Perfect Pampering: 20 tips for making the most of your spa visit
Beauty and travel expert Nadia El Ferdaoussi shares her tips ahead of our annual Reader Travel Awards
The idea of spas as intimidating places is thankfully, a thing of the past.
'Self-care' is more necessity than luxury these days and, as more new spas pop up and older ones are renovated, Ireland's whole spa scene is more accessible than ever. As votes in the Irish Independent's Reader Travel Awards are highlighting, gone are the days of exclusive clubs few felt they could afford to join.
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Our experience is on the rise, too. From outdoor spas on Bali honeymoons to top-of-the-range treatments in European resorts, the level of innovation and excellence we anticipate is at an all-time high.
That said, insider info still helps. I've been visiting Irish spa hotels for years, and I've learned a thing or two along the way. With a background in beauty and an eye for detail honed by travel writing, I've been collecting locker tips on how to make the most of a spa visit - go armed with this advice to make the most of every minute.
Before you go
A little forward planning helps maximise your time. Ensure you book your treatment when you make the hotel booking, for starters, as popular slots book up fast.
What time is best to go to the spa? Choose wisely for maximum relaxation - many hotel pools have set family hours, so it might be best to avoid these times if your idea of chilling out doesn't involve kids splashing about.
If you're not booking a treatment, check whether access to the spa area is included in your hotel stay. From experience, I would also advise asking what times you can use the facilities: will they still be available in the afternoon after checking out, for example?
Think about the plans for the rest of your day. If you're going for a fancy dinner and want to wear make-up, an evening facial might not make sense. If the breakfast buffet is the highlight of your hotel stay, don't book a morning full-body massage.
Speaking of food, I don't know about you, but a cup of green tea and a few slices of orange won't sustain me. If you plan to spend a chunk of your day in the spa and relaxation area, it's a good idea to time meals around your visit. You could even bring a snack - grumbling tummies aren't the most relaxing sound or feeling.
Remember to always arrive early for your appointment - you'll need to fill in a consultation form, and that can eat into your precious treatment time.
When you get there
For all of our health and wellness know-how, the layout of the spa, and the jargon used by therapists, can still be confusing, especially for first-timers. Basically, most visits involve the same journey: when you enter, you'll be greeted at reception, fill in the forms and be shown to the locker rooms and relaxation area.
Arrive in the robe from your room or change into one at this point (the kind of treatment you've booked will determine what stays on under your robe). Most spas provide disposable underwear for body treatments, but you can keep your own on if you prefer and bring a spare pair to change into afterwards.
Some spas, like the new Aqua Sana in Center Parcs Longford Forest, allow spa guests to access their grounds. So daytrippers should factor in some time (and appropriate footwear) to explore the resort.
Don't forget your swimwear if you plan on using the pool, hot tub, steam room or sauna, which is often referred to as the 'thermal suite'. Towels are provided and usually slippers, too, but some spas require flip-flops and/or swimming caps and will make you buy them if you don't come with your own, so check ahead.
The Spa at Galgorm in Co Antrim, voted one of Ireland's Top Six in last year's Reader Travel Awards, provides reusable flip-flops for its customers in a bid to be eco-conscious. It also provides biodegradable bags for wet swimwear and reusable water bottles so members can avoid single-use plastic waste. If in doubt, however, bring your own.
Switching off... properly
Leave your phone in the locker for a digital detox. You're paying for time, space and pampering, so don't spend it flicking on a phone like you could do at home. I like to bring a book - magazines are usually provided, but nothing beats a page-turner to lose yourself in.
Download relaxing podcasts or a meditation app ahead of time to listen to before or after treatments. Yes, you may need a device - but you can switch it to airplane mode.
On this note, allow enough time before and after your treatment to use the relaxation area. The spas our readers named Ireland's finest last year - including Monart, ESPA at the Europe, Seafield, Farnham Estate, Fota Island Resort and Galgorm, all have sumptuous therapeutic areas. Enjoy them. Rushing around won't help your zen.
Practical pampering tips
Remove jewellery to keep it safe. Using robe pockets is risky, as you could lose your valuables and chains can become tangled or break. Take your make-up off before a facial. If your therapist needs to cleanse off mascara and eyeliner, that's something else eating into valuable treatment time.
Ask in advance if you prefer a larger robe to avoid discomfort. Unfortunately, most spas don't provide different sizes, something I hope they will address.
Ask the therapist not to use oil during a head massage if you don't want to have to wash your hair after.
Do's and don'ts
* Do respect other people by not being chatty in the relaxation area.
* Don't talk on the phone, or take photos. If you must bring a device, switch it to silent.
* Do visit the spa with someone in whose company you feel comfortable in silence. The spa isn't the best place to catch up with an old friend, though a gorgeous hotel or lodge certainly can be afterwards.
* Don't be tempted to go on the booze after. If your therapist recommends drinking lots of water post-treatment, listen to them - they are the experts.
* Do take a moment to enjoy the herbal tea or sweet treat left in the relaxation area. It will help wake you up.
Time alone or with a group?
If you're planning to go to a spa with friends, find somewhere that caters to group bookings and can provide an area. Galgorm's group-treatment suite is a good place to celebrate a special occasion in privacy, for instance. You can also pre-book the outdoor hot tubs.
If you're looking for a cocoon-like environment in which to totally unplug, Monart might be a good place to start. The Co Wexford spa has been voted Ireland's Favourite Spa for three years running in our Reader Travel Awards, and has managed to create a total immersion experience that extends out from the actual spa area and onto the entire property. Guests can wear the fluffy white robes all day long, out in the gardens and even at breakfast and dinner if you're dining in the lounge. The whole experience feels much more casual than you might expect.
It's good to talk
Don't be afraid to tell your therapist what you need to enjoy the experience. For example, say if you'd prefer silence. Some spas ask for this info on the questionnaire - a nice touch. Tell them if you want more or less pressure; there's no point suffering in silence.
Bargain hunters can find great deals if you're prepared to visit a spa midweek. Packages that include overnight stays and treatments, Mondays to Thursdays, could save you the cost of a massage. The website luxurybreaks.ie is a good place to start when searching for offers.
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