x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Comfortable in stark surroundings

Feature The Anantara Spa on Jordan's Dead Sea is now fully open, pairing comfort and minimalist design.

The 10,000-square-metre Anantara Spa in the Kempinski features peaceful indoor pools overlooking the Dead Sea.
The 10,000-square-metre Anantara Spa in the Kempinski features peaceful indoor pools overlooking the Dead Sea.

The Anantara Spa on the shores of Jordan's Dead Sea is so big you don't notice it at first. It's also not quite what you expect. From the outside, it looks like an ultramodernist college campus: it's on three levels, glass-fronted and with several hundred concrete stairs running up one side. You can't really see inside, and I half-imagine seeing scruffy academics emerging from their lectures to inhale the oxygen-rich air and have a cigarette.

But the environment's too clinical for that. After a blissful morning slathering myself in mud, washing it off in the deliciously soft and salty water of the Dead Sea and lying out in the sun to dry, I enter this vast, grey bunker and find large, space-age reception areas and glass lifts. There are slick grey floors and beds of grey pebbles; upstairs is a "lounge bar" filled with designer sofas and Thai, Chinese and African objet d'art.

Clearly holistic well-being is a very serious business here, and I was beginning to wish I hadn't worn a T-shirt, board shorts and flip-flops when I bump into the spa manager in the lift. "I want this to be one of the best spas in the Middle East," said Collins, an Australian. "That's why we waited so long before opening the upper floors - we wanted to get things just right." The Kempinski Hotel Ishtar, which the spa is attached to, opened in 2006 as the latest (and largest) in a small batch of luxury hotels in the area. The top two floors of this spa opened just last month, making it the biggest new spa in the region. The only other spa of a comparable size is at the Banyan Tree Al Areen in Bahrain, which opened last year. This Anantara is 10,000 square metres, the biggest of the Thai company's spas so far (the Anantara at Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace is a paltry 1,600 square metres in comparison).

Despite an overlong "spa menu" that gives a nonsensical take on eastern mysticism, it's an extremely impressive place, a thoroughly minimalist architectural rebuke to its flagship property in Hua Hin, which is built like a traditional Thai village. There are 20 light, spacious treatment rooms, 28 sparsely luxuriant "spa suites", suitable for couples, expansive outdoor and indoor relaxation areas with sun terraces and views of the Dead Sea and eight fresh and saltwater pools. The hammams and small freshwater pools are very stylishly decorated in huge, black-and-white mosaic murals of men's and women's faces. There are women-only and mixed sections on the first floor, where I have a treatment - a classic Thai massage. At 135 dinars (Dh700) for 90 minutes, it's at the upper end of the expected price scale. It probably isn't fair, but I compare all Thai massages to the ones you can get at Wat Pho temple in Bangkok for 10 dollars (Dh37): sometimes, ones costing ten times that amount are poor in comparison.

Not this one. After the now-obligatory foot wash, my tough Thai masseuse gets down to business. I am pulled, pressed and kneaded in almost every direction and soon I feel the tension dissipate and my energy return. Like any good massage it's like yoga for the lazy. At times the stretching is painful, but the good it's doing precludes any complaint. At the end of the 90 minutes I'm deliriously sleepy and feel I could sleep for a year. Sadly, that isn't an option.

The Anantara Spa is located at the Kempinski Ishtar (www.kempinski-deadsea.com). Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) offers return flights from Abu Dhabi to Amman from Dh1,710 (US$466) including taxes. rbehan@thenational.ae