Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Massage + Spa deal, Nu Spa, Park Inn Hotel

I think I might have to stop getting massages at general-purpose spas. When I want a relaxing afternoon with a friend I'll just do the cheap thing and get a spa pass without a treatment, or get a facial or a wrap. I'll save my massage money for someone who can actually do a proper job (ie Jutika or Flora).

My old friend Zoe was visiting from Dahn Sahf last week and, Lastminute having sold out of its special offers at Titanic, we decided to stay closer to home and get something in Manchester. The £40 per person offer for a massage and spa at Nu Spa in the Park Inn hotel (a scarily modern shiny black monstrosity round the back of Victoria Station) looked like a good bet.

Hmmm. Very odd massage indeed. No pressure, no depth, no finding a knot and kneading it out. Just 50 minutes of vaguely pleasant but slightly frustrating and ultimately slightly pointless stroking. The leg and arm bits were ok, but if anything the back massage, ie the most useful/necessary bit for most of us, was worse than nothing, because my therapist went nowhere near my shoulder muscles at all, concentrating instead on the surface of my back. This meant that at the end my back was sort of a bit relaxed, but by contrast my shoulders just felt even more tense. It almost felt like the sort of massage various clueless boyfriends used to dole out on a night when you've got a headache and they're hoping that a bit of back massage might make it go away enough for them to get laid...

Zoe also noted that they used one of the massage balms that seem to be becoming popular at many mainstream spas at the moment, and commented that you don't get that feeling that your skin is being nourished that comes with a good-quality massage oil. Zo is used to getting extremely good massages off a friend of hers who is a professional herbalist and all-round alternative treatment type, and like me, she found this one pleasant enough but slightly pointless.

The spa facilities here, however, are quite nice, despite the dire grammar on the website. I'd certainly pay the kind of rates that Sienna at the Radisson charge (£12) to spend a day lounging by the rather elegant pool and using the sauna and steam room. The one drawback here is that, oddly, the two showers in the pool area are both hot, so you can't do the sauna/cold shower routine which is the whole point... doh. The showers in the changing room were a bit weird as well, with a scarily clingy internal shower curtain that gave poor Zo a right fit of a heebie jeebies. But there was a pleasingly large collection of trashy mags by the loungers :-)

A closing recommendation is for one of Manchester's best-kept secrets, the (fairly recently launched) afternoon teas served between 2 and 3.30 in the Sculpture Hall cafe, just to your right inside the main doors of the Town Hall on Albert Square. Proper, served-on-a-three-tier-stand, finger sandwiches, scones, jam and fancy cakes style cream teas. £8.95 for more than even the two of, eating as a late lunch and utterly ravenous, could put away. Superb.

Massage and spa day, £80 for two people, Nu Spa at the Park Inn, 4 Cheetham Hill Road. Tel: 0161 837 8377, email: Pace.Manchester@rezidorparkinn.com

Monday, 26 July 2010

Country hotel spas

It seems like the latest trend in new spas – now that every shiny identikit urban hotel has shoehorned one into the basement – is small country hotels gluing on an extension or remodeling a back room to fit in at minimum a therapy room, and in some cases a fuller range of spa facilities. So while the two main spa choices (and marketing angles) were 1) shopping/partying city-break with the girls (a la MacDonald Hotels) or 2) stately home isolation (a la Thoresby Hall), there is now a third – elegant, upgraded hotels in rural destinations where, for example, you can go walking and then wind down with a massage, or one partner can go and do scary things on mountain bikes while the other gets wrapped in mud or seaweed. This seems like a positive development; presumably it creates/preserves local jobs, provides good options for people who might otherwise take gas-guzzling short flights abroad (unless of course they're the really evil types who take internal UK flights), and encourages visitors in the British rural economy to spend money locally. All Good.

The highest-profile example of this trend in the North seems to be Verbena Spa at the Feversham Arms in the insanely cute Yorkshire village of Helmsley. The news that started me writing this post was a press release (complete with horrible punctuation errors) about the Swan, a converted seventeenth-century alehouse in Newby Bridge, on tip of Lake Windermere. You can tell the release was written for and probably by southerners – it doesn't mention the name of the village at all, just the Lake. Ho hum. But the hotel – where I'm pretty sure I've stopped for a brew, years ago, and which seems to have benefited from a major facelift – looks lovely and well-suited for short breaks, especially since (unlike Helmsley) it would be easy to do by public transport from Manchester. Some of these places say 'spa' when they mean treatment rooms offering massages, facials, wraps etc, but the Swan does have a gym, pool, sauna and steam room too. Not quite competition for Verbena's full battery of 'monsoon showers', ice room, juice bar and saunarium, but probably enough for a relaxing weekend away. I'm sure I had one of those, once upon a time...

