Debbie Hathway discovers that the ingredients of a true spa experience lie as much in the intuition of the therapist as they do in the connection to place a retreat offers.
It feels like déjà vu – that sense of connection to a place and its people that draws you in and makes it impossible to leave. I’ve experienced it at the palace hotel Le Bristol Paris, where I hovered so long in the foyer after checkout that the manager came out to enquire what was wrong. Quite the contrary. It was about what was right.
Published in Issue 5 of Sail + Leisure
There’s a fundamental theme that underpins the memorable spa and wellness experiences I’ve had in Mauritius that so remind me of that Paris visit. The more effusive the welcome, the better my experience generally. I must feel comfortable in the hands of a therapist to get the full benefit, but if I really get a sense of place at a spa, that’s when everything changes. It goes beyond training and technique, because that’s a given. Intuition impresses me – the recommendation of a treatment based on how I look and feel by a therapist who really knows their stuff and indicates the final transformation will be far beyond the norm. But more of that later…
Art of wellness
The location of Dinarobin Beachcomber Golf Resort & Spa at the foot of Le Morne Mountain already ticks the sense-of-place box because of its proximity to the UNESCO World Heritage Site that served as a shelter for runaway slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. The resort’s interior design features the kind of burnished dark-wood furnishings and finishes that I love, having been raised in a home that was filled with stinkwood furniture made by my dad’s father and antiques collected by my mother. The dark wood conveys coolness, despite the tropical heat, and encourages a slower pace (for guests not staff, who are on the ball 24/7. I could have spent days in my Club Zen Suite, similarly decorated, never leaving except to take the few steps necessary to get from terrace to beach, beach kiosk and reserved sun lounger where I enjoyed signature cocktails while the sun set. I had 115m2 (heaven when you’re used to micro-living) of expansive bedroom, lounge, bathroom and terrace in an adults-only crescent, a beach concierge looking after my restaurant and spa bookings, and access to The Club at Dinarobin, an exclusive private lounge whose club manager made sure I was never short of bubbly, much to my delight.
I did find my way to the spa, though, to meet spa manager Aurélie Rougier Lagane before my signature massage. Then I got stuck. The kind of stuck I experienced in Paris, only this time it was at the start of my visit. If I say it has an interior swimming pool surrounded by massage rooms, wet and dry steam baths and a beauty parlour, I could be describing one of many similar establishments. What’s different is a combination of décor and atmosphere. The dark wood panelling and furnishings are at once grounding and calming. ‘We’re trying to stay with the roots, with nature. Look at the surroundings, Le Morne is next to us,’ says Aurelie. And when I realised their treatments incorporated Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic principles, my intrinsic response started to make sense. My mom’s father managed a health farm in Skeerpoort, near Brits in the North West province of South Africa, which I was fortunate to visit when I was young. I am no stranger to natural medicine and the Ayurvedic philosophies resonate. Deepak Chopra describes Ayurveda as one of the world’s most sophisticated and powerful mind-body health systems, developed thousands of years ago by the sages of India. ‘More than a mere system of treating illness, it offers a body of wisdom designed to help people stay vibrant and healthy while realising their full human potential,’ he says. ‘The two main guiding principles of Ayurveda are the mind and the body are inextricably connected, and nothing has more power to heal and transform the body than the mind. Freedom from illness depends upon expanding our own awareness, bringing it into balance, and then extending that balance to the body.’
Oh boy. I knew what was coming.
Later, in the capable hands of expert coach Catherine Nadal, one of the best therapists on the island, I succumbed. She did what the really good ones do – it’s as though they can see right through you, and have an uncanny ability to tell you exactly what your challenges are mentally, never mind physically. I’d heard it all before but, clearly, needed to hear it again. Two hours later, expecting to feel so relaxed after the personalised signature MUST TO B(e) massage that I’d be loathe to get up off the tatami mat, I was surprised to discover quite the opposite. She’d managed to dissolve the knots, clear my mind and energise me, quietly and calmly, in an almost meditative state herself. I left – eventually – with renewed determination to cultivate that highly desirable ‘innate state of balance’, and ever-grateful to have been able to enjoy such an unforgettable experience.
The first time I enjoyed a spa treatment immediately after check-in was at LUX* Belle Mare, the LUX* Resorts and Hotels’ flagship property on the east coast of Mauritius. No sooner had I entered my suite when the in-room telephone rang. It was the spa manager Joelle Valloo, inviting me for a birthday treat. How soon could I get there?
I’ve had the privilege of a couple of face and body treatments here – each time emerging from the spoil slowly, carefully, reluctant to break the spell. This is the only spa where I’ve requested a manicure and pedicure lying down – no matter how luxurious the conventional recliner, there is nothing to beat this level of relaxation!
