Spa Junkie on… South Kensington Club’s Russian banya

Our reporter whips into action to improve circulation and reduce cellulite

Luca Del Bono’s South Kensington Club – the member’s club set on the former site of Ronnie Wood’s infamous Harrington Club, and before that, the Queen’s Gate Music Hall founded in the late 1800s – has added a Russianbanya to its spa offering. I have been to some fabulous Russian bathhouses in Moscow, and wonder how this will compare.

Hidden behind an unmarked door in a quiet mews, the spa may feel secretive, but inside, luxury is very much in evidence. Del Bono – revved up by a New York banya experience – brought in banya expert James Larkin (a Brit he met in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia) to develop the concept for his London club, and it immediately feels super slick.

Banyas traditionally mix the steam room, sauna and massage experience with gentle “whipping” using birch leaves to improve circulation and help eliminate toxins. There are four options and I go for the most gentle (the highest  the list involves a four-handed treatment by two therapists), The Russian Dance of Leaves, followed by a coffee scrub, which my Latvian banchik (therapist) explains is good for reducing cellulite.

I am ushered to the dark-wood steam room to relax for about 10 minutes before my parenie (banya treatment) – my banchik insists I must warm up my body before it begins. The temperature hovers around 75°C – just the right side of bearable. But I find it incredibly hard to stay in the room for too long, so I take regular breaks to have a glass of lemon water in the relaxation area.

Suitably warmed up, my banchik collects me, and leads me into the therapy room. The humidity level is around 65-70 per cent and the temperature 65-70°C – lower than a sauna at 70-80°C, but still high, and cranked up by a wood stove.

I lie face down on a wooden bed with my head and feet resting on pillows of birch leaves. The banchik takes up his magic tool – the veniki, a short whip made of warm, softened birch, oak or eucalyptus leaves. He uses it to move the steam at the top area of the room down towards me before using it to firmly stroke, brush and tap my body – including my bottom. He holds my feet in leaves – it might be relaxing if I were not struggling to breathe in the heat – before bending my legs into various gentle stretches while brushing them with the veniki. I had also mentioned pain in my lower back, and it’s here that he pushes especially hard with the abundance of leaves, which feels great. Still, there are times when the veniki makes contact with my skin and I feel a little like I am being branded.

After about five minutes, with one half of my body done, he cools me down by crumbling some ice across my shoulders – the relief from the heat is heaven. By now I realize it’s all going to be a temperature game, but I have faith in the process and commit to enduring as much as I can.

The banchik rolls me onto my back and repeats his moves on my front for another five minutes – my stomach muscles tense up as he beats down on my torso with the veniki. When he asks me to sit up, I fall a little into his arms – is it Stockholm syndrome?!

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We cross the bathhouse to the “shower” – in fact a bucket of ice-cold water above me that he tips onto my head. I just about hang onto my too-big bikini bottoms. My body is in shock, but there’s no let up as he leads me up some wooden steps to a small bochka (barrel), an 8°C plunge pool. He tells me to submerge entirely. It’s like a cruel joke now – utterly freezing. But when I emerge from the water, I am somehow laughing and smiling.

I make haste to the final pool – warm water. It’s bliss. My therapist explains that this contrasting “water therapy” opens the pores to release toxins and improve circulation. I feel glorious, floating on the water, being cradled by the banchik like a newborn as he pours water over my head. My mind is almost disconnected from my body.

I lie down on a bench in the relaxation area and am covered by a sheet before my coffee scrub. (There is a Russian “tea library” nearby, but I’m “caught between worlds”, as the Russians would say, and stay where I am.)

I am led to another steam room where my banchik offers me the choice of honey or sour cream to be mixed with my coffee scrub to soften it slightly. I choose honey and lie back on a cold, hard treatment bed. I am covered head-to-toe in the ground coffee beans, which are rubbed in circular motions for about 15 minutes to exfoliate my skin. The massage is firm and incredibly thorough – the aroma is fantastic and while I have twinges of discomfort, it all feels like it’s for good cause.

I shower off and make my way back to the changing rooms, a little dazed but completely renewed.

The Bottom Line

This banya experience more than lives up to expectation – thorough, effective and thoughtful. I found it tough to endure the hot air and cold water combinations, but felt incredible afterwards: enlivened, refreshed and my skin filled with colour and life. It’s hard to tell from one session if it reduced my cellulite or improved circulation, but I felt that my system was kicked into action, which seemed a good sign.

I only wish the euphoria had lasted longer – it’s an intense but short-lived physical high, yet I felt a certain clarity of mind for a few days afterwards. I’ll certainly go back again.

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Spa Junkie, aka Inge Theron, is the founder of FaceGym. She pays for all her own travel, accommodation and therapies.

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