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Victoria Baths - spa of the past and future

A couple of months ago, I was commissioned to copywrite a series of case studies for Togetherworks, a social enterprise network for Greater Manchester. One of my subjects was Victoria Baths, the spectacular partly-restored Grade II listed Edwardian public baths on the edge of Longsight. Manchester residents may remember the building from the BBC's Restoration programme, presented by Griff Rhys Jones, which Victoria Baths won in 2003, giving a huge boost to both its public profile and the fund-raising campaign.

The best-known parts of the Baths are the three swimming pools (one of them now covered over to form a sports hall), with their glass roofs and original, seaside-blue changing stalls. But more exciting to me, and more pertinent to this blog, is that fact that the old Turkish Baths, with their glorious coloured tilework, have now been largely restored, and may even be the first part of the building to be brought back into public use. As well as the various hot and cold rooms of the Turkish baths, with their long tiled and wooden benches for relaxing on, there are also a pair of 'Aerotones,' the first public jacuzzis installed in the UK (in 1952). They look to me more like my Grandad's old twin-tub washing machine and not something I'd want to climb into for pleasurable purposes, but they're not likely to be on offer in a hurry.

After years of fund-raising and wading through the bureaucracy of restoring a listed building, the Victoria Baths Trust, which is licensed to look after the Baths on behalf of the owners, Manchester City Council, is only now in a real position to think about how to make the facilities available to the public. According to Mike Franks of the Victoria Baths Trust, they're hoping to find a similarly environmentally- and socially-minded organisation, perhaps a not-for-profit, to run the operation for them. Fingers crossed the find one soon. In the meantime, anyone interested in the building and its history can join a range of tours and open days.

As part of the case studies, Dave Gee, a marvellous Manchester photographer, took a range of photos of the Baths. Here are some of the thumbnails:

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Massage and facial, Lowry Hotel spa, April 2010

It's now late June and I've only just got round to blogging this visit to the Lowry Hotel's spa... which is perhaps a measure of how underwhelmed I was by this experience. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't terribly good either.

I am, perhaps, being a bit unfair. Maybe my expectations of the Lowry had been built up too much by comments like that of Manchester Confidential, which calls it “arguably the finest hotel in the North West” (admittedly in the middle of the blurb for a special dining offer at the Lowry's River Restaurant), and by the the fact that it is a rather lovely building in a great location and with a pretty high reputation.

So, as usual I was there on a special offer deal – again from Manchester Confidential, and consisting of £80 for a full body massage and a full hour-long facial – ie £40 each for two treatments which would normally have been upwards of £60 each, plus use of the spa facilities.

Aaah yes, the spa facilities. The Lowry website claims to offer the “ultimate world of luxury and relaxation” in an “innovative urban spa.” The site's description then lists the facilities as a gym, relaxation rooms, saunas and “Complimentary hot and cold drinks, daily newspapers and magazines.” This isn't striking me as a description of an 'ultimate world...' blahdy-blah, and it wasn't. It was a couple of rooms (admittedly quite pleasant ones with good views) filled with big squishy floor cushions, beanbags and loungers and with a range of mags (the two which spring to mind being a Cheshire set lifestyle one and the stunningly smug and fatuous Intelligent Life from the Economist group. If that represents intelligent life, the heaven help us all, we are scientifically, culturally and economically truly shafted. But I digress.)

The saunas were very small and very hot. If anyone else had been there it would have been quite unnervingly intimate. Fortunately I was alone, so I didn't have to brush naked knees with any strangers, and no-one got to see how quickly I turned purple and had to head for a cool shower.

