As I bounded down the stairs and skipped along to the bus stop I found myself wondering ‘Is it wrong to be so excited about a day of relaxation’? (and is it odd to be taking the bus to a 5* hotel :))
But I was right to be excited. Thanks to a great offer through i-on magazine I was off to a Spa Day at the 5* Balmoral Hotel Spa. I usually only get to play in pools and saunas when I travel so it was a nice change to finally do something close to home. My special package included a full body ESPA massage and use of the facilities all day. When I called to book, I was told the spa opened at 6:30 am and even though my treatment wasn’t until 3pm I could come as early as I like – for them ALL DAY means ALL DAY!!
Once off the bus I made my way to the Balmoral Hotel at its distinctive and prestigious location at 1 Princes Street. Previously I’d only been as far as the bar but today I sauntered up the steps smiled back at the welcoming, tartan clad doorman and was guided by a friendly concierge towards the Spa – going through the elegant tea room I made a note to self – must come back for afternoon tea to see how it compares to the big hotels in London! The Spa is down in the lower level but as the elevator doors opened, the bright and shiny decor and warm smiles that greeted me made me forget we were underground. The staff were friendly, attentive and professional and had their priorities right: Step 1 – Welcome the guest with a big smile; Step 2 – Offer a glass of water or hot beverage; Step 3 – Fill out the Health Questionnaire before use of facilities and treatments. As a massage therapist myself, I know the importance of the health consultation – it will make sure that my health won’t be adversely affected by the use of the equipment or by the massage, and it will help the therapist give me the most beneficial and individual treatment for my needs; I was also checked for medical concerns when I booked, to save disappointment on arrival.
Next, I was given a full tour of the spa area before heading to the changing room which was smaller than some of the spa hotels I have visited on my travels but I think this was a positive indication that they must restrict the number of members and/or bookings to provide and exclusive, quiet, calm experience. The area was clean, minimal, elegant and not too opulent (a.k.a. gaudy). I looked around and did a quick checklist; although small everything you could need seemed to be here:
- changing cubicle (just one) – check
- Hairdryers and straighteners – check
- Body lotion – check (extra bonus – cotton pads, face moisturizer and cleanser)
- Quality products (REN Skincare) – check
- Large clean showers with shampoo, shower gel AND conditioner, check
- ‘Salad Spinner’ and bags for wet swimsuits – check
- Locker with hanger – check
- A framed notice let me know that extra toiletries, toothbrush, comb etc. Were available on request (complimentary) – Nice touch!!
A neat little bundle was waiting for me in the bottom of my locker – a big white fluffy towel, robe, and terrycloth slippers. I’ve been to many high end spas where I only received one towel and after coming in and out of the pool, sauna, etc. it’s dripping wet and totally useless when I come to dry off after showering at the end of the day. Not at the Balmoral! On my welcoming tour I was shown stacks of fresh big white fluffy towels available by the pool so I could grab a fresh one whenever needed. My robe was a light waffle fabric – I’m normally used to fluffy terry – but when I put it on it was surprisingly warm and soft for its light weight and texture.
So arriving at 12 – what was there to do for the 3 hours before my treatment? LOTS!! I had complete access to the gym with it cardio and weight equipment; I could chill out at the classical Grecian/Roman styled poolside seating area with a complimentary self serve bar for water, tea, coffee; get comfy reading the magazines on the lounge chairs and sofas; l could even order food and have it sent down to eat at one of the poolside tables while still in my robe and slippers.
Instead, I decided to make use of the pool, sauna, steam room and hot tub….but wait – where’s the hot tub? I had a quick look ‘round but nope – no hot tub; and really no space for one either so it was off to the pool which was I told was a cosy 31C!! Actually, they don’t really need the hot tub with such a great, warm pool!! Whenever I travel I try to pick hotels with spa facilities so I already have my routine planned – pool, sauna, pool, steam, pool. As I lowered myself into 15 metre pool, I was immediately feeling the love for the 31C – there was no ‘shock’ as my toes hit cool water, no grimacing as I try to convince myself ‘it’ll be fine once you’re in’. Instead, the water welcomed me in, enveloping me in a gentle warmth that was comfortable and yet still refreshing. Not only do I have a Spa routine – I also have a pool routine. Swim to the other side – stop and do my signature aqua aerobics moves (I don’t embarrass easily) do another lap – more jumping jacks, leg lifts and twists – and repeat. As I got to the other side I was in for a surprise – it was a deep end – I don’t think I’ve ever been in a hotel pool that had a deep end! The 2.1 m depth meant I couldn’t do my aerobics – but I think this turned out to be a good thing – it challenged me to swim 2 lengths before I rested and the deeper water is ‘smoother’ to swim in. The water was so lovely I didn’t want to leave but after over 30 minutes of swim – aerobics – repeat – my arms and legs were ready for a rest.
The sauna/steam rooms were just alongside the pool with a fully tiled alcove of shower heads for a quick rinse between zones – one with the ominous label ‘COLD WATER SHOWER’ – I’m not that brave so it was a quick warm rinse, a cup of cold water from the conveniently placed water cooler – and into the Sauna. After a quick check through the safety precautions posted by the door, I’m good to go.
