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Have you ever considered visiting a spa in France?
I ask because I’m just back from a few days in the French Alps at Brides-les-Bains, and it occurs to me that you might not know that France is one of the world’s premier wellness destinations.
One of the top five, in fact!
So if you’re planning on visiting France and love a good spa treatment, let’s look at how to visit spas in France.
France is a pioneer when it comes to thermal facilities, and I’ll talk more about history below.
Given France’s long-term experience in using water for health, it has evolved several different kinds of spa that are vastly different from one another. Let me break them down for you.
This is the umbrella term that groups thermal establishments, thalassotherapy, balneotherapy and spas. In other words, coming from the Greek “thalassa” (meaning water or sea) covers all the different ways water is used to benefit your health.
These are thermal establishments, and mostly dedicated to medical therapies. Descendants of the Roman baths, they tend to be located along mountain and volcano foothills, in areas with natural springs. As you know, France is heaven for springwaters like Vichy or Evian (and many more).
Each spring has different qualities so each establishment treats different illnesses. These thermal “cures”, as they are called, last around three weeks and are prescribed by doctors − and paid for by France’s generous social security system. At least the treatments are paid for, because individuals still have to pay for accommodation and (usually) meals.
There are also “cures libres”, also sometimes called “mini-cures”, which can last up to 12 days but are not subsidized by the government. If you’d rather have medical input into your spa stay, this might be for you.
Also called “thalasso” for short, these are spas thas use products linked to the sea such as saltwater, seaweed, mud and the like. They are naturally located by the sea, both along the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic. The sea water is heated and filtered and these spas often specialize in weight loss and energy boosting.
This is different from thalassotherapy in that it doesn’t use saltwater but uses regular or mineral water. Usually, these spas are located in the mountains and are often twinned with thermal establishments, with medical cures on one side of the building and balneotherapy on the other.
The one I just visited in Brides-les-Bains was a balneotherapy spa, with a thermal cure establishment in the same building.
A properly named spa tends to go beyond water treatments and offers “dry treatments”, such as massages or facials. You can book a stay in a spa, also known as a resort spa, for a weekend, several days or a week.
As its name implies, this is where you can go for the day or for a few hours. They have a wide range of treatments and are often attached to hotels so that you can take advantage of them during your stay, like these Paris spa hotels.
Spa, balneotherapy, thalassotherapy… how confusing does it get?
Basically your choice boils down to this: saltwater or unsalted water.
Each has advantages.
The benefits of using salt water are well known: being by the sea and breathing in the salt air is healthy for a number of conditions, along with helping you detox and rebuild your immunity. Its benefits are documented here.
As for balneotherapy, the combination of water, heat and pressure from jets helps relieve joint and muscle pain, while floating in tubs and pools makes you feel lighter and puts less stress on the various parts of your body. For more about balneotherapy, see here.
Some of these establishments may have an in-house doctor, but they are designed for wellness, not medical care. If it’s a doctor’s eye that you want, then try a “cure libre” in one of France’s 109 thermal establishments.
Frankly, though, I just choose depending on whether I’d rather be by the sea or in the mountains at any given time. The end result tends to be the same (and I’ve tried both types ample times): you leave filled with energy, lighter, more relaxed and balanced, and better in your body.
You can normally find treatments that last 3, 6 or 7 days. Three days is fine if all you want is to relax and enjoy yourself.
But if you actually want to reap some of the health benefits of salt or mineral waters, then six days is an absolute minimum. Some establishments offer three treatments a day, others four. I never settle for fewer than four.
Some spas are now offering 9-day stays and I have to say, I’m very tempted to try.
Expect to be tired after the first few days, but don’t worry, you’ll perk up near the end!
Spas are by no means identical but they tend to function in similar ways, whether you’re in the mountains or by the sea, along the French Riviera or in the Alps.
As soon as you arrive in town, head for the spa to register and pay any pending fees. You’ll be handed your schedule. In some spas, you’ll be asked to see the resident doctor, a visit you’ll have to pay for. It depends on the spa, and I suspect the doctor’s visit is more about liability than health. Any examination I’ve ever had was extremely cursory.
To give you an idea of what to expect, here’s what my three-day schedule looked like at Brides-les-Bains:
In case you don’t read French, here’s my translation:
Expect your treatments to alternate between mornings and afternoons. Each day, you’ll also have full access to the sauna, steam baths, whirlpools, or gym classes.
Your “scheduled” spa treatments may be divided into categories such as these:
Remember though, each spa is different so allow for flexibility!
Once you’ve arrived, registered, and received your schedule, you’ll be shown the changing rooms and the various facilities. Expect to get lost on the first day! For some reason, spas in France seem to be built by the same engineers who build France’s parking lots – they like mazes…
You’ll usually receive a bathrobe and towel, and possibly some non-slip sandals. If these aren’t provided, you’ll be expected bring your own, and often a bathing cap. Every spa I’ve ever been to provides you with a bag in which to tote your belongings.
Your treatments will each take place in different areas of the spa. Usually, there will be a desk and a waiting room in each section. Give your name, and wait to be called.
You’ll wear your bathing suit for most treatments but at times, you may be asked to lower it, for example for massages, or to take it off completely, such as for mudbaths.
And now, to book.
Most spas belong to one of the spa networks, and these networks usually have “thalasso” in their name. That does NOT mean that you can only book thalassotherapy through them. You can also book balneotherapy (unsalted water).