I was pretty glad to see my therapist turn up soon after, as I could have got quite bored in that relaxation room without a nice sauna to distract me. And after the usual little legal-arse-covering form and chat, it was into the massage. Which was, to be frank, quite odd. Whether I'm with a serious therapeutic massage professional like Jutika at Bodywise or Flora at Neal's Yard, or just having a standard pleasant spa massage, I'm used to people employing a range of techniques – strokes, pressure points, effleurage etc etc – to achieve different results on various parts of the body. Here, however, with the exception of a bit of effleurage at the end, we had one setting – Rub. Hard. The effect of this was a reasonably effective if not entirely enjoyable massage on the arms, legs and lower back. But then she found my knotty, impregnably tensed-up upper and back and shoulders, and commenced a weird, even harder rubbing which felt like she was just trying to scrub away the knots – as if finding them one by one and just rubbing away at them with her thumbs would make them go away. No use of elbows or forearms, no pressure points or long, restful strokes. Just a determined rubbing, as if her thumbs were an eraser and the knots in my muscles were offensive pencil markings. Weird. My muscles certainly felt looser afterwards, but the following day I felt really quite bruised, which is something one often gets warned about after massages but which I've never actually experienced before.

Then came the facial. I can't remember ever having had a spa facial. I got a facial in the treatment rooms at the Clarins counter in Debenhams once, years ago, mainly because it was only fifteen quid and you then got a £15 voucher for Clarins products, which seemed like a pretty good deal. So I don't have a lot to compare my Lowry one against, but again it was a rather mixed experience. I think I explained fairly clearly that although my skin is quite oily, it's also getting on a bit and if you treat it like teenaged greasy skin it promptly dries up into delicate, painful flakiness. Despite this (and despite this being advertised as a 'skin-specific facial' using Elemis products) I got the distinct feeling that I was getting the standard oily-skin treatment, which at some points felt pretty astringent and harsh. The hardier bits of my face came out of the experience looking glowing and rejuvenated, but the delicate patches round my chin were red and felt raw for a good couple of days after.

Having finished writing this up, it all looks pretty negative. I don't think I felt quite so hostile when I walked out of the Lowry – perhaps because the doorman was so lovely and smiley and assiduous in clearing my way of anything that might impede my cripple progress. But if I'd forked out full whack for any of this experience I'd have been well hacked off, and I shall remember in future that the Radisson is still top of my list for Manchester city centre hotel spas.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Aromatherapy massage, Flora, Neals Yard Remedies, March 2010

I've always had a soft spot for Neal's Yard Remedies. I like the lovely smell their shops have. I like the fact that their products actually work on my horrible temperamental skin. And I particularly like it that their sourcing policies take environmental sustainability and equitable trade seriously – certainly a lot more seriously than many of the other premium 'natural' cosmetics brands out there.

Apart from anything else, they were one of the first 6 companies to sell Fairtrade Foundation certified cosmetics when a proper fair trade standard was launched for the sector in 2009, and have been pioneering attempts to bring the benefits of FT and organic premiums to producers even in such hard-to-reach areas as Somalia. The website is a bit disappointingly heavy on pseudo-scientific waffle about detox, anti-aging properties, free radicals etc etc (see the marvellous Bad Science by Ben Goldacre for more on this) but it shouldn't detract too much from basically nice, good quality products.

So when their website told me years ago that Neal's Yard's Manchester branch offered therapies I was quite excited, and rather disappointed to be told that it was an error. So I was pleased to find that, second time round, they had actually included a treatment room on the premises. Spurred on by an about-to-expire voucher, I headed down to John Dalton Street.

The massage I got from Flora Croal confirmed that if you want a fancy all-round experience of saunas and steam rooms etc you head to a spa, but often if what you're after is a really good massage, you head for somewhere with fewer bells & whistles. The treatment room at Neal's Yard is a bit unprepossessing and smacks of a former storeroom behind the shop, with some (admittedly very pretty) wallpaper and a massage couch added. Well, I guess when you're lying face-down having your back worked on you don't really care that much about the surroundings (although I could hear slightly too much of the shop goings-on to relax totally into my surroundings). But certainly no random Buddha heads strewn about the place here.

