KOH SAMUI, THAILAND
BEST FOR: A budget-friendly super relaxing break either for just a tweak or an all-out MOT
NOT FOR: Those just looking for sun, sea and sand. You need to get stuck into a programme
After the 11-hour flight to Bangkok it will be another few hours before you’re stumbling out of Koh Samui’s adorable little airport (like a landing strip in a lush green garden) and climbing wearily into the minivan Absolute Sanctuary sends for guests. Do not, however, let the prospect of this somewhat gruelling journey put you off. Honestly. Thailand is the best place in the world for well-priced spa stays of all types but it is hard to think of anywhere else – in Thailand or elsewhere – that offers such good value for money as this. AbSanc – a breezy resort dotted with frangipane trees on a hillside about a mile in from the north-east coast of the island – is an absolute bargain. At certain times of the year you can get a week’s stay here, flights from Britain included, for under £1,000 – and you’re hard pushed to get three nights in even the most basic British retreat for that. So while you may well be almost incoherent with tiredness by the time you’re sitting at the open-air reception desk, checking in, a quick look at the treatment prices as you sort out your schedule should cheer you up. An hour of reflexology costs 650 Thai baht, about £12. Ninety minutes of four-handed massage, 2,800 Thai baht or £50 – a quarter of what you’d pay in the Caribbean or Maldives. An hour of Indian head massage, 1,600 or £29. And with an early night to sleep off the jetlag you should wake up the next morning recovered and ready to go – whether that’s to start a thorough detox, devote the week to spa treatments, yoga, Pilates, or to just try a bit of everything on offer.
Imbued with a sense of purpose, and most professionally run, this is a proper wellness resort, at once a yoga centre, detox retreat and regular spa, with numerous permutations of weight-loss, detox, yoga, anti-stress and burnout programmes. A key element in its popularity is the quality of the therapists. As everyone knows, it is the quality of the therapists that makes or breaks a spa. Mostly Thai, all here range from good to extremely good; some trained at the Chiva Som Academy, one, at least, the sweet Ting, purveyor of a vigorous, perfect aromatherapy massage, is a magic-touch veteran of the very much more expensive Kamalaya, on the other side of Koh Samui. The infectiously sporty thirtysomething German woman who runs the yoga and Pilates Reformer programmes along with Thai assistants exudes energy and empathy. And the Australian spa director here is reason alone to come.
One of those super-knowledgable nutritionists that Australia’s universities turn out, 37 year old Janelle Castle will question you, listen to you, look at you, and then deliver the most straightforwardly sensible, comprehensible diagnosis you could hope for. “Take magnesium supplement: almost everyone I see is deficient,” she advises. “And a probiotic, of course, to boost your vital gut flora.” Fans of her down to earth manner and sound advice include members of the Qatari and Moroccan royal families who could presumably afford to go pretty much anywhere, which says much for her. Incidentally, the surprise, working here, Janelle says, has been discovering how similar guests’ problems are. “Before I came here I anticipated encountering all sorts of unusual conditions and complaints,”she says. “But it’s really amazed me how so many guests suffer from the same few problems.” Bloating, digestive issues, and tiredness head the list, so she has become particularly expert on those.
Most of us crave losing weight at a spa and you’ll come away thinner whether you book yourself on one of the three, five or seven-day detox programmes or eat the regular menu. You can fast here, if you want, on a minimal intake of herb teas or fruit or vegetable juices, or you can stick to a lo-calorie or medium-calorie diet of delicious and nutritious vegetables, salads, fruits and a little chicken or fish. As well as all the usual treatments – massages, wraps and facials – you can have colonics or manual lymphatic drainage massages to declog you of all the yuck that builds up in all of us. Sessions in the infra red sauna also help the detox process.
