Story of the week: A quick dip in Slovakia for National Spa Week

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* This week is National Spa Week – apparently. Well, I like a spa as much as the next man and this story is about one of my favourite, albeit few, spa experiences. No new spa commissions on the horizon but I’m open to offers. Meanwhile, follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS for more stories from the archive. 

The water nymphs are the first thing to catch my eye.

As I sit in a leather office chair on a bright morning in Slovakia, I find my eye drawn to a striking painting of frolicking nymphs on the wall.

At that moment Czech-born but Luton based Jan Telensky, the founder and Chief Executive of AquaCity, bursts in, gripping my hand in a crushing vice and following my eyeline.

“That’s by a Czech artist, Tylek. It’s worth £350,000,” says the fast-talking Telensky, his canary-yellow shirt positively straining with the enthusiasm of his girth. “I have,” adds Eastern Europe’s answer to Sir Alan Sugar, “a whole set of them.”

You’re hired

Exiled from the former Czechoslovakia to the UK in 1969, where he started working on the Vauxhall assembly line at Luton, Telensky returned east to build a business empire after the Velvet Revolution signaled the end of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia in November 1989.

Today he runs a portfolio of businesses from computers to leisure valued at over £400m. But I’m here to soak up his flagship project – the greenest leisure spa in Europe. AquaCity recently won the award for the World’s Leading Green Resort at the World Travel Awards, beating off competition from the likes of Angsana Resort & Spa, Maldives, and Morgan’s Rock Hacienda & Ecolodge, Nicaragua.

The AquaCity Resort, located at the foot of Slovakia’s snow-capped High Tatras Mountains, a four-hour train ride from the capital, Bratislava, and close to the southern Polish border, is leading the charge for green tourism via carbon off-setting.

AquaCity saves more carbon emissions in a single day than the total carbon gas emissions generated by an entire plane load of visitors flying from London Stansted to the low-key Poprad-Tatry airport, a ten-minute transfer to the resort.

The resort plans to be generating zero emissions within a year and shares its wealth of natural resources with the 55,000 residents of the nearby, industrial town of Poprad, offering cheap power to many of the homes and industries, and as a major source of employment in the community.

The sprawling resort, comprising a labyrinthine array of water park, spa, two hotels and conference centre, all connected by glass lifts and airy corridors, lives up to its bone-fide green credentials in its use of alternative energy sources to fossil fuels.

Geothermal spring water, drilled from a vast subterranean lake and harnessed by heat exchangers, powered by solar power and wind turbines, heats the resort’s hotels, spa and water park, and supplies up to 80 per cent of the total electricity.

By avoiding fossil fuels, the resort saves 27,000 kg (27 tonnes) of carbon emissions per day, the equivalent amount per day of the total C02 absorbed by 33 mature trees during their entire lifetime, according to Carbon Footprint Ltd.

Hotel tour

Checking in, AquaCity doesn’t feel like a tree-hugging green retreat.

It’s light, airy and modern, a theme that continues in my simple but comfortable three-star room and in the glass-fronted restaurant with its buffet meals, tasty draft beers and commanding vistas across the High Tatras.

Overall it looks like a modern chain hotel – not flash, but clean, well run and very family friendly, similar to a hot springs resort in Iceland or a water park in Germany.

“The biggest issue over the next ten years will be the cost of water and energy. Here I have both for free – and in abundance,” explains Telensky, who has so far invested £40m of his personal fortune in the resort since the 2005 opening. He adds:

“I’m not a chemist, I knew nothing about hotels and I wasn’t an expert on the environment.”

“In business you need instinct and experience. Eight years ago I simply realised that green was the way forward.”

With an Olympic pool and water park, comprising a series of in- and outdoor dipping pools, plus a floating bar area with draft beers and semi-submerged bat stools, and a health spa, the resort currently attracts 1.2m visitors per year.

The majority come from Central Europe but there’s also a growing influx of Brits, thanks to direct flights from Stansted by Bratislava- based airline SkyEurope.

The latest addition is Relax, a solar-powered swimming pool complex, whereby the pools are filled with geothermal-heated water. As I slip under the warm, magnesium- and calcium-enriched waters on a Sunday afternoon, Relax is filled with mainly Eastern European families, most of them blond, toned and babbling in a language beyond all comprehension.

They’re splashing about, lounging against the massage jets or simply bobbing up and down in time to the laser show, projected onto a 9m high wall of water, probably moaning about a flabby, china-white Brit doing the doggy paddle among them.

Over in the Vital World spa, I skip from the Celtic sauna (herbal) to the ice room (chilly) and then head over to the massage room for 30 minutes of gentle pummelling by a man with a thick accent and broad hands. I emerge feeling free of stress knots for a mere £10.

Most of all, I also feel smugly guilt free that my weekend break in an otherwise little-known corner of Europe is not harming the environment, but actually offsetting the carbon emissions from the flight to get here.

Future plans

Looking to the future, Telensky’s expansion plans continues apace. The latest wheeze is to add an organic farm, located 4km from the resort, to yield produce for use in the restaurants and harness the methane produced from the livestock to generate power.

“Once this project makes me a billionaire, I’ll sell my expertise to show others how to do it,” says Telensky, crushing my hand once more and leaving me, vaguely breathless, under the bashful gaze of the water nymphs.

“AquaCity could make Slovakia the number one green destination in the world.”

Indeed. But nothing is perfect and there is still one source of pollution on site: noise. The local FM radio station — also owned by Telensky — is piped throughout all the public areas with its heady mix of Brian Adams, Queen and dodgy, local Europop.

Slovakia may be leading a green tourism revolution but you still can’t escape the Vengaboys.

* This story first appeared in the Daily Express in 2007. Liked this? Try also Slovakia in the footsteps of HRH.

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