Health & Grooming | Chronicles of a Spa Junkie

Spa Junkie in… Cap Ferrat

Our covert reporter experiences unadulterated luxury at a hotel spa in the South of France

Spa Junkie in… Cap Ferrat

Image: Jay Yeo

August 05 2011
Spa Junkie

Part: 1 | 2

The road to the billionaires’ playground is certainly a picturesque one. The narrow road I’m being chauffeured along bends and curves, revealing charming little ports, quaint villages, châteaux neatly clinging to the cliffs and, in the distance, superyachts gliding across the azure waters of the Med. I stuff down a sense of unapologetic excitement as I pull into the drive of my hotel; there is something to be said for pure, unadulterated luxury – and this grande dame is that made manifest.


“We are the haute couture of spas,” says Bruno Guillard, the food and beverage manager, as he oversees my check-in at the extremely elegant and rarefied Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat. “Our philosophy is bespoke. It’s that simple: no two of our clients are the same, so we don’t offer a tick-a-box-and-hope-for-the-best spa package. Instead, we create unique experiences that specifically address our clients’ wellness and takes into consideration their current emotional and physical state.”

One of the grandest properties on the Côte d’Azur, it now boasts the title “Palace”. Bruno goes on to explain that a recent decree has granted eight of France’s finest hotels this accolade. They include Le Meurice and Le Plaza-Athénée, as well as Le Bristol. The Palace label denotes French excellence; other criteria include the hotel’s location, historical significance, personalised service, room comfort, multilingual staff, and health and spa facilities. The Negresco in Nice, for instance, doesn’t have a spa in the hotel, so it could not be a candidate, which makes the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat the only hotel on the Côte d’Azur with this prestigious title. “So, it’s official: a palace is not a palace unless it has a spa.” I agree with him wholeheartedly.

At La Véranda restaurant, as I enjoy the views, Bruno explains the spa approach in more detail: “We really are a customised service; we can arrange virtually anything for our clients. There’s no request too challenging or too insignificant. We work closely with Monaco-based specialists; we create programmes that vary from major plastic surgery, full health and cancer scans, weight loss, medical cosmetic treatments, and – obviously – facial and body rejuvenation, through to just a weekend of ‘relax and recover’, if you want.” He smiles. “We handle it all.”

The spa director, Hanneke, joins us as some brightly coloured juice cocktails arrive in her wake. “So, Madame,” she begins briskly, “let me explain our approach to wellness. We work in a very holistic manner; food is at the heart of our offering. The spa and detox menu is created by our Michelin-starred executive chef, Didier Aniés.” She goes on to explain that Bruno and his food and beverage team will work with me on any tweaks, changes, likes and dislikes, intolerances, allergies and little pleasures I want to include. They will do all they can to take the thinking out of my stay – “You can simply relax and know you are eating fresh and locally sourced produce prepared with your very best health in mind.”

“Are the menus prepared with a set daily calorie intake?” I ask. Bruno looks a little taken aback, as if I should know that a Michelin-star chef does not work in calories. “We do not believe in this method; Didier has created a menu that is not just delicious, it’s very healthy. We apply the same Michelin standards to sourcing and preparing your meals as all others. This, combined with the fitness programme and the general environment” – I think he means the spectacular luxury and the staggering seaside location – “all works together to ensure you achieve your goals.”

“That’s right,” Hanneke chimes in. “Together with the spa and our therapists, it’s one whole solution. But I do have to warn you that our diet programme requires a 14-day stay. We cannot guarantee dramatic and long-lasting results unless you stay for the duration.”

Sadly, I don’t have the time or the dime for a two-week programme and ask what she can do with a couple of days. She opens the spa menu and shows me the list of “off-premises” medical specialists and a list of treatments ranging from Botox to laser liposuction and breast augmentation. I’m a bit flummoxed by the array of goods on offer. “To be honest, this is a three-day respite from the Film Festival,” I say. I explain how I’ve been working day and night and I would just like to return home not looking like one of the Witches of Eastwick.

I want to play tennis, swim and run, have massages, and undergo as many facial treatments as are required to reduce the bags that have settled under my eyes.

After our planning and scheduling, I’m ushered to my snug but beautifully designed and decorated seafront room. The oversized bed with its fine, fine sheets and soft, soft cushions looks inviting… but I have a massage to get to.

“Hi, I am Timmy. It’s my very first day, and you are my very first client,” declares the smiling Keralan masseur, as he gives me a firm handshake and leads me through the spa. “Poor Timmy,” I think. “Spa Junkie as your first client, on your first day? Ouch; that’s punchy.”

The Grand’s spa complex, designed by Pierre-Yves Rochon, is only two years old, set in 17 acres of perfect gardens adjacent to the hotel. It features eight suites with private pools, which means you don’t have to move around if you don’t want to. There’s a vast indoor spa area with pool, Jacuzzis, steam and sauna chambers and a glorious chill-out room – cosy white sofas, dim lighting, and a selection of teas, fresh berries and raw nuts make it the perfect respite. Nobody monitors – I have a handful of nuts and fruits every time I pass the counter, and each time, as if they are props on a film set where continuity is key, the plates are reset and refilled to the brim. I’m relieved weight loss is not my goal this time around.

There’s also a bespoke Technogym private training suite and a series of comfortable, if slightly over-air-conditioned, treatment rooms. As it’s 23 degrees outside, I use the outdoor spa. It’s made up of brown candy-striped cabanas dotted around a full outdoor gym – ocean views come as standard. There is a meditation and yoga cabana, and another for private training and stretching.