Exercise is implicitly encouraged but not in the least mandatory, so you can do as much or as little as you want. Days start with an optional walk down to the coast at 7am and 8am meditation. The first yoga class takes place at 8,30am, in a large, airy, air-conditioned room with floor to ceiling windows looking out onto a shady tangle of shrubs and palms, followed by further sessions after breakfast and starting again at 4.30pm, when the heat of the day has cooled a little. If you’re feeling stressed off your head and need to wind down, there aren’t many better remedies than that. There are at least 25 sessions a week – varying from Hatha yoga, hot, flow, and yin-yang to yoga-Pilates, so you don’t get bored – with classes taking place each day, too (none of that weekend wind-down you get at so many spas in Europe). Pilates Reformer classes are another area of focus, with the airy room full of state of the art equipment attracting ever-increasing numbers for the Boot Camp week. But if you’ve arrived half burnt out and need to lie still and do nothing while processing whatever’s happened to you, you can just park yourself on a temptingly placed shaded sunbed by the pool, rising only to drift over to the juice bar or to have a massage or steam-room session or whatever when it suits you. And as the spa treatments focus on those that yield results – basically, permutations of massage – you could easily spend a lazily indulgent but rewarding week concentrating just on those.
A quiet friendliness permeates the resort but you can be utterly anonymous here. Even when it’s not full there’s no coralling sense of everyone being part of a group, so the resort works well as a retreat centre, too. Evenings tend to be extremely quiet, with the only group socialising an optional outing to the Friday night market breaking up the routine of dinner in the often silent restaurant and then an early retreat to rooms. Happily, treatments are administered until about 9pm. Thai massage, delivered by Nok or one of her colleagues on canopied open-air beds in a pavilion off the spa centre, feels extra stretchy and satisfying when you’re being twisted and bent to a tropical nighttime soundtrack of cicadas and frogs and with the sweet scent of frangipane.
At time you do have to remind yourself what you’re paying. You just have to close your eyes to the slightly alarming Moroccan-inspired colour scheme, for instance, (turquoise, orange and pink feature in the rooms) and the ridiculously gloomy overhead-only lighting in the rather tired looking restaurant. The spa treatment rooms are a bit poky, the stairs that link the three main levels would be too much for anyone with bad knees, and it’s about a mile inland from the beach. In addition, the staff are so used to dealing with regular guests who return again and again they can forget that firsttimers (especially those with an aversion to reading brochures) need to be talked through the various programmes and to be told about the location of the steam and infrared sauna rooms (tucked away on the other side of the pool from the spa centre and easy to miss). But these are the only criticisms one could throw at this place. If you’re looking for a quick-fix week in the sun that not only won’t break the bank but will render detoxing or weight loss easy and make relaxation a given, you should absolutely love AbSanc.
NEED TO KNOW
Ab Sanc opened in 2008 in airy, two-storey, buff-painted buildings arranged over a series of frangipane-tree-lined spacious hillside terraces linked by steps and now has 38 rooms, a spa centre, detox centre, yoga and Pilates studios, infinity pool and restaurant. It’s the first destination spa resort to be set up by the Bangkok-based Absolute Yoga group. Launched in 2002, this started off running yoga classes in the capital and with eight yoga centres around the country is now the largest yoga studio group in Thailand. It also operates Absolute Pilates classes around Thailand and a healthy food operation, Absolute Fit Food. Programmes at the resort include yoga, Pilates Reformer, detox, Be Fit, weight management, juice fasting and spa. You can book a package with a holiday operator and get flights, transfers, room, meals, a daily spa treatment and one of these programmes bundled up in one prepaid price, or you can just book yourself a room and decide what treatments, meals, etc you want when you pitch up. This can work out cheaper if you don’t really want a busy daily programme. (Massage session quickly get booked up, though, so if you don’t do things through a tour operator it’s best to sort out your schedule as soon as you arrive, if not before.) The resort also operates as a yoga teaching centre, with month-long courses that turn yoga enthusiasts into yoga teachers, so if you’re thinking of a change of career there’s that option, too.
