Health & Grooming | Chronicles of a Spa Junkie

Spa Junkie at… SHA Wellness Clinic

Our incognito reporter experiences a stunningly situated macrobiotic retreat in Spain

Spa Junkie at… SHA Wellness Clinic

May 20 2011
Spa Junkie

Part: 1 | 2

Thursday lunch. It’s the Dukan tribe out in force today, as several of the girls order “pure protein”. “Nothing else on the plate,” repeats one of them – twice – to the waiter. “It’s Protein Thursday.”

I have to say they look great on this diet; but as the talk turns to ketosis and bad breath I decide to step in and challenge their thinking. I ask if they’d read that there is major new evidence that high-protein diets are directly associated with a host of diseases, and that the same studies show that wholegrain foods and primarily plant-based diets are best for your long-term health. The response is a mix of uninterested and defensive. Anyone heard of macrobiotics? I ask. The sum total of knowledge at the table: very restrictive, a lot of grey food, Gwyneth and Madonna are/were on it.

Despite these two famous followers, it becomes clear that macrobiotics have got stuck in the 1960s. A web search turns up very few retreats specialising in this diet philosophy. I find only one in Europe: SHA Wellness Clinic, just a hop, skip and jump away from the infamous boozy-Brits-on-holiday party town, Alicante, in a nearby village called El Albir.

The SHA story turns out to be truly unique. Apparently, Dr Alfredo Bataller, the resort’s founder, suffered long-standing digestive problems and, despite many visits to the great and the good of the medical profession, no one could figure out what was wrong. Then, about 10 years ago, he was diagnosed with early-stage cancer. He refused chemotherapy and, with the advice of a local naturopath, began following a diet inspired by Dr Michio Kushi, a disciple of George Ohsawa, the Japanese philosopher who originally developed the macrobiotic diet.

According to Bataller’s son, Alfredo Jr, his father remains in remission to this day. So grateful was Bataller that he gate-crashed Kushi’s 80th birthday celebration, a total stranger bearing gifts. A year later the two dined at the Bataller family home in El Albir. Kushi felt that this exact spot, more than the tens of other plots he had seen, had the right energy for a macrobiotic centre; a year later the family home was demolished and SHA was erected.


The first thing I notice as I sit in the almost empty dining room is not the view but the glowing complexions of the staffers. I enquire after their diets; yes, they are all on macrobiotic. It’s not mandatory at SHA, but they have all experienced such a broad range of benefits since being on the diet that none could imagine going back to a life of pescaíto frito and paella.

The menu at SHA personifies healthy gastronomy: “Healthy ingredients meet high cuisine,” says Pablo Montoro, the diminutive, El Bulli-trained head chef.

I take advantage of not being on a programme yet and order off-menu. The garden vegetable salad arrives in a glass dome filled with white wood smoke that has been injected into the dish before serving. On lifting the lid, the table is engulfed in a bellow of wood and spiced smoke – a lot of pomp and ceremony for a few vegetables. A delicate tuna tataki on brown-rice mushroom risotto follows. I eat every last morsel on the plate. If this is what macrobiotic is all about, I have found the Holy Grail.

Ready for a little siesta, I head to my room. The resort is vast, a modern structure spread across many layers, and even at 50 per cent occupancy it feels empty and, on a cold and overcast day like today, a little soulless.

The rooms, in contrast, are as good as a spa will ever get. The staff encourage you to rest and meditate, resist your usual routine – but if you can’t there’s a large plasma screen, great music system and Wi-Fi throughout. Guests can choose from six different high-tech mattresses and a range of pillows that include Aloe Vera and Active – there is even a linen and room essence menu. It’s much more than very comfortable.

My first appointment is with the agenda co-ordinator, a member of staff dedicated purely to ensuring that your programme runs smoothly. “If you are not feeling well or losing enough weight, or you are not happy with any treatment, you just call me, vale?” It’s like having a PA on call to accommodate your every request, correctly direct any concerns or questions, or tweak your programme if you are not achieving desired results.

A deep-tissue massage finishes my first-day induction to SHA. I have an expertly performed rub-down, despite the masseur literally dripping in sweat. I think he felt almost more uncomfortable than I did. After a little miso broth for supper, I’m asleep by 9.30pm.


My first appointment is with Kenneth, the macrobiotic consultant, whose piercing blue eyes seem almost supernatural as he sits me down and starts examining my face.

Physiognomy, or face-reading, is one of the methods he uses to diagnose me. It’s quite unnerving as we sit in silence; he examines the whites of my eyes, observes the skin just below them, checks if the cheeks appear full, flushed, sallow, gaunt, grey or pale, and if the lips are thin, full, pale or red. He indicates the area beneath my eye. “There is quite a lot of heat around your liver and kidneys; your small intestine is congested, and the redness on your nose tells me all is not well with your stomach.”

After this there is an incredibly long list of questions probing into both my physical and emotional health. Kenneth then creates my programme and gives me a quick dummy’s guide to macrobiotics. “The macrobiotic diet is much more than just a weight-loss or detox plan. It is a lifestyle choice that integrates physical and spiritual health.” It’s a low-fat, high-fibre diet. The basic principle is that 60 per cent of your food source should come from wholegrains, 30 per cent should be made up of vegetables, and a small amount of proteins – fish and nuts – and oils make up the rest.

