With 1,600 miles of coastline, France is a perfect location for the seaside spas that practice thalassothérapie, its name derived from thalassa, the Greek word for sea. As many as 55 thalasso resorts dot the French shores of the English Channel, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, including a few on Corsica and Ile de Ré, an island off the port of La Rochelle. The sea-blue eyes and shapely bodies displayed on their brochures conjure up images of hedonistic pleasures under sunny climes, so you might feel somewhat disconcerted on your first visit—a French thalasso spa is by no means the equivalent of a California beauty farm.
In fact, the word thalassothérapie was coined in 1866 by Dr Joseph de la Bonnardière to designate a seawater cure, to be distinguished from thermalisme, which employs the waters of hot mineral springs. For many years French citizens were entitled to government-paid treatment when a spa cure—whether thalasso or thermal—was prescribed by a doctor.
But since 1999, only thermal curistes are entitled to the free ride; thermalism is still regarded as a medical treatment, while thalassotherapy is considered a matter of relaxation, well-being and fun, not to mention glamour when the spa adjoins a luxury hotel.
So it comes as some surprise, arriving for the first time at the Thermes Marins of St-Malo in Brittany, for instance, to discover an assembly-line establishment that can accommodate close to 500 curistes at any given time, and where I once spent a six-day “cure” rushing from cabin to cubicle, losing my way in a maze of corridors and agonizing over being late for my next treatment. Crowds of fellow curistes, wrapped in identical bathrobes, were similarly channeled from one cabin to the next, where, between sessions that lasted from five to 20 minutes maximum, you must allow time for undressing and dressing, not to mention drying off. Thank heaven for the unexpected abundance of clocks on every possible wall, helping to keep us all on schedule!
And yet. Despite the rush and the crowd, I left St-Malo reinvigorated and feeling a generation younger than when I arrived. That’s what disconcerted and puzzled me the most.
Although the beneficial effects of seawater were already noted by Hippocrates, Euripides, Plato and Aristotle, the knowledge was lost during the Middle Ages, when the sea was shunned as the abode of the Devil (and swampy shores and seaports were notably insalubrious). Interest in the therapeutic virtues of seawater was revived in the 18th century by Dr Richard Russell, who was behind the development of the seaside town of Brighton in southern England. A few years later, when the Duke of Cumberland and the Prince Regent spent time in Brighton, it became a fashionable spa. Across the Channel, the French aristocracy followed suit. The Duchesse de Berry was said to be the first woman of her era to take sea baths, beginning in 1824, making the fortune of Dieppe. In 1854 Empress Eugénie put Biarritz on the seaside glamour map.
Modern thalassotherapy, however, dates from 1899. Its birthplace is Roscoff, on Brittany’s northern coast, where the first thalasso center was opened by Dr Louis Bagot and named the Institut Roc Kroum after the tilted granite rock that still graces its entrance. Drawing on his observations of the effective practices of natives in the colonial islands and on scientific work carried out by marine biologist René Quinton, Bagot laid the foundations of a revolutionary therapy which—despite its spectacular results and its popularity with Hollywood celebrities—has only recently started making waves outside of France.
The key to the therapy is Quinton’s discovery that the components of seawater and of mammal blood plasma are compatible. Its proponents claim that thalassotherapy allows the body to replace toxins with the iodine, minerals and trace elements contained in seawater, and the negative ions found in marine air. For the cure to be effective, it’s essential to complement it with outdoor exercise and fresh air. Believers claim the body will stock all this goodness for six to eight months, which is why it’s recommended to do thalasso cures on a regular basis.
