A friend of mine who used to take spa holidays by herself every once in a while would justify her treats by saying that our bodies are like luxury cars. "You need to keep them in good running condition and give them the special servicing they need," she'd say. I didn't really think much of her philosophy until I had the opportunity to visit Sha- a luxury spa in the picturesque village of Albir, Spain.
Although I'd always wanted to visit the country - imagining picture-perfect haciendas set against clear blue sky and sea - this was a fantasy getaway with a difference. Rather than fiestas and flamenco, my break was going to be all about rest and relaxation at one of the country's most exclusive spas.
I took the eight-hour flight from Dubai to Madrid, where I transferred to Alicante, followed by an hour's drive to the quiet village of Albir. Although it might sound like a trek, it was more than worth it when my taxi pulled up at a magnificent tiered, white structure, echoing with the sound of cascading water. I couldn't have felt further away from the chores, stresses and deadlines of home. With pristine decor, the lush green landscape, the tinkling waterfall, all nestled amid the mountains of Sierra Helada against the Mediterranean-sea-kissed backdrop of beautiful Albir, Sha was every bit the blissful retreat I had been fantasising about.
The brainchild of a Spanish real-estate tycoon of Argentinian origin, Alfredo Bataller Parietti, Sha - which means ‘luminosity' in Japanese - sets out to light up all the dark corners of your mind and body. Snug in the rugged foothills at the Bay of Altea, it boasts 93 immaculate suites, breathtaking architecture, a macrobiotic restaurant, Mediterranean and Tropical gardens, two swimming pools, open terraces and, of course, the spa treatment rooms.
The story goes that Alfredo was troubled by severe digestive tract problems for a long time and had the beginning of the growth of a tumour in his stomach. He tried all sorts of treatments and nothing had worked, until he was put on a macrobiotic diet by a naturopath (see box out on macrobiotic diet). Five months later, Alfredo's doctors were shocked to find that the tumour had completely disappeared. Since then he and his family have vowed to bring the macrobiotic health and wellness message to the world, converting the space for a family holiday home into a luxury wellbeing retreat.
Eminent macrobiotic guru and president of the World Association of Natural Medicine, Michiko Kushi, became one of the directors on the project and Sha opened to the world in 2010. In its short existence it has become one of the most coveted spas in the world, earning a raft of prestigious CondeNast awards, including the Johansens Award for the Most Excellent European Destination Spa in 2011, the Best medical and Thermal Natural Spa and the Condenast Traveller's Reader's Choice all in the same year.
I woke up to the chirruping of birds at 7am on my first morning and decided to make the most of my time before my appointments with doctors, therapists, masseurs began at 10 am. Although the general schedule of the day indicated there was a group walk to the lighthouse, I chose to go on a solitary saunter. I stood on the terrace, enjoying a crisp breeze on my face in the Spanish sunshine, and taking in the breathtaking scenery - it looked like a giant canvas with blue sky, craggy mountains, the sea coast and the immaculate haciendas all around.
After a little exploration of the lush green foliage and the sloping roads around the building, I felt energized and hungry for a sumptuous breakfast at the macrobiotic restaurant, Shamadi, which is up on the third floor and provides a sweeping view of the vast landscape. But breakfast is far from what you could call sumptuous here - it is organic, fresh and wholesome food in limited portions, tailored to the health needs of each individual guest. I had a light combination of peach compote, wholegrain bread and miso soup - a staple food at each meal as this fermented-soyabean-paste broth contains amazing probiotic properties and anti-aging qualities.
The first stop for every guest is a consultation from a naturopath to identify your ailments and the appropriate treatments. I padded there clad in my white bathrobe and carpet sandals, which is all you are required to wear throughout the day as you slip from one treatment room to another. Macrobiotic guru and naturopath, Dr Kenneth Prange, asked me about my allergies, my food preferences and the aches in my body. Using a combination of Oriental and Naturopathic diagnostic methods, he prescribed lymphatic drainage for water retention, hydrotherapy to rid my system of toxins, and various massages, compresses and natural teas to soothe muscles and aid my digestion.
