Halfway to paradise in Tsuen Wan
PAMPERING has its limits. Mine came after the archery lesson and before the aromatherapy massage. It was my second day of the two-Day Stress Reduction Programme at the Gold Coast Hotel.
I realised that becoming beautiful, chilling out and turning off the mind, was hard work.
The Gold Coast Hotel is Hong Kong's $3 billion Biosphere tucked away in Tsuen Wan. The 100-acre resort/conference centre offers respite and recreation to those who want to escape the madness of weekday hustle and pretend they're someplace else.
This Garden of Eden with its giant swimming pool, 450 rooms, and palm-fringed view of Castle Peak Bay is only a 30-minute hoverferry ride from Central.
Thumbing through brochures for the Spa's Weekend Spa Package brought back memories of past spa holidays. One Christmas holiday was spent fasting in Palm Beach, Florida at a cheap, no-frills compound where a sun-tanned octogenarian responded to 'doctor' by his adoring 'nurses'.
Then there was a week at a mountain retreat outside Los Angeles. For a dozen inmates, the reward for non-stop mountain hiking, aerobics, yoga and weight-lifting was raw vegetables, no coffee and an hour-long massage, if you could drag your body up the hill to get it.
Miracles aren't promised at the Gold Coast Spa, only implied. I hoped the stay would erase the creases on my forehead, the bags under the eyes. And healthy eating would kick out my favourite toxins.
It did. And it didn't.
After two days of massage and facials, a whirlpool bath with swirling rose petals, scented candles, non-stop basting with aromatic oils interspersed with rest, sauna, more rest, fruit plates and herbal tea, I realised this body preferred drill sergeants and boot-camp.
Don't get me wrong. It has nothing to do with the level of professional services or the skill of the professional therapists. But 24 hours can't change upbringing or habit.
This rude awakening came on Sunday at 11.09 am. I was in the Vibrosauna. Imagine being bundled to the neck in thick-pile towels and lying, face-up, on a contoured vibrating bed. Your body is enclosed in something akin to a huge metal drum.
A whirring fan cooled my moist brow. New age music, piped a decibel above a whisper, caressed the ears. I was alone, all alone, in a dark room the size of my flat, starring at the walls and ceiling where a lattice design from the candles danced over my turban.
The glare from the Vibrosauna's digital read-out panel gave off a Twilight Zone glow. Those blinking lights were my reality check: nine minutes down, only 21 to go.
My mind raced and ignored its plea to relax. I made 'to do' lists then checked off my major accomplishments since my friend and I checked into the hotel, some 15 hours and one gold Rolls Royce pick-up (available upon request) ago.
These included saying no to a remaining butter cookie and yes, to two. Successfully finding the rest lounge without asking directions. Steel willpower fended off the butter by the brioche. Never mind that a demon inside forced the legal spa breakfast menu out of my hand.
My wimpy moan of discomfort as the loofah brush scoured my skin for dead cells and hastened the demise of ugly cellulite, like the therapist promised, was repressed.
Even though getting basted in oil then rubbed with coarse salt reminded me of my grandmother readying the Thanksgiving turkey for the roaster, I muffled my thoughts. Talk about willpower.
As the digital read-out ticked off, I resigned myself: this was a marathon and my impatience, my restlessness, was merely 'hitting the wall'. Hang in, I prayed.
Eleven more minutes to go.
As poisons dripped from my body in the 80-plus degree F environment, my soul was dying for action, movement, a giant gin n' tonic, the screech of mini-busses, the ring of the telephone. Maybe I was a stress-junkie after all.
'Time's up,' announced the therapists as the door cracked open. That streak of creamy light across my face was my finish line.
The Gold Coast Hotel is an amazing place. For those with a sense of fun and imagination, I can honestly recommend a visit, an overnight, or whatever.
But it had nothing in common to the tough, sweaty experience I craved in the mountains of California. It is not the serenity that lures me to sections of the MacLehose Trail. It is not the richness found in Bali's far-corners. But you can pretend.
It is a Western-inspired resort lived out and played in Hong Kong-style.
Yes, there are pockets of peace. But they're threatened by the wide-eyed day-trippers who come to inspect Tsuen Wan's monument to getting-away-from-it-all. Generations of families bring their high-energy offspring. This is not for adults-only.
It's hard to fathom that just three years ago, the site that supports a huge apartment and shopping complex and a full-blown marina was water.
When general manager Ivan Lee was asked why there weren't more than 35 craft moored in the marina although all slips were bought, he laughed. 'Speculators. It's Hong Kong, right.' The food on the Spa menu was innovative, light and delicious. The memory of one luncheon dish, poached tofu stuffed with ratatouille, makes me hungry.
The rooms are top-notch with thick-pile terry towels, good quality pillows, very firm mattresses and first-rate soap and bathroom amenities. The amount of square footage made returning home a pain. We stayed away from the mini-bar temptations.
At Castle Peak Road's Biosphere, the trees and flowers around the mini-golf course, archery range, jogging path and pool were imported from China. If you squint in one direction from the terrace, the world is framed in palm trees, the pool shimmers and you're in a paradise.
But, look in the opposite direction, and there's the maze of bamboo scaffolding and concrete monsters under construction. Behind one white-painted fence by the pier, a jack-hammer stands, hushed, on Sundays.
Half of the hotel staff are veterans from mega-star hotels in Central and TST; the other half, residents of the New Territories, so eager to please but less experienced.
There's nothing starched about their sincerity, the smiles or the attractive uniforms - tropic-weight pants, open-shirts and bermuda shorts - in Hanoi ochre.
The Spa was designed with Western concepts under the expertise of local consultant Frederique. But ladies in the jacuzzi wear towels or bathing suits and when one naked gweipau arrived, everyone scattered.
The total seclusion found in most resort/spas is hard to achieve here. But the Gold Coast gets A-plus for trying. And, given Hong Kong's nature, succeeding.
Spa hotels in Baden Baden probably don't get 1,000 gawkers every weekend. And courteous security guards do their best to ensure hotel guests have priority and visitors are restricted from certain areas. But don't go anywhere without your guest security pass.
When my brain started to calculate the ferry schedule and estimated arrival time home during the facial, I wondered about the addictive nature of stress.
The cellulite remains, so do the bags. The weekend was a refreshing change from my normal routine.
But next time, I'll pack my hair-shirt.