Marseille, France’s second largest city, has a hidden treasure in the historic Hotel Dieu: the first Spa by Clarins in Provence. Repurposed by InterContinental Hotels, this 18th century hospital opened last summer to generally enthusiastic reviews despite glitches. Discovering the spa requires three elevators; then you emerge onto a colonnaded terrace with stunning views of the harbor (Vieux Port) but no sign of the spa.
Following a distinctive scent and Zen-like projections along a corridor, I entered the new world of Clarins. With 6 treatment rooms, two saunas, and a hammam, there’s more to this day spa than meets the eye. Changing into a spa robe, I found a relaxation lounge with complimentary tea, but no amenities in the men’s locker room for a shave prior to my facial.
The hotel’s indoor swimming pool and fitness center adjoin the spa, so you have free access when booking treatments. (Unfortunately the newly built pool was closed for repair during my visit.) Or relax with a day pass, work out on TechnoGym equipment, and have lunch on the terrace served from the very hip brasserie.
The Clarins facial is an ideal antidote to travel stress, hydrating and firming your complexion. Clarins estheticians have a sense of touch, never use steam or brushes, and the men’s facial is adjusted for skin conditions, but basically it’s unisex.
Limited by the building’s ancient structure, spa facilities are enhanced by high ceilings and sunlight. Services offered are mainly massage and facials. A big suite for couples to have treatments together includes a whirlpool bath. Free use of the sauna heated by infrared lamps is an alternative to the Finnish and Turkish saunas, but my therapist advised against heat treatments because of medical concerns.
This hotel’s location within steps of the Vieux Port and in the old Panier neighborhood is great. You can enjoy the view of the port and the Notre Dame basilica from the restaurant terrace and from rooms facing the port. Book a terrace or courtyard room for spacious contemporary bedrooms.
Dating back to Greek and Roman rule, the old harbor is filled with fishing boats and yachts, and offers many excellent seafood restaurants where you can try the local specialty, bouillabaisse. Excursion boats take you along the coast, or go by train to Aix-en-Provence for a lavender-scented day.
Constantly reinventing itself, Marseille got a makeover last year as European Capital of Culture. The Spa by Clarins enhances the city’s image with a fresh take on urban escapes.
Health challenges led spa historian Bernard Burt to Canyon Ranch in Arizona, inspiring his 1986 book "Fodor's Healthy Escapes" for Random House. The co-author of "100 Best Spas of the World" (Globe Pequot), his byline has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, American Health, Spa Management Journal, and on Examiner.com. Based in Washington, DC, Burt is chairman emeritus of the Washington Spa Alliance and founding director of the International Spa Association.