The LUX* Belle Mare spa seduction begins at the entrance, as you are seated outdoors next to the tropical gardens to complete the admin formalities. Your mind already starts to drift as you listen to the soft relaxing music and the soothing sounds of the birds and water features, cleanse your hands with scented towels and allow a therapist to refresh your face with a gentle mist. After being led inside to change into robe and slippers, you emerge outdoors again and follow your therapist along the open-walled passage between the gardens and treatment rooms to the sanctuary she has prepared for you
You don’t want the moment to end, taking your time to leave the spacious room where you have been cocooned for an hour or two, wrapped in the care of the charming therapists. You linger in the entrance where the LUX* Me products are beautifully displayed to tempt further indulgence. And then you give in, desperate to continue the sensational experience when you get home, handing over your credit card together with your willpower.
You’ll find the LUX* Me range at LUX* Grand Gaube in the north as well as LUX* Le Morne (named after Le Morne Mountain) in the west, and if you’re a fan you can pre-order the desired items and have them couriered to you wherever you are in the world. The brand is all about providing a sanctuary to promote wellbeing – whether you’re in the recently renovated spa in Grand Gaube or the quaint alternative in Le Morne with its outside treatment rooms brightened with trailing bougainvillea, you can rest assured you’re going to emerge a whole lot lighter and brighter. Body and face treatments are personalised, but the Shirley Page Signature Facial is relatively new to the spa menu and takes this beauty treatment (for men and women) to the next level. It’s kind of a LUX* trademark – they’re always a few leaps ahead of the rest. And this facial, with its combination of exceptional organic essential oils and LUX* products, is a must-have treatment. Anything to have your partner look dreamily at you over dinner and tell you how radiant you look. Right?
A major part of my job as a travel writer is social media. Most of my time is spent setting up, editing and taking photographs, then captioning and uploading them. That’s what I was doing early one windless morning on the beach at Ambre Resort & Spa. I’d spotted a fisherman, waist deep in the ocean, whom I wanted to photograph, as well as some youngsters who were throwing a line in to a rock pool and actually catching little fish.
A jogger emerged (there are no restrictions around who can walk on which beach) on the Ambre side, sat down on a rocky outcrop, and drifted off into what could have been a meditation. He looked so peaceful and contemplative I decided he’d make a good photographic subject too. What I didn’t realise was that he’d been watching me, watching him, and as I made my way out of the water towards him to ask him to pose, he started chatting
He says that I reminded him of a ‘lady in a story, living in nature, very wise’. ‘It seemed that you and the sea were having a conversation,’ he says, ‘in total harmony.’ Mauritians are charming by nature, and he’d been living and working in Italy for the past decade. Imagine the combination of Mauritian and Mediterranean style… Sure, he might have been trying his luck, but he was so spot on with his description that I lingered a little longer. You see I was in my happy place – the east coast of the island on a summer day (which I seldom experience as I’m usually there in low season). I’d arrived at sunrise the day before, and been whisked off for a massage straight after a quick breakfast.
I was relaxed, content, in another world. But we were meant to connect that day. I’d had the massage in the outdoor gazebo, usually reserved for the Timeless Memories couples treatment and further away from the other treatment rooms, because the hotel next door was under renovation. The noise was not conducive to relaxation. He explained that it was the new Salt of Palmar hotel. Palmar is my favourite beach and I hadn’t registered yet that I was so close to it, or that I was right on top of the latest innovation to hit the island’s hospitality sector. He did me a huge favour. So back to the massage mentioned above. Picture the scene. I’m lying looking at the sea when I’m not face down deep in treatment time with the scent of essential oils drifting through the air. (I had the classic massage with a special blend of almond oil, geranium and ylang ylang essential oils.) I can hear the waves lapping the beach, the birds in the palms and, in the distance, a very talkative young mother cat who calls the spa home. There are bamboo-and-raffia blinds to enclose the gazebo for self-conscious guests. I’m not one of them. It was early and there weren’t many people out yet. This is the way to start a holiday (or a work assignment) and I can’t recommend it highly enough!
Ambre Resort & Spa manager Brinda Etoar, quite rightly, says you can really relax in this atmosphere and in this unique location. ‘You don’t find it everywhere.’ There are only two outdoor gazebos, in high demand, and four indoor cabins. Savvy guests book their spa time before they even arrive.
Ambre Resort & Spa adopted the adults-only concept in 2015. It’s the only hotel in the Sun Resorts to do so and it works. ‘You don’t have to worry about kids! You just arrive, plan your excursions and book your spa treatments. Youngsters want to come and enjoy a holiday with their friends and often stay for two weeks or more. This is how they do it,’ says Brinda. (There’s also live entertainment until midnight, a nightclub that’s open till 2am and a bar service that opens at 9am daily.)
The following day I tried the more leisurely, signature candle massage, which begins with a foot ritual, followed by a full-body and head-and-face massage. This is a warm treatment. The candle melts into essential oil (choose from rose, vanilla or lavender), which hydrates the skin as it penetrates. It’s clear why it’s a best seller. Luckily I had the outdoor gazebo again. It was later in the afternoon, and not even the sounds of the children playing on the unrestricted beach below could interrupt my tranquil reverie.