Although spas have been around for centuries, they soared in popularity towards the end of the Victorian era, when it was common practice for the well-to-do to ‘take the waters’ on the Continent in order to alleviate symptoms ranging from neurological problems to stomach ache. While the term ‘spa’ used to mean resorts built around mineral springs, now every upmarket hotel has a health spa in which its clientele may be pampered.
But what has become of the good old-fashioned thermal spas? We sent our inspector to investigate a hotel that is considered one of the best spas in Europe: Vidago Palace. It has four natural springs in its grounds, and a large marble-clad spa suite that, alongside all the usual massages and facials, also offers special treatments using the mineral water. A doctor is on hand to ‘prescribe’ varying daily quantities of the water to be taken, depending on the symptoms.
Driving up to Vidago Palace, you feel like royalty. As you might guess from the name, it was intended as a palace, but was completed on 6 October 1910 — just as the Portuguese monarchy fell. A four-year refurbishment that began in 2006 has made it the height of luxury. It is a 45-minute drive from Porto, and is set in wonderful woods with a remodelled 18-hole golf course.
Your spa sleuth has a poor diet because of a high-pressure job, and a longstanding medical condition affecting the bowel and liver; she felt under the weather and in need of a bit of time apart from the smartphone and the takeaway. She wanted a good start to her new healthy eating plan and a bit of gentle exercise.
The Spa Inspector was enrolled on the detox programme, which included treatment designed to relax and rejuvenate as well as an individually tailored menu for the entire stay. The ‘Vichy shower’, which involved being given a massage while lying on a bed with dozens of tiny jets of water directed at her, felt like nothing she had ever experienced. She was scrubbed and rubbed to within an inch of her life. She also did Pilates for the first time, one-to-one with a very gentle instructor, and was taken for runs around the grounds with a fitness instructor. Although it was not part of the programme, she was invited to sample spa water directly from the source and was astonished to find it was naturally sparkling.
The best way to organise your trip is to email the spa in advance and discuss what it is you need. Guests can choose between simply relaxing in the hotel and taking treatments when they wish, or enrolling on a tailored programme. Though Vidago Palace is a five-star hotel, the current economic climate in Portugal and its location outside Porto make prices quite reasonable.
The stay had a profound impact on this spa sleuth. She felt relaxed and rested in a way she had not done for years, as well as more energised and less bloated. Since returning she has continued to eat healthily and has even enrolled in Pilates classes. She is also drinking much more water, although the taste of London tap is not quite as good as the spring at Vidago.
The medical view
Dr Max Pemberton: Doctors have long advocated water treatments, although it’s difficult to assess the health claims from each spring. There is no doubt that waters which are high in some elements, compounds and minerals can have benefits for certain conditions. The Romans knew this, as they advocated drinking from lithium-enriched springs to help what we now know as bipolar disorder.
The feelgood factor
There is one simple fact about this trip that tells you everything you need to know. The Spa Inspector has stayed in lots of very nice hotels and visited some of the best spas in the world. However, staying at Vidago was such a pleasure and its surroundings were so lovely that, on returning home, she booked to go back there six weeks later, unable to keep away. This spa sleuth has never done anything like that before and can’t think of a better endorsement.
Room rates start at €140 per night, including breakfast, in a standard room, rising to €930 for a suite.