In addition to the 12 or 13 group yoga and Pilate classes a day and spa treatments there are sessions to book with the dozen or visiting practioners. These include specialists who can provide pretty much every alternative therapy going, from cranio sacral, crystal reiki healing, iridology, naturopathy, energy healing and polarity therapy to astrology and palmistry sessions.
Although it would be agreeable to be able to walk straight from the resort onto a beach, that drawback is compensated for: a free shuttle makes the 10-minute journey between Ab Sanc and the gloriously big, broad, sandy bay at Chaweng Beach every day from11am until 5pm. That means that on days when you don’t have a treatment scheduled or class to join you can spend long delicious hours on the sand or in the sea, and if you’re free for just a few hours after lunch you can still spend time on the beach and be back for the start of the afternoon classes at 4pm. Time on the beach feels like a wonderful bonus. And a massage or reflexology session on the beach makes another bargain buy. Administered on a stripy-cotton-canopied raised bed set up on the sand by the friendly family at the Sea Safari beach bar who will also rent you a sunbed for £1, Bee or her mother – the former a part-time and the latter a retired therapist at Bangkok hotel spas – this will cost about £6 and while away an hour most agreeably. If you want to take a taxi to the beach, that’s about £5 each way.
Rooms all have a tv, and thanks to a neighbouring mast there’s good free wifi, 24/7.
Gourmet meals of superfoods mean you never feel deprived even when eating quite minimally. Fresh and healthy all the way, meals focus on high-nutrient, low-calorie, unprocessed, chemical free ingredients, beautifully presented. It’s food to nourish, heal and set you on a new path. Not wholly vegetarian, meals mostly comprise vegetables, salads and fruit, but also include fish and poultry. Detox guests who want to fast can follow either an Ultimate Detox, a full fast involving just herbal teas and juices, a Living Foods Detox, with two light raw food meals a day, or a Vegetarian Detox with two lightly cooked meals a day. (Accompanied by daily colonics and yoga, these produce such sensational results that AbSanc has frequently been named best spa in Asia for weight loss.) Weight falls off thrillingly quickly.
As you’ll probably have been in bed by about 9pm, you’re likely to be up early each morning, and it is the nicest thing to saunter down to this poolside bar at 6 or 7am for a fresh juice or smoothie. You get two a day if you’ve booked a package or if not you can order them as you wish. The waiter whizzes away to order, and there’s a sheetful of combinations to try. Tropical fruits top the list and it’s a daily delight to dig your straw into a new mix: a Happy Belly, pineapple, ginger and coriander, say, or a Liver Flush of orange, lemon, giner, garlic, olive oil and paprika. Pure joy, to sit at the bar to drink it, listening to birdsong and relishing that limpidity particular to tropical early mornings, before the heat of the day has set in. Breakfast proper, like all meals, is served in the Love Kitchen restaurant, on the next level below the pool, at the foot of the resort. Most guests like to eat outside on the terrace here at breakfast and lunch, enjoying the shade, and inside for dinner, when mosquitoes can be zooming about. Unless you’re on a strict detox programme, you can choose two items from the long, multi-page menus at each meal, which feels bizarrely exciting and generous and masks the low calorie intake. All dishes are sugar-free, gluten-free, additive-free and tend to taste bland until your palate has become accustomed to the lack of saltiness. By day three, they’re tasting heavenly. Breakfast choices include coconut yogurt with banana, papaya and pineapple; muesli with oats, raisins, banana, papaya and soya milk; tofu scramble with peppers and onion. For lunch or dinner, there are dishes such as Broccoli soup with asparagus, garlic and onion; lentil and celeriac salad; teriyaki chicken with soba; tandoor chicken with quinoa couscous; three-bean quinoa salad, all delivered with an engagingly sweet smile by Patti, a ladyboy waiter with a diamond earring.
PRICE: Healing Holidays offer seven nights from around £1000, flights included ((0)20 7843 3597; healingholidays.co.uk)
NEAREST AIRPORT: Koh Samui International Airport
TRANSFER TIME: Five minutes