Robert Carroll offers his pick of bathing spots for cleansing, rejuvenation and a splash of culture.
Top ten hot baths: A seasonal soaking
From a steaming hammam in Yemen to pristine onsen in Japan, bathing is a universal act approached in myriad ways around the world. Trying out a different approach to ablutions is a unique way to gain insight into a nation. It is an opportunity to immerse yourself in a culture, literally. It can be daunting, but after a few days of strenuous travel, there is nothing quite like sinking into a hot bath to relax and soak away your troubles this winter.
Tokyo has a long tradition of public baths dating back to at least the 13th century. Many people refer to the venerable bathing customs of Japan's capital city as onsen, but sento is a more accurate term. Only baths fed by water from natural springs which well up at over 25 degrees Celsius are considered onsen. Toyko has only a handful of onsen, but it has hundreds of sento. Traditional or modern, they all have a similar layout with separate sections for men and women. Hygiene is paramount. Spend at least 15 minutes scrubbing yourself thoroughly before entering the bath. Nudity is the norm with a small towel the only garment allowed. Most sento have at least two or three tubs with water at different temperatures. Some are almost unbearably hot, while others have interesting features, such as water jets which simulate the shocks from electric eels. After an hour or two submerged in the waters, you will feel energised, cleansed and ready to re-enter the city's hustle and bustle. Konparuyu, 8-7-5, Ginza, Chuuou-ku, Tokyo. Entry costs US$4 (Dh16).
Sometimes a great bath is all about context. The hot tub at the old Peron Homestead, over 700km north of Perth in Western Australia, is a wild and remote spot to take a dip. Set amid the red cliffs and white beaches of the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, the bath at this old pastoral station is a testament to outback ingenuity. A wind turbine pumps water from an artesian bore into a huge, round, lidless corrugated iron drum. It is large enough for six or seven people to sit in comfortably. The water is a fresh and consistent 35°C. Not bad considering desalination is the only reliable water source within a 150km radius. Settling into the tub after a hard day hiking or driving through inhospitable terrain is bliss. Watching the sun set over the rickety shearing sheds, you glimpse the pains and the pleasures of outback life. Francois Peron National Park, Department of Environment and Conservation, 89 Knight Terrace, Denham, WA 6537, Australia (www.sharkbay.org; 0061 8 9948 1208). Park entry costs $10 (Dh37) per car, per day. Camping costs $7 (Dh24) per person, per night.
According to legend, in the ninth century BC, Bladud, father of King Lear, treated and healed ailing subjects in the steaming bog lands of Bath. Water from the area's springs wells up from the ground at 49°C and contains all manner of health-giving minerals. The Romans were the first to build baths and temples around this remarkable natural resource, but the city's heyday was in the 18th century, when members of the British aristocracy came from London to "take the waters". At certain times of the year this fashionable resort teemed with rakes and dandies. The city has had Unesco World Heritage status since 1987 even though the last spa closed in 1978, making it impossible for a time to bath in Bath's natural springs. Thermae Bath Spa, which opened in 2006, changed all that. Its glass-fronted building puts a modern spin on a rich legacy. As well as a wide variety of treatments, you can admire the city's Georgian architecture from the rooftop pool. Thermae Bath Spa, The Hetling Pump Room, Hot Bath Street, Bath, UK (www.thermaebathspa.com; 0044 1225 33 1234). A full-day spa session costs $84 (Dh310).
The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa in Iceland is one of the world's happier fallouts of industrial progress. The lagoon is fed by the output from the Svartsengi geothermal power station. The milky water originates 2km below the earth's surface and seeps upwards through strata of porous volcanic rock. Rich in minerals, silica and over 200 microorganisms, it has been proven to treat skin diseases such as eczema and psoriasis. Beyond its healing powers, the spa's setting is atmospheric. Black lava rock contrasts sharply with the bluish-green waters. Mist and steam rise into the chill air, which is often below freezing. It snows frequently, making the water, which hovers around 38°C, even more inviting. Since it opened in 1987, the spa has become one of Iceland's biggest attractions with over 400,000 visitors per year, but the facility is big enough to cope with the influx, rarely feeling crowded. Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, 240 Grindavík, Iceland (www.bluelagoon.com; 00354 420 8800). Entry costs $34 (Dh125) per person.
Turkey is its home and Syria and Morocco have prized examples, but Yemen is a unique place to experience hammam. Sana'a, the country's ancient capital, has about 14 such baths, some of which date back hundreds of years. Ducking into one of these subterranean bathhouses is a transcendent experience. Places such as the Al Maidan hammam, one of the city's most famous examples, are hot, wet and dimly lit. Once you undress and don a large piece of checked fabric, you are guided through its labyrinthine chambers. First tea, hot and sweet. Then a bath beneath a large dome with three tiny holes open to the sky. Next an attendant vigorously scrubs you with a rough mitt, sloughing off layers of dead skin. Then you lie down on a tiled floor, warmth radiating through to your bones. The ritual ends with a massage. Stepping out on to the street afterwards is like emerging from the cinema, but in Sana'a it feels like the film has not ended. In fact, it feels like it has just begun. Al Maidan hammam, Old City, Sana'a, Yemen. Entry costs $5 (Dh18) per person.
