When my British friend, Marian, asked whether I would be up for trying “something completely different” during a recent visit to London, I immediately thought of the old Monty Python sketch.
What Marian, a native Londoner, had in mind didn’t involve offbeat comedy, but a visit to an off-the-beaten path attraction: the venerable Porchester Spa.
Located in the up-and-coming Bayswater neighborhood, Porchester dates to 1929 and bills itself as London’s oldest spa.
Compared to splashier hotel and resort facilities, the place is showing its age a bit. The somewhat spartan conditions, despite a 2006 renovation, may account for its mixed reviews. But I thought the absence of cushy lounge chairs, new-age music and scented candles added to its charm.
The sprawling, two-level facility features three Turkish “hot rooms,” a Finnish log sauna, two traditional steam rooms, an ice-cold plunge pool, a 30-meter swimming pool and a frigidarium or relaxation area.
The spa’s original details, including white and green tiles, Grecian-style statues, high ceilings and mahogany trim, make it easy to imagine a time when it was frequented by portly, cigar-smoking businessmen and their pampered wives.
As first-time visitors to the spa, we received a brief tour of the various treatment rooms and pools –– which are all included in the $40 admission –– and were assigned a locker and a large towel, and given clear instructions to speak quietly (and not at all in the steam areas), so as to no interfere with others’ chill-out time.
The place is co-ed on Sundays from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., when swimsuits are required, but otherwise specifies “ladies” and “gentlemen” days when clothing and even towels are optional.
Like many visitors who come in small groups, my friend and I split off to find our own bliss. Marian enjoyed a few laps in the pool, while I tested the various steam rooms. The hottest –– the calidarium –– turned out to be the “burn-your-butt-a-darium” for me. I retreated to the frigidarium for another form of British relaxation: tea and biscuits, accompanied by Hello! magazine.
We opted against individual treatments, which range from about $40 for a 30-minute massage to $78 for a full-body wrap. Traditional beauty salon services, including manicures and bikini waxing, also are available, while a “Supreme Shave,” costing $73, is available for men.
Whether you prefer to steam away your troubles or have others attend to you, the end result is likely to be the same. We left feeling decidedly more relaxed and ready for a long afternoon nap.