Not so very long ago, spa breaks were the exclusive preserve of ladies of a certain age and a certain social class. Not any more. These days you can enjoy a weekend away at a spa hotel, including evening meals and treatments, from around £250. But are they worth it? Last month I went to Thoresby Hall, in rural Nottinghamshire, to find out.
A good spa should be a place that unwinds your knotted shoulder muscles, pampers your body and soothes your mind. It should feel exclusive, without being snobby, and the service thoughtful without being in-your-face. And it should also look the part, something that Thoresby Hall, a stately 18th building set in serene grounds, certainly does. Many of the grand rooms are still in use, though the hotel itself is mainly a modern, purpose-built block which wraps itself discreetly around the back of the old hall.
The spa facilities are - as they should be - spotless. There is a range of sauna rooms, from the standard sauna to an aromatherapy cave. There is a Turkish steam room, with an ice cave right next door for the masochistic, and a giant jacuzzi spa pool with in-built massage showers that pummel your neck so hard that it tries to retreat, tortoise-like, into your body. There's also an 18-metre swimming pool and a relaxation room with vibrating water beds and tea, coffee and fresh fruit. For an extra charge (£25 for a group) you can also try the Rhassoul, an organic mud treatment that is supposed to absorb toxins from the body.
The spa package includes two three-hour sessions in this area, plus two 25-minute treatments. I opted for a facial and a head and shoulder massage. Both were relaxing, although the latter was a little lacking in force - my masseur needed to spend some time building up her arm strength in the tiny hotel gym.
So far, so calming. But part of the spa experience should also surely be light, healthy food, and this is where, for me, Thoresby Hall disappoints. The food is more institutional than inspirational, and though that's bound to please those who prefer their puddings steamed with custard, it doesn't seem in keeping with the spa experience. Perhaps they should think of a separate menu that emphasises healthier options?
The dilemma Thoresby Hall has is that, while the spa guests stay in the hotel, there are also plenty of other non-spa visitors - of a considerably older demographic, who like their food to be as old-fashioned as the Hall itself. You know you're one of the younger guests when you overhear discontented mumbling at the front desk about having to dine as late as 7pm.
Thoresby Hall is obviously not designed to compete with the Babington Houses of this world, but a few changes could easily have created that elusive sense of luxury: bolting your toiletries to the wall, when you've bothered to get good Molton Brown ones, is a bit stingy. Why not just have mini bottles and resign yourself to their loss?
These faults aside, there is much to recommend Thoresby Hall. The spa is excellent and there are also plenty of other activities which can be organised with the hotel, such as horse riding, archery and salsa dancing. They also organise weekends around a theme, for example yoga or craft-making. Clumber Park is also just down the road, where you'll find some wonderful walking and rather good cakes at the National Trust-run cafe. Sherwood Forest is in striking distance too.
For me, though, the highlight at Thoresby Hall was actually the beautiful grounds of the stately home, which at 9am on a Saturday morning still had a wonderful shroud of mist, and fluffy sheep looking rather astonished at two joggers passing by.
· Thoresby Hall, Thoresby Park, Nr. Ollerton, Nottinghamshire NG22 9WH. Tel: 01623 821000 or 0800 1382633