Writers try spa packages designed to banish a year of pandemic blues

Why every midlife woman needs a spa-cation: As wellness retreats reopen, five jaded writers try the new packages designed to banish a year of pandemic blues

  • Spas across England that offer overnight stays have had a flood in enquiries 
  • Many are offering private spa suites to those not willing to show their body
  • Writers give verdict on latest treatments including massages and therapies

The past year has been incredibly tough for everyone; but especially so for women in their 40s and 50s.

With children still at home and, in some cases, their own parents to worry about or care for, they’ve had to juggle work with full-on family and home commitments.

Poor old sandwich woman has never felt more thinly spread. Husband booming away in the spare room, kids occupying the kitchen table, the washing machine permanently full, the fridge always empty . . . it’s been relentless and exhausting.

Deprived of the social mechanisms we all rely on to take the edge off things, many have found their joie de vivre seriously depleted. When life is this intense, it’s the small acts of escapism that relieve just enough of the pressure to stop you imploding.

Five writers share their experience of trying the latest treatments as spas across the UK are flooded with enquiries. Pictured: Hannah Betts

It’s why salons and hairdressers are booked solid from now until Christmas. And spas and spa hotels — where overnight stays are permitted from today — have seen a huge uptick in enquiries, especially for the raft of post-lockdown rejuvenation treatments on offer.

Many spas have realised that, while we love to be pampered, many midlifers are not yet in the mood to show off our bodies. Cue a new breed of private spa suites that mean you never encounter a stranger while wearing just a bathrobe.

It might not seem like much, but having a nice lie-down in a darkened room listening to whale song while someone rubs cream on to your face can turn even the most furious harridan back into a human being . . .


By Hannah Betts

After months of being house and desk-bound, everything aches: shoulders, lower-back and brain. Only last week, my boyfriend, the younger and sprightlier Terence, pointed out that I don’t so much move as shuffle.

As for my mood, I can’t summon enthusiasm for anything. Nothing provokes excitement, or even mere interest. I am a blank, nothing. I can’t even be bothered to go for a massage, despite loving them pre-Covid.

‘Right,’ said Terence, ‘spas are re-opening for overnight trips and I have never seen anyone more in need of mojo restoration. We’ll go to Cliveden. I’ll swim, you get tended, and we’ll come home young again.’

Hannah (pictured) explained all the treatments at Cliveden’s spa are tailored by the therapist, so you get exactly what you need

Spas too often resemble naff, new-age cathedrals. Not this five-star pleasure palace in Berkshire. Cliveden’s spa is hidden behind a garden wall, surrounded by lavender and roses.

I leave Terence in his happy place: swimming lengths in the infamous pool where Profumo encountered Christine Keeler, while I head off to meet masseur Steff, a living legend among visitors.

All the spa’s treatments are bespoke, meaning guests book a time-slot, indicate whether they want face, body, massage and/or nails done, then their therapist tailors their appointment.

So instead of having to opt for some pretentiously named package involving a scrub, wrap and all sorts of stuff you don’t want, you get exactly what you need.

I choose between Cliveden’s Nancy (detoxifying) and Anna Maria (relaxing) scented oils, collapse on to a warm waterbed and let Steff work her massaging magic for a full 90 minutes.

Usually, I remain stiff as a board while being kneaded, worried it’s all about to stop. However, here I lose myself in a blissful blur of manipulated muscles.

Hannah’s therapist Steff diagnosed that her shoulders are screwed tight from typing and recommended stretches

At times, Steff deploys hot stones to relax my lockdown-stiff physique, but mostly it’s a case of her magic hands going shoulder to foot, then foot to head.

Not only are her skills world-class, it feels amazing to have my body treated with reverence rather than disdain. I begin to appreciate it more, as does Terence who later cries: ‘I’d forgotten what a tiny waist and great legs you have,’ when I emerge in my swimmers.

Steff diagnoses that my shoulders are screwed tight from typing, my lower-back and thighs seized from sitting for hours and she recommends stretches and pressure points to poke.

She also says she is coming across a lot of sadness in how I hold and express myself, which I realise is what my blankness is: sadness so overwhelming it’s become a sort of void.

After lunch, Terence and I amble about the gardens, lockdown irritation dissolving. I’d forgotten what it’s like not to be stressed, and feel as if I’ve been sedated. I am in bed just after 6pm, sleeping until 11am the next day. Bliss!

