Bath is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful and well-preserved cities in England — for many, it’s a highlight of their time in the UK. For Ian and me? It was kind of meh.
Blasphemy, I know! But don’t raise your pitchforks just yet. Bath is beloved by millions. And we actualy had a lovely time and actually hit up some pretty swoon-worthy spots on our day trip from Bristol. But we just didn’t crazy click, you know what I mean? I guess what I’m trying to say, Bath, is it’s not you, it’s us.
As I tend to half-jokingly reply when people ask me why I haven’t traveled more extensively in Europe, I’m not really into ye olden days stuff like castles and cobblestones and other places that could double as sets for Game of Thrones and Downtown Abbey. I’m sorry, I was born this way! Submit your indignant comments informing me of my foolery below.
But one thing I’m very, very into? Spas. And Bath has a banger.
The word spa comes from the phrase salus per aquam, or “health through water.” Way back when — yes, in ye olden days — the city of Bath became a mecca for spa-seekers thanks to the discovery of three natural springs beneath the city — springs which produce over a million litres of hot mineral water per day. The Celts, Romans, Saxons and Georgians believed the waters had curative properties and traveled there since its discovery in 863BC. The tradition continues today at the Bath Thermae, the only place outside one private accommodation (the Gainsborough Hotel, for those who are interested) that offers a chance to sneak in a soak.
We made the spa our first stop in the morning and I was a little surprised to find the changing rooms were mixed gender — though there were small private stalls to strip down in. However I was quickly distracted by the SmartBand technology used to make payments, tap in and out of lockers, and track your time in the spa — they brought me right back to my visit to Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, and Manitoba’s Thermëa Winnipeg. There’s a strict no phone or camera rule inside the spa but the number of selfies on Tripadvisor made me suspect that it wasn’t strictly enforced, and so I snuck my phone in my robe pocket for a few discreet snaps.
Bath Thermae really is incredible, and it alone was worth the trip from Bristol. We started our session in the lower level Minerva Bath lazy river, where we floated in 42 different healing minerals. Next, we stopped for a soup and a tea in the Springs Café — while entry packages are timed, extra minutes are added if you eat, and all packages come with fifteen minutes for getting ready.
Next we hopped to the second floor flavored steam rooms — which were just about to be renovated when we visited — and a peaceful outdoor deck with panoramic views of the city and plenty of corners to cuddle in private. The third floor, however, was the jaw-dropper — a rooftop pool with even more glorious views of Bath, and steam curling off the pool surface into the early-September air.
When we’d done a thorough lap, we retreated to our aromatherapy massages (£59). In retrospect, I really regret not doing one of the more rare specialty treatments like one of the Vichy Experiences (£69) or a Watsu Treatment (£64) instead of standard massages that we could have gotten anywhere. It wasn’t our best call ever but we waited too long to book and honestly this part of the trip was kind of cobbled together at the last minute — mistakes were inevitable.
There are so many tempting ways to experience the Thermae, it really is hard to choose. Large groups may wish to rent out the small, adjacent Cross Bath for a private party of up to 12 people — you can even bring bubbles! Date night seekers might splurge on a Twilight Package and watch the sunset from the rooftop pool. And of course, you can always keep it simple and just go for a two hour session in the Thermae for a very reasonable £34-37.
Next up? A different kind of bath.
We kind of felt like we had to visit the Roman Baths of Bath. Right? Skipping them would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. When we got our tickets, audio headsets and several maps to begin our self-guided tour, Ian looked at me with a familiar panic and asked his usual question upon approaching a major tourist attraction: “we’re just doing a lap, right?”
In this case, I was more than happy to. While I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s narration on the audio headsets and admired how well-preserved the site was, I just wasn’t super into it, frankly. I guess this era and place in history just doesn’t speak to me. (Somewhere in Upstate New York, my mom is shaking her head in disappointment.)
