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updated 3/7/2007 5:41:37 PM ET 2007-03-07T22:41:37

Though I’ve been to Ireland many times, lured back again and again by a thousand shades of green — a patchwork quilt divided up into odd shapes by old stone walls, winding country roads, and bleak hillsides that one can barely call mountains — the land still manages to impress with its drama. Yellow gorse and purple heather splash color across the countryside, cut by interconnecting lakes and streams, all bordered by a wild rocky coastline. The scent of burning peat wafts from tiny villages and, of course, the Irish themselves bring fun-loving theater and humor to every scene.

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For some reason, I enjoy Ireland most when the weather is at its worst, though that sensibility has been balanced by a brief history of rental car mishaps, mostly due to my fear of driving on narrow country roads and unlighted highways. Still, I’m not easily deterred — driving is the ideal way to see Ireland, as long as you’re not in a rush. And with the country’s best new spas on my itinerary, each destination holding the promise of pure relaxation, I had no reason to hurry.

A booming economy and a natural interest in holistic practices have spurred a recent rise in spa development in Ireland, an oxymoron of sorts if one thinks of the typical terrain of spas as warm and sunny. Moody weather has its own reward though, making for rosy cheeks after the shortest of hikes and a suitable environment for quiet contemplation. And, of course, it’s the best setup for a spa day too, especially at Ireland’s newest spas, which are designed to bring the outdoors in.

Barefoot at the Park
After two and a half hours of driving from Limerick, I arrived at Park Hotel Kenmare, an elegant, 46-room Victorian manor house hotel overlooking tranquil Kenmare Bay on the southwest coast. Despite its pedigree, there is absolutely nothing stuffy about the place, which may help explain why they went to such lengths with their newly opened Sámas spa, a blissfully serene creation of rough limestone, wood, and glass. Beautifully designed to mesh with nature, Sámas blurs the boundaries between indoors and out with seamless glass walls and a thousand other details.

To reach the spa from the hotel, one follows a narrow cherry wood–lined corridor to a set of stairs flanked by a limestone wall on one side and a gentle spill of water over black granite on the other, entering at last into a light-filled sanctuary built of glass, stone, and green slate. The dramatic transition from manor house to spa is intentional, one that Francis Brennan, owner of Park Hotel Kenmare, describes as “coming from the womb to the light” — certainly an effective beginning to the visit.

Central to the Sámas experience is the recommended one and a half hours spent pre-treatment in the thermal suite, a collection of heat chambers and water features that I found to be deliciously relaxing. Men and women each have their own facilities, coming together only at the culmination of the circuit — a communal soaking pool set among a stand of wild birch and cedar trees, rhododendron, and holly bushes. On the women’s side, there’s a laconium — a mild dry-heat sauna with form-hugging mosaic-tiled seats and a full-length glass wall facing the woods. Men indulge in the more intense temperatures of a cedar-lined hot-rock sauna with the same wooded view. After 15 or 20 minutes in the muscle-relaxing heat, both men and women move on for a dose of positive energy in the crystal steam room, followed by peppermint-scented rain showers and fountains of crushed ice for cooling off. Cycling from one chamber to the next, and showering or icing my skin in between, I decided there’s nothing worse than rushing into the spa without taking the opportunity to reach your most relaxed, receptive state. I make note of this as advice to follow for the rest of my trip.

The treatment rooms themselves, named for Irish islands such as Blasket and Skellig, are calm enclaves with pleasant cherry wood cabinetry that disguises the presence of sinks and supplies. Bare feet find the surprising warmth of green slate floors with in-floor heating, and, of course, the massage beds are heated, too.

Slideshow: Royal Rests During my first afternoon in Sámas, I had a two-hour treatment that included an Irish sea salt scrub and muscle-relaxing massage. Preparing my body front and back with a horsehair brush, using long strokes from the ankles and hands toward the heart, my therapist, Siobhan, hydrated and exfoliated my skin using a mixture of fine salt and oil scented with rosemary, clove, cinnamon, and bay. Next, a massage with frankincense, myrrh, ylang-ylang, sandalwood, and rose geranium soothed tensions and my jet-lag symptoms.

