IF YOU'VE SPENT any significant amount of time in Singapore, you probably know that Singaporeans are extremely fond of their country's food, which is hardly surprising, given the broad range of flavours it offers. As a former resident of the city-state, however, I quickly discovered that so-called “staycations” are also a sort of national pastime, especially among the well heeled.
Although certain periods of the year are prime time for such breaks – try finding a spare room in any of the Marina Bay-facing hotels during the Singapore Grand Prix, when suites are booked up for a front-row view of the circuit – increasing numbers of health-conscious Singaporeans often check in at one of the country's retreats, most of them located on the island of Sentosa.
It's true that Sentosa, famous for its amusement parks, shopping malls and casinos, hardly evokes images of an idyllic paradise on par with a Thai or Indonesian island, but if you look hard enough, you can discover pockets of lush greenery that will make you forget that Singapore is a magnet for hordes of tourists on shopping and eating expeditions.
Espa, the wellness chain that already has a strong presence around the world, has chosen Sentosa as the location of its largest Asian spa. When it first opened about two years ago, it offered various treatments and day-long retreats, which soon became popular among ladies who lunch – and are also in need of a bit of pampering. It recently expanded to include a smattering of poolside villas located in the same compound as the spa and, most importantly, secluded from the crowds of the adjoining hotels.
The opening of these five-star accommodations has allowed Espa to broaden its offerings, which now include programmes such as Rejuvenation, a three-day sojourn designed for those looking to learn more about fitness and nutrition, or Vitality, a more intense sevenday retreat for those ready to make a commitment to health and wellbeing.
Regardless of their choice of programme, guests begin their stay with a one-on-one consultation, which helps the well-trained staff plan the treatments and activities most suited to their needs. The best way to kick things off, especially if you're coming from overseas and live in a polluted city such as Hong Kong, is the award-winning Softening Hammam Ritual, a fullbody scrub that releases toxins, giving you baby-soft and glowing skin right after you step out of the baths. The scrub is followed by a soothing scalp massage, which the therapist performs while you're lying on a slab of hot marble that opens up your pores and makes you break a good sweat, minus the tough workout.
If activity is what you're looking for, however, you can join classes such as yoga and Pilates, which while not hard on the muscles or joints, help you release lots of endorphins, giving you a muchneeded energy boost.
Each programme includes a personalised massage and indulgent treatments such as facials, but the spa also invites its guests to explore more challenging and targeted practices. These include tui na, a massage based on acupressure points that's a pillar of traditional Chinese medicine and works miracles on aching joints and sore muscles, especially post-exercise. If you have any spare time between treatments, you should take advantage of the spa's facilities, from its steam rooms, ice fountains and rock saunas to its serene gardens and outdoor spaces.
Nourishing your body is also a key component of the retreats. Meals take place at Tangerine, a quiet restaurant overlooking a lovely courtyard, where you can sample the “spa cuisine” through low-calorie dishes such as bluecrab salad and chicken cacciatore. The true cherry on the (sugarless) cake, however, is a multicourse vegetarian menu concocted by Joël Robuchon, the French chef known for his cream-laden dishes that aren't usually detoxfriendly. Vibrance, however, the meal he offers at his restaurant on Sentosa as part of Espa's wellness journey, is a godsend for any vegetarian who wants to show meat-loving friends that veggies can be good, filling and tasty.
Truth be told, in spite of the yummy food and blissful atmosphere of the surrounds, too much quiet and pampering can also take its toll on a restless urban soul, so it's good to keep in mind that the city life of Singapore is just a short ride away. Should you feel too removed from the action or crave the local fare so beloved by Singaporeans, hop on a cab and you can enjoy the spice-laden and non-spa-approved dishes of the city's hawker centres or go on a shopping spree at its glitzy malls.
Even if you fall prey to temptation and escape to town for a little fun, it won't detract from the benefits of a stay at Espa, which is meant to help you restore your energy and make you feel refreshed and well rested. Just keep in mind that next time you plan an urban retreat in the Lion City, you'll have to compete with those in-the-know Singaporeans who now have the ultimate haven of tranquillity to call home for another blissful “staycation”.