Fit to be tried: Seaweed bath

Amanda Phelan

PLUNGING into a large mass of spongy seaweed -- even one specially prepared in a warm bath -- is not the nicest prospect.

After all, when you encounter this slimy stuff in the open sea, you tend to make the fastest getaway possible.

But the healing and detoxifying benefits of our Irish seaweed are well known. In the old days it was widely used and called the poor man's doctor, and seaweed was a life-saving diet supplement during the Famine.

Now, with the recession biting, people are again turning to the old indigenous healing ways, which still work and don't cost the earth.

In the grey of winter, with the Christmas overload still weighing down the mind and body, taking the traditional cure of a hot seaweed bath is almost tempting.

This centuries-old Irish practice was a mainstay for generations who turned to the briny baths and seaweed's therapeutic qualities to help them endure the dark winter.

The skin-softening plant is also a natural tonic -- the seawater in seaweed is made up of ingredients similar to human plasma, so it's easily absorbed into the body. As well, it packs a healthy skin-replenishing punch that encourages cell regeneration.

Some hotels now use locally harvested organic seaweed in scrubs and baths. For example, the Delphi Mountain Resort in Connemara offers treatments using seaweed grown in the nearby ocean bays and inlets, where there is no contamination.

Seaweed wraps and baths are in demand at the television-free eco resort, where clients can enjoy strenuous activities including rock climbing, archery and canoeing at the adventure centre and then soak away the aches of their efforts at the hotel's award-winning spa.

Cheat that I am, I consider leaving the exercise to others and having the spa anyway, but my conscience sends me out hiking in the nearby mountains, which are truly beautiful.

So what's a seaweed soak like? Despite the candlelit atmosphere of the specially designed seaweed bath room at Delphi, I'm a bit dubious about clambering into its clammy brown frond-laden depths.

"Enjoy that, and I'll call you in 50 minutes or so," says the friendly therapist, Barbara, who is a fan of the seaweed soaks herself, and offers the tip to use the leftovers as a scrub.

She advises topping up the bath with warm water, and drinking plenty too. Other than that, there's no entertainment for the bath's duration -- I would like a bit of moody ocean music.

I panic, wondering how I'll endure the wait, and if I have time to make a dash for my book.

But the water is amazingly soft, and soon my skin feels the same. The bath is about two-thirds full with the oleaginous fronds. Surprisingly, it's not salty -- that gets lost in the drying out.

Soon the seaweed feels friendlier, and I relax, adding a little warm water from time to time. The bath is drawn from fresh water from local springs, which is beautiful to drink.

The warm water alleviates the slight headache I get. Spa staff say this is common, and a good sign the detoxifying benefits of the seaweed are working. It also eases the aches of the hike up the snow-capped mountain range, and I am soon blissfully relaxed.

Suppliers say the organic home-grown seaweed is loaded with beneficial vitamins, including A, C, B1, B12, D, K and E. And if it sounds almost good enough to eat, that's because it is. It's worth looking up recipes that put some of our 500 species of the marine plant to use.

The seaweed is dried naturally and harvesting is done carefully. If a treatment is too expensive, you can get a 500g take-out pack for €10 -- not bad when you consider you can reuse the wonder weed three times.

Studies show the vitamin and iodine-loaded seaweed improves circulatory complaints and helps leach toxins out of your body. Not surprisingly, this age-old practice is gaining a new following, and about 45,000 tonnes of the stuff are now being harvested yearly.

Back in the bath, the gentle tickling of the seaweed make the hour fly by. At the end, all softened and relaxed, I decide this has been so good I'll have to buy a take-out of this wonderful substance, which can be good for food, follicles and fertiliser.

In the words of Bull McCabe in the film The Field : "God made the world, and seaweed made that field."

The Verdict

Did it work: Yes, I'm a mermaid from now on

Pluses: Softens the skin, great detoxifier

Minuses: It feels a bit slimy at first - just slide in there

Cost: €50 for a bath, or €10 for a 500g pack

Contact: Delphi Mountain Resort, Connemara, Co Galway. Tel: (0)95 42208 or email: