By: Catriona Turner
Hello fellow followers of Canadian Expat Mom! I’m pleased to be with you, inspired by Lisa to give my perspective on my own ‘Spas of the World’.
I’ve never been the high maintenance type, but still I appreciated a bit of indulgence from time to time. Throughout my twenties I was oblivious to the possibilities, since spas were clearly for grown-up, sophisticated women with disposable income left at the end of the month. But I must have crossed the threshold at age 30, when both friends and family decided that the gift of a spa experience was to be my rite of passage.
I remember having my first hot stone massage, and deciding, ‘Ok, this is definitely something I should do more often. Once a month should be doable, right?’ Somehow it’s never quite become a regular fixture.
Of course now I really am grown-up, or I must be, since I have a spouse, and children, and negotiate inter-continental moves on an almost yearly basis, and, as a pay-off for all that, have the privilege of being able to travel to some beautiful – and indulgent – places.
As we travel, I don’t always automatically reach for the spa menu in the hotel room. In European cities I’m eager to fill every moment soaking in culture, or the invigorating urban environment. And then there are places where it doesn’t quite come up somehow – the Legoland Hotel may have a Pirate-themed splash pool, but there’s no hydrotherapy pool.
But when we take a break somewhere really relaxing, like the resorts we’ve visited in Zanzibar or Seychelles (seriously, expat living in Africa does have some enticing payoffs) I book one or two appointments and enjoy the escape.
What I’ve noticed though, is the number of times I’ve been underwhelmed, or at best merely whelmed, by some luxury spas. I have a lovely time of course, but I’ve been so spoiled by some of the spas I’ve visited in the past, that my expectations are just too high for some spas to exceed. (And when it comes to luxury, exceeded expectations is what we greedily…well…expect, isn’t it?)
So, without further preamble, here are my own personal Top Five Spas of the World (so far):
5. The House, Aberdeen – my gateway spa
The House is a health club pampering and grooming the ladies of Aberdeen’s west end. The elegant and impressive typical granite exterior hides a chic and understated décor; it’s small, but that only adds to its sense of exclusivity.
Despite years teaching in Aberdeen, I hadn’t even heard of The House until colleagues clubbed together to give me time there. Of course they joined me, and I revelled in my first experience of true grown-up luxury. A once-a-month massage seemed pretty accessible though, and I was determined to give myself this gift more often – the perfect antidote to ending the week by wrangling 25 reluctant 15-year-olds through a passage of Shakespeare. Much as I never quite managed the regular visits, it’s at The House that I embraced the idea that I deserved it.
4. Radisson Blue Dubrovnik Sun Gardens Spa – the oh-what-could-have-been spa
Our first family holiday – with 14-month-old in tow – was at this resort in Croatia, a relaxing escape before preparing for our complicated first move to Africa. I can’t recommend Dubrovnik as a destination enough, and this resort was everything we wanted it to be.
I did reach for the spa menu in that hotel room, but with a heavy heart. It looked like heaven – but I would have to settle for a facial. Child number two had recently made his presence known, and there were no pregnancy massages on the menu. The spa itself was a glorious upscale extravaganza of facilities, including a seemingly endless series of thermal baths, steam rooms, saunas, a tepidarium, hydrotherapy pools… simultaneously inviting me and literally forbidding me to enter – I couldn’t ignore the safety notices all over the place. This spa makes it onto the list mostly thanks to my imagining what could have been.
3. Scotsman Spa, Edinburgh – the cosseting spa
One of my happy places is the Scotsman Hotel in Edinburgh, which for now remains a pre-parenthood treat. It’s in the former building of the Scotsman Newspaper; down under the arches of the North Bridge, the spa is housed in the former printing press.
When I first went there, it was a Cowshed spa. The idea was fairly off-putting at first – being compared to a lumbering ruminant is not the most flattering idea of femininity. But once I was installed for a massage it felt just right. The rustic shed-style décor was warm, relaxed and inviting – I may be misremembering but I’m sure there were even bales of hay in the corner. I decided I could happily be a cow for an afternoon – lazy, grazing, close to nature and no need to trouble myself with the cares of the world. During one New Year house party, I was struck down with a chest infection, and my then-boyfriend impressed me by treating us to a night in the Scotsman on the way home. It would take a few weeks for me to recover, but my visit to the Cowshed that weekend made me feel wonderfully cossetted and completely looked-after.
2. Stobo Castle, Peebleshire, Scotland – the ultimate, the yet-to-be-bested spa
Stobo Castle is the full-service spa experience – you don’t go there for anything else. It’s a grand country house, in a grand estate, located around an hour from Edinburgh. You might walk to the market town of Peebles if you crave a little exploration, but otherwise you cocoon yourself and bed in. Non-British readers: this is your Downton Abbey of spa experiences.
This was my parents’ birthday treat, so my mum and I went along for two nights of sheer indulgence. The tone was set when we arrived and were unexpectedly given a room upgrade. After climbing the sweeping staircase we were led to a corner room. My first comment was ‘so where are the beds?’ They were somewhere over there, beyond the expansive sitting area, and next to the turreted dressing room, with views across the estate. We went on to enjoy massages and beauty treatments, steam rooms and saunas, yoga classes and healthy but generous meals, at each moment being regally looked after by the staff. I had initially expected to feel intimidated by the grandness of it all, but it’s where I first learned that true luxury means being made to feel like you completely belong, whether or not you’re convinced of it yourself.
Emin Pasha is a boutique hotel in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Its spa is comfortable, tranquil and indulgent, but understated and distinctly African, with a touch of rustic charm. And it is utterly charming.
When I first arrived in Uganda I had the enormous luck that one of my very good friends had moved there a year before me, blazing a trail. Soon after my arrival she took me away from nappy-changing, out of the bewilderment of my first weeks in Africa, and along the road to Emin Pasha for the first of many welcome bonding-and-pedi sessions. We each took one of the soft and cocooning black leather easy chairs that faced each other, the therapists perched on stools in front of us, doing to our feet something miraculous. We would alternately share gripes, hold up gossip-mag pictures of Kardashians over the therapists’ heads, and listen in to conversations held in the reception, simultaneously raising our eyebrows at the parts we each knew the other was silently judging. I had one of the most thorough and relaxing massages there that I’ve ever had, letting the calls of monkeys and birds drift over me through the high window. There were more luxurious spas than Emin Pasha in Kampala, but it was by far the loveliest, and will forever be one of my happy places.
And before I go, I’ll squeeze in an honourable mention for our escape here in Congo, Secret des Sens – one of those places designed to let you fantasise that you’ve travelled thousands of miles away for an hour or two. I’ve nearly achieved making a regular appointment there…
Catriona Turner is a Scottish writer and teacher living a nomadic life with her husband and two sons. After spells in France and Uganda, she’s now having a different francophone experience in the Republic of Congo. Her writing appears in the anthology Once Upon an Expat by Lisa Webb. You can find her at www.thefrustratednester.com, where she writes about life in Africa, travel, and making each pit stop feel like home.