I’d like to record my first ever visit to a spa, a “Nordic” one at that; I’d been invited by a couple of other ladies who had indulged in this kind of thing before.
Le Nordik is a place of worship dedicated to the gods of Well Being, one of the more popular modern religions. You have to take your shoes off at the threshold.
On admittance, in exchange for a considerable amount of cash, you receive two bathing towels, a bottle of mineral water and a lock and key on a safety pin for which you must sign your name. You then find your way down the hall to the well-appointed changing rooms smelling of cedar and eucalyptus. Once you have locked away your outer clothes and valuables you may penetrate the inner sanctum in your flip-flops.
Having failed to bring a sunhat and diaphanous sarong with me today, I didn’t altogether look the part, but wrapped one of the fluffy towels round my waist as best I could. I hadn’t realised that the spa experience was to take place out of doors–“en nature”–at least I hadn’t been obliged to remove all my clothes.
The landscape is dramatic, with waterfalls cascading over cliffs and overhangs of pink granite and turquoise pools surrounded by yellow lilies and blue spikes of sage among the shrubs, pine trees and maples towering up the hillside. The rocky, uneven steps discourage running about, which would be frowned upon in any case. Relaxation music on pan pipes and synthesiser plays, almost subliminally, in the background.
We ask you to remain silent in the sauna, a notice declares, and indeed, conversing outside the sauna in a normal voice also breaks the rules, as we discovered when the three of us sat together in the salty whirlpool and an employee wearing a black uniform was sent over to remind us not to speak above a whisper, making us feel like naughty schoolgirls told off by a prefect.
The idea behind the spa is a ritual practised by the Scandinavians or, come to that, the Ancient Romans. First you hang your towel on a numbered peg and take a slug from your water bottle. Then you enter a very hot place–calderium, in Latin–be it the steam room (humid heat) or the sauna (dry heat), and you are supposed to relax there on wooden boards letting your pores open to elminate your toxins until you either pass out or leave the room in haste because you might be on the edge of a panic attack, which was after about two minutes in my case. Then you make a beeline for the plunge pool, into which you plunge decorously, shoulder deep in ice-cold water so that it takes your breath away, or you go straight under the waterfall that fills the plunge pool from above, likewise ice-cold, that threatens to knock you out and remove your swimsuit by force. Having undergone these trials and flagellations you may finally be rewarded with a lengthy wallow in one of the warmer pools on a lower terrace. (The Ancient Romans would have taken these last two stages in reverse order, passing through the tepidarium before immersing themselves in the frigidarium.)
My companions and I went through this sequence three times. The steam room, with no windows, was so full of mentholated steam that I had no idea who else was in there or exactly where the exit was, so I had no desire to give it a second go, however sublime or transcendental. The sauna (a latter-day laconium), with its picture windows, furnace going full blast, turned out to be a little more tolerable, though when I tried to prostrate myself on the hot boards, as seemed to be the convention, I broke the silence rule with an involuntary cry of “Ow!” For the repeat slow roasting at 80º C or thereabouts I had the sense to bring my fluffy towel in with me and lie on that.
In winter, plunging into the plunge pool may entail breaking the ice on its surface first, so if you don’t fancy doing that you can roll about in the snow instead.
When all your pores are thoroughly cleansed you can “cream up” to re-oil them and make your way to the restaurant where, still clad in your wet swimsuit, you may sit dripping on a chair to order a drink or a lunch of chilled, garlicky soup, or a green salad with slivers of spiced chicken, or balls of goats cheese rolled in sunflower seeds, something healthy like that. They give you glasses of cold water while you wait.
It is common among the devotees to spend whole days here. Young couples turn up, or groups of women pampering themselves; few men join in. The glossy advert mentions that Le Nordik has recently “built a quaint lodge … perfect for corporate meetings” or other such “relaxing getaways”. This quaint lodge boasts a “large wraparound deck” and “a pullout couch on the mezzanine.” Apparently you’ll be served wine and cheese and a chocolate fondue if you agree to sleep there in groups of six.
A thunderstorm blew in while we were having our lunch so that we could watch the trees bend and sway and the rain put out the burning logs in the patio stove. The spa users in hammocks and pools scuttled indoors for the duration of the storm which caused a brief power cut, bringing our mood music to an abrupt halt and cutting off the water for the waterfall.