We Spa Spies are often asked what makes the perfect spa therapist. This is trickier to answer than you'd imagine.
One of my most divine massage experiences was delivered by a wizened, toothless Thai woman on an exposed platform in a third-world village in the middle of a jungle. The facilities (a chicken coup with a steamer placed dangerously near one's bits) and ambience (roaming dogs and grinning children) wouldn’t have earned the spa any bubble rating at all. It’s doubtful that my ancient therapist would have been given a job here the UK: maybe Lady Bamford would have celebrated her ethnicity, but I can’t image her in a starched smock in a line of painted, plastic beauty therapists.
However, the fact her skills had been passed down through generations became immediately apparent as she began to work her magic and the surroundings faded.
The same is true elsewhere. Sometimes therapists working in four or three bubble spas are as good as those you find in five bubble luxury.
But how do we tell if a therapist is 'good', 'really good' or just 'okay'?
While composing the GSG reader’s survey, we had a discussion in the office about the qualities we as Spa Spies look for in a therapist. What became immediately clear was that first impressions count.
Too young, too fake, too many tattoos or piercings are off-putting for many, but might be perfect for you - especially if you are young, tattooed and pierced yourself. A therapist wearing lots of make-up gives the message that the products aren’t natural or organic. If appearances are important to you, or you are having a beauty treatment, you may appreciate her perfectly applied layers.
Age, of course, is relative. I like my therapist to be old enough to look as though she has had lots of experience and therefore deliver a great treatment. My ideal bench-mark would be 30 and over. “Wizened” is also fine. My teenage daughter on the other hand would feel more comfortable with someone who knows about snapchat and vines (not the winemaking variety).
My feeling is that I’m about to take off my clothes or entrust my delicate epidermis to a stranger’s fingertips, I want that stranger to at least look trustworthy and clean: so, much as I would enjoy being manhandled by Johnny Depp in other circumstances, Captain Jack Sparrow would not be my ideal masseur.
I’ve had a few male masseurs and all have been fine, but it is initially harder to relax, especially if they are attractive. I don’t want anyone I fancy to see my without my Spanx, at least not before they’ve got to know me...
Although I joked that my Russian banya experience was the ultimate female fantasy, I was happy that female staff members were nearby (albeit in another room) while I was spanked with leaves by semi-naked, manly Slavs. I personally find a bit of camp can be reassuring.
While I believe in equality and women’s rights in the real world, in Spa World, I like my male and/or female therapist to be willingly, happily servile, with as little personality as possible. Jokes are out. Conversation: please God no. I think the manner of a kindly GP would be perfect, without the arrogance or waiting times. And while they're probably under some legal obligation to tell me to drink water (sorry to be semantic, but it should actually be 'fluid'), it's surely way too bleedin' obvious to count as genuinely enlightening post-treatment advice.
Composure is also important. As the aim is to relax, I want to feel my therapist is confident in her own skills and abilities. I recently had a young therapist who spoke really fast and whose hands shook. Once she started, she was clearly very good and I did eventually enjoy myself, but it took a while for me to trust she knew what she was doing. Stamina is also essential - your five bubble-luxury therapist may lag to a three-bubble after eight clients.
While a therapist may learn basic massage skills and techniques, ultimately it is her intuition and ability to tune into her client that raises her above average. A good massage is competently given and will work. A great massage is an art form, with the therapist sensitive and accomplished enough to be able to adapt to your body, improvise her moves with perfect rhythm, pressure and pace, and deliver the odd unique and perfectly executed flourish. A brilliant therapist will play your body like a Stradivarius, a tedious one will strum you like a Ukelele.
Ultimately, however, the only way to know a good therapist is through trial and error. I would recommend reading the treatment reviews in the Good Spa Guide, especially for the four-bubble spas, as you can find fabulous therapists anywhere, even in remote jungle villages. It might simply be the décor or lack of facilities that let a spa down, but the therapists may still deliver five-bubble luxury treatments, and as a result, you can often get a bargain.