Budapest is built on a warren of hot springs, which have played an important part in its history. The Romans erected vast structures around them in the first century AD, while in the 16th century the Turks constructed many bathhouses, some of which are still in use today. The city has a wealth of spas to choose from. The most famous is Gellért bath, which has 13 pools, some beautifully decorated with art nouveau tiles. It is a grand and impressive building, but thefts, rude staff and dirtiness have marred its reputation in recent years. Király bath, built in the 16th century, is perhaps a better choice. Its octagonal pool covered by a dome represents the classic Turkish style. Elsewhere the neo-baroque Széchenyi bath is a majestic complex that is one of the largest in Europe. Its 15 pools range in temperature from 28 to 38°C and contain radium and a host of other nourishing minerals. Széchenyi bath, H-1146 Budapest, Állatkerti krt. 11, Budapest, Hungary (www.szechenyibath.com; 0036-1 363-321). Entry costs $14 (Dh50) per person for two hours or $15 (Dh56) per person for the day.
An hour's drive from Jordan's capital Amman, the Six Senses Spa is part of the Evason Ma'In resort which opened in February this year. Located amid rugged cliffs and pristine waterfalls, the setting is spectacular. It lies 264 metres below sea level, close to the shores of the Dead Sea. Water from the hot springs streams in rivulets down the rocks, creating a near perfect - bordering on clichéd perhaps - representation of a rugged paradisical oasis. If the sight and sound of pure-water cascades is not calming enough, all manner of spa treatments are provided to help you to relax. Scrubs, steam treatments and massages are available in the 10 purpose-built rooms, while other facilities include thermal pools, a steam cave, hammam and a sauna. The spectacular view across the valley towards the Dead Sea, though, is one of the best natural therapies on offer. Evason Ma'in Hot Springs and Six Senses Spa, Jordan (www.sixsenses.com/evason-ma-in; 00962 5 324 5500). A three-night package costs around $687 (Dh2,523) for two people sharing.
About 175km from Auckland on the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula, the Hot Water Beach is a unique geothermal experience. Set against the backdrop of limestone cliffs, the beach itself is beautiful. As low tide approaches, groups of bathers start digging holes in the sand. They use buckets and spades or their hands. It is a strange sight, reminiscent of some kind of primal ritual or unfathomable natural event, as they proceed to nestle in to the self-scooped pits. They set about relaxing in the hot spring water that seeps up through the sand from two underground fissures. Sometimes the water can get too hot, reaching 64°C on occasions. Fortunately, waves from the incoming tide wash up the beach and dilute the potentially scalding pools. It is a fleeting and delicate balance, which lasts for three or four hours until the tide comes in and waves overwhelm the hollows completely. Hot Water Beach, Nr Whenuakite, Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand (Tide times available from www.mercurybay.co.nz/activities/hotwaterbeach.php). Entry is free.
Russian bathhouses have a fearsome reputation. Images of people rolling in snow and jumping into icy lakes segue into others of people hitting themselves with birch twigs. All in all it is not most people's idea of a relaxing time: it seems like something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Yet all of the activities in a banya have a purpose. They are customs which have evolved over hundreds of years to create a quintessential Russian experience. A room with incredibly hot, dry steam makes more sense than getting wet in a predominantly cold climate. After a few minutes in such a furnace, a quick plunge into icy water becomes more appealing. Undoubtedly it is invigorating. The birch twigs - venik - are intended to help improve circulation of the blood around the body. Banya exist in many parts of Russia, from St Petersburg to Siberia. For something refined yet authentic, try Sanduny Baths in Moscow. Sanduny Baths, 14 Neglinnaya, Moscow, 107031, Russia (www.sanduny.ru; 007 495 625-46-33). Entry costs $19 (Dh70) for two hours.
Nestled between the mountains and the sea, Beppu is one of Japan's most famous resorts. Since the 19th century, city dwellers have escaped to this tiny spa town on the mountainous island of Kyushu in the south-west of the country. It is a geothermic hot spot, second only to Yellowstone National Park in the US in terms of the volume of hot water gushing from the ground. The hot springs are in eight distinct areas. Jigoku, literally translated as the "hells", are for gawping only: you can watch mud bubbling up from the ground, often spurting high into the air. Of course, there are plenty of places to have a soak as well. In town, the Takegawara Onsen is a classic bathhouse. Built in 1880, this large wooden building has become a symbol of the town. Further from the centre, Myoban Onsen is a quiet and relaxed, occupying a series of huts with thatched roofs. Takegawara Onsen, 16-23 Motomachi, Beppu, Japan (0081 977 673880). Entry costs $1 (Dh4).