The massage itself was truly top-notch. There were the usual basic health/requirements questions at the beginning, and then onto the couch. Flora was using Neal's Yard products for the aromatherapy massage including some very nice neroli essential oil (and that of course meant that I got to feel better about the ethics of what was being used on me than if it was more mainstream spa offerings like Decleor, eSpa or Elemis. And, for the record, I wouldn't touch Estee Lauder-owned Aveda with a bargepole). She worked my back and shoulders over brilliantly, finding lumps and bumps quickly and intuitively and kneading and untangling them with fingers, thumbs and elbows. She also responded to some particularly stubborn knots in my back with the suggestion that I could combine a massage with a little bit of acupuncture at the end, which is another therapy she provides, so who knows? Maybe I'll engage with the idea of actually allowing someone to stick a load of needles in me and then lie still. Who knows? The arm and hand massage included some welcome joint manipulations and the whole thing finished up with a firm but gentle scalp and face massage that left me smiling.

Sacrilegious as it may be, Flora delivers a massage which gives the usually all-surpassing Jutika at Bodywise a run for her money. Neal's Yard is slightly more expensive and Bodywise is a slightly nicer environment. But if Jutika's not available sometime when I really need a massage, or I happen to be very much over the Neals Yard side of town, I know where I'm going.

Aromatherapy massage £40, Neal’s Yard Remedies, 29 John Dalton Street, Manchester, M2 6NY, Email: manchester@nealsyardremedies.com, Telephone: 0161 835 1713

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Bristol Lido, March 2010

Bristol Lido is one of an encouragingly increasing number of restored and active Lidos – outdoor swimming pools – around Britain. Its facilities include the pool itself, an outdoor hot tub, a 'sun deck' outdoor seating area, a sauna and steam room and a restaurant-cafe. And in 2009 it won a South West England Green Energy Award for best small renewables project, for its solar heating.

Friend V and I were booked in for an afternoon's pampering – me for a massage and use of the facilities; V, who is pregnant, for a good swim and chill out. However, things were not to go quite as as planned. Due to some unidentified screw-up on the booking system, my 3.30 massage appointment had disappeared into the ether, and no slots were available until 5pm – too late to fit in with the rest of our plans. I'd already been a but disappointed that the only slot left when we'd booked was staffed by a therapist who wasn't qualified to deliver the very attractive sounding 'winter warmer' scrub and massage, and had opted for a standard full body massage instead. So it seemed this appointment was destined not to go right from the start...

Some spas might have quibbled over whether the booking had been properly done or simply given us a flat 'no.' Bristol Spa is too classy for that; instead we were offered complimentary access to the pool and spa facilities (normal cost: £15) and free tea and cake afterwards. Result. The massage should have cost £50, which is steepish by my standards but then this is an upper-range destination in Bristol, after all.

V had been looking forward to a nice swim in a heated pool, the warmth contrasting with the chilly spring air, so she wasn't pleasantly surprised to find that the pool was extremely not-warm. Braving it out she got a few lengths in, but had to thaw herself out in the hot tub after a shortish time. I, meanwhile, had been having a very nice time in the sauna, reading my rather entertaining book on the joys of NOT having children. Horses for courses... The sauna itself was perfectly adequate, standard pine benches and a water scoop to up the humidity. The smaller steam room could have got crowded pretty quickly, but I had that to myself and it was very steamy indeed, with a lung-cleansing tang of wintergreen and teatree. The hot tub was the highlight – blue skies and cold snappy air above, hot churning water below.

One day I'll be able to afford the restaurant at the Lido (if my beloved husband wins the lottery, anyway), but until then the tea and cakes will do nicely. The two floors have long windows looking out over the pool (slightly disconcerting while you're actually outside in the hot tub or hobbling in your cozzie through the freezing air back to the changing rooms) and the menus have a wide range of contemporary dishes on offer. Our unexpected freebie ended up including the Guinness cake, a rich, moist chocolate cake with a slight tang of stout and a creamy white icing to complete the effect. V's freshly-squeezed blood orange juice was gorgeous, if a bit steep at £3, and the teas came in satisfyingly generous pots.

The one (possibly churlish under the circumstances) criticism I'd have was that the co-ordination between staff wasn't great – the new shift on the Lido reception hadn't been told of the comps we'd been offered by the previous staff member and we had to explain, and then the (occasionally rather brusque and stroppy) restaurant staff seemed a bit floored to be presented with unorthodox arrangements.

It's great to see an old Lido like this restored and obviously busy and popular, and with a high quality offer that could make a great afternoon or day's relaxation. Next time I head down that way, I hope to be able to comment on the quality of the massage therapies too...

