Espa founder Susan Harmsworth wants to lure more Singaporeans to spend their holidays – no plane ride needed – at the sprawling 10,000 sq m luxury wellness spa at Resorts World Sentosa (RWS).

“We already have many locals coming out of the city and taking three-day breaks at Espa as a retreat,” says Ms Harmsworth (photo), who was in town in November for a market visit. The Briton started her spa and wellness brand in 1993.

“I think many people don’t want to get on the plane if they can help it, especially when they can drive 20 minutes to a sanctuary with the sea and greenery.”

As with all the Espa spas in cities around the world, about 50 per cent of the patrons at Espa RWS are residents of Singapore.

Today, there are around 450 Espa spas in 60 places. The one at RWS is the brand’s Asian flagship.

Espa is known for its exotic spa locations (think Udaipur in India and Pointe de Flacq in Mauritius) and wellness experiences that tap on holistic traditions.

These include the Turkish hammam ritual, naturopathy and iridology, the study of the iris to understand one’s health.


To entice more Singapore residents to spend their vacations at Espa RWS, the premium Ultimate Wellness Journey programmes were launched last August.

These comprise three-night and five-night staycations, as well as full-on seven-night retreats.

Each package includes an Espa treatment a day, fitness sessions such as yoga or a bootcamp, holistic treatments such as nutritional counselling or naturopathic consultation, dining options at top restaurants around RWS and, or add-on customised tours to attractions on the integrated resort, such as Universal Studios Singapore.

Prices start from $4,500 for a three-night stay for one at a beach villa facing the sea, to around $17,000 for a seven-night stay for two people at a tree-top loft.

“Life is hard enough. So the new packages are put together to let you have fun together with the serious treatments,” says Ms Harmsworth, who has two children and is a grandmother of six.

“And having a wellness retreat doesn’t mean you have to starve yourself. Have a glass of champagne at the L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, learn about yourself and have a good time.”

Previously, Espa RWS only offered staycations under its Lifestyle Retreats programmes that last between one and three nights. The activities and dining options are also limited within the Espa RWS compound.

Prices for the Lifestyle Retreats start from $808 for a one-night stay for one in a deluxe room in Equarius Hotel, to $4,608 for three nights for two in a beach villa.


Turning 70 in April, the impeccably coiffed, towering and light-footed Ms Harmsworth looks at least a decade younger.

No doubt, her youthful demeanour is the result of four decades spent in the spa and wellness industry, where she has possibly road-tested and researched every age-defying wellness treatment and routine popularised in the last 40 years.

Interestingly, Ms Harmsworth started her career at 21 as the features editor of British Vogue. While there, she helped Vidal Sassoon develop his first haircare range that was launched in the 1960s.

Her break into the wellness and spa industry came when she moved to Toronto, Canada, with her first husband in the late 1960s.

Noticing the dearth of good beauty salons in her new home and, ironically, an abundance of well-trained Eastern European therapists who had emigrated to Toronto after the war, Ms Harmsworth opened her first salon in 1970.

Eastern European therapists are traditionally trained with a medical perspective on skin and bodily functions. The knowledge that Ms Harmsworth picked up from them would stand her in good stead in her later businesses, including Espa.

She moved to France in 1980 to work at a thalassotherapy centre where sea water was used to treat conditions such as stress and post-surgery complications.

Then she returned to the United Kingdom to run a “health farm” for people suffering from stress, bereavement, divorce, drug or alcohol problems. The services provided there included personal training, reflexology and nutrition counselling – much like what is offered in Espa today.

After a stint in designing spas for cruise liners, she saw that while the hotels in the early 1990s had gyms and pools, they lacked quality spas.

“This was at a time when no one massaged the hands and feet, and facials ended at the chin,” she recalls.

That was the beginning of the consulting arm of Espa, where she helps to conceive, design and staff the spas of five-star hotels, including Mandarin Oriental, the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons.

Around the same time, she launched the Espa spas, and her own skincare line that is made with naturally derived ingredients to complement the treatments.

Ms Harmsworth says the success of a spa service is dependent on a few key factors: “While 60 per cent of the treatment experience is down to the skills of the therapist, the other 40 per cent is dependent on the massage bed, its warmth, the skincare products and music that does not drive you crazy.”

The expert’s tips on maximising your time at the spa?

“If the spa has amenities like a steam sauna or onsen pool, arrive at least 45 minutes beforehand to enjoy the facilities, boost your circulation and relax.

“It takes the therapist half an hour to warm up the muscles during a massage. But if you are already warmed up beforehand, you can benefit more from the massage.”

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on January 23, 2014. For similar stories, go to You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.