Bath Thermae Spa in England: Better Health through Water

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.

The Rooftop Pool at Thermae Bath Spa overlooks a glorious view of the city of Bath, including Bath Cathedral. © Bath Tourism Plus/Colin Hawkins

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.

The indoor Minerva Pool has jets and moving water currents. © Thermae Bath Spa/David Saunders

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.

At the center of the Thermae Bath Spa Steam Room is a ceiling shower for cooling off after a hot steam. © Thermae Bath Spa/David Saunders

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

The spa’s Springs Café serves wonderful local cuisine. Photo courtesy Thermae Bath Spa

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

Originally posted May 2013

For more information on visiting Bath, England, see Visit Bath.

Read more about my travels in England:

The Georgian exterior of Thermae Bath Spa shows the honey-colored Bath stone that appears in buildings throughout the historic city. © Bath Tourism Plus/Colin Hawkins

Soak Up Serenity at Santa Fe’s Ten Thousand Waves Spa

Pagodas blend into the mountainside setting near Santa Fe at Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese-style bath sanctuary and spa where you can sample treatments seldom found outside of Japan and relax into the Zen of warm water.

The massage pagodas at Ten Thousand Waves in Santa Fe. © Deborah Fleig

There’s almost nowhere more relaxing—and this beautiful, outdoorsy spa is perfect for slowing down and re-energizing.

Although Ten Thousand Waves is just 10 minutes from downtown Santa Fe, it feels worlds away from city life. I’ve visited three times, and on each, I’ve relished soaking in a hot tub while breathing in the scent of pine trees and listening to the cry of hawks and crows circling over the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

Who can help but relax at a place where nobody hurries and where warm water washes your worries away?

 

Baths on a Budget

This lovely retreat has created warm baths and cold plunges for all budgets. Soak in a communal Japanese bath for just $28 per person—there’s no time limit. There’s one co-ed communal bath and another for women only. In the past, the communal tubs allowed bathers to go au natural, but now bathing-suit bottoms are required. If you want to bathe in the buff, you may do so in the women’s-only tub or in a privately rented tub. (Don’t worry about nudity in public places: Everyone wanders through the Shangri-La-like spa in provided kimonos.)

The private Ichiban tub © Deborah Fleig

You can also reserve a private bath (like the Ichiban pictured above) starting at $60 per person for 90 minutes. I’ve tried both public and private options—and they’re equally delightful and stress-banishing.

One other favorite of mine is the foot bath, a communal bench where you can sit and read a book or converse (quietly, of course) with a friend while your eyes drink in the beauty of the Zen Garden. The foot bath is open and free to all visitors—you might just have to wait a few minutes until another happy foot soaker leaves a space on the bench.

Hot Stone Massage from Heaven

For deep immersion, Ten Thousand Waves offers spa treatments. The therapists here specialize in classic treatments done expertly: Swedish or deep-tissue massage, Thai massage and wonderful facials that take beauty more than skin deep.

One of the spa’s most popular treatments is the Nose-to-Toes, an 80-minute sampler that lets you experience Japanese foot massage; gentle Thai stretches; Hawaiian lomi-lomi massage strokes; skin exfoliation; and Yasuragi (Japanese) head, neck, and shoulder massage. Yum!

My hot stone massage at Ten Thousand Waves truly rocked. Therapist Aurora used the warm stones on acupoints on my body. Surprisingly, she also used cool stones from time to the time. I was on Cloud Nine.

In fact, I was so blissed out that I completely lost track of everything. During the treatment, Aurora placed small river stones between the toes of my right foot, but I thought she’d forgotten my left. Just as I was about to remind her, I wiggled my toes and realized the stones were between my left toes too. I had just drifted off for a few minutes.

The beautiful outdoor koi pond. © Deborah Fleig

On my most recent trip to Ten Thousand Waves, I sampled the Japanese Organic Facial Massage—a divine experience that erased all my worry lines. Danyelle alternated stroking, kneading, and a percussive technique that felt like rain falling on my face. She told me this helped increase circulation, muscle tone, and lymphatic drainage for the neck and face. All I have to say is it made me radiant.

The Green Side

New Mexico has a dry landscape, and the folks at Ten Thousand Waves are very water conscious. All water from the tubs is recycled and used to keep the landscaping lush and green. The entire spa is chlorine free: Bathwater is purified with ultraviolet light, hydrogen peroxide, copper/silver ions, and ozone.

Natural building materials keep the location feeling natural and ecofriendly: cork and tile floors, stone, and plenty of sustainable bamboo are used throughout.

Last but not least, Ten Thousand Waves’ signature spa products are all natural and contain no mineral oil, alcohol, artificial colors or animal products. And they’ve been tested on bathing beauties, not animals.