My concerns, it turns out, were misplaced; one 60-minute deep-tissue massage later and Timmy has passed the test with flying colours.

I dine alone in the informal all-day dining room, La Véranda. A single setting at a restaurant table can be daunting, but the waiters are totally charming and I feel at ease with only the company of my own thoughts. My pre-orchestrated spa dinner is a plate of steamed chicken breasts on a bed of sweet grapefruit and light citrus dressing, a fruit salad and a virgin cocktail.

I retire to my room to find a wide catalogue of movies. I order up a camomile tisane and melt into the sheets.


I start the day at 8.30am with a lovely “health breakfast” of purée de fraises, egg-white-and-mushroom omelette, a fresh mint and ginger infusion and Evian with lemon.

My personal training session starts in the outside cabana with a 15-minute warm-up on the treadmill. “You need to relax your arms to allow your body more oxygen; relax, keep your shoulders down; and please keep breathing,” instructs my rather dashing trainer. It occurs to me that all the staff are very attractive – far more so than is the norm. I suppose it’s all part of the “look totale”.

“Have you ever worked on the kinesis wall before?” he asks, gesturing toward a rather cool-looking freestanding machine. No, as a matter of fact, I haven’t; so we spend 20 minutes doing a series of arm exercises on it so that he can study my muscle movement. Then it’s Swiss ball and squats, a surprisingly hardcore abdominal series, and a wind-down with some stretching.

My lunch is served back on La Véranda; a steamed sea bass with a basket of vegetables – very simple, but beautifully served and filling. It reminds me how simple it is to be healthy; there really is no excuse not to try.

Jean, the personal trainer, collects me for tennis. I’ve forgotten what a great way to keep fit this is – much more fun than lifting weights in a sweatbox. My form leaves much to be desired, though. I say sorry about 20 times as I struggle to get a rally going. Hand-eye co-ordination has never been my strongest point, but I’m going to put my back into it.

There is a fresh pot of green tea waiting for me as I walk back into the spa for the new pièce-de-résistance facial treatment, the Cérémonial Précieux. I beg your pardon: it really is a ceremony, not a treatment. It starts with a foot cleanse and scrub and a chakra massage – all before the therapist has even looked at my face. I’m given hot stones to hold as I lie down for the face part of the facial.

So give me the elevator pitch – why is this special, what is it promising to do? I am particularly jaded by the beauty industry and lean a lot more towards medical-grade cosmetics these days. It occurs to me that it’s probably not a good idea to challenge a therapist just before she is about to treat me.

“This facial uses exfoliants, serums and creams that contain a host of unique, very expensive ingredients such as diamond, sapphire, tourmaline and mother-of-pearl. That’s why it is so particulier.”

But where is the science? Why would expensive stones used to crown royalty be good as a facial scrub?

The very pretty and delicately featured French therapist tilts her head up, assumes a position of authority, pauses and then goes on to explain, in perfect English: “French women take beauty very seriously and, most importantly, French women think of facials as their most important beauty treatment. It’s absolutely de rigueur to have a facial, no matter what your financial disposition. French women have a facial at least every month, often weekly. I always recommend French cosmetic brands to my clients, and Carita is currently the most popular with clientele in this region.”

Applying the crushed semiprecious stone scrub, she continues: “The active ingredients in these stones contain powerful anti-ageing agents and so are great for the skin.” I’m not entirely convinced of the science, but I understand that we have tiny amounts of metals such as magnesium, copper and zinc working within our bodies, and that the levels get depleted with age. Magnesium, for example, supports a healthy immune system, while zinc and copper can affect thyroid gland function, which influences metabolism. It’s a big trend among beauty companies, many of which are turning to a host of unexpected ingredients such as platinum, gold, mother-of-pearl, quartz and, of course, diamonds. Certain lines of La Prairie and Crème de la Mer contain diamond dust and quartz crystals. Whether it really works or it’s just hope in a very expensive bottle, I can’t tell you.

But the choreography of the Cérémonial Précieux is good. The therapist never leaves the room, and at each stage of this marathon facial she is either massaging my feet, my head or my hands as the various products are left to work their magic. For all the uncertainty, I am happy with the end result. She has made a visible difference to the puffy bags under my eyes and I am beginning to look a much fresher version of my former self.

Next, Timmy is back with another excellent deep-tissue massage, and after I do some hatha yoga outside.

Dinner is simply sensational. This is Michelin-style detox as only a French five-star hotel can do it, and I’m rapidly becoming its number-one fan. A perfectly chilled gazpacho is followed by John Dory, which arrives tented in parchment, steamed in its own juice and served with a light sauce and vegetables. I’d never, ever know I was on a diet or a detox, which clearly would make coming back here a painlessly easy decision. I’d absolutely come back à deux – couples can enjoy dinners together, and the tennis court-gym-spa axis is very male-friendly. As I ponder this it strikes me that, so far, I’ve only seen men in the spa.

I go to bed thinking it’s all very sophisticated but not fussy; exemplary but not arrogant. The staff, from the front door to the spa towel desk, all look and behave as if every last one is hotelier-school-trained and comes from three generations of hotel service. There is a pride in the act – certainly no actors-cum-waiters here – and it shows every time you ask or order anything. It’s an oasis for anyone wanting a little escape. It’s definitely not hardcore, there are no weigh-ins, fat tests, blood analysis or any of the very serious diet-farm practices on site. Most of the more advanced treatments require the 12km journey into Monaco, which may or may not suit your mood. The Grand offers a back-to-basics retreat, good food (or gastro-detox, as I called it) and exercise.

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