Ancient Roman Baths
Taking the waters has been fashionable in Britain since the Romans transformed a patch of boggy marsh into a sanctuary of relaxation they called Aquae Salis almost 2,000 years ago.
Today the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Bath, nestled between the rolling hills of Somerset beside the River Avon two-hours’ drive west of London, boasts the wonderfully-preserved Roman Baths, contemporary Thermae Spa nourished by the country's only naturally-occurring hot springs, and a magnificent ensemble of Georgian architecture.
Legend has it the invading Anglo-Saxons had limited knowledge of the benefits of the health-giving springs, and the baths fell into disrepair after the last Roman soldiers left Britain in 407 AD.
Over the next thousand years the great Roman bathing complex became buried in mud. But some of the town's thermal springs continued to be utilised: the sick and poor of St. John's hospital, established in 1180 AD, used the waters.
Another revival came when Queen Elizabeth I stayed in Bath in 1574, prompting generations of high society – Queen Anne visited in 1688 seeking a cure for her gout - to bathe in the waters, which contain 42 different minerals and reputedly relieve maladies ranging from infertility to rheumatism.
All the while, across the centuries, the staggering 1,170,000 litres of mineral-rich thermal waters naturally warmed to a pleasant 45°C, rose every day through a geological fault.
The Monte Carlo of Britain
By the 1800s Bath had evolved into the Monte Carlo of Britain, where the fashionable descended to the steaming soul of the city for a soak, take tea in the genteel Pump Room, and waltz around the Assembly Rooms, now a fitting home to Bath's Fashion Museum.
Bath's thermal springs, next to the excavated Roman baths, reopened to the public in 2006 after a nearly 30-year hiatus in the form of the Thermae Bath Spa, which integrates Georgian buildings with contemporary additions.
Visitors to Bath can emulate the Romans and Georgians in Thermae's steamy mineral-rich pools, including a rooftop pool with wonderful views across the historic city, and more than 50 spa and beauty treatments, including Watsu – massage therapy in the water – body wraps, facials, and aromatherapy massages.
Refreshed and relaxed, I take afternoon tea at the Pump Room Restaurant adjacent to the spa, and stroll to Sally Lunn's bakery, where sweet brioche-like buns have been served since 1680.
The majesty of Royal Cresent
Demand for upmarket accommodation near the baths led to the feast of Georgian architecture you see today. The city's Palladian architecture doesn't get much better than the sweeping majesty of Royal Crescent, a perfectly proportioned terrace anchored by 114 Ionic columns.
Number 16 Royal Crescent is situated at the heart of this splendid curve of mansions, first occupied in 1775, and has been transformed into a luxury Relais and Chateau hotel called, confusingly, The Royal Crescent.
While the hotel retains all the charm of a costume drama – it's old-fashioned enough to put the names of guests on the doors of their rooms, and the drawing room is festooned with antiques and 18th century paintings - it's combined with 21st century creature comforts such as en suite bathrooms, big TVs and designer toiletries.
Strolling along the Royal Crescent, you feel like breaking out an Empire-line dress or frock coat, like the costumed fans who arrive en masse for the annual Jane Austen Festival (September 12 to 20, 2014), which celebrates the city’s most famous resident with nine days of literary events and exhibitions (janeaustenfestival.co.uk).
For panoramic views of the city, climb the 212 steps to the tower of Bath Abbey, a late Gothic gem dating from the 15th century; wander across Pulteney Bridge, visit Bath's 200 year-old Royal Theatre, and take a boat trip along the River Avon.
An urban affair
Dining in Bath is an urbane affair, with a mix of cafes, cosy pubs, and fine-dining restaurants. The Chequers, a cheery gastro pub five-minutes’ walk from Royal Crescent, has an ever-changing menu of fine fare at attractive prices that may include Hand-dived Scallops with cauliflower, smoked pork belly, candied lime and cumin velouté (£11.50), and spring lamb rump with sweetbreads, curried lentils, Bombay potato and fennel (£22.50).
The award-winning Dower House Restaurant at the Royal Crescent Hotel overlooks leafy gardens adjacent to the hotel's on-site Bath House spa.
Bath's Spas Ancient and Modern package features a visit to the Roman Baths Museum, lunch (or Champagne afternoon tea) in the Pump Room and a two-hour spa session at Thermae Bath Spa. £66 per person. Bookings required, email firstname.lastname@example.org. More information on Thermae Bath Spa at thermaebathspa.com.
A one-night spa break at the Royal Crescent Hotel is from £415 per room per night, based on two people sharing, and includes luxury accommodation, two-course lunch, a one-hour spa treatment per person, and full English breakfast, see royalcrescent.co.uk.
National Express buses link London's Victoria coach station with Bath up to 10 times a day, more at nationalexpress.com.
Direct trains to Bath Spa run from London's Paddington and Waterloo stations at least hourly, see nationalrail.co.uk for schedules and fares.
The nearest airport is Bristol.