I knew we needed to carve out extra time to visit the city of Bath during a recent trip my mother and I took to the UK for a friend's wedding in Herefordshire. To say I'm drawn to natural mineral springs would be an understatement. I've visited them all over the world and have planned entire holidays around soaking in as many hot springs as I could cram into one week. (*SEE PHOTOS BELOW*)
Bath called to me for two reasons. First, it is home to the remains of Roman Baths. My favorite hot springs are generally those off the beaten path ones that involve hiking through rugged terrain (often with a GPS in hand), only to be rewarded by a private soak in steaming waters in the middle of nature. However, the rich history of taking the waters has also long had a grip on my imagination. In Bath, one can tour the remarkably complete Roman Baths. These are the baths in which Roman high society enjoyed taking the waters between the first and fifth centuries. The self-guided audio tour is one of the best I've ever experienced, walking you through the excavated ancient remains, past Roman artifacts, past the actual mouth of the sacred spring, through the remains of the temple courtyard and its stone carvings, and ultimately to the Great Bath itself. As I stood looking over the steaming waters of the beautiful Great Bath, I couldn't help but fantasize about the ancient Romans who traveled here to pray, to socialize, or to seek the healing properties of the mineral waters.
Soaking in the healing mineral waters were the second reason I was drawn to Bath. Thermae Bath Spa is Britain's only natural thermal spa. I had high hopes, and after 10 days of non-stop travel with my mom, I was ready to melt into a pool or two of soothing hot mineral water. I gulped as I paid the ridiculously over-priced US$45.82 for a mere two-hour use of the Thermae Bath Spa's facilities, and then I set off to explore some of their 4 thermal pools. This is where the disappointment set in. The waters were lukewarm, at best, and chlorine is added to the water. Now admittedly, I am a hot spring purist. The hotter the water, the better. Thermae Bath Spa's water did not feel hot. They claim it is 92F, yet, although I didn't have a thermometer with me to check the accuracy, it didn't feel much warmer than room temperature. Additionally, if there really are therapeutic properties to the 42 different minerals packed into Bath's thermal waters, I don't want those diluted by chlorine. All that said, the contemporary design of the spa is really quite beautiful. In particular, the open-air rooftop pool's view of the town and the surrounding hills screams to be enjoyed at sunset. The Minerva Bath indoor pool room includes four cylinder shaped glass steam rooms, each infused with an aromatic essence such as eucalyptus mint, frankincense and sandalwood. Thermae Bath Spa is also a full-service spa, offering all the treatments and spa packages one would expect from a world-class spa. Yet I wasn't here for a spa experience. I was here to experience an authentic soak in hot mineral waters...and that was something that Thermae Bath Spa decidedly did not provide.
However Bath wasn't a total wash. In addition to taking in the beautiful limestone Georgian architecture of the city and the ruins of the Roman Baths, my mom insisted we visit the Pump Room, an elegant Georgian Hall that overlooks the Roman Baths. Here we enjoyed afternoon tea and scones with clotted cream. Clotted cream happens to be one of my favorite things in England. I could honestly sit with a spoon and eat a dish of clotted cream all by itself. The fact that we were also served warm scones while being serenaded by a 4 piece string quartet was simply icing, er, clotted cream on the cake. At the Pump Room we were also able to order glasses of thermal spring water from the restaurant's Spa Water Fountain that draws naturally-heated water directly from the hot spring. In ancient times, it was believed that drinking the mineral spring water could cure a wide array of disorders. It is a bit sulfur-tasting, which to me, the hot spring purist, is the only way it should be drunk. However my mom preferred the lemon and strawberry flavored iced mineral water that is offered on the Pump Room's menu.
A visit to Bath wouldn't be complete without visiting the Bath Abbey, which is the last great medieval church of England, or without window shopping in the town's many galleries and shops. Best yet, if you have time, I strongly recommend doing what we did and go back for seconds at the Pump Room. Have I mentioned I like clotted cream?