The baths’ modern-day equivalent, the Thermae Bath Spa, is just a short walk away, built on the site of the 1920s Beau Street swimming baths in a compact corner of the old town center. The complex includes five retrofitted heritage buildings, but its centerpiece is the aforementioned cube—officially the New Royal Bath—designed by Grimshaw Architects, one of Britain’s leading high-tech architectural firms. The multimillion-pound spa finally opened in 2006 after a three-year delay and not a small amount of resistance from Bath’s famously conservative guardians, official and unofficial alike. Yet despite the controversy, the cube and its glass curtain wall seem to enhance their setting more than any faux-Georgian design could ever have achieved. More to the point, the state-of-the-art facility brought public bathing back to the city (new boreholes and sand and UV filtration ensure the water is uncontaminated), rebooting Bath as a 21st-century spa town.
Judging from the throngs when I visit, it’s a roaring success. A dip in the rooftop pool, with its views over the city toward the surrounding hills, might be reason enough to drop US$50 on the entrance fee. But there’s an even larger thermal bath downstairs, as well as circular glass steam rooms infused with essential oils, massage rooms, a Vichy shower, and watsu treatments in the revamped Hot Bath, a Palladian gem dating to the 1770s.
Spa aficionados looking for something more exclusive can head across the cobbled street to The Gainsborough Bath Spa, which debuted last summer as the first five-star hotel to open here in 30 years. It’s also the only hotel in the country with direct access to natural thermal waters, which are pumped into the baths of its hushed and palatial in-house “spa village.”
The Gainsborough is a stunning addition to the city. Owned by Malaysia’s YTL group (which in 2014 also took over the running of the Thermae complex), the hotel occupies two historic hospital buildings—one Georgian, one Victorian—that have been graciously restored by New York–based firm Champalimaud Design, also behind the interiors of The Dorchester in London and New York’s Waldorf Astoria. Tall windows fill the 99 high-ceilinged rooms and suites with light, illuminating a palette of Georgian-inspired muted blues and browns, vintage-style Roberts radios, and poster beds with toile de Jouy headboards featuring a pastoral scene by Thomas Gainsborough, the hotel’s namesake artist, who resided in Bath in the 1760s.
Another piece of local history is on display in the lobby: a collection of Roman coins. These are just a small part of the so-called Beau Street Hoard, a cache of more than 17,500 ancient coins unearthed in 2007 during the excavation of the hotel foundations. The rest of the hoard—one of the largest ever such finds in Britain—is now exhibited in a gallery at the Roman Baths, just 150 meters away.
The Gainsborough boasts a fine restaurant with an Asia-accented menu by Austrian celebrity chef Johann Lafer; beautifully plated dishes like wasabi-marinated smoked mackerel and rack of Wiltshire lamb with a Szechuan-pepper crust are treasures in their own right. There’s also a suave bar. But the hotel’s point of pride is clearly its spa, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has stayed at one of YTL’s properties in Malaysia. Here, the facilities are centered on a colonnaded bathing atrium that marks the start of a contemporary take on the traditional Roman bath circuit, with three thermal pools of varying temperatures, saunas, and an ice alcove. These are free for hotel guests to use, though I have the place virtually to myself on the afternoon of my visit.
After a treatment in a candlelit massage room down an adjacent corridor, I return to the atrium swathed in a fresh robe, pour myself a chili-spiked hot chocolate, and lay back in a lounge chair under the soaring glass ceiling. Above me, the pattering of rain provides a somnolent soundtrack; below, the steam rises slowly off Bath’s healing waters.
I’m sure the Romans would have loved it.
By train, it’s just 90 minutes to Bath from London’s Paddington Station with the Great Western Railway.
Where to Stay
The Gainsborough Bath Spa
Beau St.; 44-1225/358-888; doubles from US$405
This article originally appeared in the April/May print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Liquid Assets”).