I CAN still remember the first time I visited a spa.
It was in Bali almost 20 years ago and while I had heard of health retreats and health farms, I was not familiar with the "spa" concept. Well, yesterday's health retreats are today's spas and while they vary in setting, levels of opulence, programs and products, they have one thing in common - the promise that you will leave as a better version of yourself.
Modern spas have their roots in ancient towns famed for the healing powers of their mineral waters and hot springs, but it wasn't until the 19th century that Europe's great spas became destinations for the wealthy and fashionable looking to "take the waters" with the aim of restoring their health.
As a consequence of demanding careers, longer working hours and over-stimulated and busy minds, there is a fast-growing number of Australians choosing to retreat to a spa resort, more often than not in suitably serene destinations.
Recent findings from Roy Morgan Research reveal that in 2013 Australians racked up more than 750,000 spa-related holidays in pursuit of increasing a sense of wellbeing.
At best, spa retreats are an opportunity to reflect and reconnect with yourself and nature, but they can also be a time to soberly assess your current state of mind, body and spirit.
Spas vary in their programs and regimes, but fortunately most spas are happily set in stunning surroundings, making surrendering contraband comforts such as caffeine, chocolate and wine that much easier.
The change in the nature of what spas can now deliver is a snapshot of changes in our society. As there is more pressure to look our best, the spa industry has responded with the rise in medi-spas.
Named as one of the top five "facialists" worldwide by online style giant Net-a-Porter and famous for her signature facials favoured by celebrities including Elle Macpherson, Marionne De Candia is at the forefront of the medi-spas, which she claims are the future of spas.
According to Ms De Candia, there will be less fluff and more meaningful results, something her Stay Younger Longer destination spas deliver. "Treatments will increasingly be based on active ingredients that deliver and medical practitioners that educate and treat scientifically," she said.
The woman known as the guru of Australian spas, Kirien Withers, supports this view. Ms Withers has driven the development of the spa industry in Australia from day one and believes that in response to the incredibly fast pace of life, spas are increasingly filling more of our lifestyle, grooming and wellness needs under the one roof.
"Spas, medi-spas and spa clinics are on the pulse with the latest in combining aesthetics and wellness - find your perfect spa, stay close and they will help you stay vital, chilled and gorgeous," she said.
Taking a spa tour, starting in Queensland, is one of Australia's best-known spa retreats, Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat. Set high on a mountain, Gwinganna offers fitness, wellness and spa facilities with eco-style accommodation. The huge spa facilities comprise of 33 treatment rooms reserved only for guests, so there's little chance you will need to wait for a massage.
On the Gold Coast is the Aurora Spa Retreat, suitably set within the ritzy Palazzo Versace Hotel. While the spa facilities evoke images of early Roman baths, the treatments are entirely 21st century. Still on the Gold Coast is Esteem Medi Spa, operated under the guidance of Esteem's resident plastic surgeon, Dr Terrence Scamp. Esteem Medi Spa was the Gold Coast's first comprehensive anti-aging medi-spa and operates under the ethos of science meets beauty.
The Esteem Medi Spa services include plastic and cosmetic surgery, anti-wrinkle injections, facial contouring injections, laser tattoo removal, laser hair removal, vein removal and advanced skin and acne treatments, and all guaranteed within a five-star setting.
Another sophisticated spa is Stephanie's Spa Retreat on the third level of Sofitel Brisbane Central. A welcome escape for well-heeled locals, hotel guests and visiting celebrities, Stephanie's Spa Retreat has a wide range of spa treatments designed to take the stress out of city living.
Unsurprisingly, Noosa is a spa hub, with Noosa Springs Resort located a few minutes' drive from the heart of the sophisticated beach town. For lovers of traditional spas, treatments here are based on the old-school spa philosophy of "taking the waters", as there are all kinds of pools, baths, showers and European spa influences including a flotation pool rich in mineral saline waters.
Still in Noosa, the Aqua Day Spa at the Sheraton Noosa Resort and Spa has more than 50 treatment options using the classic French brands La Prairie and Thalgo. Holistic options include reflexology and Swedish and deep-tissue massages, as well as packages that can be tailored to men - a growing market in itself.
Further north is Reef House, one of Palm Cove's best day spas, delivering a range of luxury therapies to help you relax and unwind. The setting is suitably tropical with whitewashed walls and white wicker furnishings draped in white netting. Facials and treatments integrate ancient Aboriginal techniques and indigenous mud, kelp, sand and salt.
Spa qualia, a world-class luxury resort, is a sanctuary where you can relax in blissful reverie, perched high above the Whitsundays. Qualia offers the ultimate in anti-stress, anti-aging, detoxifying and cleansing treatments including Bularri Yarrul, a hot-stone massage using 300-million-year-old stones.
Nestled in the rainforest hinterlands of Port Douglas, Julatten Mountain Retreat is a boutique spa set on 14ha of green orchards. With its roots in nature, the spa uses fresh local ingredients for its treatments including honey, clay and cucumber.
Head down south and cross the border into New South Wales to Cabarita Ocean Retreat. A boutique retreat and spa in every sense, this spa has much to recommend it. Located on the beach, with 12 stunning themed suites (the French, China and Chicago rooms to name a few), the program is active and varied, the treatments are superlative and the food is to die for - if you are allowed to say that about spa cuisine.
A little further south and you are in the shire of Byron Bay and deep into Gaia territory. Famously founded almost a decade ago by Olivia Newton-John and close friend Gregg Cave, Gaia is important to Newton-John because it is about a holistic lifestyle, something she has embraced strongly since undergoing a partial mastectomy and breast reconstruction in 1992.
Turning her personal experience of surviving cancer into a positive one, Newton-John now spends much of her time helping people on their healing journeys, culminating in Gaia and the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne. "It was never my plan, but today so much of my life is about health and giving back," Newton-John said. "When I come to Australia, I always stay at gaia. For me, it is a is a place to reconnect with the land and yourself. It's barefoot meets Armani as I like to call it."
Closer to Byron Bay at Suffolk Park, the Byron at Byron Spa also benefits from a pool of talented spa practitioners who call the region home. The Byron at Byron spa offers both Pevonia Botanical and iKOU eco spa ranges and attracts locals as well as hotel guests for the relaxed, stylish setting and the wide range of spa treatments, each with a distinct Byron twist.
At Rae's on Wategos, a truly boutique spa experience can be found. The famous boutique hotel is located on one of Australia's prettiest beaches and is home to a beautifully intimate spa with its mother-of-pearl tiling and Moroccan ambience. Another huge plus is that at the helm of Rae's Spa is spa guru Ms De Candia.
From taking the waters to certified organic spa cuisine, yoga classes, wellness advice to medical and cosmetic solutions, the choice of spa experiences in Australia is almost limitless and the growth of the industry is almost unstoppable. For as long as spas continue to deliver on their promise of a better you, we can expect the future of Australian spas to shine bright.
Choosing a spa
- What do you want to achieve? For instance, is fitness a goal? Stress management? Cosmetic improvements? Pampering? Relaxation? Wellness and nutrition advice?
- How much time and money can you invest?
- Research online - all good spas, medi-spas and day spas have comprehensive information available online.
- Ask your friends for recommendations.
Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.