by Kaz Cooke
First published in the Travel section of The Age, September 2005. After being fired ignominiously from commercial radio station, I went to a spa-salon-y sort of a place for a few days. It was three blocks from my house at the time. That was more than 10 years ago now, I could probably do with another waxing.
Monks and strange hermits used to go on retreats. They would skitter out to a desert cave with a stick and a loincloth, specialising in religious ravings brought on by malnutrition-induced psychosis. And they would come back after eating small lizards for a few years, with a very long beard and a blouse made from chewed swordgrass.
This was not what I was after. After a brief, punishing and humiliating brush with a corporate job, I was ‘let go’. With 48 hours' notice I was metaphorically left swaying in the street, clutching a payout and feeling dispirited and disoriented.
I needed a solo retreat and, briefly, I could afford more than a cave. But I wanted to leave with less body hair than when I arrived. And no lizards. I needed two days of room service and pretending I wasn't a mummy with a lake of puppy wee to clean up when I got home. I needed crisp white sheets and calm ladies who would rehydrate my elbows.
Word was that the Aurora Spa Retreat at the Prince Hotel in Melbourne's St Kilda had jooshed up considerably and taken on the silky mantle of a holistic retreat. I booked two nights at the Prince, ordered a menu of spa treatments and set off.
The Aurora Spa reception already feels like a hushed haven, and then it's up the spiral stone stairs to the lounge, where you can recline on suede ottomans or the cutting-edge version of a leather armchair (no arms) while waiting for a pampering or having a herbal tea afterwards. But first you need to change into your allotted chocolate-brown jersey jarmies and some plastic thongs with massaging nodules on the soles.
The trams to the city on Fitzroy Street sound like very distant thunder and the giant, mod Moorish-style screens on the floor-to-ceiling windows do their ancient job, allowing you to look out through them but shielding you from outside eyes.
My package is a yoga lesson, some waxing and tinting and a "slimwrap" (I didn't expect it to make me any thinner, but I wanted the experience of being wrapped up like fish and chips), then on day two, a massage, a facial and a horizontal hand and foot treatment, which involves being wrapped in flufforama white towels in a big recliner rocker and then being laid back with just toes and hands peeking out to be exfoliated, moisturised and polished.
If you're a racy, busy, stressed person, try a yoga lesson or a massage first so you don't get antsy during the other treatments. (And don't forget to take bathers for wet treatments such as wraps or rainshowers, or you'll have to wear the disposable paper G-string posing pouch. Euwww!)
Most therapists perform a small ritual before each treatment, when they may place warm stones (on top of a towel) on two chakra points. (Wasn't there a singer called Chakra Khan who did a song called Climb Every Woman?) Then the therapist asks you to imagine breathing in the colour blue, which will stream through the body replenishing every cell. I spent too long deciding between azure, turquoise and cobalt, but I'm sure it works for some people.
At other beauty emporiums I have variously experienced grubby surroundings, therapists who smelt like cigars, mean-spirited, endless chatter, being bluntly harangued about expensive unguents I must buy to counter various deformations, and having eyelash tint spilled all over my arm with the line "Oh dear, that won't come off". (Nail polish remover does the trick, if it ever happens to you.) Any of these scenarios would be unthinkable here.
A comparable experience can be had at the W Hotel on the wharf in Woolloomooloo, but I prefer Aurora to the Spa Chakra, particularly when you consider its strange questionnaire, which asked me endless questions including how often I had sex or ate organic food (I prefer sex with organic vegetables, I should have written).
At Aurora each room has a range of lighting - the usual dimmers and some side lighting - with the signature rattan shades casting a soothing pattern on the wall. Some rooms have an opaque glass shower cubicle in the corner to wash off cares, woes and seaweedy bits.
The same neutral earth colours and clean design lines prevail in the Prince hotel rooms: there are lots of handy dark-wood benches, shelves with invisible supports, and a flash TV and DVD player. And, yes, I got my white, crisp sheets and a blanket made from Aussie wool.
The all important in-room cosmetic set is a cool package of Aesop shampoo, conditioner, body wash and soap.
I had never been so moisturised in my life. Frankly, I don't think I'll ever be that moisturised again, despite the gentle hints of kindly staff about how to maintain myself. I'm just not the sort of person who can apply hand cream every time I wash my hands. (Did I mention how often a puppy wees?)
Those marks on the Prince's lobby floor were caused by my fingernails as I was dragged home by my family. Way to ruin a perfectly good manicure.
The verdict: An out-of-body, out-of-normal-life experience.