Cliveden House’s tailor-made spa day includes 60-minute treatment, spa access from 9am to 5pm, lunch or afternoon tea, and refreshments (from £210 per person, plus from £495 for overnight stay, clivedenhouse.co.uk).


By Daisy Waugh

What did you long for most during the deepest, darkest hours of the past appalling year? Me, I mostly longed for the sea, and the pub, and a noisy restaurant, and a crowded room. I longed to buy new clothes. I longed for the cinema, and the theatre, and freedom to travel. I longed to drive a tractor (don’t ask). I even found myself longing to go to church.

One thing I didn’t long for, oddly, was a day in the spa. A lot of my friends did: while I lolled in my pyjamas, imagining ever more inventive ways to die of boredom, they lolled in theirs, muttering about rejuvenating massages and facials. I thought they were silly. They thought I was mad.

Maybe they were right. In any case, it seems unfair that I get to spend a full day in such a place before they do. But shucks, I did.

Daisy Waugh (pictured) said Careys Manor Hotel and Spa focuses more on holistic and restorative therapies than straightforward beauty treatments

And as I write this, I am glowing — no, floating — from the experience. Careys Manor Hotel in the New Forest is set in 14 acres of garden. The main building is 19th- century; a pretty red brick manor house. At the back is the more modern Thai Spa. I am working from a desk in the spa’s reception area, three days before the reopening of the spa to hotel guests.

Friendly, face-masked staff are rushing this way and that, sterilising restaurant tables and arranging flowers in preparation for the great day; that spa music is playing; and the air is filled with that remarkable spa-specific whiff.

For the first time in more than a year, I’ve not brooded about vaccines, cancelled holidays and end of civilisation. In fact, I’m feeling so relaxed, it’s proving hard to construct a decent sentence. Nevertheless, I shall press on. What a day. What a treat.

Careys Manor Hotel and Spa focuses more on holistic and restorative therapies than in straightforward beauty treatments. Décor and food are Thai-inspired and most of the therapists were trained in Thailand.

I was given three treatments on the trot. They ran seamlessly one into the other — and, at the end of a two-hour session, I was asked by the beauty therapist which of the treatments I preferred. I was stumped. The whole experience passed in a dream of such intense relaxation that I couldn’t quite differentiate between them.

Daisy (pictured) said the body scrub made her skin glow and an hour of massage was so relaxing that she fell asleep 

I started with a half hour ylang ylang, hibiscus and neroli-infused body scrub, which made my skin glow. Then came an hour of massage, which was so relaxing I think I had an out of body experience. Either that or I fell asleep. Either way, I went to Heaven. Then came a half-hour Eminence prescriptive facial and then a head massage. And then — oh dear, a tiny, gentle bell, telling me it was time to return to Planet Earth.

Or maybe not quite. There’s the 14m indoor pool to visit yet; and a steam room, and a sauna, and a most elegant looking Jacuzzi. (And a gym, by the way. But I won’t bother with that.)

It’s been a horrible year: one of unimaginable suffering for many, and one of intense stress to most of the rest. And yet there remain a few people who claim to have enjoyed themselves throughout. I think, as an apology for their smugness, they should set up a People’s Spa Break crowdfunder. They may not need a break at the spa. But everyone else does.

A Siam Spa Break including a Work From Home body rejuvenating package at Carey Manor costs £470 for two people, including one night’s bed and breakfast, a half-hour spa treatment per guest, and use of pool, Jacuzzi and dinner. Daisy Waugh’s new novel Guy Woake’s Word Diary is out now on Amazon.


By Jane Alexander

My diary has a big ring around May 17 with one word scrawled by it: Retreat! It’s more than a year since I’ve been to a spa and I am beyond desperate.

We humans need touch for our wellbeing. Since I separated from my husband five years ago, I’ve come to rely on spa trips to top up my oxytocin levels.

My 22-year old son came home from university to hunker down for lockdown and we have lots of hugs, but they just aren’t a patch on a proper treatment.

Jane Alexander said psychotherapist Fiona Arrigo’s retreats shine above the crowd, despite having reviewed countless experiences over the past 30 years. Pictured: Jane and Fiona 

I thought I’d breeze through lockdown but, after losing five people I loved dearly in the past year, my mental health nosedived.

While it was tempting to book into a spa for a dose of pampering, I yearned for something more than a fancy facial and a fluffy robe. I needed an intervention and I knew exactly where to go.

