When the traveling gets tough, the tough take a bath. After a long day of sightseeing or hiking through the countryside, one of the best things to do is soak your achy feet in the hotel hot tub or spa.
It turns out this watery antidote for stress has a long tradition: The ancient Romans had a saying for it: “sanitas per aquam,” which translates as “health through water.” And not coincidentally, the word “spa” is an acronym taken from that Latin phrase.
Geothermally warmed mineral springs were the first spas—used for healing. These waters naturally bubble up from the ground, bringing minerals from the earth’s core—minerals that can help improve certain skin conditions, arthritis and other musculoskeletal ailments.
In Bath, England, warm mineral waters have welcomed visitors for millennia. The Celts worshipped the water goddess Sulis there, and the ancient Romans (who ruled Britannia from the 1st through 5th centuries A.D.) built stone-enclosed pools and steam rooms for their health and restoration.
During the 1700s and 1800s, the British aristocracy flocked to the town of Bath for social parties and to “take the waters,” encouraged by the tale of how Queen Mary’s fertility troubles ended after she bathed in the waters and ultimately gave birth to a son.
Modern Spa, Ancient History
Today, Thermae Bath Spa is located in a chic modern building not far from the ruins of the ancient Roman baths. Although no one’s claiming anymore that the water cures infertility or any other major health problem, this is still the perfect place to shed your street clothes and spend a half- or full-day in a robe and swimsuit soaking like a Roman.
My husband and I visited Thermae Bath Spa on a chilly, drizzly English afternoon, when a hot soak was most inviting. We started with a dip in the Minerva Bath, a large, indoor thermal pool equipped with massage jets, a whirlpool, and a “lazy river” with a current strong enough that it carried us around the pool. We hung onto flotation “noodles” and cruised the perimeter without moving a muscle. Between the water’s temperature (92°F) and the mineral-rich water (the slight sulfur smell is the giveaway), we felt like limp noodles.
After a long drink of water (it’s important to rehydrate while you soak), we checked out the über-cool co-ed steam rooms where we sweated in glass-enclosed circular steam areas. Each had a different aromatherapy scent: lavender, eucalyptus, rose and frankincense. A central waterfall shower was the spot where everyone gathered to cool off before trying a new scent.
A note about facilities: pools, steam rooms, and the locker rooms are all co-ed. This is Europe, after all! It was a little odd for us Americans who are used to gender segregation in public restrooms, gyms and pools, but we went with the flow. The locker rooms do have private cubicles where you can dress. Bathing suits (what the Brits call “swimming costumes”) are required.
Although Thermae Bath Spa offers a number of water-centric therapies—including watsu (massage done while you float in a warm pool), Vichy showers, body wraps and more—we opted for pool soaking, which we could enjoy as a couple. If you’re visiting Bath for several days, I’d highly recommend taking a separate day for a massage or special treatment.
For the grand finale, my husband and I deepened our relaxation in the steamy Rooftop Pool. The water was perfect, and the views of Bath’s skyline were spectacular. A high-pressure cascade gave us a deep-shoulder massage and sent a wave of tingles over my scalp. The added bonus: A huge rainbow appeared in the sky, arching over Bath’s cathedral. The entire pool population ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the sight. Unforgettable.
Feasting in the Natural Foods Restaurant
Afterwards, we realized we were hungry, but weren’t quite ready to leave. No problem, the spa’s Springs Café Restaurant serves everything from light snacks, appetizers, paninis, and hot gourmet meals. The atmosphere is casually elegant, and almost everyone comes in their robe. So, in our white, toga-like wraps, we dined quite well on slow-cooked Wiltshire beef and wild mushroom and Bath Blue cheese risotto with glasses of wine. The menu emphasizes nutritionally balanced foods made from locally produced fare.
Soaking, steaming, feasting—what more could we ask for? My husband and I came away from Bath Thermae Spa feeling relaxed, radiant, well-fed, and squeaky clean. The ancient Romans definitely had the right idea—and the city of Bath has created a first-class modern version of the historic baths. Add it to your itinerary—it’s a highlight of the city.
Clean Water Policy
The thermal water at Thermae Bath Spa bubbles naturally to the earth’s surface, and is estimated to be 10,000 years old. It contains more than 42 different minerals, the most concentrated being sulphate, calcium, and chloride, which are reported to be good for sore joints and some skin conditions.
The spa filters the water to remove iron and bacteria. A tiny bit of chlorine is added for sanitary reasons.
—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor
For more information on visiting Bath, England, see Visit Bath.