaving me to enjoy the steam room for one last session. After I was rinsed all over and taken to a private cubicle to shower alone.
Wrapped in a huge towel, I was taken to the lounge area to chill out while I was served a fresh fruit salad, mint tea and baklava. A couple opposite me chatted quietly though this was disrupted when we heard a woman shrieking in the steam room. Yeah, you guessed it – it was the one-sided water fight. I admit I laughed. I had to.
But the best was yet to come – a holistic body massage. This is an extra treatment you can book after the hammam and I suggest you do. Using scented oils, my therapist massaged the soles of my feet, legs, stomach, back, shoulders and head. She was so good even during the point where I had to grit my teeth as she loosened the agonising knots in my back and shoulders. The difference was unbelievable afterwards – I felt like a massive weight had literally been lifted off me. It’s shocking how much tension I had been carrying.
When I left the spa and looked at my watch I had been inside for nearly 4 hours! I had lost track of time and completely submerged myself in the experience.
There is something extraordinary and fascinating about a hammam. Perhaps its because it still feels foreign amongst all the modern day spa treatments we have been spoiled with but it’s something I absolutely love. Hammams and rhassouls are all about cleansing, drawing out excess water and toxins to leave your skin glowing and silky smooth. And the best thing? You needn’t book a flight to Marrakech or Istanbul when it’s right here on your doorstep.
To find out more about Casa Spa and the various packages it offers, visit their website www.casaspa.co.uk.
Casa Spa – Edgware Road branch, 439 Edgware Road, London, W2 1TH
*I was a guest at Casa Spa for review purposes.
Recently Champneys, the luxurious spa retreat, celebrated 30 years at Henlow Grange in Bedfordshire. To mark the milestone, Champneys teamed up with Wahanda by releasing 30 overnight spa breaks for two at only £30 per person. Not surprisingly, these were snapped up within an hour of the offer going live from midnight and I was thrilled to bag a deal.
The one night spa break included full use of the spa and gym facilities, dinner and breakfast and Henlow was only 35 miles from me – this was going to be a winner. I’d been longing to visit a Champneys spa for quite some time, particularly as I love using their products at home so last week on a crisp, sunny Sunday afternoon, my friend and I trotted off to this famous spa for some serious unwinding.
Set in acres of breathtaking countryside, Henlow Grange is an impressive Georgian mansion, which was once occupied by Cistercian Monks. There is a river that flows through and a beautiful waterfall. It truly is a spectacular and tranquil sight. Even in the winter the views are stunning with the last hints of autumn peeking through.
The spa likes to boast about the high-profiled celebrities who have escaped here for peace and quiet though judging by the signed photos adorning the walls, it must have been a good 10 years ago when Emma Bunton and Matt Goss were here. Also it would appear the entire cast of Eastenders had visited Henlow Grange around the era of Rickkaaay and Bianca before the rejects off Big Brother bizarrely intervened…erm, Nikki Graham? Who…is…she?!! If you didn’t know, Eastenders is filmed in Elstree as is Big Brother, which is about 30 miles from Henlow Grange. I’m guessing everyone whose signed photograph graces the walls of Champneys was either appearing on Top of the Pops in the 90s or in Albert Square. I should know, I was a member of the TOTP audience many times when it was recorded in Elstree…
Checking in was no problem and our luggage was delivered to our room. I had booked a twin room which was very basic and a tight squeeze but neat. The flat-screen television was seriously the smallest I’ve ever seen for a hotel room (about 20 inches) pinned on a big wall, making the rest of it look rather sparse. Also provided was a DVD player and you could rent DVDs from the reception at £4 each but you’d have to leave £40 deposit in case of damage. It seemed like too much hassle. Mind you, judging by the limited selection available, they were all chick flicks (so you could tell mostly women in their mid-30s and upwards stay here).
Keen to try out the spa facilities, my friend and I grabbed our bathrobes and swimming costumes. There is a grand swimming pool that awaits you with loungers at the side and a whirlpool too. I took a dip in the pool before attempting to enter the whirlpool. This was a challenge in itself as I couldn’t see how to get into it! Basically there aren’t any steps to lead you into the pool, you have to hoist a leg over the bar and watch your step that you don’t slip off the seat. The size of the tub is quite pokey with six people occupying it at the most. I think this design risks health and safety as most spas now feature hot tubs that are easy access with safety handles and steps to lead you in.
The pool and hot tub are the only areas that are mixed. The steam rooms are single sex only, which is a bit of a dampener if you want to spend some time at a spa with your other half but have to be separated for some of it and there isn’t a sauna either.
I had also noticed the majority of the people using the spa area were women with the few men present sticking to the gym although I spotted one couple in the spa area (kudos to the mister for braving a spa full of women).
We skipped dinner as the menu was very dull and not substantial to fill the hunger pangs and instead went to the Crown pub around the corner (heartily recommend this place). I would categorise Champneys as a health farm more than a spa. The emphasis is on healthy living and eating with gym facilities, bikes, classes and healthy eating. We had planned to book some treatments but never got round to it. To be honest, I am glad we didn’t as I’m not sure it would have been worth the money.