Bristol Lido, Oakfield Place, Clifton, Bristol BS8 2BJ. Reception: 0117 933 9530, restaurant: 0117 933 9533. Email: spa@lidobristol.com

Monday, 1 March 2010

Gina, MacDonald Hotel Spa, February 2010

It's probably a sign of our recessionary times that about half the spas in the country seem to be doing some kind of BOGOF or other special offer. This trip to the Macdonald Hotel spa, down the road from Piccadilly station, came via ManchesterConfidential rather than my usual source of bargains, lastminute.com, and at £80 for two people to have hour-long treatments and use of the spa facilities it seemed like a decent deal.

Both Ruth and I went for full body massages as our treatments (I think the alternative was some kind of facial). Ruth seemed to find hers fine, and commented that she particularly liked the warm Decleor 'detox balm' which was used instead of oil for the massages, and leaves you less oily and smelling nicely of essential oils including lemongrass, patchouli and rosemary. My therapist was Gina, and she was excellent – more flexible in adapting the massage to my needs than most hotel spa massage-givers I've encountered. I got a perfectly good back and shoulder massage, concentrating on my horrible knotted upper back, and then an exceptionally good leg and arm massage, more comprehensive than others I've had and using lots of twisting motions and bracing to really get into the muscles, but without pinching the way some limb massages can. Finishing the massage off with eye pads soaked in something cool and soothing was a nice touch.

So, that was the good bit. Unfortunately the rest of the experience didn't particularly live up to it. The Macdonald Hotel spa itself is in a separate section of the building from the main reception, and I guess if you're coming from the hotel it would be fine – you'd simply go along the building and get the lift down. But coming from the outside as non-residents, we had to come into a sterile-looking little foyer that felt like an unstaffed office black (and let's face it, the building is a refurbished BT office), pressing a buzzer to be let in and then having to figure out that the lift was tucked into corner (or go up a set of car-park-like steep, narrow stairs).

The reception and d├ęcor of most of the place was what I'm coming to recognise as Generic Hotel Spa – lots of dark wood (hopefully stained FSC approved pine; worst case but very possible scenario illegally logged topical hardwood), some bamboo bits and cushions, a couple of stands full of overpriced cosmetics and toiletries, and a selection of random 'stone' Buddha heads and items of mass-produced south-east Asian artwork. Although the reception staff were friendly enough they were also rather scatty and disorganised, apparently forgetting for a while that we might need towels and slippers, announcing that the ManchesterConfidential deal didn't include bathrobes (not their fault but fairly tight and petty of whoever fixed the deal) and generally not giving much sense of being on the ball. The relaxation room – more Buddhas heads and rattan, plus couches, fat furry throws and a rather caffeine-heavy selection of teas – was pleasant enough but nothing special.

The really annoying bit was discovering that the spa area – basically a heat experience area like a mini-version of the one at Titanic I reviewed earlier – was back down the stairs/lift, into a cold and draughty foyer, and set between the two changing rooms down there. This meant that starting with the spa and then coming up for a treatment wouldn't be a very pleasant option, at least in winter, and would involve a certain amount of walking round a fairly public and unattractive entrance area in your bathrobe. The heat experience itself was a tiled wet-zone affair, with a couple of types of sauna (including an infra-red one), an 'experience shower' which was basically a heavy shower with changing lights, and an ice room. Fairly small – it felt a bit weird with the two of us plus a couple who'd obviously been quite pleased to have it to themselves (and who were busy hogging the two heated loungers). And that was it – no pool or larger relaxation area close to the saunas, just the one upstairs in the treatment area. Unfortunately, this spa feels poorly planned and laid, out, shoehorned into the corner of a huge hotel which surely could have spared the space to provide better facilities.

So, I suppose my summary would be that if you're staying at the Macdonald or work in the immediate area and want a good massage, book here and ask for Gina. If, however, you want a spa experience where you can chill out for a few hours and do some serious relaxation, head for the Radisson Sienna over on Peter Street or, for a proper treat, Titanic in Huddersfield. And don't bother with packages that combine the two, because the layout of the building simply isn't suitable for it.

Macdonald Hotel & Spa, London Road, Manchester, M1 2PG, spa phone 0161 272 3280