After our “lap” around the baths, we were both starving. Unusually for us, we hadn’t really researched anywhere to eat, and we started walking around in a hungry panic before finally ducking into an overpriced lunch spot on a main tourist drag, cringing when we later realized it was a British chain restaurant. And not even a Pizza Express, at that!
Literally moments after exiting our mediocre lunch, we walked by an adorable local restaurant called Balcony Thai, and I wanted to weep that we didn’t eat there instead.
After lunch we had a few hours to kill before my friend Gwen, who I met in Brazil, was meeting us for dinner and a film festival. So I cracked open the guidebook and we trotted all over town checking out the major sights like The Circus (a historic circular street of houses, not a big top), the Royal Crescent, and the Pulteney Bridge.
They were fine.
And then, finally, it was a socially acceptable hour in which to consume alcohol!
Our first stop was the Canary Gin Bar, a dark, chic cocktail joint in one of Bath’s hidden lanes. Over delicious potions, the bartender told us about the gin tours and gin-making classes the Bath Gin Company holds, and we regretted not knowing about them earlier! What a perfect compliment they would have been to our tour of the Bombay Gin Distillery earlier in the week.
We paused and used the rest of our cocktail hour to suss out the perfect spot for dinner. While Bath’s dining scene was a bit stuffier and more traditional than the ones we’d found in Brighton or Bristol, our interest was piqued by the look of The Chequers.
Gwen hopped off the train just in time to meet us for a bottle of wine and some gussied-up British pub food.
We didn’t linger long. Our first motivation for visiting Bath was the Bath Thermae — and a strong second was attending the Ocean Film Festival that evening. The festival travels around various UK cities every fall, and we’d just missed the Brighton showings by a few days, and then again the ones in Bristol — which were actually held right at Paintworks, the urban lofts where we were staying. What a coincidence!
So we were pretty thrilled to finally catch up with them in Bath.
At £13, the tickets were a bargain to see a wide collection of shorts by talented independent filmmakers. I swooned over the underwater videography in Ocean Stories: The Halls and cheered on two women undertaking one of history’s greatest sea kayaking expeditions in Kayaking The Aleutians and laughed at the idea of Icelanders surfing in The Accord.
It was exhilarating! Of course, many of the films touched on threats to our oceans and tugged at the heartstrings, but they offered solutions and strategies and hope for the future, too. If you’re in the UK, check their 2018 calendar to see if you might be able to catch a showing. And Bath has plenty of other festivals on their annual calendar, too — Bath Comedy Festival, the Bath Christmas Market, and the Bath Film Festival, to name a few.
One of the best parts of this one? Giggling with Gwen at intermission! Seriously, how lucky am I to spend my life hopping from one fabulous travel friend meet up to the next. This planet is just chock full of amazing people and I always seem to bump into the best of them.
Clearly, our trip to Bath wasn’t a wash. (Ha! I couldn’t help myself.) No, Bath was a uniquely beautiful town and I totally understand why and how it leaves most travelers swooning. And we certainly didn’t stay long enough to form any really well-informed opinions. But in general, Bristol, just twelve miles but a world apart, was far more our speed. While I’m thrilled we popped over to check out the Bath Thermae and enjoy the Ocean Film Festival, I was otherwise quite happy with our decision to stay and dedicate most of our time elsewhere.
Different strokes for different folks — and the modern, quirky cities of Bristol and Brighton are just what clicks for this particular traveler.
Have you been to Bath? What’s your favorite city in the UK?
Many thanks to Bath Thermae, The Ocean Film Festival and Visit Bath for their generous hospitality. Clearly, you receive my honest opinions on Alex in Wanderland regardless of who foots the bill.
Confused on where we are? I’m catching up on the black hole of content from August of 2016 to April of 2017 — when I jumped forward to blog the summer of 2017 as it was happening. Right now, we’re in September of 2016 in the UK, and I can’t wait to turn my detailed notes and journals into blog posts from Hawaii, Jamaica, Thailand and Bali next! My apologies for any confusion with the timeline, and thanks for sticking with me.