You call this relaxation?

LEE TULLOCH
Last updated 05:00 05/03/2014

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Years ago, I visited a health spa in Saint-Malo, Brittany, to take the "cure", a prescribed week-long regime of low-calorie meals, water therapy and exercise, all supervised by a doctor in a white coat. The French are entitled to annual spa visits as part of their national health scheme.

Before I left for Saint-Malo, I was envious and admiring of a health system that took care of its members' wellbeing in such a luxurious way. Afterwards, not so much.

The spa was glamorous enough, overlooking the sea, with a fancy restaurant in an atrium where patients took their meals. Being France, the meals consisted of three or four courses. A glass or two of wine was permissible, and an ashtray was placed on each table, for diners who cared to smoke. This was health and well-being French style. Possibly it's different now, but in the past dining in France, even at a health resort, came with the danger of someone at the next table tapping ash into your food.

One of the white-coated doctors assessed my health fairly perfunctorily and wrote a schedule of seawater therapies and other treatments for the week, including remedial massages and a "wrap" which involved me being covered in green algae and enclosed in tinfoil, like a fish ready for the oven. I nearly broke my neck sliding off the table when the slimy algae was applied, but the gunk did improve my skin and the massages did move some of my aches around.

The water therapy was another matter. You know those movies where they place prisoners of war in windowless cells and torture them? My first treatment involved me stripping down and shivering at one end of a narrow, airless room while two women, standing about 10 metres away, hung on to a fire hose and bombarded me with forceful torrents of cold seawater.

I suppose I must have looked like I had nits. I expected them to come at my hair with big scissors.

Next, it was to the warm seawater baths, which turned out to be a small indoor pool (again the room was airless) where I was taken through a routine of easy exercises. I'm not quite sure what the doctor thought of me, for the other participants included an extremely obese woman (unusual for France) and an elderly lady who had brought her Zimmer frame into the pool. I got out of the pool feeling 20 years older than when I stepped into it.

But by far the most horrifying experience was the bath therapy. I was shown to a small, dark room that smelled unpleasantly mouldy. It was filled with an enormous bath that looked like one of those spacecraft the alien flew in that movie. Nevertheless, I sank into the pleasantly warm water and relaxed. The therapist adjusted the controls and then left me in a dark room.

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Left me in a dark room.

If you're claustrophobic like I am, those words will strike horror in your heart. She had gone before I could protest. I was just starting to panic when the bath started a series of programmed whooshes, groans, rumblings, shakings, suckings and rattlings, as if it were about to take off. Alternating jets pummelled me with hard water. At another point the bath vibrated so much I thought I might be seasick.

If you're a thrill-seeker, I suppose it could have been fun. For me, it was like a very unpleasant 40-minute fairground ride - the River Caves meet the Big Dipper. I was lucky to get out of there without being sucked down the drain. Later on, I decided this was calculated punishment, devised by the authorities to dissuade French people from over-using their expensive health system.

The experience hasn't put me off massage or water therapy. On the contrary, I've been greedily pursuing better treatments ever since. Show me a massage table and I'm on it. Show me some algae and I'll be smothered in it. Put hot rocks on my back or hit me with birch branches or drop oil on my third eye - I'm game.

But don't leave me in a dark room in a deep bath, or wrapped in cling wrap with a mask over my eyes, and tell me you'll be back in a moment.

You won't ever be back soon enough.

- FFX Aus

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