Psychotherapist Fiona Arrigo ran her first transformational retreat back in 1990 and I was there, writing about it for this paper. I fell in love with her alchemical melange of cleansing yet delicious food, gentle exercise, superb bodywork and deep yet kind emotional healing. Having reviewed countless retreats over the past 30 years, hers still shine head and shoulders above the crowd. They’re far from cheap but they really are the gold standard.

The new Arrigo Bounce Back package in rural Somerset goes way beyond your usual spa trip away. It’s aimed at those of us who have been exhausted, bewildered and, yes, traumatised by the pandemic. It promises ‘deep relaxation, re-energising therapies and practical support to repair the impact of the past year’.

Upon arrival, I’m greeted by CeCe who says: ‘I’m your Angel [housekeeper-cum-fairy godmother]. Whatever you need, just let me know.’

I felt a lump in my throat. It’s not about the big frothy towels, the luscious bed linen, the candles and soft music (lovely though they are). Calling it pampering does it a disservice; the best spas and retreats give a profound sense of being cared for, nurtured.

Jane said she realised how poorly she had been eating, as every meal at the retreat contained more greens than she would usually have in a week at home

‘What do you fancy for breakfast?’ asked CeCe. I stared at her in stupefaction. What did I want for breakfast?

‘Maybe some granola, berries and yoghurt? And a smoothie?’ she suggested. Yes! That was exactly what I wanted.

‘Could I possibly have a coffee as well?’ I asked timidly.

‘Of course you can,’ she said.

I realised how poorly I’d been eating; how badly I’d treated my body over lockdown. Every meal here contained more greens than I’d usually have in a week at home, and yet still managed to be delicious.

‘We’re all in such need right now,’ says Fiona as we sit (socially distanced, of course) on big squashy sofas. ‘Our life process has been interrupted and so many of us have lost our dreams and trust, as well as people we love. We have to work out how to re-engage, how to get back in the world, how to find a new sense of purpose.’

Fiona is joined for this Bounce Back package, by Swiss life coach Dominique Stelling, who teaches simple ways to soothe our overwrought nervous systems.

‘The long-term chronic stress of the past year has taken its toll on all levels,’ she explains. ‘We need to find ways to rest and restore.’ Who knew that massaging your ears (gently, no poking) could soothe the vagus nerve (stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for calm)?

Who’d have thought that imagining yourself in a snow globe, watching the snowflakes settle around you, could be so blissfully soothing?

Jane said she also learned smart techniques to combat her anxiety and left feeling like she had been given a miracle shot. Pictured: Jane and Fiona

Each day offers a beguiling blend of guided meditations, talks, gentle movement (soft and subtle yin yoga and the Chinese moving meditation qigong) and thought-provoking exercises.

But, above all, you’re gifted the time and space to sink into yourself, to ‘come home’ into your body; to let go and allow mind and body to start the healing process.

The retreats are held at a welcoming Georgian rectory in the tranquil Somerset countryside. Serene music echoes through the corridors and tealights glimmer from every nook and cranny.

Seeing the treatment couch waiting for me nearly brought me to tears. I snuggled down under the duvet, relishing the heated mattress.

After the Arrigo team’s sessions of deep intuitive massage, reflexology, acupuncture and Transformational Breathwork — a powerful technique to shift stuck emotions and negative thought patterns — alongside individual counselling with Fiona and Dominique, I learned smart techniques to combat my anxiety and my body was perfectly pummelled, pin-cushioned and persuaded into something approaching ease.

I left feeling as if I’d been given a miracle shot; calmer, more centred and surprisingly excited about the year to come.

The Arrigo Bounce Back retreat ,is running July 12–16 and Dec 3-5: £1,870 per person for four nights, including activities and meals (thearrigoprogramme.com).


By Marion McGilvary

A week into lockdown, I made my will on a car bonnet. Never before had I been confronted by the possibility that my life could be snuffed out in a matter of days.

Only when you can finally breathe, albeit behind a mask, do you realise quite how tough its been. Personally, my relationship scraped through on a technicality. Only good sense kept us hanging in there, knowing that our difficulties came from being trapped in an unnatural situation.

So it’s been a marathon, not a sprint. But now that spa breaks are on the menu again, I’m jolly well sprinting as fast as I can to get back into the world and enjoy some self care. In the past 18 months, I’ve sold my family home of 35 years, divorced (my first husband after years apart), moved to a new city and lived through a pandemic. Heck, I deserve some TLC.

