A swimming pool does not make a spa: managing expectations before booking a spa day 

Since the times of Roman Baths, humans have gathered in locations dedicated to the healing powers of water. As a person born under a water sign, or as a complete coincidence, I enjoy spending time in or near water. It is where I find it easiest to relax. My fondness of baths is a bit of a joke with some friends. My preference for luxury bath products is an indulgence kindly supported by friends and family. However, every now and then, as a special treat, I like to leave the comfort of my bathtub and enjoy a day at a spa.

Planning a spa break

This week I was attending a communication workshop in Edinburgh. It was due to start on Monday morning and as a treat I was going to travel to Edinburgh on Sunday afternoon, check into a hotel and enjoy a spa afternoon before getting a good night’s sleep to focus on the workshop.

The workshop was at the Macdonald Holyrood Hotel so I checked their website and indeed, there was a spa, a treatment list and a reasonable Sunday night tariff. They even advertised spa breaks! In advance of my visit, I booked a treatment. I happily packed my book, swimsuit and flip flops and headed off to Edinburgh.

My spa break experience

After a beautiful lunch with friends at the Royal Mile restaurant, Angels with Bagpipes, I wandered down the Royal Mile and around the Scottish Parliament to the Holyrood Hotel. It is a smart hotel. The receptionist was friendly and efficient and I was soon checked in and in my room. Just before I headed down to the spa for my treatment I looked for a robe to wear down to the spa – there was no such luxury. That was the first thing that was a bit odd for a hotel that offers ‘spa breaks’.

I checked in to the leisure club reception and had a look around at the ‘spa’. The ‘spa’ was a swimming pool in a room with a low ceiling and no windows. There were a sauna and steam room, which was out-of-order. I asked about a hot tub or solarium but there wasn’t one. I was pretty disappointed. The time I had planned dipping between water therapies and lounging with my magazine was now not as appealing.

I was shown to a relaxing room ahead of my treatment which was comfortable and had refreshments. I then had a 60-minute deep tissues massage which was excellent. The therapist was knowledgeable, she worked extremely hard on my back and she made recommendations about products and future treatments. Afterwards, I did not go to the ‘spa’ area, I went back to my room… and you guessed it…. had a bath!!


This is not the first time that I have felt underwhelmed with a ‘spa’ experience although the hotel in many other ways delivered a good experience with my overnight stay and the business event the next day. The problem seems to be that hotels with a swimming pool try to access the lucrative market which is the ‘spa break’.

A great spa break experience

I think a spa has to offer more than a pool and a steam room/sauna option. Most leisure centres provide these facilities. A spa is about a range of water therapies. It’s a journey when you work through different pressures and temperatures, textures, lights, sounds and smells to achieve a content body and mind. I have visited some spa specialists and they have been wonderful stays. They understand the spa experience includes every aspect of your stay at the hotel from check-in to check-out.

The little things to get right:
•    the journey to the spa should not involve public areas, like the foyer
•    providing a robe and slippers
•    adequately furnishing comfortable lounge areas
•    amazing standards of cleanliness
•    facilities that were all in working order (including lighting!)
•    ice water stations
•    well-trained staff
•    signs and guidance on getting the best out of the spa
•    an atmosphere that is quite distinct from that of a leisure club

My one favourite spa is Seaham Hall in the north-east of England. It is heavenly. I also recommend the spas at Edinburgh’s Sheraton Grand Hotel, the Fairmont Hotel in St Andrews and Cameron House on Loch Lomond. I have not yet had the pleasure but I am very keen to try out the Old Course Hotel spa in St Andrews. No doubt – I will report back!


2 thoughts on “A swimming pool does not make a spa: managing expectations before booking a spa day 

  1. Hi Nicola, I totally agree with the word Spa. …. It is so misused these days.
    The Blytheswood in Glasgow on the other hand is fantastic and they have every right to offer a Spa facility because that is what you are getting when you arrive.

    Lorraine x


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