Insider's Guide to Spas
Park Hotel Kenmare; Photography courtesy of Ireland's Blue Book

My Spa Experience

Finding Celtic Calm in Kenmare

Becca Hensley

On a quest in Kenmare, County Kerry, Ireland, I seek a place called The Shrubberies. It lies down a backroad, on the rim of the village, as it has for some two thousand years. I found it once, by chance, long ago on a blustery day with my children. So, when I discover it again on this trip, surrounded by a piney forest, at the end of an undulating dirt trail, edged by a fence, I feel I’ve come home. The nostalgia is all-consuming and seems to date back further than my memories, further than this life. My wistful reminiscing seems otherworldly—even, generations old. Is this deja vu? Recollections from another life? Whatever. I cling to the mystery and moodiness that flows from that familiarity.

A stone circle dating from the Bronze Age, The Shrubberies, as locals call it, is one of the largest examples of its kind in southern Ireland. Egg-shaped, it comprises 15 colossal, hewed, but misshapen, boulders irregularly arranged as a halo. One stone, positioned in the middle, stands out as a dolmen, crowned with a capstone. It serves as the cluster’s heart. Believed to have been used for ceremonial and ritual purposes, this ancient place has no other guests in attendance today. I’m lucky to have it all to myself. To enter, I walk past an un-helmed booth (which asks for a two euro donation), and into the ring of stones. Someone has recently cut the grass around the formation, but otherwise everything else looks as it might have a millennium ago.

Somewhere, not so far away, on the other side of the pine trees, the sea stirs…

Like a pocket of the past, The Shrubberies seems lost in time. Somewhere, not so far away, on the other side of the pine trees, the sea stirs. It sounds like shuffling feet to me. Immersed in palpable history, entranced by centuries-old energy, giddied by mystery, I dance around the stones, touching them guiltily as a naughty child might, wondering if that’s allowed. At last, I choose one chunky rock because it emanates something buzzy, a charge I can’t hear, but can feel—a burst of something, which makes my fingertips itch. I sit on the ground with my back against it, and just breathe. That’s all I need. Like a plug to socket, it recharges me instantly. Still, I sit for nearly an hour—only leaving when others venture into the circle’s cosmic embrace. I’m happy to see the newcomers equally consumed with awe.

Merging Old and New

Back at my lodging, I rush through Park Hotel Kenmare’s opulently outfitted lobby. This member of Ireland’s Blue Book (a curated collection of peerless Irish houses, castles, and lodges) is a Victorian stunner, which overlooks Kenmare Bay, just a 10-minute walk from the stone circle. Normally, I’d stop for a tea in the romantic lobby or muse over the visage of a character painted in a portrait hung on the ample staircase, but I’ve lingered too long at The Shrubberies to take my time. I’m nearly late for my appointment at the hotel’s Samas Spa, touted as one of Europe’s finest wellness getaways. With haste, I make my way from the art and antique bedecked portion of the (still family owned) original hotel to enter the brilliant, new-built, spa enclave. A modern addition, successfully rendered to blend with the older structure, the spa exudes an enigmatic mood, as if it were an old manse’s secret room, an inner sanctum—that proverbial hidden place for secret gatherings. I expect that the candlle-lit passageway that bridges the old and new buildings promotes that feeling of hallowed ground-ness for me. It’s a metaphorical path, a hero’s trudge from one point to another. Or, maybe it’s just a way to get to the spa.

A Soak, a Steam & a Sisley Facial 

Regardless, at Samas, there’s an immediate sense of escaping through a portal to total tranquility. Upon arrival to the spa’s main desk, illumination happens—literally. Huge panoramic windows pull in rivulets of light from outside, bringing the landscape inside, while framing the green view of undeveloped, emerald nature. In one area of the spa, an indoor lap pool and sauna beckon. In another section, an outdoor therme pool hovers above the woods, like a treehouse’s bathtub balanced atop a canopy of leaves. In the distance, I can see joggers moving along the water’s edge. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think they can see me. It makes me feel like an angel looking down.

I’ve checked in at Samas for a Sisley facial treatment, a customized hour, which happens after I’ve soaked and steamed around the spa. French-based Sisley makes effective products focused on plant-based extracts. They use essential oils to transport active, healing ingredients to the skin. In my case, we choose a black rose product for hydration and anti-aging—something needed after my long flight. In my quiet treatment room, with windows showcasing the flora, I experience a rigorous massage technique on my face, and the application of various masks. In the end, my skin looks as awakened as my soul feels from my jaunt to The Shrubberies. The finale comes in a glass, cube-like room, the relaxation area, which overlooks the verdant terrain.

Repeating the order of the day, I stay too long in this room, too—as I did at The Shubberies—drinking in the solace, feeling part of the place, both its interiors and exteriors. Samas Spa shows how a modern addition can be made to a classic hotel. At Park Hotel Kenmare the juxtaposition of the two moods enhance and underscore the other—just as an ancient stone circle called The Shrubberies co-exists with a vibrant, hip town on Ireland’s southern coast. In this room of windows, enveloped in nature’s largesse, synchronicity happens: the past blends with the present, all my questions are answered, my body feels at one with itself, harmony ensues—if just for a perfect second. That’s Ireland for you.

Another Not-to-Miss Irish Spa Retreat 

In the canny university town of Cork, called Ireland’s second capital, stylish Hayfield Manor, also a member of Ireland’s Blue Book,  occupies a garden enclave, adjacent to the historic university, minutes from downtown. A re-imagined country house hotel situated mid-city, run by the Scully Family, visionary hoteliers, the hotel has a reputation for the best scones in Ireland. I also give the top-hatted doormen a prize for their white-gloved service and coddling—and the farm-to-fork kitchen high praise. But, it’s in the Beautique Spa that guests find ultimate repose. An urban retreat with pool, jacuzzi, and sauna, the spa offers efficacious Elemis treatments under the tutelage of well rained technicians.

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Becca Hensley

Becca Hensley

Based in Austin, Contributing Editor Becca Hensley writes regularly about travel and spas. She believes a good story draws you in like laughter in a crowded room, and challenges you to do it justice. Her work appears regularly in Austin Monthly, Travel Channel, Toronto Star and National Geographic Traveler.