Well-being’s not all about detoxing and rigorous exercise, you know. It can just as easily be massages and Michelin stars, as Anna Selby discovers in an artistic retreat deep in Wales…
What do you think of if I mention West Wales? Is it rain? Sheep? Stairway to Heaven? Strangely enough, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page wrote the Led Zeppelin song here, inspired by Cwm Einion – “Artists’ Valley” – a picturesque misty mountainside, when they escaped the rigours of a long tour in 1970 to live in a 300-year-old stone cottage. They weren’t the first visitors. Turner came here to paint and it was the refuge of Celtic princes hiding from the English. At my particular bit of this heaven, Ynyshir Hall, Queen Victoria planted the trees in still glorious gardens. While I’m not sure she did much of the digging, she’d have been delighted that her specimen trees are still flourishing and the same wildlife – frolicking rabbits, red (yes, red) squirrels and prolific birdlife – populate the manicured, sunny lawns.
And, despite driving through several downpours to get here, it was sunny when I arrived – though there was still an open fire in the bar (“to make it cosy,” Julie the assistant manager told me), even in July. You don’t come to Wales for a suntan but if you want Celtic glamour in the original sense – something that beguiles the senses – you’ll get bucketsful here.
Ynyshir is a regular award winner, current AA Hotel of the Year in Wales and last year chef Gareth Ward won his first Michelin Star. It celebrates the local artistic heritage with rooms that each pay homage to a different painter. Matisse has a voluptuous fuschia sofa, an even more voluptuous nude painting and a lot of pink. Renoir is subdued golds and blues. Hogarth has a crimson and midnight blue four poster. I stayed in the new studio that features a bathroom the size of a ballroom, and, as in all the rooms, I found nice little touches, from lavender-scented coat hangers to a decanter of sherry.
Ynyshir is not just a renowned hotel, though, it’s also a spa. But rather an unusual one. You won’t find a pool or a sauna. You definitely won’t find a manicurist or any beauty treatments. This is a holistic wellness centre and it has just four highly specialised therapists who tailor their treatments to your needs. It’s very much a bespoke service. When you meet your therapist, you have a talk about what would be best for you to focus on and your treatment develops accordingly. The spa is just a year old and came about because one of the owners of Ynyshir, Joan Reen, used many of the treatments to assist her recovery from cancer. The treatments include Reflexology, Reiki, Tai Chi, Shiatsu, Energy Healing and Mindful Meditation Walking. You can, of course, have a regular massage but it would be a shame not to take advantage of the special energy that Ynyshir’s therapists celebrate here. They certainly think holistically (looking at mind, body, spirit and emotions) and are likely to use their intuition and experience. As I said, no ordinary spa.
My therapist, Thomas, explained he ranged across several disciplines. He’s a teacher of karate and Tai Chi, and in his treatments he uses massage, Shiatsu, Qi Gong, Tibetan foot reflexology and, most importantly, Bio Energy Healing. I was with him for an hour and a half during which time he used all five and it was quite a remarkable experience. By the end of the treatment I could hardly sit up being so light headed and dizzy – not something I have previously encountered. It took minutes before I could put my feet on the floor. I’m still not quite sure what happened but something powerful was going on, all the more so, perhaps, because I always have my doubts about concepts like Bio Energy – it makes me think of the laying on of hands and that makes me edgy.
So, what did he do? I explained at the start that I had some lower back pain and he began sure enough with something akin to a laying on of hands! At least he placed them above the spot, not touching but hovering, for what seemed quite a long time. I could feel warmth then heat. Then he moved to my feet, seeking out pressure points (some quite tender), then moving up to the pressure points in the legs and a final oily massage. Then he moved on to the back where he decided against Shiatsu and pressure points and went for a very deep massage. Now, I have to admit that, when it comes to massages, I have a tendency to go for the gentle scented ones so I wasn’t quite used to this. Thomas got into every knot, every sinew, every muscle and just kept getting deeper. He explained later he was pulling the muscles away from the spine and releasing the toxins stored in them. (Did I mention he also offers bone manipulation?) As the massage got deeper, my spine started to make popping noises, like sighs of relief.
Later, he moved on to my hands and arms and eventually my head. Again, this wasn’t that gentle scalp massage you’d normally expect, there was chopping and squeezing and at one point it felt like my head was in a vice. Well, not quite as strong as that, but you get the picture. This was not the cause of my dizziness, though, Thomas explained. That was a result of all those toxins flooding back into my bloodstream, released from my muscles.
Some time later when I’d stopped feeling dizzy, my back felt entirely restored and I went for a walk. There are fantastic walks around here. Once you’ve paid homage to the Artists’ Valley and Stairway to Heaven, there are many others where your path goes through forest and over bridges, on to high viewpoints and down to sandy beaches. Ynyshir is on the Dovey Estuary and its neighbour is an RSPB reserve filled with wildlife so unafraid you pass by barely noticed. There’s a woodland trail, a wetland trail and a saltmarsh trail and, even in midsummer, I didn’t see another person. I did, though, see a lot of sheep.
You see even more back at Ynyshir Hall where they are the study of co-owner, artist Rob Reen, who paints in bold reds and blues to create what I can only describe as sheep portraits. Their faces appear in large wall paintings and on the plates set on the restaurant tables – blue at dinner, red at breakfast. I loved them.
The restaurant is Ynyshir’s other gem. In a Michelin-starred restaurant, you’re not going to get the kind of food you might expect in a spa hotel. But what you do get is local, fresh, imaginative and extremely healthy – even if that may sound impossible when indulging in a nine course tasting menu. So, let me say first that those courses were tiny (though, on reflection, I think there may have been even more than nine). They were often served on vast plates and appeared as tiny jewel-like presentations in the centre. To give you a flavour (as it were): Not French Onion Soup was tiny diced tofu in miso with onion essence; Mackerel shavings came with mango sauce and crunchy seeds; Duck Liver came with green strawberries and elderberries to stain them red; Welsh Wagyu turned out to be a series of three tiny courses, including a kind of mouthful-sized burger and a tiny steak; Cheese came with pop barley (as opposed to pop corn); the petits fours were given the liquid nitrogen treatment and flavoured with lavender. Four different wines accompanied the changing courses including a lusciously fragrant Alamos Torrentes from Argentina, a big Spanish Rioja Reserve and a Quarts de Chaume sweet wine for the puds.
Staggering back to the room under the weight of all this food and wine, the air was cool and fresh after the earlier rain and the Milky Way shone like a diamond bracelet in the night sky. Ynyshir provides star gazers with a telescope to take advantage of its complete lack of light pollution. Stairway to heaven, anyone?
B&B priced from £215 per room per night. Dinner (5 course), bed & breakfast rates starts at £315 per room per night Call 01654 781209 to book. For more information, visit www.ynyshirhall.co.uk