 —Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted in April 2012

Updated August 2019

 

 

Wish I Were Here: Turks & Caicos

Unusually dreary winter weather (for Colorado) has me dreaming of the vibrant colors and tropical breezes of the Caribbean.

When going through my photos from my 2012 visit to Grace Bay on Providenciales island,Turks and Caicos, this shot of rainbow had me weeping.

Rainbow over Grace Bay, Turks and Caicos ©Laurel Kallenbach

Rainbow over Grace Bay, Turks and Caicos ©Laurel Kallenbach

What I wouldn’t give right now for a rum punch served at The Regent Grand hotel pool, which overlooks the ocean.

Poolside at The Regent Grand hotel ©Laurel Kallenbach

Poolside at The Regent Grand hotel ©Laurel Kallenbach

And there was  plenty of pampering in the Teona Spa at The Regent Grand.

Teona Spa at The Regent Grand ©Laurel Kallenbach

Teona Spa at The Regent Grand ©Laurel Kallenbach

And there were colorful shells at Da Conch Shack & Rum Bar oceanside eatery.

Conch shells ©Laurel Kallenbach

Conch shells ©Laurel Kallenbach

Visiting the ocean always makes me feel like a kid again!

Sand castles on Grace Bay ©Laurel Kallenbach

Sand castles on Grace Bay ©Laurel Kallenbach

—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Christmas Past and Present in a Medieval German Town

Esslingen’s Old Town Hall presides over the Medieval Christmas Fair. ©Esslinger Stadtmarketing & Tourismus GmbH

In an old-town square in Esslingen, Germany, a jester on stilts roams the cobblestones, stopping to juggle and pose for photos with wide-eyed children. Musicians on a stage play ancient, nasally instruments and sing bawdy songs. (Although I don’t speak German, naughty humor seems to be universal.) A woman in a long skirt and laced-up bodice carries a basket of elegant, hand-dipped candles for sale.

Colorful scenes like these unfold before me as I eat homemade suppe und brot—soup and bread—served in handmade crockery bowls in the medieval part of the Esslingen Christmas and Medieval Market.

Medieval drummers and musicians entertain in Esslingen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Held annually from late November until December 21st, the Medieval Christmas Fair (Mittelalter-märkt) and the traditional Christmas Market have lured me to historic Esslingen am Neckar, a 1,200-year-old town near Stuttgart in southern Germany. Just a 2.5-hour train ride from modern Frankfurt, old-town Esslingen feels centuries away, with its medieval churches and colorfully painted, half-timbered houses with crisscrossed beams.

Esslingen has hosted a Christmas fair since the Middle Ages. Called Weihnachtsmärkte and Christkindlmärkte in German, Christmas markets originated as town fairs as long as a millennia ago so that villagers could stock up on supplies for the oncoming winter.

The medieval streets of Esslingen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Esslingen is the ideal location for this annual celebration, and I’m among hundreds of delighted visitors exploring the exotic booths and huts in the costumed medieval portion of the market—while also appreciating the Christmasy atmosphere in the “contemporary” part of the market, which itself is actually quite Old World and old-fashioned.

Going Medieval

The Medieval Market—a cross between a Renaissance festival and Christmas fair—has the appeal of craftspeople dressed in period costumes demonstrating revived old art forms and trades. During my two days in Esslingen, I watch calligraphers, candle makers, blacksmiths, knife grinders, soap makers, bakers, tanners, brush- and basket-makers, and mead brewers plying their trades as they might have 700 years ago.

I linger at a number of tents and rustic huts and buy gifts: herb-scented soaps, a fudge-like Afghani sweet called shirpera flavored with cardamom, rosewater, and pistachio. (Such Middle Eastern treats came to medieval Europe via the Silk Road.)

A baker checks on fresh bread baked in a wood-fired oven. ©Laurel Kallenbach

In a special kids’ courtyard, children play Old World games such as hatchet-throwing, egg-breaking, and archery, and they ride a wooden Ferris wheel.

Give Me That Old-Time Christmas

In the traditional part of Esslingen’s Weihnachtsmärkt, rows of wooden huts (called stuben) are so thickly decorated with evergreen and pinecones I think of fairytales—the ones where the forest magically engulfs the kingdom, which sleeps for centuries. If that’s what happened in Esslingen, the town joyfully awakened to celebrate Christmas.

A fir-covered “stube” selling candy in the Christmas Market in Esslingen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

From the elaborately embellished huts, local vendors sell chocolates, pretzels, stollen, wood and glass ornaments, jewelry, and regional specialties such as handcrafted schnapps, honey, jam, and wild boar meat.