Despite the reputation its built its name around, Champneys in Henlow Grange is very tired looking and in desperate need of a facelift. It is not in line with the high standards and quality of other spas in the country, some of which actually cost much less than Henlow Grange. Even gyms have better spa facilities, of which many have stopped using chlorine in their swimming pools which is something Henlow Grange could look into upgrading to.
Now I don’t wish to come across all hotel inspector like, but I also noticed wallpaper in corridors had peeled off not to mention the chipped paintwork and the tea room conservatory looked battered and old.
Considering how much Champneys usually charges to stay at their spa (from £129 per night), I would feel extremely short-changed if I had to shell out that much. Breakfast, although healthy, was not filling at all (a few slices of toast, juice and coffee with the option of yoghurt and cereals). Thank God for the sandwich shop at the end of the road (Nice Baps – honestly, that is what it’s called!) I am only relieved it only cost me £30 on this occasion. Even then I don’t feel inclined to return. The whole thing was rather lacklustre.
Recently I spent a night at Ellenborough Park, a newly renovated spa and country hotel in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.
The scene was set from the route I took by car, dreamily idyllic with long, winding country lanes that lead straight to the grounds and if the weather is glorious as it was the day I went, it lights up the sheer beauty of the village the home is nestled in. It was hard to believe two and half hours earlier, I was leaving the stress and tension of London traffic.
Cheltenham is historically a spa town as well the home of the flagship race of British steeplechase horse racing, the Gold Cup. In such quintessential English surroundings, Ellenborough Park proudly overlooks the race course.
The renovation of the Grade II-listed Elizabethan manor house has cost millions and taken two years to complete. Every effort has been made to ensure you are getting a service reflective of the luxurious price you’re paying for.
Upon my arrival I was greeted at reception and my luggage was swiftly taken to my room. The treatment you receive is impeccable – staff are so gracious and forthcoming to assist that you feel like royalty.
My room was as large and well equipped as some hotel suites in London except by Ellenborough Park’s standards, it was a room with an ensuite bathroom. The actual suites (some of which I had a sneaky peak at) were astounding. This isn’t to say my room was any less, in fact I couldn’t be happier.
Every room and suite is uniquely decorated. In total the 15th Century country estate boasts 62 fully-restored and new bedrooms. It’s all done tastefully in a Tudor style with a contemporary twist.
All rooms feature flat screen HD TVs, personal safes that can fit laptops, iPod docking stations, hairdryers, bathrobes and slippers, minibars, air-conditioning plus a separate seating and working area though frankly I wasn’t bothered about the mod cons when taking sanctuary in my room was more of a priority.
I should really tell you about the beds. Made to Ellenborough Park’s own specifications by Hypnos (suppliers of beds for the Royal households), once you’ve slept in one of these will you realise how much you want a bed like this. It looks so inviting – I don’t think I’ve never woken up so rested after a night’s sleep until I drifted off in one of these.
The bathrooms are beautifully designed, and I couldn’t resist spending more time in mine than in the actual spa. There’s a walk-in shower, a roll top bath tub and his-and-hers sinks on a marble work-top with Penhaligon toiletries and under-floor heating too.
Since Cheltenham is famously a spa town, it makes sense Ellenborough Park have built one for its guests. Their spa features a hydrotherapy pool, sauna, steam room and mood showers, and upstairs there are 7 spacious treatment rooms and a juice bar. Outside there is a heated pool and also an on-site gym for residents.
I had an Express Discovery Prescription Facial (£50), using Babor products, which have married natural plant-based ingredients with extensive research by top dermatological scientists, creating a range suitable for all skin types and ages.
After analysing my ‘youthful’ face, my therapist recommended I have the 25 minute facial rather than the lengthier 55 minute one. I closed my eyes on the treatment bed and let the therapist cast her magic.
The express facial aims to revitalise and rejuvenate the skin and involves a deep cleanse and facial exfoliation before a combination of massage and moisturisers are applied. When it was over, I noticed my face looked refreshed from its previous tired state.
As far as facials go, this one differed – there was a limited use of products with emphasis on stimulating the facial muscles and relaxing the body. It also made a pleasant change not to have your face layered with lotions and potions.
Ellenborough Park offers a variety of breaks, with prices starting from £150 per night for bed and breakfast in a Traditional Room, based on two people sharing (subject to availability). Stay also includes full use of spa and leisure facilities. There is a restaurant on site but the town centre is just a few minutes away if you fancy more choice. As the spa and hotel is within close distance of the race course during peak time at the races will mean rooms will get snapped up early.
For all its luxuries and exclusive little touches, Ellenborough Park may not be within a lot of people’s budgets but consider what you’re getting and compare it to a weekend in London. Well, there is just no comparison.
Ellenborough Park is a beautiful retreat in the heart of the Cotswolds, a place to escape to from the chaos of city life and just one night away totally recharges your batteries. In its own words, it’s a “classical contradiction” – beautifully historic yet elegantly modern. A stay here is the best prescription any doctor could (or should) give.
You can drive to Ellenborough Park or take the train to Cheltenham Spa, which is 10 minutes away by taxi. To find out more, visit their website www.ellenboroughpark.com or telephone on 01242 807 851.
*I was a guest of Ellenborough Park for this post.