A miraculous combination of natural assets has made Roscoff the ideal site for a thalasso cure. Protected on the north by the lovely and basically car-free Ile de Batz (a 15-minute ferry ride) and by the Perharidi peninsula, it also benefits from the Gulf Stream, enjoying a constant mild temperature throughout the year. The exceptional shallowness of the bay increases the water’s exposure to the sun, warming it up. The shallowness also generates an ample tidal range, which helps preserve the purity of the environment and stimulates the development of algae, with their rich concentrates of iodine, minerals and trace elements. Algae are an essential component of all thalassotherapy. The Roscoff coast is one of Europe’s largest algae fields, boasting some 800 varieties. It’s also the home of a renowned marine research center, and of Thalado, a seaweed discovery center and shop where the public can be introduced to marine life and therapy by way of a Power Point presentation, algae-based cooking demonstrations and field trips—a spectacular experience in spring, when the seaweed takes on a riot of hues.
It’s also at Roscoff’s Roc Kroum Institute that the palper rouler massage was invented, back in the 1930s. The technique consists of pinching, then rolling, every bit of your skin, and boy can it hurt! Even more so after the fact. Although it is now commonly used by the figure-conscious for aesthetic reasons—in this case you do have to suffer to be beautiful—its original goal was to rid the lymphatic system of fat and improve blood circulation.
The Bobet effect
Since then, thalasso has been incorrectly amalgamated with the notion of living-it-up. Thalasso centers, like their clients, come in all shapes and sizes. Among those in Brittany alone, the Miramar Crouesty is indeed fabulous, as is the one in Pornic, and Lucien Barrière at La Baule definitely caters to beautiful people. The Hôtel Thalasstonic in Roscoff, attached to the Roc Kroum Institute, on the other hand, is an unassuming place with a wonderfully friendly, family feel. True, it could At Roc Kroum, top: an algae wrap; bottom: the pool with view of the Ile de Batz do with a facelift. But the floor-to-ceiling windows at the swimming pools, dining area and some of the rooms offer magnificent sea views, and the Thursday night buffet of fruits de mer is to die for.
The list of treatments at all thalasso centers is fairly similar, but the quality varies from one to the next, and Roc Kroum is among the best. A preliminary visit to the resident doctor is highly recommended, as it will help you choose, among the many packages on offer, what’s best for you.
When, following his automobile accident in 1960, doctors thought they would have to amputate the leg of the legendary cyclist Louison Bobet, the three-time Tour de France winner opted instead for thalasso treatment at Roscoff, where he recovered fully. In 1964, he and his brother opened a new thalasso center at Port Crouesty in southern Brittany, facing the magnificent Quiberon Bay. The adjoining Hôtel Miramar was a luxury establishment, significantly nicknamed “the ocean liner,” and a draw to stars and celebrities.
Treatments at Roc Kroum include all the thalasso classics, most of which seem like variations on the Jacuzzi theme. A hydromassage leaves you on your own for 20 minutes; add a pouch of seaweed rub and it becomes an algobath; an underwater shower adds a spray, manually controlled by a hydrotherapist. Shower affusions have you stretched out on a table, delightfully sprayed from above with warm seawater. The most relaxing treatment involves heated, pungent seaweed poultices applied to your back while headphones lull you into slumber with strange, soothing sounds. A five-minute jet shower dispatches the slumber: Standing against the wall, you are pelted with seawater by a power hose activated by your jubilant executioner. As she polishes you off by switching the temperature to freezing cold, she assures you that it’s excellent for your blood circulation.
There is also dry massage and even reflexology. The combinations vary, ranging from a general well-being program to an anti-stress or anti-aging one, along with more specific postnatal or backache packages. Basically, the sky’s the limit. The length of stay is flexible too, although a six-day cure is said to be the most effective. The amenities of traditional beauty spas are also available, including facials, aromatherapy and hair care—they have little to do with thalassotherapy per se, but they’re in demand. Besides, being healthy and looking good go hand in hand, something no one knows better than the French.
Hôtel Thalasstonic, Rue Victor-Hugo, Roscoff, 02.98.29.20.20. TGV from Paris Gare Montparnasse to Morlaix, then taxi or hotel shuttle.
Originally published in the January 2008 issue of France Today.
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