But this was only the beginning. At Sha, you can easily spend a day partaking in a string of consultations ranging from diet, nutrition, dermatology and physical fitness. I had a general medical check up, a nutritional consultation, an appointment with a personal trainer, an aesthetic consultation, and a dermatological test with a skin scanner. The dermatology expert recommended a radiowaves-based non-surgical facelift to smooth out my wrinkles, while the skin specialist advised that I have some collagen treatments, making me feel decidedly old. Deciding to postpone taking up these offers for now, my next consultation was with an ‘agenda expert', whose job it was to plan my timetable to help me pack in as much as possible during my stay. With such an array of therapies on offer - from the free yoga and pilates classes to the macrobiotic diet and cooking classes, plus the optional extra treatments tailored to the individual consultant's diagnosis - you really need some organization to ensure you have to find a time slot to fit in all the appointments.
I took Dr Prange's advice and booked myself in for a session of hydrotherapy, followed by a deep tissue massage. The latter was a real highlight of my trip. I was ushered into a dark candlelit room with white towels and the masseur began her work on me. Her hands were truly magical as she glided from one sinew to another, kneading pain out of every cell of my body. I could feel the water retention moving out of every joint, the tired tendons, smarting with all the pressing and twisting and pain being coaxed out of every nook and cranny of my body. Midway through it, I fell into a deep slumber, until she gently awakened me to tell me the beautiful appointment was over. I wanted to throw my hands into the air and launch a tantrum begging her for just a little bit more time, but, feeling rejuevnated, I reluctantly got into my bathrobe and ambled out of the room and straight into a cold shower to wake up. The massage had a knock out effect on me.
By the time I emerged again darkness had fallen. Feeling light-footed and euphoric, I took a walk around the spa in the dusky twilight. Cloaked in shadows, the spa looked like a glowing diamond carved out on the hill, glittering with light.
Sitting at the restaurant table that evening, I was surrounded by similarly bright-eyed faces, everyone else appearing to feel as relaxed and purged of impurities as I did. Dinner brought more miso soup, followed by a small millet patty and seasonal steamed vegetables. I arched my knife and fork over the patty and proceeded to eat my main course with gusto as if I was digging into a succulent burger. By now I was even beginning to love the smooth and woody flavour of the steaming cup of kukicha tea - to relax. reduce water retention and heal - that accompanied every meal.
The next day I woke up with a song on my lips. Stretching before me was a day full of treatments, including lymphatic drainage, a rose facial and relaxation massage - all of which I had to earn after an hour's exercise in the gym with my personal trainer.
I could have done so much more - there were macrobiotic cooking classes, outdoor Pilates and yoga sessions, detox lectures, coastal walks, all going on - but I simply didn't have the time to fit it in.
On my second and final evening at Sha, I decided I needed to get a feel of the village and meet the people who lived around there. The wind was blowing hard and the mountains and the winding lanes of Albir looked beautiful as I took the 30-minute walk down to the High Street. The village quietly buzzed with tourists from other parts of Europe enjoying the pretty spring blooms and the rustic hospitality of the place. Albir is no shopping centre but has the usual souvenir shops and cafes, which was the perfect prescription of mini retail therapy I wanted after my two days getting way from it all. Purchasing some small keepsakes, I settled down in a café for a cup of English Breakfast tea and to cheat on my Macrobiotic diet with a packet of potato crisps (reduced calorie!).
The luxury of the treatments and the serenity of the spa contrasted beautifully with the noise and colour of the village and I knew then what I needed was a sumtotal of both - the super luxury and the rustic - to feel the unwind deep in my psyche. The images from the village, the faces of people, the snatches of conversation, the laughter, the serenity of the spa, the caressing massages, the whispers of the people around, were some of the few collages that were meant to flash through the inward eye and help me relax in difficult times.
