The taxi trundles away from the train station passing rows of gray houses with clapboard shutters into the French countryside. Suddenly the road narrows through two arcing beaches like the tiny spigot of an hourglass, and on the other side emerges Quiberon—a fleck of land tethered loosely to the shoreline by an old bridge.
If you’re imagining the swaying southern palms of St. Tropez then you’re very much mistaken—Quiberon and its coveted seawater is hidden away along the lonely, Ireland-like bluffs of Brittany in north-western France. And therein, the ultra-exclusive Sofitel Quiberon Diététique a treasured resort solely reserved for those in the know.
There’s something mystical—ethereal, even—about the light in Quiberon. In the evenings brilliant slashes of purple and pink distract the horizon as the sun makes its way towards the sea. The region’s light has long lured painters looking for inspiration—both Matisse and Monet worked here; even Gauguin got his start nearby before embarking on his famous Tahitian voyage of questionable merit.
For the modern jet set, however, the draw is slightly different. The sleepy beachside town is where the world’s elite go to escape the limelight and refresh. The list of repeat visitors reads like an invitation list to a royal wedding: John F. Kennedy Jr., the Aga Khan, the Rothschild family, and actors like Gérard Depardieu and Jean Reno. And while the glorious setting is undeniably a factor, Quiberon’s reputation is noted in certain circles as being the birthplace of what the French have coined “thalassotherapy,” a wellness tradition based on the curative powers of the sea.
‘Thalassotherapy’ began in earnest here exactly 50 years ago, spearheaded by Louison Bobet, a three-time Tour de France champion who, after a devastating car accident, was searching to ease the damage sustained from his injuries. After many unsuccessful surgeries he stumbled upon a series of seawater treatments that proved highly effective, and opened a treatment center in the village in 1964.
Quiberon quickly earned a reputation across France as the Mecca of modern wellness, and the Sofitel Quiberon Diététique was created soon thereafter to address a whole host of issues facing your average cosmopolite living with the stresses of an over-scheduled life.
Seawater therapies were quickly joined by fitness regimens, beauty treatments and dietary restrictions to transform the entire body. Though it may sound extreme, the French method bears little resemblance those secretive American retreats where young Hollywood actresses go to “rest” after, say, shaving off their hair, or getting arrested for a dozen DUIs.
“Today, at the resort, Bobet’s unconventional principles of ‘thalassotherapy’ have been combined with the other pillars of wellness to form a completely immersive experience”, says Patrick Bertho, the site’s director since its complete overhaul in 2009. “Five years ago, during the nine-month renovation of the property we took the time to not only refurbish our rooms and facilities, but to also scrutinize the services offered.”
The property consulted with Dr. Jean-Michel Lecerf, a noted metabolic specialist from the Pasteur Institute in Lille, to “reevaluate our core values as we made a concerted return to the basic Hippocratic principles of natural wellbeing,” Bertho adds.
Rather than continuing down the Biggest Loser-like path of extreme transformation, the hotel officially eschewed the proliferation of radical “reboot” treatments that were trending across the planet—goodbye Atkins, and goodbye juice cleanses—at the Sofitel, changing one’s lifestyle was no longer about punishment, and the path to healthy living wasn’t a self-inflicted gauntlet of torture.
From the moment you arrive to the moment you depart, guests follow a course of treatment that is carefully calibrated to one’s desires and goals, whether it’s losing weight, quitting smoking, or simply indulging in a few pampering procedures.
The units of your day are broken down into applicable programs—massages, consultations, reflexology and even hypnotherapy—depending on the reason for your visit. Meals are carefully assembled and portioned as well. “The intent of the pick-and-mix units is to reorient the body back on a trajectory of wellness that can continue after you leave,” reminds Bertho.
A good initiation into the world of Quiberon is the Jet à Douche (or “shower jet”), where you stand along an executioner’s wall as a treatment specialist blasts you with a fireman’s hose filled with warm seawater. The elliptical motions and precise points of contact are undoubtedly grin-inducing, but are meant to stimulate circulation and open one’s pores—it’s an early morning ritual for most repeat guests.
Massage techniques are also a far cry from the Thai or Swedish variety found in most vacation destinations. The Sofitel offers the unique fascia therapy for treatments devoted to recalibrating the organs and muscles. The fascia are the oft-overlooked fibrous tissue between the muscles and bones, and the realignment of these interstitial membranes are an essential part in relieving back and joint pain.
Diagnostic tests also play an important role in identifying weak spots in a person’s physique. In the beauty lab, a series of facial sensors assess moisture, pigmentation and scarring amongst other variables to create a tailor-made treatment suited to your skin that encourages hydration and the reduction of discoloration.
In the sports center guests take a battery of computerized tests that measure stamina, heart rate, core strength, and flexibility to determine your real “body age”. What follows is a one-on-one session with your very own Jillian Michaels to lay down a workout plan that fosters youthful renewal without overexerting the body.
The sports space also has a dedicated rehabilitation program and borrows NASA technology to create a zero-gravity treadmill, which replicates the sensation of running on the moon. Used for low-impact workouts, the machine encourages faster recovery for those with leg injuries, and also helps athletes train for long-distance running.
Despite the bells and whistles of some of the more elaborate treatments, the most popular procedure is the Kib’Dren (or the “Quiberon Draining”). Firmly a part of the “thalassotherapy” family, it’s a short 20-minute session during which you submerge yourself in a shallowly filled bathtub (with warm seawater, of course) and a specialist runs a pressurized hose along your legs, chest and back to stimulate the senses, encourage the draining of toxins, and tighten the skin.
The Kib’Dren master is Jean Yves Le Tonqueze, water masseur to the stars, who—at 60 years old—somehow remains winsome as he hoses down your nether regions. While all other staff members wear pins with their names engraved, Le Tonqueze has his name embroidered on his practitioner’s suit, a subtle nod to his enduring favor and fame.
Le Tonqueze, the resort’s most ardent practitioner, has seen the property evolve its course of treatment over the last three decades. And much to his delight—in an era of extreme conditioning and frightfully fast results—the Sofitel Quiberon Diététique continues to take strides towards a wellness philosophy informed by Greco-Roman ideals. “Thalassa” is the Greek word for “sea” after all, and, with its “healthy body, healthy mind” ethos, the resort may truly be the most faithful modern-day interpretation of the ancient Roman baths.