Image: Royal Crescent
Fritz Faerber  /  AP file
The elegant Georgian architecture of the Royal Crescent, a series of mansions built in a semicircle in the late 1700s in Bath, England, is pictured in this file photo. The Thermae Bath Spa opened last summer and has proved to be a hit with stressed-out Brits and tourists from all over the world.
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updated 5/10/2007 5:46:19 PM ET 2007-05-10T21:46:19

As a spiritual hotspot since before the Romans, Bath, England, can once again serve up a near-religious experience, thanks to its new spa. The Thermae Bath Spa opened last summer and has proved to be a hit with stressed-out Brits and tourists from all over the world.

The thermal hot springs have lured Georgian nobles, Romans and even ancient Celts for over 2,000 years. Don't worry - it spews out at the rate of 240,000 gallons a day, so the bath water has been changed quite a few times.

By nature, I'm more of a skiing, snorkeling, hiking and biking kind of traveler. But after dragging my wife up a mountain to watch the sunrise in Scotland, hiking the British countryside and braving the hectic streets of London, I owed her a little R & R. So we took a relaxing trip to Bath to wallow in the new spa.

The basic spa package gets you access to two large pools with whirlpool, massage jets and bubbling air seats. There are also four steam rooms, each scented with lavender, jasmine, mountain pine or eucalyptus. After cooking in the steam, cool off with a simulated waterfall shower.

My favorite bit of the sparkling new center is the rooftop pool, which offers a view of the surrounding World Heritage Site from a relaxing, warm vantage point. Swimming among a sea of slate roofs and chimney pipes, the medieval Bath Abbey with fluttering flags juts up toward the sky.

While I soaked in the pools, my wife, Myra Lopez, braved a Vichy treatment (which I thought had something to do with the French collaborationist government).

She was asked by the attendant if there were any areas she wanted to concentrate on.

"God yes, my feet and shoulders," she replied. (Those were the two areas most tortured by our backpacking travels.)

Slideshow: European escapes A Vichy massage, it turns out, is basically a massage while you're wet.

You climb onto a padded plastic table surrounded by drains - be careful, it's slippery - with shower nozzles hanging overhead. You lie face down and you're hosed with the jets, then massaged with an exfoliating scrub.

The attendant "worked the bottom of my feet, up my calves to the thighs, back and shoulders," Myra said. "Then, I flipped over and she repeated the process on my front. It was so relaxing, I could feel the travel fatigue and stress just melt away. The whole process lasted about 35-40 minutes. She rinsed me off and offered some organic moisturizing lotion. I applied and that was that."

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Though the new spa is an essential stop in the city, it wasn't the greatest draw for me. I preferred taking in Bath's history - and there's lots of it. The Romans built a temple and huge bath structure atop the hot springs.

The Roman Baths Museum delves deep into the history of the hot springs. You can wander far below street level through the elaborate spa built nearly 2,000 years ago. The Great Bath is a large, green, scummy rectangular pool surrounded by the Roman paving. There's even some of  the original Roman lead plumbing.

Displays include the folded strips of lead that angry Romans wrote curses on and tossed into the spring to ask the goddess Minerva for a little cosmic payback against their enemies. I was intrigued by the Roman central heating system for the hot rooms. An entertaining audio guide features author Bill Bryson's contributions. At the end of the museum tour, you can sample some of the spring water - which I found neither refreshing nor tasty!

Right next to the museum, Bath Abbey is a relative newcomer, founded in 1499 on the site of an Anglo Saxon abbey where Edgar was crowned the first king of a united England in 973. The abbey is filled with hundreds of plaques in memory of lords, ladies, soldiers and other prominent people over the centuries. The stained glass is glorious on a sunny day.

Much of Bath's look dates to a housing boom in the 1700s as the wealthy escaped dreary London to take the waters, socialize and enjoy their wealth.

The Royal Crescent is a shining example of the balanced, elegant Georgian architecture. Built in the warm, creamy limestone of the region, the semicircular structure is essentially a big condo. John Wood the Younger built it from 1767-1774 to house the rich, famous and distinguished people of his day. Nearly 250 years later, it's still prime real estate. But even the middle class can gain entrance today. There's a luxury hotel, The Royal Crescent Hotel and Bath House Spa, and (for those with a less stratospheric budget) a museum at one end of the crescent.

No. 1 Royal Crescent lets visitors stroll through the lives of Georgian high society. The Bath Preservation Trust restored the dilapidated structure to what it might have looked like back in its Georgian heyday. Be sure to tour the bedroom. If you're lucky, the same docent we met will tell you all about the licentious lives of high-society ladies and efforts to remove the "livestock" from the wigs that were de rigueur in the day. The kitchen in the basement has a dog-powered rotisserie for the fireplace. If the mutt didn't move fast enough, the cook just shoveled a few hot coals in the treadmill to liven up the pace.

At an unbeatable price (free) and packed with information, the roughly two-hour walking tour of Bath by The Mayor's Corps of Honorary Guides was the highlight of my visit. Our guide, Jean Amesbury, offered a comprehensive history of the city, peppered with entertaining anecdotes and humor.

As she pointed out the Medieval "Lover's Lane," she said, "It was the sort of love where a few coins changed hands. It puts a different complexion on it, doesn't it?"

Amesbury, and her fellow volunteer guides, are proud of their city and want to help visitors appreciate the beauty. The grand sights on the tour included the Abbey, Royal Crescent, Roman Baths and other spots. It also passed a section of the ancient walls, the place where the first stamped letter was posted, and some of the "hanging loos" attached to the grand old homes when plumbing was added.

The town has too many sights to describe. The Costume Museum displays 400 years of fashion; the American Museum covers colonial and early American history; the Jane Austen Centre focuses on the author's time in Bath, which is the setting for much of "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion."

The Pulteney Bridge across the Avon is lined with shops and is kind of like a miniature of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence or Ponte di Rialto in Venice.

Bath is also a convenient jumping-off point to take in Stonehenge. We took a minibus dash, led by Mad Max Tours, to the famous stone circle. Stonehenge needs little description; what you see is what you get. But the somewhat chaotic tour, which costs $30, also hit the quaint town of Lacock, a surprise gem. The 13th century village appears untouched. It may look familiar, since it has been the backdrop in "Pride and Prejudice," the Harry Potter films and other productions. My wife was agog when we visited the abbey where Camilla Duchess of Cornwall's daughter was married last year.

With such a rich variety of beauty, history and spa pampering only two to three hours from London by train or bus, Bath is a can't-miss destination for visitors to relax and experience the good life of centuries past.

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