I’m a lucky lady. Invariably, the spas I visit are pretty good so for the most part, my reviews reflect that standard. It’s as if I gravitate towards those that deliver a quality experience -- so you can imagine my surprise when an award-winning locale doesn’t quite make the grade.
Now don’t get me wrong. In a country where the spa scene is about 20 years behind that of Europe or North America, the Polynesian Spa in Rotorua, New Zealand, does an adequate job.
Bearing in mind that mineral pools, by their very nature are usually geared to quantity bathers, and the Polynesian’s 26 thermal pools – most with views overlooking Lake Rotorua, are divided into different areas to alleviate the ‘mass-of-bodies’ experience. It even includes 13 private pools (rather like ground level hot tubs) for those who really want to get away from it all.
The pools are fed by two hot mineral springs: one has acidic properties to provide relief for tired, aching muscles, arthritis and rheumatism; the other has alkaline water that soothes the skin. There’s also a separate family area with the spa’s only freshwater, chlorinated pool.
Although Rotorua’s healing waters have long been a part of Moari culture, it wasn’t until 1878 that that the Europeans discovered these qualities here. The Polynesian Spa actually sits on the site of the first Government public baths, originally built in the 1880s to encourage tourism. The baths underwent a few incarnations and in the early 1930s, they were leased to the family-owned Polynesian Pools. The site has been privately operated ever since, becoming an iconic spa destination on New Zealand’s North Island.
The spa itself offers a range of body scrubs, facials and massages. Its signature Aix massage is done under a warm-water Vichy-style shower. My therapist was excellent. She kneaded into all my knots – oweeeeee - so the prospect of a post treatment relaxation period in the spa retreat rock pools was high on my list.
Suffice to say that I felt run out by hoards of chattering, bussed-in tourists. The nicely landscaped, “spa only” pools are not supposed to be accessed by those using the public pools a mere 50-feet away. But it was late in the afternoon and we were all looking for the same soaking R&R after a full day of touring.
A Passing Grade?
The Polynesian has done quite a good job with its geothermal pools, but when they are a part of a named ‘world class spa’, my expectations go up a notch. I’m looking for an individual, pampered and relaxed spa experience. An A-1 rating and I came away with a much lower grade.
First, spa guests share a YMCA-styled changing room with pool visitors. Lockers are small, towels are functional, spa guests are given robes and paper panties, but no sandals even though you must walk along a carpetted corridor to get to the treatment rooms. Décor here is beige on neutrals on concrete with no sense of place.
Second, the furnishings in the relaxation lounge come right out of the 70s – aqua green and candy floss pink with sparse, cube furniture; again, space without ambiance.
And third, the retail area shares a vacuous lobby with a somewhat utilitarian café, and is a plethora of chintzy souvenirs. These amenitiesy might serve the casual visitor but as a spa client, the lobby (and one’s first impression) felt like a community center, complete with a ticket office booth.
My main concern, however, was cleanliness. Steamy mineral baths are notoriously expensive and difficult to maintain so I have sympathy when I see the start of bubbling paint or discolored metal. This is par for the course.
But the entire place just didn’t feel spiffy. Or crisply cared for.
And was it a coincidence that three of my colleagues developed skin irritations within hours of taking the waters? And that I myself felt quite unwell after my relatively short soak by the time I returned to the hotel? It’s left me wondering about the health of these particular healing waters, and how on earth they helped earn this destination a spot in a Worlds Top Ten List for mineral spas. Perhaps it's because they're the only game in town. At least, for now.
MY LAST WORD
See for yourself. These are iconic pools with an overall good reputation. Staff is friendly, therapists are good, ambiance is so-so, and views are nice (not great). A passing grade? Yes. A world-class spa? No.