Soy products play a major part in macrobiotics; miso is the holiest of all ingredients. According to Kenneth, it belongs to the highest class of medicines, those that prevent disease and strengthen the body.

Next it’s time for the “Doctor Doctor”. The people at SHA value conventional Western medicine as highly as the alternative treatments, and the two sides work in tandem to create your cure. This combination style is known as integrative medicine. As I wait, I read through the 41-page services and treatments guide. It’s exhaustive, encompassing everything from a personalised genetic analysis to a complete aesthetic service that stops inches before a full-on facelift. SHA offers every kind of body and laser treatment, a sleep disorder unit, even cosmetic dentistry. The treatments come at very significant prices; but then I’ve heard the specialists are the best in the world.

Finally, after a 45-minute delay, I see the doctor for my weigh-in. They measure my height, weight, and fat-to-muscle ratio, and perform a series of blood tests. And the same long list of questions, including “Are you stressed out?”, “How many hours do you sleep?” and “How many units of alcohol do you drink?”

The remainder of the day is filled with back-to-back treatments – a colonic, a massage, some acupuncture, and check-ups with the doctors and nurses. This is followed by a leisurely hour in the pool and steam room. Very light miso broth, again, for supper.


I wake up ravenous. Macrobiotic breakfast – “breaking the fast” – is a delightful challenge. On the detox programme you have vegetable miso soup followed by rice porridge and a sprinkle of nuts.

I am poring over the health plan, giggling at some of the recommendations (“Keep active by washing and sweeping floors, windows and clothes”). Looking at the affluent ladies sitting next to me, I wonder when was the last time anyone in this establishment washed their own clothes, let alone a floor.

Like many of the more clinical and diet-focused spas, such as the Mayr and the Palace Merano, SHA does not cater to super-sporty types. Although there is a small but adequate gym, there is no modern gym equipment, no Pilates reformers, no fast-flowing yoga classes. Most of the classes cater to a much older, and often less healthy, clientele; so for me, breaking a sweat is not a realistic expectation. “The next time you come,” says Alfredo Jr, the resort’s managing director, “we will have a state-of-the-art gym, three times the size of this one, with great views looking over the ocean.” He gestures to the coastline and eagerly scribbles down the sports equipment I recommend. But for now I have to create my own cardio programme; so I take to the hills. The resort is in the Sierra Helada Nature Park, and the five-kilometre run to the lighthouse is stunning.

In the evening it’s another colonic, a check-up with the nurse, an acupuncture session and some time in the steam room. Dinner is delicious white fish and vegetables.


As is often the case, I awaken feeling great on Day Four. Daily colonics and the exclusion of nasties – coffee, alcohol, meat, dairy and sugar – mean my energy is surging; I realise I’ll have to take my fitness regime into my own hands. The run was so spectacular yesterday I decide to call my appointment co-ordinator and have her “clear my diary”. “Are you sure you don’t want to do the Physia appointment?” She reminds me it’s the latest cellular buttock-toning treatment, and that SHA is one of the few places you can have it. “And the lady won’t be back till the last day of your stay,” she warns, “so if you did want a course you would not be able to have one.” No, thanks; I opt instead for a hike up some of the most spectacular coastline I have ever seen – eight kilometres straight up with, at the summit, views so spectacular even the most cynical of us would sigh a “wow!” I remind myself to get the spa to put it on the activity schedule.

When I get back, it’s time for my reflexology appointment. The therapist I’m seeing is revered in his line of work; even the receptionists look excited as I am sent to the treatment room. “I take a holistic and physical approach to reflexology,” says the tall, good-looking man as he grabs my feet and stares me straight in the eyes. “First, I’m going to read your feet and see how you are doing emotionally; and then I will perform traditional touch-point reflexology to determine your physical ailments. Please; just relax and close your eyes, and try not to think about what I am thinking, as this may impact on the healing.”

Of course, all I can think about is what he is thinking, and whether he can tell that I am thinking about what he is thinking. Like an old typewriter, I continuously have to push my mind back into an empty place. Finally, I stop thinking.

He finishes and puts on the light. “I can tell that you leave nothing to chance. You control and plan every aspect and minute of your life.” Is he saying I’m a control freak? “I’m not saying anything. Your feet are.”


“It’s loud and clear. Your immune system is very weak. You give a lot of energy in your daily life, and your job is to talk a lot. You are absorbing too much work and stress. You should eliminate and filter more. Some trauma happened to you as a child and you are still carrying a very deep sadness. You should address that; don’t carry it with you for the next 30 years. Your kidneys and liver tell me you have deep-set insecurities; you are terrified of failing, and letting people down. This is what drives the control… how did you say it? ‘freak’, right?”

Right. But hang on… my feet said all of that?

I’m rendered speechless. In awe and with a few tears in my eyes, I leave the room. I’m told it’s normal to cry after one of his sessions.

That evening I have a lonely miso in my bedroom; I can’t face the thought of company.

Spa Junkie pays for all her own travel, accommodation and treatments.