Top holistic spas in Europe
SHA Spa in Spain ‘How are you today?’ asks the pretty girl behind reception of SHA spa as we enter the gleaming reception. Putin’s wife stayed here the previous week, with rather more glamorous recent visitors including Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow. Nearby Benidorm where Brits flood in daily for all-inclusive holidays in the sun is a world away.
My best friend and I had loaded our suitcases with books, magazines and even our laptops, imagining we might get bored, but our days were varied and full. We became obsessed with our schedule, poring over it’s every detail. Every morning at 8am we walked to the beach or the lighthouse before breakfast. We went to talks on nutrition, had lessons in macrobiotic cooking and even took part in a tea ceremony. Early evening, it was yoga, tai chi or meditation. This was interspersed with daily massage, flotarium sessions, and acupuncture. The evening saw dancing classes, or a showing of a film – on Chinese healing, perhaps, or something more mainstream such as Super Size Me in the library.
That afternoon, as we take a long walk along the beach of Altea, not a million miles from Benidorm, with smiling Eliza from guest relations, we realise we don’t really know what macrobiotic food is. Eliza tells us enthusiastically how she has changed her diet as a result of working at SHA, even giving up yoghurt, which is practically a Bulgarian national dish. We are surprised to hear that tomatoes, for example, are not macrobiotic and learn that daikon, a Japanese vegetable that absorbs fat and is full of minerals is very important in macrobiotic cooking.
I am enthralled by our afternoon cookery lesson. Not, I have to say, by the recipe of stir-fried vegetables with smoked mint, but by our teacher, Pablo Montaro Fernández the head chef who is, well –divine. Pablo has his own vegetarian restaurant in Alicante but admits it is a challenge to create menus that are both gastronomic and healthy. Also, with menus effectively decided by ‘Doctor Ken’, he has limited scope for creativity.
Dr. Ken’s suggestion to eat local, seasonal foods according to the environment you are in makes sense to me. So, for example, only eat tropical fruit when you are in the tropics. The majority of people come to SHA for weight loss, to detox, de-stress and to give up smoking. According to Ken, one of the most important thing we can do is detox from sugar and butter – even if you don’t eat much of them, they are in so many foods already.
An impressive team of professionals from macrobiotic consultants and genetic experts to aestheticians and psychiatrists, all in starched white coats, dart around the pristine building. Michio Kushi, the world’s leading expert on macrobiotics is Director of natural medicine here. SHA is justly proud of offering a dynamic programme that fully integrates ancient Oriental medicine with the best in modern Western medicine. This is what, in my mind, makes SHA pioneering, and one of the few genuinely holistic spas in the world.
SHA is a Healing Hotel which has properties all over the world.
Lefay, Lake Garda
In Italy, I stay in Lefay Resort and Spa. Surrounded by 11 acres of woodland and olive groves in a natural park overlooking Lake Garda, is a rare thing: a truly holistic spa. The credentials of this superb resort are high. Many of the dedicated therapists have been at Lefay since it opened in 2008 and a Michelin starred chef has devised the menu using seasonal fresh produce from the Mediterranean diet. The resort has won a string of awards and it is the first wellness resort in southern Europe to obtain the prestigious Green Globe Award.
I arrive at Lefay with high expectations but am still amazed that it ticks so many boxes. After an hour and a half drive from Verona airport (easily accessible from a string of destinations in Europe) I step into the exquisitely designed resort. The hotel is almost full but, with the ingeniously designed public spaces and the spa and restaurant reserved solely for hotel guests, it certainly doesn’t seem like it. Carved cleverly into the surrounding mountainside and looking directly over the still waters of Lake Garda where boats slide across the glassy surface, it feels like an exclusive citadel cradled by the landscape.
My husband and I borrow bikes from the hotel and embark on a daredevil 12-km slalom ride through pine forest to the next village for pizza and take a short taxi ride to the pretty coast. D H Lawrence wrote on a visit in 1912, ‘There are vineyards and olive woods and lemon gardens on the hill at the back. There is a lovely little square, where the Italians gossip and the fishermen pull up their boats, just near. Everything is too nice for words.’ We could not have agreed more.
Lefay is a member of the Healing Hotels of the world.
‘Longevity’ announces the sign in giant letters above the resort in the middle of the Monchique mountains in the Algarve. The resort in a remote rural area in the middle of a nature reserve 300 metres above sea level is a world away from the popular coast of the Algarve, but only 20 minutes drive. This unique wellness resort, where long life and water is on the menu, miraculously manages to roll back the clock.
Longevity, which is justly proud to be the first integrated luxury wellness resort in the Algarve, does not only offer anti ageing programmes but state of the art beauty treatments, slimming and detox. The spa is divided into three sections – medical, aesthetic and leisure where a team of highly experienced doctors are on hand to provide the consultations that begin all programmes.
‘We tried to bring nature inside,’ he tells me as he shows me around the spectacular, spacious resort. It has worked. Natural products, with 75% of the materials coming from Monchique itself, neutral colours and light flooding in from the floor to ceiling windows create a soothing, restful environment. The building blends so beautifully with the landscape outside that it is almost as if it has merged with the surrounding mountains.
Local guides who can recognise the flight of an eagle and the song of a nightingale can take you through this unexplored region. Learning about the plants and animals and even the mountain people themselves, guests can embark on walking, mountain biking through the Serra and canoeing on nearby Bravura Lake.
Longevity has an A classification for energy saving – the best you can get. Too often I go to self-proclaimed ‘eco’ hotels that are very proud of the way they treat the environment but pay scant regard to their staff. Longevity is different. Its holistic approach extends to its employees, with a café on site providing the same delicious food (for free) and magnificent mountain view that the guests are treated to.
The menu of treatments on offer at Longevity is a thick folder that is more like a book divided into Medical, Wellness and Relaxation, Beauty and Rejuvenation and Health and Longevity. This points to the thoroughness of approach from this wellness centre that is actually one of the world’s truly holistic spas. Sorely tempted by a ‘fountain of youth face ritual’, I plump instead for an ‘elixir of life’ massage, which may not have given me everlasting youth, but feels as if it’s shaved a few years off me.
After my massage, I sip my glass of hydrating ‘Chic’ water from the nearby springs, Caldas de Monchique. The pure water source ensures that the surrounding area is swathed in over 1000 plant species, including pine, eucalyptus, strawberry trees and rare rhododendron. I consider the fact that the therapeutic qualities of the waters here have been appreciated since Roman times, when Monchique was a spa town and after just a few days at Longevity really do feel ten years younger.
British Airways offers a frequent service to Faro from London City Airport throughout the year.