Drifting at sunset in a rooftop, open-air pool, in waters naturally heated – more than a mile underground – to 91F (33C), is one of the rarest pleasures in Britain.
Thermae Bath Spa (www.thermaebathspa.com), a great glass cube of a building next to Bath Abbey, opened in 2006 to recycle raindrops that fell here 10,000 years ago.
This is indulgence not to be rushed. A range of packages, starting at two hours, give you the run of the complex, including the Minerva Bath, the Rooftop Pool, and the Steam Rooms. Treatments are an optional extra. The top ticket is the Twilight Package, three hours including a meal for £42.
The glorious vision of Bath’s 18th Century designers would impress a time-travelling Roman emperor. They used golden stone from local quarries for everything, and today’s builders must follow suit.
Their two masterpieces are the Royal Crescent, a great curving grandstand of townhouses overlooking a sloping green, and the nearby Circus, a circular street mimicking Rome’s Colosseum.
The open-top bus tour is a good way to link these splendid landmarks. But I preferred a quiet route to the city centre – chancing upon cafes, restaurants and specialist shops – past Milsom Street’s designer shops to another Bath wonder,
Pulteney Bridge, Britain’s answer to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.
Bath was a starring location in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Jane lived there from 1801 to 1806. Her characters came for bonneted sophistication, gossip, the efficacious waters – and to bump into eligible men on city centre pavements.
Retailers remain in her eternal debt for her line: ‘There are so many good shops.’ The Jane Austen Centre (www.janeausten.co.uk) does a fine job charting her life here, including her own near-miss with matrimony. And you can follow Jane around with a free audio walking tour.
The city’s main claim to fame is its Roman spa, set over the miraculous, warm waters that oozed endlessly up from the swamp that was Bath. The free audio player you get in the museum at the Roman Baths (www.romanbaths.co.uk) does a great job explaining how the entire baths complex once looked.
It’s amusing to learn that there were rule-breakers even then: ‘Always someone jumping in with a tremendous splash,’ wrote Seneca.
The best-known object in the museum’s collection, the Gorgon – a mythical creature with snakes for
hair – packs power, but my biggest tingle came before the bronze head of Minerva, once mother goddess in these parts.
If there’s time, fit in the American Museum, the (free) Victoria Art Gallery, and the Fashion Museum in the Assembly Rooms.
As you would expect in such an elite destination, there are lots of good restaurants and tea rooms – the illustrious Sally Lunn’s waist-popping toasted buns (www.sallylunns.co.uk) are a real treat.
But the talk of the town is a new two-floor gastro pub, Hall & Woodhouse Bath (www.hall-woodhouse
bath.co.uk). The brewer took over a city-centre auction room and fitted it out with a big brass bar in the style of the Long Bar at the Raffles hotel in Singapore, fronting an open kitchen, and a wide central staircase fit for a Thirties Busby Berkeley musical.
It’s all behind huge ‘Why not come in?’ windows. Try, too, the intimate The Hole In The Wall (www.theholeinthewall.co.uk), where the menu is ‘modern British’.
My stand-out smoked wild pigeon breast, and gingerbread and Dorset Blue Vinney terrine with slow-baked plums, came on a slate plate.
Many world heritage sites allow you only to look on in wonder. In Bath, where the entire old city has the Unesco designation, you may savour the splendour from the inside.
I stayed at the Queensberry (www.thequeensberry.co.uk), four terrace houses in Russel Street fused into a boutique hotel, which has lots of changes of level leading to interesting lounges and secluded rear patios.
My roomy bathroom (double shower, free-standing bath) was as big as my bedroom. They are very green: you get £20 off if you come by public transport. Room-only rates from £123.50 a night. Dinner, bed and breakfast from £215.