Marion McGilvary (pictured) said the garden spa at Rockliffe Hall is a haven of tranquillity, which you can now book all to yourself 

Rockliffe Hall, a whisper away from Darlington in Yorkshire, is a five-star hotel set in magnificent grounds, with the bonus of a golf course to park the husband in. In other words, it is a fairly idyllic place to unwind.

The garden spa, which you can now book all to yourself, is a haven of tranquillity, overlooking the lawn. It has a heated spa pool, a sauna, squishy marshmallow daybeds, and heated loungers. In the evening, they light the fire and you can lounge by candlelight.

There’s all the usual luxury accoutrements of a hydrotherapy pool, a salt steam room and a full-size swimming pool if you feel you really must exercise. But the star of the show has to be the Mind Therapy Room.

Now I’m a blunt Scotswoman, and I’m going to say up front that some therapies do sound silly, but, hey if I feel good wrapped in seaweed like a nori roll and steamed and poached, who cares? However, Rockliffe’s Mind Therapy Room is no such nonsense. It’s been scientifically developed to help with PTSD, which frankly we are all suffering from after this annus horribilis, and marries a combination of gentle vibrations in a water bed with sound therapy.

You lie in a dim room, swathed in blankets, wear earphones, and a gentle thrumming and sound of rippling water slows down your brain waves and somehow mimics your body’s natural sleep patterns. It’s like being in the womb, gently rocked to sleep.

Marion (pictured) said Rockliffe’s Mind Therapy Room is the most relaxing thing she has experienced and should be prescribed on the NHS

I’m sounding gushy, I know, and I don’t do gushy except for babies and puppies. But this was the single most relaxing thing I have experienced. It should be prescribed on the NHS.

My mind had been racing. I was angsty after a long journey by train, my first since the pandemic, but I woke purring like a contented cat. The next thing I knew I was taken off for a full body Neom massage, which almost made me cry with the joy of it. Warm silky oil, reflexology, a face massage — and delicious but subtle aromas.

We don’t know how long the door will stay open, or what the future will bring, but this spa trip away fortified me.

The Rockcliffe Retreat Spa Break includes overnight stay, two hours use of the spa, plus a 45 minute treatment per person (from £349, rockliffehall.com). Upgrade for £30 per person includes two-hour private Spa Garden experience.


By Sarah Vine

The Bulgari hotel is one of those places that is so lavish it’s actually slightly intimidating. The lobby is all black marble and designer lighting, and the staff are pure Jeeves, that perfect blend of solicitous and standoffish.

The spa, nestling four floors underground in Knightsbridge, West London, feels a little more informal. Lots of wood and stone, ambient lighting and an elegant classical soundtrack which follows you everywhere.

I’m shown to a private cabana by the pool where I relax in anticipation of my treatment.

Sarah Vine (pictured) said she was in a state of deep relaxation within ten minutes of the Kloris Stress Melting Ritual at The Bulgari hotel

The air is warm, the atmosphere calm, my lounger large and luxurious. Diaphanous drapes shield my milk-white thighs from prying eyes, and there is a call button on my side table, presumably in case I have a sudden urge for someone to peel me a grape.

In fact, I am served green tea, which I sip slowly, doing my best to resist the urge to doze off. This place really does put a person on the fast track to relaxation. At the appointed time, the lovely senior therapist David collects me and we process to my private treatment suite, complete with own Jacuzzi, shower and double bed.

I am to undergo the Kloris Stress Melting Ritual (£270), a luxurious 90-minute massage using CBD-infused oils from this British organic company. David explains to me that there’s no danger of me getting high, but the active ingredients will help induce a state of deep relaxation.

Ten minutes in and I’ve no idea whether it’s the CBD or David’s technique, but I am not so much in a state of deep relaxation as away with the fairies.

It’s been so long since I had any sort of hands-on treatment that I hadn’t realised quite how tense I was, especially in the neck and shoulder department. My body feels like it’s emerging from some sort of permafrost, the oils and the warmth and David’s expert ministrations melting away the strain of the past few months.

I never want it to end but, sadly, it does and I sit up, feeling a little heady from all that renewed blood-flow. Luckily, I haven’t far to go, as the Jacuzzi is only a stagger away. I sink into the bubbles and one of the Jeeveses brings me a glass of something fruity. Heaven.

Kloris Stress Melting Ritual at The Bulgari Hotel, 171 Knightsbridge, London, costs £270 and The Private Onyx Spa Suite is from £750 for two people. Overnight stays from £565 +VAT (bulgarihotels.com).

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