It was the perfect end to a day spent exploring the countryside. Earlier I had joined up with a group on a spa-organized six-mile hike through the McGillicuddy Reeks, Ireland’s highest mountains, as part of the spa’s Lifestyle Program packages. We hiked a section of the old road from Killarney to Kenmare through forest glens, beneath sweeping hills with rocky peaks, and across sheep-scattered wooded highlands and trickling streams. When I stepped off the path onto a grassy patch that looked dry, my right foot slid into a peat bog, unexpectedly sucking me down hip deep into the muddy quagmire, reviving my childhood fear of quicksand. After being pulled clear, I didn’t mind much that I was wet, dirty, and taking on an earthy smell — I had the afternoon at Sámas to help me cleanse and renew.

Cocooning at Aghadoe Heights
The drive from Kenmare to Killarney is only 20 miles north on a winding mountain road, and it is probably best suited to day driving to take in the landscape. But, arriving at night at the Aghadoe Heights Hotel, as I did, does have its own distinct pleasures. In this case it was the revelation of the morning panorama when I opened the wall-to-wall drapes to views of the McGillicuddy Reeks, the Killarney lakes, Innisfallen Island, and the 15th-century lakefront Ross Castle. Soaking up the 360-degree view from the hotel’s award-winning Fredrick’s, a typical Irish breakfast was laid out in front of me — grilled bacon, homemade sausages, grilled tomatoes, button mushrooms, sautéed lamb kidney served with free-range eggs, and a side of rollmop herrings.

A stained-glass wall between the dining room and the lounge depicts this heather-clad mountain region, which has long attracted people seeking spiritual rejuvenation through nature — including such hearty pursuits as golf, fishing, and hiking in Killarney National Park. But now hedonists also come to take respite in the new Spa at Aghadoe, an Aveda-backed project that marries the sensibilities of the surrounding landscape with the expertise of the spa line. Natural materials like earth-toned slate, marble, granite, and white oak paneling infuse the spa with a native appeal. A man-made stream winds through the spa, trickling quietly over stones as it makes its way toward a massive glass wall and the lake beyond.

Designed as a relaxing journey in preparation for treatments, Aghadoe’s thermal circuit is similar to Sámas’s, but here the setup is entirely coed, though discreet enough as guests move through rooms that include a 140-degree dry-heat laconium, steam-heated Turkish hammam, rock sauna, a slightly cooler apple blossom–scented aroma grotto (which doubles as a mud and steam chamber), and a luxurious slipper-shaped Jacuzzi bath for one, used for the signature Himalayan Ayurvedic bathing ritual and customized aromatherapy soaks. The order you follow is entirely dictated by personal preference. In between heat rooms you can cool down in one of three snail-shaped showers: peppermint tropical rain, aromatherapy mist, or deluge spray (an invigorating follow-up to the rock sauna). Then, with muscles noodle-loose and skin tingling, take time to reflect while reclining on heated ceramic lounges that face the mountains and lakes.

The most glamorous component of the spa is also the world’s first: the Precious Stone Cabin, a warm room energetically empowered by an enormous amythest crystal. Designed as a couples’ prelude to hot stone or reflexology massage, the 20-minute session includes crystal reflexology, and sight, sound, aroma, and heat therapy — a recipe for complete rejuvenation.

Sitting in one of two ergonomically designed chairs facing the crystal, I felt the pressure of special gems —in my case, tigereye for lifting the spirits — positioned on the chair along the reflexology points of my back. My other senses were heightened by soothing lavender, the sound of waves, and purple lights, all suggested by my therapist. The combination evoked such inner calm that I practically floated to the treatment room for a ritual sea salt and rosemary mint footbath — a 15-minute prelude to every Aveda treatment. A luxurious walnut shell scrub followed and then a hydrating peppermint foot cream — a heavenly bridge to the 90-minute Fusion Stone Massage scented with lavender, which loosened up some tight muscles — and put me right to sleep.

One rarely wants spa time to end, but you could easily cocoon indefinitely in the dreamy relaxation room at Aghadoe Heights, done in the beige, heather, and green colors of the Irish countryside. There’s a slate wall reminiscent of the McGillicuddy Reeks landscape to heighten the drama, and it’s all cordoned off from the rest of the spa by wood-and-glass screens and silk draping for an intimate cushion of cool. Nestled into a soft Italian relaxation bed with my own Bose stereo with headset, lavender-scented eye pillow, a cup of warm herbal tea, and a plate of fruit, the shimmering silks enveloped the area from floor to ceiling, diffusing the mesmerizing shifts of daylight.

