“Breathe out Miss Emma, please. Three big breaths.”
I do as I am told, slowly and self-consciously.
“Is she looking at my spine alignment?”
“Is she monitoring my lung capacity?”
“Can she see my thighs wobbling under the crisp, white sheet?”
Shhh! I hiss at my subconscious as I breathe so deeply and thoroughly – scraping the depths of my woefully unexercised lungs – that I make myself light-headed. I open my eyes on the third breath like a naughty child to sneak a peek at what this ninja-footed, softly spoken therapist is up to only to realise that all she’s doing is letting my own breath warm her hands in preparation for my spa treatment. Oh.
I’ve always had this problem with spas. I have never reached that nirvana moment of happy gormlessness where your body and mind melt away leaving only the basest of instincts functioning: touch and sensation.
I’m always firmly in the room, listening to the plinky plonky music, worrying about the tension in my neck and anticipating the next painful jab as the masseuse digs their thumbs into my shoulder blades in a vain attempt to undo years of slouching in front of computers. I always leave scolding myself, berating myself with mantras: “I will sit up straight. I will go to yoga. I will stretch five times a day.” All forgotten, of course, the next time I’m on a deadline and hunched like a skeksis from the Dark Crystal, my face glowing a sickly ivory from the low light of my old laptop screen.
But then I have clearly never been to the right spa.
The Raffles Dubai Spa was different. The setting was familiar, dimly lit, five-star reserved luxury, the air filled with the smell of mysterious unguents and the halls filled with clients, padding around in pristine dressing gowns like contented ghosts.
Sari, my tiny masseuse, had hands that felt like the inside of a lily. When she poured various oils into my palms to help me tailor-make my massage and later held and kneaded my fingers and wrists, it was like holding hands with an exquisite, finely-made doll.
I was about to have a hot stone massage with an oil that I had hand-picked and that smelled vaguely of oranges, frangipani and almond blossom. Sari told me I had chosen a relaxing oil and it was a good choice. Phew, good. First intimidating spa job done.
I had never had a hot stone massage before and had always thought that it looks and sounds silly – all those women in the pictures, blissfully face down with a line of rocks on their backs, it never looked like my idea of a decent massage. What I stupidly didn’t realise is that they don’t actually sit lines of stones along your spine. It’s actually a far more physical and tactile experience where stones are heated and rubbed into your prepped and oiled skin and kneaded deep into the muscles like pushing flint into dough.
Sari started to move along my neck, which was rigid with a familiar tension, the tendons stretched like strings across a banjo, ready to snap at any moment. But Sari had fingers of granite and, despite saying she was going for light to medium pressure, pushed her hands into my screaming muscles, taking me to that embarrassing point when you’re about to release an inadvertent squeak of pain before easing off. If this was her light to medium pressure her hard must be like Medieval torture.
So far so expected. As she moved down my body, performing that strange but chaste massage striptease, revealing one limb at a time from the full body shroud, that irritating voice piped back up again.
“When did I last shave my legs?”
“I bet her last client was that supermodel with legs like Gisele Bünchen that’s sunbathing by the pool.”
“I hope she isn’t offended by my wonky big toes.”
Then I heard the clink of the stones and the first burst of contact heat spread across my neck like wildfire, blossoming into a rose-tinted glow as the warmth slowly faded and the stone continued its arc down the curled wing of my shoulder blade.
It was like touching a match to paper, singeing it and watching the heat eat away at the surface and slowly fade away. It was unlike anything I had ever felt before. It was a sort of controlled pain that took me to the edge of wincing every time a new stone was applied and left me exhaling deeply as the fire dimmed. I had to remind myself that Sari was holding the stones, so they couldn’t possibly be as hot as I thought they were. But with my eyes closed, face down and blinded, I felt everything more.
All this might sound like I was straying into 50 Shades territory, but somewhere in the mixture of those hot stones and oil and Sari’s steely fingers, something remarkable happened. I stopped thinking about the slight bend in my spine. I stopped wondering if she could see any cellulite on my thighs. I almost forgot to breathe as I slipped into mindlessness.
My brain went dark. Not blank, exactly, but as though someone had turned down the dimmer switch and all I could concentrate on was the slow swish of those stones, wait for the first pulse of heat and the feel of the heavy air on the rapidly cooling skin after the stone had carved its path on my flesh. For the next twenty minutes my whole world was the clink of changing stones and the soft padding of Sari’s feet across the tiled floor.
She cradled my head, supporting what must have been, by that point, a cannonball of dead weight as she pushed the remaining stones against and under my shoulder blades and draped a dark cloth across my eyes. Then, too soon, or it could have been hours later, she coughed delicately.
“Miss Emma, the massage is finished. I will leave the room while you get dressed and take you to the relaxation room.”
“Hmmm waaa? Yaaaa.” Was my articulate response.
And for the first time that I can remember I had to concentrate on reminding myself how to move my legs. It was like being half awake, in that space of sleep purgatory when your mind is active but your limbs haven’t quite caught up. Except this time there was no panic, no jolt, there was just liquid bones and a mind that was moving at the rate of a two-legged tortoise. Or Joey Essex on a good day.
As I levered myself off the bed, I honestly thought that I might melt into a pool on the floor the moment I touched the ground, like a scene from Alex Mack. I didn’t, rather disappointedly, and was perfectly able to struggle into my clothes, even managing to remember how bra hooks worked, before floating and across the hall into a curtained room with nothing but tea, loungers and dried fruit.
I was given a about ten minutes to scoop my thoughts together before the absurdly handsome spa manager came to tell me that my friends were out and the chef was sending something to my room for afternoon tea. All I could manage was a wide, moronic smile and a heavy-headed nod, which probably made me look like a narcoleptic.
No words. I didn’t want to speak yet because I was scared that words would break the only spa spell I have ever been under and I wanted to hold onto it, just that little bit longer, before the world came rushing back in.
Raffles Spa focuses on rejuvenating treatments that are inspired by Asian, Middle Eastern and European traditions and is set within the Raffles Dubai Hotel in the Raffles Botanical Garden. The seven soothing treatment rooms, including a couple’s suite with private whirlpool and an outside retreat are open to guests of the hotel, members and non-members by appointment. See a list of the treatments on offer on their website here.
I had a 60 minute Traditional Hot Stone Massage, which costs £78.
For more information call the spa on +971 4314 9870 or Email firstname.lastname@example.org.