The sauna was a good size with 2 levels (it’s much hotter on the higher tier) and a great temperature; high 80’s not too humid. I wasn’t alone so was faced with the Sauna Etiquette Dilemma: to ladle or not to ladle. My sauna ‘buddy’ didn’t look like the high octane type (first clue – she was perched on the lowest/coolest level). Since there was no one else – I spread out my towel on the hot wooden slats of the upper tier, stretched out and got comfy waiting for the sweat to roll. My instincts were right – my buddy only lasted about 2 minutes – it has taken me a while to get used to Saunas but over the years I have worked up to the recommended max of 15 to 20 minutes. If you’re not used to heat, it’s tough but you do need to stay in for as long as possible to really feel the benefits. You need to find the balance between getting out because it’s a bit uncomfortable and pushing yourself too far. You can bring in some water to sip slowly and also go out, have a rinse and rest, come back and build up your time that way. But I was ready for more so with the sauna now to myself – I ladled on some water (to increase heat and humidity), flipped the egg timer and let the heat sink in. There seems to be stages – first I feel the heat externally, then I get used to that (although many people leave at this stage), then internally my circulation works to help release the heat through the pores as sweat. At first the sauna is hot enough to instantly vaporize the initial flow of sweat. It’s getting hot but I know that if I can last that bit longer, the internal heat will build up enough to release more sweat than the external heat can vaporize. My patience is rewarded with tiny beads of moisture from head to toe, a sign that my circulation is working efficiently and every bead of sweat is helping my body release waste and toxins. I don’t want to dehydrate myself so just a few minutes at the sweat stage and I’m ready for the next phase of my plan: more water at the handy water cooler, rinse with the warm shower and back to the pool.
Normally I have to brace myself to get back into the pool after the sauna but the 31 degrees welcomes me back with open arms. I go for a few more laps to cool down then decide to have a rest on the lounge chairs before my next heat treatment. I’m growing to love my waffle robe – it seems to wick off the water and mysteriously disperse it – unlike the usual terry robes which absorb so much water that just walking with the added weight becomes a resistance training exercise.
I’m ready for more heat so it’s off to the Steam Room. As soon as I open the door it’s obvious this is one of the best steam rooms I’ve been in!! So much steam I could barely see past my nose. The mentholated steam was refreshing, hygienic and cleansing. I curled up into a corner, and just relaxed – deep breaths of the aromatic steam opened my lungs and a mix of sweat and condensation formed from head to toe. Totally in the zone I barely noticed the door opening; my relaxation only broken for a few seconds as I had a fear that I wouldn’t been seen through the fog and might end up with someone trying to sit on top of me. I was safe; the misty figure headed for the opposite corner and disappeared in their own cloud of steam. I have no idea how long I stayed but eventually I ventured back out for my last few laps in the pool – and then it was time to head back to the changing room and get ready for …. THE MASSAGE!! Most treatments involve deep relaxation and the use of beneficial oils and lotions so, as recommended when I booked, the massage is saved for last.
Like most other massage therapists, I give more treatments than I receive so this massage was a real luxury for me. As a therapist, I recognise that you’ll get the most out of any treatment if you know what to expect beforehand, and communicate your needs with the therapist. Therefore it’s worth pointing out that Spa/beauty treatments are really not used for therapeutic/remedial needs – for this there are specially trained therapists. The true benefits of receiving a massage at a Spa are the prevention of illness or injury especially due to stress, maintaining health, promotion of relaxation, a bit of pampering and most important – it feels good!! And don’t ever feel guilty about spending some time and money on yourself – a good massage will recharge your batteries so you can go back out and serve others!
Lecture over, it’s time to head to the treatment room! I was met in the poolside lounge by a smiling therapist who led me to the beautifully appointed treatment room.
There was everything the therapist needed to work safely and efficiently and everything needed to make the client (me) comfortable and relaxed. The massage table was covered in layers of towels so I knew I would be properly covered and kept warm. There was a sink and shower, a matt to protect me from slipping (post massage feet will be oily!) and relaxing music was playing lightly in the background. I was equally impressed with the premassage treatment I received at the Balmoral. The high level of care started with my initial phone call where my medical background was reviewed; this was further addressed when I arrived and completed the health form and thirdly with a more in depth chat with my therapist for the day just before receiving my massage. My therapist was very sweet, friendly, open and easy to chat with. She went through my needs (tense muscles from sport and wanting to feel more energised than relaxed) and helped pick from a selection of preblended oil that smelled citrus-y bright and fresh (note: a clinical or therapeutic aromatherapist would create custom blends). I had booked the full body aromatherapy massage so I would get double benefits – from the massage itself and from the essential oils which would stay in my circulation for hours, maybe even a few days. My therapist let me know that a typical aromatherapy massage was gentle – and aimed to spread the oil and improve circulation (so that the oils could be absorbed) but she would be happy to adjust the pressure to suit my preferences and focus more attention on any areas of concern (neck and shoulders for me please!).
For the next hour I was totally blissed out. The smell of the oils was amazing and transported me to a tropical paradise. The bed was comfy and I’m pretty sure it was heated. My therapist’s technique was flowing and deep, she skilfully used her hands and forearms to compress and stretch my muscles and release the tension. The clicking and creaking coming from my shoulders was a clear sign that the massage was working! A lot of time was spent on my back but there was plenty of time to ensure my legs, feet, hands and arms also received attention and provided more surface oil for the oil to be absorbed. Following the massage, I was given time to myself to get dressed and gently come back to reality. My experience ended with being cocooned in soft blankets on a lounger in the dedicated relaxation suite, sipping lemon water and just being totally in the moment….
If you want to experience this level of relaxation and total mind and body rejuvenation the special offer with i-on magazine is on until the 31 March 2014. Even without the offer, a treatment and Spa Day package at the Balmoral is excellent value and you will feel the benefits for days, even weeks.