When I finally had to say goodbye to Sha and Spain I felt brand new, well oiled and squeaky clean, ready to change gears and rev up on the highway of life quite like the well-serviced car!
What is a macrobiotic diet?
Hollywood A-listers Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna are known to swear by the health benefits of a macrobiotic diet. According to Dr Kenneth Prange, the macrobiotic expert and specialist in oriental healing therapies at Sha, "Marcobiotics is a sustainable art of living in harmony with the natural order and preserving the natural environment. It is a diet rich in organic whole cereals, grains, nuts, seasonal greens, fruits and a small portion of unprocessed or naturally extracted oils, etc. Milk products are completely avoided.
"On average 50 per cent of your daily intake should be wholegrain cereals such as brown rice, millet, barley, whole oats etc. A portion of this amount may consist of noodles or pasta, unyeasted wholegrain breads and other unprocessed grains or grain products such as couscous, bulgur and oatmeal. About 15 per cent of the diet includes fresh greens and seasonal vegetables including seaweeds such as nori, kombu and wakame; 5 per cent nuts and seeds; 10 per cent seasonal fruits to be eaten raw or steamed; 5 per cent would be seasoning and condiments, 5 per cent oils and fats and about 10 per cent sea food such as fish. Soy products such as tofu and miso are used as staples to balance the protein portion in the diet.
"Food is either steamed, boiled or sautéed with unrefined plant-based oil such as sesame and seasonings such as natural shoyu, miso or sea salt are used. Natural grain based sweeteners made of amasake, barley malt, rice syrup are used. Any traditional tea that does not have an aromatic fragrance or a stimulating effect is used as a healing beverage. Vegetable and fruit juices especially carrot and apple can be taken occasionally.
"Ongoing research in the US has indicated that a macrobiotic diet balances the yin and yang energy of our body and it has indicated direct health benefits in improving childhood nutrition, reducing violent aggressive behaviour among young juvenile offenders, improving geriatric and psychiatric health, controlling many types of cancers and heart diseases as well."
Get healthy on holiday
Our pick of spa retreats around the world
What: Espace, Henri Chenot
Where: Palace Merano, Italy
Inspired by Chinese healing methods, this picturesque spa offers a complete detox programme combined with several invigorating therapies to rejuvenate you. A gentler way to heal and lose weight.
Price: From around Dh18,500 for a week, which includes a comprehensive health programme, accommodation in a classic double room, healthy vegetarian meals and a medical consultation. See www.palace.it/en/hotel-espace-henri-chenot.htm
What: Leela Kempinski
Where: Kovalam Beach, Kerala, India
If you believe in the ancient Indian medical theory of Ayurveda you need to check this out. The massages, therapies and nutrition are all designed to balance all elements of your body, and to harmonise and invigorate you as you enjoy the beautiful beachside resort.
Price: Stay in a Garden Pavilion room from Dh999 per person per night. See www.theleela.com/locations/kovalam
Where: Si Kao, Thailand
If you fancy a caffeine-free, herbal detox accompanied by lots of yoga, Pilates and meditation, this is the place for you.
Price: A six-night stay with breakfast in a deluxe garden terrace room will cost you around Dh5,800 per person. See http://sikao.anantara.com/
Where: Marrakech, Morocco
Enjoy Moroccan hospitality and body therapy at its best at In:Spa, which has a stunning location in the Atlas mountains. Get ready for regular exercise sessions while you give up the white poisons - sugar, milk, dairy and salt - to cleanse your body and make you feel lighter and rejuvenated
Price: Start from Dh10,770 per week per person. See www.inspa-retreats.com/
What: One and Only
Where: Cape Town, South Africa
A great place for detox treatments and therapeutic massages without the pain as there are no strict diets or exercises included in the regimen.
Price: Rooms start at Dh2,627 (B&B) with Dh891 for treatments, per person.