Browsing through Esslingen’s traditional Christmas market, I pause to watch as an old man in a Bavarian hat carves a bird. With fine-edged knives spread on his worktable, Helmut Höschle removes bits of wood from the feathers with a surgeon’s skill. His handiwork is quintessential Old World carving, much like the Nativity set my parents have at home—a gift from relatives who brought home figures of shepherds and the three kings decades ago from their travels in West Germany.

Gluhwein mug, Esslingen ©Laurel Kallenbach

Walking through a Christmas Market is a sensory carnival, with elaborate decorations to gaze at, special holiday foods to sample, gifts to shop for, and all manner of music and entertainment.

When you get a bit overwhelmed, it’s time for a mug of glühwein—hot, spiced wine (pronounced “gloo-vine”), which is surprisingly sweet with hints of cinnamon and citrus. It can pack a punch, too, depending how long it’s been since you ate a bratwurst or currywurst.

In Esslingen, there are several glühwein vendors. My favorite is the giant Glühwein Pyramid: an outdoor tavern topped by a giant multi-tiered “carousel” with carved motifs such as angels, snowmen, toy soldiers, or manger scenes and a propeller on top.

Closeup of the Pyramid atop the gluhwein bar. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The bar also serves beer, alcohol-free drinks, and Kinderpunsch (berry juice for kids). At German Christmas markets, you pay a deposit for the commemorative mug. I keep mine as a souvenir, but you can return the mug in exchange for your deposit.

Time Out from the Market

Thoroughly chilled and footsore from hours of exploring the old town and the markets, I take respite at a 150-year-old Schwaben restaurant (the region where Esslingen is located) called Der Palmscher Bau. 

Located in an 18th-century building, its comfort-food recipes, served in rustic-tavern ambiance, are a hit with me. The hot, creamy forest-mushroom soup thaws me out, and I love the Schwabian rostbraten (roast beef) with grilled onions and a dark sauce served with noodles and sauerkraut. (A dry Esslingen Riesling accompanies my dinner, naturally.) For dessert, I choose apple küchle, a roll-up with thin layers of dough and subtly spiced apples. Every sweet morsel gets forked into my grateful mouth.

Even a market as dramatic as Esslingen’s requires a few timeouts from the revelry. My choice: soak in the natural thermal waters at Merkel’sches Baths and Pool, about 10 minutes away from the Old Town center. The saunas, steam rooms, mineral baths, and massages are divine. (Most Germans don’t wear bathing suits except in the large sports pool. Check the schedule for women-only hours if you’re the modest type.)

Another diversion: a tour through the Kessler wine cellars to see how the oldest sparkling wine in Germany is fermented. A guide takes me down into the 13th-century vaults where bottles of the wine ferment. From the damp ceilings, cellar mold hangs like Spanish moss; it’s not cleaned away, the guide explains, because the growth absorbs stagnant air and releases oxygen, which freshens the air. After the tour, the tasting room is a revelation. I sip the 2009 Pinot Blanc, which tastes of apples and herbs in the midst of December.

The chestnut seller peels off the outer husk of the winter treat before roasting. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Grand Finale

After sunset, I pull my wool cap farther down around my ears. The smell of roasting chestnuts lures me. A man calls out to the crowd: “Heisse Marroni! Hot chestnuts!” He removes the lid off the three-foot-diameter pan and stirs the browned chestnuts, their skins popping open. I buy a paper cone of the hot nuts and gingerly peel one. My fingers blacken from handling the charred skins, but they’re warm. I pop the smoky, starchy chestnut meat into my mouth. It’s bland and dry, but everywhere people are gobbling them, so I figure it’s an acquired taste.

After dark, the Christmas Markets blazes with colored lights. In the pulse-quickening medieval streets, however, only a few are electric; the rest are flaming torches and braziers, which lend an ancient mystery and romance to the place. Musicians pound on drums while a fire-dancer snapped sparks into the air with a bullwhip.

The astronomical clock on the front of Esslingen’s Old Town Hall marks the hour with the animated flapping of the eagle’s wings. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Then the church bells peal to announce 5:00 Mass. A crowd forms around the Old Town Hall with its wedding-cake curlicues on the façade and its astronomical clock (built in 1589), which still keeps exact time and displays positions of the sun, moon, and zodiac constellations.

What everyone cranes to see is the mechanical Imperial Eagle above the clock as he flaps his wings. Even though today’s crowd wears Gore-Tex parkas and snaps pictures on cell phones, we’re collectively enthralled by the magic of an antique clock. It just goes to show that Christmas beauty and merriment have lasted for centuries … and will continue on, I hope.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Esslingen Medieval and Christmas Markets: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily from late November until a few days before Christmas. Search for information on all of Germany’s picturesque Christmas markets, visit Germany: The Travel Destination.

Read more about Germany’s Christmas markets:

Helmut Höschle, a local woodcarver, works on his beautiful figures in his cheery Christmas hut. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Originally posted in December 2014