The spa is now the ultimate experience. Such is our hunger for its therapeutic qualities that we are prepared to give it priority above just about anything else, including our children's educational needs. At least, this is what seems to be happening in the cash-starved authority of Bath & North East Somerset Council, where councillors are protesting against the decision to commit about £10m for the Bath Spa project, which has diverted funds from schools and roads.
The new spa is scheduled to open in the centre of Bath next year. The city has traded on its waters ever since it was built in 863BC, when, according to legend, Bladud, the ninth king of the Britons, found that bathing in mud fed by the local hot springs had cured him of leprosy. This time around, the spa, designed by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners, and funded by a £7.78m Lottery grant, will be more a tourist attraction than a medical centre, and no one with leprosy is expected to visit. This is the city's bid to cash in on the current fashion for hocus-pocus.
Spas have always been frequented by fashionable society, but you would think we might have moved on since Georgian times, when ladies thought that the best thing for a fit of the vapours was to visit Harrogate for a glassful of mucky water stinking of rotten eggs. Apparently not. The elite of today are still taking the mucky water. And they are prepared to spend an awful lot of money on the experience, too.
Oscar nominees escaping from their audience, supermodels who want to "detoxify", and even politicians on the run from a little local difficulty, head straight for the spa these days. Naturally, an industry has developed to satisfy their whims. From the Far East to the Wild West, luxury "resorts" or "clinics" have sprung up to pander to the international set (that's the current euphemism for the stinking rich) and to relieve them in part of the burden of their wealth.
During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton escaped to the Greenbriar, a resort in West Virginia, to benefit from a sulphur soak and a soothing herbal body wrap (prices start at around $500 a night). British celebrities - including the fashionable acting couple Jude Law and Sadie Frost, Elizabeth Hurley, Kate Moss and even (whisper it) Desmond Lynam - seem to favour the opulent Chiva-Som spa at Hua Hin, Thailand, set in seven acres of beachfront gardens surrounded by lakes and waterfalls. The accommodation has views of the Gulf of Siam, and is - naturally - all feng shui'ed. Treatments include iridology and equilibropathy, described by the spa as "acupuncture without the needles". But in case you were thinking this might be just the place to get your piles treated, beware. "Chiva-Som's positive health philosophy means that we accept well rather than sick patients," cautions the resort's website.
If most spa treatments sound laughable, some are scary. At Clinique La Prairie in Switzerland, which numbers Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev among its past clientele, you could sign up for intramuscular injections of live cells taken from the livers of black sheep foetuses. The basic price for a course of the treatment is £6,400, which includes board and lodging in a standard room for six nights.
Generally speaking, however, you won't be offered much in the way of a cure for anything in these places. As the Ananda spa in the Himalayas puts it so typically: "Our Spa, The Wellness Centre, invites you to a journey of self-discovery and rejuvenation. The Spa is based on the principle of creating harmony from wellness, fitness and relaxation therapies . . ." And so on, with a few cosmic rhythms and confident energies thrown in. From $250-$850 a night. Why would anyone go all the way to the Himalayas only to spend their time in a treatment room?
What are the attractions on offer? Well, there's thalassotherapy - that's a sort of bath thing with heated seawater. Or, Kneipp - that's hot and cold water with the odd bit of plant thrown in. Or maybe you'd prefer a heavy leg spice treatment at the Givenchy Spa of the Hotel Saint Geran in Mauritius, said to be a favourite of Geri Halliwell's (from £4,635 for seven days).
Admittedly, luxury spas are ideal if you're watching your weight, as they employ chefs who can whip up three scrumptious feasts a day that total a mere 800 calories. The pounds just slip off on a diet of oysters, Evian and exotic air.
Otherwise, does any of these places, with their watery, muddy, seaweedy, oily treatments, offer more than, say, a Radox bath (£1.29 a box)? Perhaps they're another manifestation of paradise syndrome, or whatever it's called when people get lots of money and then realise it doesn't make them happy.
The Bath Spa, when completed, will be somewhere between your exotic holiday camp and its high street shop equivalent. Paul Simons, the project's director, says: "We see it as the catalyst for a new phase of sustainable tourism development in the area, which will see us competing for a larger proportion of the European city breaks market." Doesn't sound so relaxing or holistic when put like that, does it? And there won't be any built-in luxury accommodation. Not much chance of Jude and Sadie turning up there.