Mountain Highs
Feeling as fluid and relaxed as Aghadoe’s graceful spa, I hit the road again, this time heading north to County Galway. Connemara’s lonely landscape of rivers and lakes, the rugged, beautifully bleak Twelve Bens and Maumturk Mountains, and autumn’s last hues of gorse and heather was spectacular — although after a while, I feared I was lost, passing only the occasional cottage, no cars, and lots of sheep. But the remote location (300 forested acres just one mile from Ireland’s sole fjord) is what’s unique about Delphi Mountain Resort & Spa, a destination spa that combines an understated elegance with a flair for adventure — rock climbing, sea kayaking, canoeing, hiking, cycling, fitness classes, and yoga are all part of the experience. Unlike other hotels that have added spas, Delphi got its start 20 years ago as an adventure center and added the hotel and spa in 2001. An intimate laid-back hideaway for no more than 44 guests at a time, Delphi capitalizes on the serenity of its remote setting as well as its heart-pumping programs.

The resort itself, pieced together like a well-crafted puzzle from indigenous stone and timber, blends into the wild landscape. Sitting cozily beside a peat fire in the library, my lingering traces of road weariness were eclipsed by the views of the Mweelrea Mountains, served through floor-to-ceiling windows. In front of me, a spectacular double rainbow appeared, luring me outside into emerging sunshine and a blue sky splashed with stormy clouds.

Part of personal growth, I’m told, is facing your fears, and one of mine — beyond driving on the left side of the road and sinking into peat bogs — is the fear of heights. So I was somewhat alarmed to find myself walking a tightrope 30 feet above the ground, a requirement of Delphi’s ropes course. Thanks to a harness, two safety lines, and encouragement from my instructor, Tony Hynes, I side-stepped across the rope six inches at time, a death grip on the chest-high safety lines. When I reached the end, I wrapped myself around a 50-foot telephone pole like a koala bear in a tree and mustered up courage for the next part of the course: Walk the Plank, where I would have to jump a three-foot gap between two boards suspended 30 feet in the air. But fate was with me — just then it started pouring and, as the rain turned to sleet, I happily headed back across the tight rope instead.

Grateful to be on the ground and sloshing through mud, I thought it was spa time. It was not. Tony had other plans for me — a challenging encounter with Delphi’s indoor climbing wall. He was absolutely right to push my limits — I would not have experienced the true essence of Delphi without bouncing off a few walls, mountain biking some wild trails, walking to Killary Harbour, or kayaking into sea caves.

As you can imagine, spa time is a well-earned bonus in a setting where stretching muscles and emotional barriers are de rigueur. Delphi’s simple spa is a nurturing, light-filled space of rough stonework, warm woods, and crisp white Irish linens. Here the thermal features — steam and sauna rooms — are all coed. The ten treatment rooms are softly lit with tiny candle bowls and lamps carved from Himalayan salt.

Mulling over a menu of plant- and marine-based treatments, I chose a dried seaweed and sea salt bath in a huge tub with high-pressure rotating water jets and color-therapy lights — a soothing experience except for one jarring cycle through white, when I closed my eyes and found my own inner peace. After some lounging in the glass relaxation area with a heated neck pillow, it was time for my hot stone massage. Placed on the seven main chakras of the body, the smooth water-heated stones brought instant comfort to muscles overworked by climbing, reaching, grasping, and stretching.

Finally at an end, the journey through Ireland was as dramatic and sensual as I’d expected it to be. And facing my fears, impractical or otherwise, brought a sense of satisfaction and justification to the spa indulgence. Heading home, I was reminded of the book, Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, and I had to agree. Fear is a handicap worth facing — just make sure there’s a great spa nearby.

Spa Magazine  portrays the full-depth of the spa experience and ways to live it every day. Dedicated to providing the information and inspiration needed to pursue health of body and mind, Spa Magazine  presents a contemporary view of spas worldwide. © 2006 World Publications, LLC

© 2013 World Publications, LLC

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