I’m a sucker for a steam bath or a sauna, and many of the places I’ve visited have their own traditions be they the traditional Middle Eastern hammam, a modern take on a Roman Bath or a converted caravan in Somerset.
All have been enjoyable for very different reasons. In many places skipping the local’s way of relaxing or keeping clean means missing out on a key part of their culture.
I’ll start at the converted caravan, a communal sauna experience that is the best way to stay clean at the Glastonbury Festival. Hidden down a path at the back of the hippy Green Fields area, SAMs Magic Hat Sauna offers brief respite from the often muddy and frenetic festival. The sauna itself is a small caravan, converted inside to offer rudimentary wooden benches and heated by a wood fire, with a pay-what-you-can hat hanging outside in the relaxation area.
In the mornings there’s usually a short queue, but essentially you strip off and climb in, sharing shelf-space with other naked, hungover people. It’s not for the shy, but there’s no judgement or seediness. After your sauna, there are free solar-heated showers outside (eco soap only) which offer a modicum of privacy inside a beach windbreak. Or dive into the somewhat soupy looking plunge pool (no, really… don’t…). The sauna is invigorating and refreshing before a heavy cider-fuelled day and what could be more Glastonbury than standing in a queue for the showers, sweaty, naked, making small talk with hippies?
At the other end of the spectrum is Les Bains de Marrakech, a luxury spa and steam bath near one of the gates to the medina, a short walk and a world away from the souks of the Marrakech old town. The tranquil, calming music instantly relaxes you and unlike the standard scrub-down and massage you find elsewhere, they have a range of treatments. We enjoyed a couple’s hammam, in a eucalyptus-scented private steam room. The scrub in this case was done using traditional savon noir olive soap, followed by a lie down in the heat, covered in exfoliating mud. The nice part is it’s in a private steam room rather than a public bath area, and so you can relax and chat with a close friend without feeling self-conscious. After this we were freshened up with buckets of cool water and taken for a sumptuous aroma massage.
The downside of Les Bains de Marrakech is the price, which is substantially more than other local hammams though not close to the price you’d pay at home. All over Marrakech, traditional spas offer a single-sex communal steam room followed by an (often too) vigorous scrub down and a glass of mint tea. These are generally good value and offer a glimpse into a ritual as old as the city. Even if you do treat yourself to the upscale experience, it’s worth enjoying the everyday Moroccan style hammam.
In Guatemala, our guest house at Panajachel (Hotel Utz Jay) had a traditional Mayan sauna in the lush, pretty gardens. This was a mud dome too small to stand up in, with a bench on each side, heated by putting water and herbs onto hot coals. The only light was from the other side of a small, thick window in the wall. The door was a heavy curtain, enabling an irritating draught to keep our feet freezing cold whilst our attempts to heat the whole place up left the top half of the room sweltering. We were given herbal tea in a flask outside the curtain, which was soon overrun by ants. It was absolutely wonderful.
On the other side of Lake Atitlan in San Pedro de la Laguna, Los Termales offer concrete hot tubs set in little gardens. The water is heated by the sun and gets very warm indeed, whilst each garden has a freezing plunge pool to freshen you up. We booked ahead to get a steamy tub ready for after our day’s horse riding, but the star of this soak is the stunning views across the lake. We were only in town for a day, so sadly missed out on lying in the hot water as the sun went down. But it was still a peaceful and magical place.
Part 2 of my tour around the spas and steam baths of the world will look at water-based relaxation a little closer to home…