What’s in a Spa?

by Glenn Reynolds

Why pay out big dollars for the experience at a swanky spa? 
Good question. Sometimes I ask myself if it’s really all that different to spas at half the price. Here is a guide to the range of spas on offer, and some tips on getting the best from your experiences.

5-Star Hotel and Resort Spas

Aimed squarely at the cashed up travellers or leisure-class, these fancy spas lay on all the trimmings, including gorgeous locations or city views. They have the whole range of spa services, and can package them up with specialty rituals, or meals or accommodation. Here the emphasis is on indulgent luxury, with sumptuous private facilities, swimming pools and the latest in spa trends or technology. In this class are places like Chuan Spa and East Day Spa in Melbourne, Amrita Spa and Iluka Spa in Sydney and Palazzo Versace Salus Per Aquum and Golden Door Spa on the Gold Coast. Here, booking ahead is a great idea, giving you a chance to save up for the experience, too!

Destination Spas

Sometimes confused with resort (5-Star) spas, Destination Spas are designed for residential stays, focussing on themes such as meditation, wellbeing or wellness, and group retreats. Sometimes residential resorts offering weightloss or detoxification programs offer spa facilities or services, but unless relaxation, pampering, or improving skin and muscle tone is the main focus of their establishment, they should not be classified as Destination Spas.
These spas are usually immersive experiences, ranging from 2-3 day stays to full weeks, inclusive of meals and some activities. We have a range of these Destination Spas in Australia including Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat in Queensland, and Gaia Retreat and Spa in NSW.

Resort or Tourist Spas

Can be staffed on a permanent basis or just as clients book, these spas often have rooms and pools available, but may not have the ability to take bookings at the last minute, or spontaneously walk-ins. More often, facilities are part of a shared complex, including swimming areas, spa (jet) pools and steam rooms available as part of the stay at the resort hotel. Other personalised services, such as massage or facials, are usually performed by staff hired by the facility on a sessional basis. The best ones have separate spa facilities, with an integrated experience of the spa services, rather than just adding to the generally shared hotel facilities.

Specialty Spas

Designed around a theme, philosophy or aesthetic experience, these spas offer more of an integrated experience, especially for those people drawn to the particular theme. These range from using wholistic treatments, cultural focus such as Japanese Bathing or Indigenous practices, or using a product line that is designed with additional features such as organics, or marine-based products. Usually a specialty spa offers more than just a particular product range, but incorporates aspects of ritual, process or design and lighting aesthetics that complement the particular products used. Here I would include Li’tya Spas, but also other venues that have a limited spa menu, but sensational locations or other attractions, such as Peninsula Hot Springs in Victoria.

Urban Day Spas

Overwhelmingly the largest group, these spas cover a wide range of experiences, the least of these are definitely worth avoiding. At their best, Urban Day Spas reach heights usually reserved for the luxury brand hotels, offering sensational facilities, excellent, attentive staff, and a complete range of services with great products to match. Even if only on a small scale, the Urban Spas can be the best value for money, offering a sensational experience, but without the hefty price of a 5-Star hotel. As the market is pretty full of this type of spa, experiences can vary, and quite a few go out of business. The suburban hair salon that adds a few spa services can hardly be included here, even if they call themselves such. Only with specialised relaxation areas, adequate changing facilities with access to robes and slippers, dedicated therapy rooms with trained professional staff can a facility legitimately claim the title of Day Spa. Great examples of Urban Day Spas are ZIPT, Aurora, Retreat on Spring and the Endota chain, except for those pretenders in the department stores (see below)


Along with Hair Salons adding massage and treatments in a back room, appearance medicine clinics offering dermabrasion or botox injections with their back massage are definitely not Day Spas. The ambience of a medical facility is a long way to the relaxation and luxurious pampering experience of a true Spa. So, too, are hotels that offer in-room services, as these experiences, although relaxing, offering nothing of the sense of withdrawal, enveloping sensual delight or personalised services available in dedicated facilities with trained staff.
A number of spa services are being offered in a number of stores of a particular retail company, but these are hardly Day Spas. Mostly just a table set up behind a partition in the cosmetics department, they only offer a small range of therapies, none of which are water therapies, and should not pretend to offer a Day Spa experience.

Related posts:

What to expect at a Day Spa

5 Day Spa Tips
Day Spa Etiquette
Day Spa Frequently Asked Questions

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Motel in Albury July 20, 2010 at 10:26 pm

Hi Glenn,

never knew of the different variety of spas, have experienced the destination spas before though your right we thought it was a 5 star spa, had been in a few resort type spas but this was different… You know what I mean?


Glenn July 21, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Hi Motel in Albury,

Thanks for your comments. Yes, they each offer similar services, if you look at the menu, but the experience can be quite different, depending on the context or level of demand, commitment of staff etc. There can be no generalisations on experience, though. Each spa needs to be assessed on their merits. Even the smallest, humblest spa can offer a sensational experience.


Dining July 31, 2010 at 1:24 pm

Hello Glenn,

I totally agree, was staying in this hotel one time and decided to go check out the spa room it didn't look like much in fact it was very small but there was no one else in it so I jumped in anyways… 2 hrs later and I was still in there, was very relaxing…


Glenn July 31, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Hi Dining,

Yes, having a go can be a great way to test the services. Sometimes you can't tell how good a spa is until you've tried out the facilities. First impressions don't always give the best indication.


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