As winter claws its way forward it's a good time to start booking an escape from the cold. While thoughts tend towards sunny destinations like Thailand and Queensland, another option for winter warmth and relaxation is to visit a hot spring or public bathhouse.
Public bathing was a popular pastime in many ancient cultures, particularly those of Japan, Turkey, Greece and Rome.
Hot springs are produced when groundwater heated by the internal heat of the earth's crust rises to the surface. There's no boundary on what temperature a hot spring must be to claim this definition, with hot springs ranging from only slightly hotter than the surroundings to the scorching waters that have killed people in volcanic areas. Hot springs exist all over the world but are particularly concentrated in China, Costa Rica, Iceland, Iran, New Zealand, Peru, the United States, Taiwan, and Japan. Heated water tends to contain more dissolved minerals and hot springs are considered therapeutic for this reason.
Mineral springs are naturally occurring springs (often heated, but not necessarily) containing a high concentration of minerals.
Onsen is the Japanese term for a hot spring. The term is used interchangeably to include the facilities around the hot spring itself, such as the bathing areas and accommodation. As hot spring bathing is very popular in Japan, you will often hear hot spring centres in Australia referred to as Onsens.
The combination of heat and minerals found in hot springs promotes mental relaxation and physical healing and well-being.
Believe it or not, you can immerse yourself in natural hot mineral spring waters or languish in a warm communal bathhouse without flying overseas. While hot mineral springs can be found in all states of Australia except the ACT, not all sites of these wondrous natural waters are easily accessible or developed for tourists.
Check out this guide to my top six Australian based bathhouses and hot mineral springs, based on accessibility and facilities.
Peninsula Hot Springs is located on the Mornington Peninsula, 90 minutes drive from Melbourne, and offers 20 different bathing experiences including a cave pool, gully pool, hilltop pool, Turkish steam room, reflexology walk, sauna and family bathing area. There are both public and private bathing options. Moonlight and sunset bathing is also available and very popular.
The natural thermal water flows directly into the pools from an underground aquifer, with the deliciously hot pools ranging from 37 to 43 degrees celsius.
Kids are allowed into some sections of the public Bathhouse. A range of spa treatments is also available.
Future developments for the 42 acre site include more bathing experiences, accommodation and a wellbeing centre.
Considered Australia's oldest mineral spring bathhouse, Hepburn Bathhouse and Spa (circa 1895) draws its waters from the surrounding Hepburn Mineral Springs Reserve. Bathe in the Relaxation Pool, Spa Pool or Salt Therapy Pool and enjoy the Spa Couches and Aroma Steam Room.
Hepburn Bathhouse and Spa also offers packages, accommodation, tea and basic refreshments at the Hepburn Cafe, massage and spa therapies such as body wraps and facials.
Hepburn Bathhouse and spa is located in spa and well-being country at Hepburn Springs near Daylesford in Victoria, 115 kilometres north west of Melbourne.
Overlooking Lake Lyall in the Blue Mountains, Sparadise (better known as the Japanese Bathhouse) is the sole Japanese Onsen in NSW, but affordable at $60 for 3 hours of bathing. Visitors can utilise the herbal steam room, indoor and outdoor baths and enjoy the small Japanese style garden. A range of delicate herbal tea's and light Japanese meals are available onsite at the Tea Shack.
There is also accommodation in the Tudor style house.
Sparadise is located at South Bowenfels, near Lithgow and is about two hours drive West of Sydney. For a detailed review, click here.
Located in the highlands of Victoria, this traditional Japanese onsen provides indoor and outdoor onsen facilities and spa therapies. It is possible to buy memberships or do a single visit. As it's a bit tricky finding prices on their website, I suggest this direct link to their price-list.
Onsen Retreat and Spa is located at Dinner Plain and is 13 kilometres from Mount Hotham Alpine Resort in the alpine region of Victoria. From Melbourne it's about a four hour drive.
For an au natural bathing experience within palm fringed pools, take a visit to Elsey National Park in the Northern Territory. The park contains numerous thermal pools fed by subterranean springs. These springs also pour water into the Roper river.
From Elsey National Park you can access a choice of three hot springs with temperatures of 32-34 degrees celsius: Mataranka Thermal Pools, Rainbow Springs or the newer Bitter Springs.
The best time to visit is May to September. During the rainy season some areas of the park may have restricted access. There is camping and accommodation available in the area through local commercial enterprises, including Mataranka Cabins.
Mataranka is a small town (population about 250) located at the Top End of the Northern Territory about 420 kilometres south east of Darwin.
Ligntning Ridge, last time I went they were free, owned by the municipality, and EVERYONE goes to them in the evening, it's great. Mooree (also NSW) also has some, from the same underground aquifer, but they may be paying now, as they've had a bit redevelopment. The mention of Mataranka made me shiver, when we stopped off there on a road trip in 1999, someone found a HUGE water python just up river...and everyone beat a quick retreat out of the pool!