London Calling

When exotic Amanresorts decided to open a spa in a posh city hotel, critics asked:
“Will the Amanjunkie fan base follow?”

photos courtesy Aman Spa and Connaught

Most spas would kill for a following like the one inspired by Amanresorts. These ultraluxurious properties, spread out in far-flung locales (think: Bali, Sri Lanka and Morocco) have developed a loyal flock of self-described “Amanjunkies,” who make it their life’s mission to visit every location worldwide.

But in 2009, the company took a calculated leap when it opened an Aman-branded spa in London’s swank Connaught hotel. As the first standalone Aman Spa in the world, the pressure was on to create a one-of-a-kind experience that could live up to the legacy. Some were skeptical: How can Aman possibly maintain the exotic mystique of its sister destinations under the guise of a buzzing metropolitan outpost? Setting aside fears of an impending addiction, I set out to discover the answer for myself.

Cozy Pampering

A stone’s throw from Hyde Park, in the tony neighborhood of Mayfair Village, the Connaught enchants from the first impression, with übercourteous doormen and front desk staff who usher you personally to the spa elevator (the facility actually lies in the basement of the hotel).

At just under 5,400 square feet—pint-sized for a destination spa—what it lacks in proportion it makes up for in intimacy. In fact, this latest outpost incorporates all that one would expect from a top-notch spa, if a bit more compactly. A small fitness studio perches on an adjacent level and the combination relaxation/reception area feels like a cozy built-in bookcase. The spa has dedicated the space it does have to areas that matter most: the beautiful gray-granite lap pool with a cascading water wall (where the popular Goodnight Watsu service is performed to revive jet-lagged guests); and the five treatment rooms (one double and four singles), which each feature a private dressing area, shower and steam room. The cool granite and honey-colored oak paneling with latticework in the treatment rooms feels exotic without being distracting, calm without being bland.

The spa’s discerning clientele includes a healthy mix of business travelers, Amanjunkies and high-profile visitors and celebs who, when they want to fly under the radar, can be whisked discreetly through a private entrance without ever being seen by bulb-flashing paparazzi. “Amanjunkies often stay here when in London, and many of them are U.K.-based,” says spa manager Rene Van Eyssen. “We provide them with a portal from England to the East, in an Asian-inspired oasis of tranquility.”

I was somewhat startled when a business suit–clad man came in and sat on the couch across from me (I was in a robe, after all), but then I remembered the gender neutrality policy and relaxed immediately.

After touring the spa and changing into a plush robe and slippers (a therapist had me sit while she placed the slippers on my feet), I waited to be called by my male therapist, Ahmed Kassem. According to Van Eyssen, the spa does not distinguish between genders; whoever can best provide the service requested is selected, potential American prudishness aside. I was somewhat startled when a business suit–clad man came in and sat on the couch across from me (I was in a robe, after all), but then I remembered the gender neutrality policy and relaxed immediately.

Pretreatment, I was served oolong tea from a clay pot. In the land of royalty—and mere days before the royal wedding was to take place—it seemed fitting that the receptionist actually served the tea on her knees. (After my service, Kassem followed suit, so I can only assume this, like the slipper ritual, is a conscious decision by staff to give guests the true regal treatment.)

Guests may choose from the spa menu or simply speak with their therapist about what they hope to achieve and let the therapist custom-tailor an experience. Reviewing the menu, I discovered that alongside such typical fare as organic facials, acupuncture and reflexology, Aman touts four Signature Experiences, each of which are themed series of treatments inspired by Amanresort locations: China, India, Thailand and the Americas. I opted for the China rituals (150 min./approx. $450), designed to help restore the body’s qi and stimulate the meridians to release stress and instill energy—ideal, since I was still feeling off-kilter from the long flight across the pond.

Sensitivity Plus

Kassem led me to the treatment room and into a corner chair, where he began the first segment, a green tea foot bath, during which he conducted a “holistic consultation” in order to tailor my treatment. “Our therapists make an assessment of a client’s needs by asking questions during the ritual, but they also take into account how the guest is feeling: Have they rushed, are they feeling tired or burned out, do they need to be energized or calmed?” Van Eyssen explains, also noting that Aman staff practice daily meditation together to maximize their own sense of harmony and perception so as to better intuit guests’ needs. “It helps to clear our minds,” she says, “so that when we provide our treatments, all our intention is completely focused on our guests; a subtle connection is made and the therapist is able to really understand and support them.”

Kassem indicated that for the massage portion of the service he would concentrate on my shoulders, neck and back. “Since you’re a journalist, you must spend many hours sitting at a desk, so these areas will need the most work,” he said with a nod and a smile. Obvious? Sure. But why had I never encountered this simple sensitivity in the many renowned spas I’d visited in the States?

Aman staff practice daily meditation together to maximize their own sense of harmony and perception so as to better intuit guests’ needs. “It helps to clear our minds,” Van Eyssen says, “so that when we provide our treatments, all our intention is completely focused on our guests."

During the foot bath, Kassem briefly asked about my plans for the day and determined that since I was on vacation, he’d change the body scrub to a relaxing (rather than energizing) exfoliant. The scrub still proved energizing, thanks to vigorous strokes that left my skin polished as a river stone. Kassem kindly left some exfoliant in the room before exiting in case I wanted to apply it on my stomach before washing off in the attached shower/steam room. (I appreciated the sensitive gesture, as not all women feel comfortable having a strange man rubbing their abdomens!) As I rinsed under the rainfall shower, Kassem prepped the room for my next service: a stress-melting tui na massage. It was easily the standout portion of the experience.

Using traditional Chinese techniques and acupressure, Kassem worked on my most troubled areas, as promised, using not only hand contact but also a thorough stretching. He worked silently with just the right amount of pressure. By kneading my muscles while slowly progressing to stretching, he made me feel simultaneously relaxed and energized, leaving me clear-headed, calm and in total balance. I can say with conviction that it was the best massage I have ever received.

The Aman Spa, I learned, is not only multicultural in its roots and treatments. In a cosmopolitan city like London, where you can hear a dozen languages spoken during a block-long stroll, the therapists here also hail from all corners of the globe (Thailand, Austria, Mexico, Egypt, Hungary and Ireland among them) and contribute their own unique strengths (Thai massage, shiatsu, Celtic therapy, reiki, acupuncture, the list goes on). Team members also must share their education and experience with other members of staff so as to enrich the entire team.

It’s not difficult to understand the junkie-like passion for Aman. The level of attention is unparalleled. Call it bespoke, ‘whole-istic’ or simply out-and-out luxury, but it’s a feeling you just don’t find anywhere else—even in many high-end spas. “Having treatments on this level becomes an extension of lifestyle,” says Van Eyssen. “When our guests experience deeply revitalizing services that are tailored specifically to their needs, they always return for more.”

Tracy Morin is a freelance writer and editor based in Oxford, Mississippi.

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