When you browse these networks, you’ll see they offer both seaside and mountain stays. Those by the sea will use seawater, whereas those in the mountains won’t. Where available, like in Vichy, they will use mineral water. Otherwise, it’ll be plain water. You’ll have to read through each individual offering to find out.
Many deals include hotels with the spa package. If you find the hotels too expensive, you can still usually reserve the spa treatments and stay someplace else. Most spa towns have plenty of private accommodation, or you can Google [studio + location]. I often stay in a studio if I’m gone for a full week so that I can cook for myself.
For my recent stay at Brides-les-Bains, I booked the spa on its own, and then looked around for a suitable hotel – I found one right next door. During another spa stay, I booked hotel and spa jointly. And in yet another, I booked the spa but also found a studio for a week.
It depends on you, and on the availability, location and price.
To do your research, most sites below will unfortunately be in French and you’ll have to use Google Translate or a friend to do your research. However, once at the spa, there’s always someone who speaks some English to give you the grand tour or explain how things work. I’ve often seen non-French speakers during my spa stays and someone was always available to explain things in English.
Here are some of the networks through which you can book your spa stays: some work with certain spas exclusively, others are aggregators. You’ll have to arm yourself with a bit of patience.
Frankly, I’ve never been to a BAD spa in France. Some have better pools, others have more skilled massage practitioners, and yet others have a wider variety of options.
Bottom line: throw open your windows first thing in the morning, and gaze at the sea or mountains. Take a deep breath, and prepare to take care of yourself for the day.
There are plenty of listings dealing with the best French spas, and each one contains different spas. What gives?
Spas are personal, that’s what. Yes, certain facilities may be more luxurious, more modern, or the bathrobes softer, but what I look for in a spa isn’t necessarily what you look for. For example, my recent spa resort was proud of its several steam bath or hammam offerings, yet I don’t use steam baths so this didn’t move me. A magnificent pool with plenty of roiling water will.
With that in mind, I’ve gathered some suggestions that combine my personal choices with those of several others to bring you this short list of suggestions.
Best French Alps spa: I’ll vote for Brides-les-Bains, where I’ve just come from. The facilities are excellent, there are plenty of them, and the practitioners I met with were all topnotch. For a chalet experience, try Le Coucou in nearby Méribel. Down the Alps on the shores of Lake Geneva, I’d recommend the Evian Thermes (site in French), for their use of Evian water.
Best vineyard spa: Chateau de Pizay in the heart of the Beaujolais. It’s a small spa, but the early-morning vineyard walks are just as healthy as a massage! The gastronomic restaurant doesn’t hurt, either.
Best thermal spa in France: Impossible to choose, because each has a specialty. For example, Avène-les-Bains is one of the top thermal spas in France, but it deals strictly with dermatology.
Best luxury spa in France: Trianon-Versailles, right next to Versailles Palace. Greco-Roman design fit for a queen (and king, of course).
Best French spa town: Vichy, one of 11 Great Spa Towns of Europe on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Known as the “Queen of Spas” it was instrumental in the expansion of the 19th-century spa movement in France. Or go the opposite: La Grande Motte. Many people come to France for its picturesque villages – this is the absolute opposite: modernist, concrete, emerged from a swamp where nothing existed.
Of course you’ll pack the same things you’d usually pack for a short holiday, but make sure you add these as well:
We’ve now dealt with all the practicalities of going to a French spa, but we need to understand a bit of history for a sense of just how solidly water treatments are entrenched in France.
Spas have been around since Antiquity of course, when the Romans used mineral waters to cure certain ills, especially those related to skin, muscles and joints. Whenever your travel around Roman France, you’re sure to find some remnants of long-ago baths built by the Romans.
In fact, some of today’s establishments are built right on top of their old Roman precursors.
But with the fall of the Roman Empire, baths fell into disuse, their rebirth having to wait until the Middle Ages, with the rediscovery of the therapeutic benefits of baths and mineral waters.
Thermalism (yet another word for water treatments) grew during the Renaissance and the first Charter of Mineral Waters was issued by Henri IV as far back as 1604. Even four centuries ago, France’s rulers understood the benefits of “taking the waters”.
Building of thermal establishments picked up during the 18th century, especially after Napoleon Bonaparte decreed that only thermal towns would be allowed to have a casino − so you can image how quickly those towns became popular!
By the time of Napoleon III (Napoleon I’s nephew) and the Belle Epoque of the 19th century, people were flocking to the baths and thermal towns had become luxurious, attracting high society and crowned heads, like Queen Victoria in Aix-les-Bains. The building of France’s great railways also made it easier for Parisians (and foreigners) to reach the best spa towns.
All this elitism disappeared during the 20th century with the arrival of mass tourism and social security, making baths more democratic and accessible to the less wealthy. They would also evolve with the times and create new offerings, including shorter weekend stays.
Today, France ranks near the top of the class when it comes to wellness establishments, with more mineral springs than any other European country and more than 100 thermal establishments.
If you decide to stay in a hotel or holiday let and book your spa separately, this map will help you find accommodation anywhere in France.
France is clearly a world leader when it comes to wellness stays and from luxury spa to budget, you’ll always find something suitable, whatever ails you.
France’s centuries-old know-how has been put to good use. And even if you don’t speak a word of French, you’ll be able to enjoy a spa in France. The hardest part is the research and booking: after that, the entire process is quite simple. Just keep your schedule with you, and show it to a member of staff if you’re not sure what happens next.
It’s a wonderful experience and I encourage you to try it if you have the time (and the inclination, of course!)