Hammam heaven

Woman laying down in spa area relaxing.

Larissa Dubecki

Posted August 13, 2018

The traditional Turkish bathing experience has been revived in style a lot closer to home.

It’s no coincidence in an age of mindfulness that the ritual of bathing is making a comeback. Public baths were part of life in ancient Rome and still stake their claim to something approaching civic duty in parts of the Middle East. Now the West is being awakened to the joys of elevating bathing from a two-minute shower grabbed after the gym to a sweet-smelling, leisurely artform. 

How else to explain the rise of the hammam, a ritualistic Turkish steam bath? Even Cape Schanck, on the southernmost part of Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, now has a hammam to call its own, with the opening of the luxurious One Spa at the RACV Cape Schanck Resort. Its sister resort at Torquay also has a hammam. 

Hammam, from an Arabic word meaning “spreader of warmth”, first enjoyed popularity some 600 years ago under the Ottoman empire. Quite appropriately for something that nurtures body and soul, hammam is both a noun (one goes to a hammam) and a verb (one has a hammam). 

One Spa manager Kirsty Vardis has helped oversee the creation of the resort’s luxury day spa, leaving no stone unturned. The pampering includes five-star hotel-worthy private change rooms and a relaxation room for pre or apres-treatment mooching with herbal teas and the latest magazines. “The pampering treatments such as mud wraps and massages have been popular but the hammam really grabs people’s imaginations,” Kirsty says.  

A Cape Schanck hammam requires a bathing costume and a prior booking. Exactly why becomes clear when therapist Heather appears in her own bathers and a knee-length sarong.  

The hammam is a steam room heated to 39 degrees that feels even hotter thanks to the heated floor, walls and central marble slab. 

If that’s not enough to approximate the tropics in an age of global warming, occasionally there’s a hissing sound as additional sprays of mist and steam are pumped into the room. Condensation drips from the ceiling and visibility is reduced to foggy outlines. 

Complaining, moi? Not at all. It’s my job to lie on the slab, softened by white towels, while Heather starts the treatment with a traditional savon noir (black soap) that softens the skin in preparation for the headline act of sloughing.  

It’s a play in four parts. First the soap and getting used to the intense heat and humidity, then leaving the steam room for the four showers in the public bathing area, set to cool, tepid, warm and hot. Make your pick and wash off the soap, then it’s back to the steam room for round two, known as the kessa. 

Woman lays down in foyer of opulent spa with decorated ceiling.

Middle Eastern hammams like the one pictured above have inspired RACV Cape Schanck and Torquay Resorts’ One Spa hammams. Photo: Cemberlitas Hamami.


No need for alarm: the kessa is a black glove specially designed for exfoliation. It’s less like the ragged fibres of a loofah, more like a kindly elephant has lent its hide to the task. It’s rough without being painful (the only “ouch” moment is when Heather comments about the impressive amount of dry, dead skin she’s sloughing off).  

Oh, the shame. But next is the part of the hammam designed to prevent any more outbreaks of winter-sad skin. A hydrating clay mixed with rosewater is like being slathered in the world’s ultimate beautifying mud pack. Showering off the mud reveals skin that has gone from tired and dry to (almost) dewy and youthful. I’m calling it a win. 

Next it's back to the steam room for a scalp massage using argan oil, which is said to be high in vitamin E and antioxidants and exceptionally good at fighting a dry scalp and lifeless hair. Anyone who loves the scalp massage at the hairdresser’s (who doesn’t?), this one’s for you. The process finishes with a cleanse in mandarin water, a ritualistic marker of the end of the hammam and a nod to its Middle Eastern origins. 

One Spa is definitely at the higher end of the hammam experience. Here, softly curving walls are lined with shimmering green tiles and the picture windows look on to wild tea-tree beauty. Soak up the view while enjoying an apres-hammam soak in its two warm salt pools.  

The larger vitality pool has three marble loungers with moulded seats and a pummelling series of water jets that are strong enough to target muscles along the neck, back and legs. The relaxation pool is more heavily salted and brines away muscle aches and pains.  

Bobbing alone and testing the limits of salty weightlessness in the post-hammam glow is as close to mindfulness as any stressed-out city worker can hope to achieve.