The Amber Spa in Latvia has developed around a tradition of wellness. Originally just an authentic Russian bania, it has grown to incorporate a wellness centre, and, most recently, a boutique spa hotel, a place where visitors can come to either relax or explore the surrounding scenery. Latvia might not seem like your usual spa destination, but Jurmala is no stranger to health tourism.
Situated on the Latvian coast, with almost 33km of wide, fine sandy beaches, Jurmala has been a wellbeing destination for over a century. During the Soviet era, it was a favourite destination of high-ranking Communists such as Brezhnev and Khrushchev, and visitors can experience an old Soviet dacha (summer house) near the town.
It wasn’t just those in charge who sought out the healthy benefits of the sea air, local mud and sulphur waters that Jurmala had to offer, it is also a favourite spa destination for Russians, Latvians and other Baltics and Soviets. Tucked away in the woods is a wellness centre that has existed for much longer than most of the world’s new crop of spa-hotels. It isn’t fancy, the mud comes in buckets rather than decorative jars and the emphasis is on health rather than relaxation, but it still boasts a high year-round occupancy rate, cementing Jurmala’s position as one of the original spa destinations.
It is natural, therefore, that one of Latvia’s first boutique spa hotels has brought a little refinement to the traditional activities, and chosen Jurmala as its home. Amber Spa is for those who enjoy more than a little pampering and privacy with their treatments, in stylish, modern locations a ten-minute drive from the markets, cafes and concerts of Jurmala town, and a ten-minute walk from its wide beaches.
The rooms are well-equipped, decorated in different tones of amber, and pretty, rather than overly spacious or super-luxe, which is fine because most of your relaxing should definitely be done in the spa. Treatments are extensive and range from sleep-inducing hot amber stone massages to wake-you-up cold water treatments designed to tackle cellulite. For guests who really want to re-vamp their lifestyle, there are also holistic medical consultations.
Amber’s roots lie in its Bania, a traditional Russian steam bath. Like its international cousins the hamman and sauna, it’s a hot, sweaty and healthy experience. Either opt just for alternating hot steam and cool pool, or try one of the traditional treatments: soap massages, strawberry scrubs and facials using divine, natural products from Russie Blanche (www.russieblanche.com) are all on offer, but to really get into the spirit of things, you have to ask Tania for the traditional balsam massage: get beaten with branches in the bania while the steam takes on a lovely eucalyptus-like aromatherapy smell. There are plenty of local fans, and if their amazing skin is anything to go by, the treatment is pretty effective.
The hotel is perfect for either a seaside retreat or city break – Riga is a 20-minute drive away. In Riga, an old history battles with a new identity, as Latvia sloughs of its former Soviet personality in favour of one that is distinctly ‘Latvian.’ Everyone is open and friendly, eager to impress upon visitors what Latvia has to offer. “From Latvia,” our taxi driver proudly announces as he treats us to strawberries from a local produce stand, and we see Latvian linens in the boutiques, and handicrafts in the markets.
Take a wander around the picturesque old town, with its winding streets and historical houses, find a modern and delicious dinner in one of the stylish restaurants, then drinks at a funky bar that wouldn’t be out of place in Berlin. Everywhere you look, something surprises you, whether it’s the acres of forest, the sunny beaches or the sheer style of the place – or, of course, its first real boutique spa, a modern enterprise grown from an unexpected tradition.