The Spa: Thalassa Vilalara in Portugal’s Algarve
The Location: The Algarve consists of 200 km of sun-splashed coastline in southern Portugal. This region, the mostly southerly in Europe, boasts 300 days of sunshine a year making it a popular winter destination for Canadians and northern Europeans. The thalassotherapy spa is an immense bright complex located on the lush 25 acres of a 5-star hotel, the Sofitel Vilalara.
The Environment: In peak season the Algarve hums with activity: condo apartments line the waterfront, nightlife abounds, and beaches are packed with sunbathers. In places the natural beauty is being paved over. But, the minute you drive through the iron gates at the Sofitel Thalassa Vilalara you leave the hubbub and concrete behind. The setting is green and utterly peaceful. Even before my first seawater treatment I was soaking up the fragrance of subtropical trees and flowers. The guest rooms are in 2-storey pueblo-style buildings, their smooth sandstone exteriors seeming to melt into the landscape. Cobblestone footpaths meander like mazes through the property. Even with map in hand I kept encountering dead ends when trying to find the beach on my first day. Eventually I discovered the rustic wooden staircase leading to the private white swath of sand tucked between dramatic sandstone cliffs.
The Distinction: Thalassotherapy (which originated in Greece – thalasso being the Greek work for ‘sea;’) consists of a series of seawater treatments which the French have embraced as a necessary annual ritual. There are dozens of these centers along the coastline of France. This is the only one in Portugal. I came here with great expectations having once done the 6-day cure in Quiberon (also a Sofitel Accor resort) on the coast of Brittany. The treatment rooms at Vilalara are every bit as good as those in Quiberon, which is considered the greatest facility of all. This one is a sparkling white tiled building with steam rooms, saunas, and resting places overlooking green courtyards as well as two outdoor seawater pools (heated and unheated) surrounded by comfy chaise lounges.
The Experience: My visit to Vilalara was regrettably short with only time for two treatments – and you really need to do the complete cure program of about 6 days to get the full benefit of thalassotherapy. The philosophy is that seawater has the same biological qualities as human plasma so therefore by immersing our bodies in these elements metabolic renovation is possible. If that all sounds like hocus pocus, I can only say it worked for me – after the cure (in France) I felt great.
Treatments at Vilalara always begin with a medical consultation upon which is based your personalized program. The treatments (four a day) consist of bathing in natural seawater (often hot and bubbling) which has been pumped at high tide from the Atlantic ocean (the Algarve is not on the Mediterranean as many people assume) and being immersed and massaged in various types of seaweed and marine muds. Between treatments, you sit and relax – or use the sauna, steam room or outdoor pools. I enjoy padding about in a bathrobe, my skin feeling soft as a baby’s, my hair askew. But it’s not for everyone. One of my fellow travelers said he felt (and smelled) like a sardine sandwich after being lathered in seamud and wrapped in plastic.
The Accommodations: The spa building is a few minutes walk from any room in the hotel. There are 131 spacious suites and apartments spread out in private enclaves, all with generous terraces. The rooms are handsomely designed and the bathrooms outfitted with many good things – Roger & Gallet toiletries, marble mosaic walls, plush towels, rainhead showers, deep soaker tubs and a bathroom scale that seemed to be set several kilos lower than normal.
What’s to Eat: You have a choice while undergoing this seawater spa regime – you can have meals in the gastronomic restaurant – or opt for the low fat cuisine (no meal is more than 400 calories) in the dietetic restaurant. Both restaurants are spectacularly positioned on the cliff overlooking both pool and sea and have large terraces and umbrella tables for al fresco dining. And I defy you to tell that you’re eating a diet luncheon when it consists of creamy squash soup and filet of beef in wine sauce.
What’s to Know: Ideally you will stay at the hotel and take the 6-day cure. Other programs include smoking cessation, weight loss and something called ‘lively legs’ which gets rid of varicose veins. But, these regimes are also available on a day basis to anyone staying nearby. Check the website for special offerings. A one week package (in shoulder season April – June) including accommodation, 4 thalasso treatments a day, breakfast and one other meal costs 1600 euros. One day of treatments alone is 100 euros.
What is Special: Guests staying at the hotel between November and March are given a Winter Sunshine Guarantee. If it rains for more than 4 consecutive hours you get a free night. Their weather is so perfect that, last year, they didn’t have to give away a single night.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~