When Cape Grace Hotel in Cape Town, South Africa, tapped Rosalia Cranfield to serve as the director of the spa it was planning to open, she welcomed the opportunity to create “something private and beautiful that would also tell the healing story of South Africa,” she says.
Before unveiling the spa in November 2003, Cranfield, a striking, dark-haired, porcelain-skinned Cape Town native who previously had provided in-room treatments for Cape Grace guests, spent a year and a half researching ancient African healing traditions, speaking with sangomas (traditional African healers), and meeting with designers. This preparation helped produce a facility that has, as the backdrop for the sauna and steam relaxation area, breathtaking views of Table Mountain, and a palette throughout of spicy orange and golden tones representing the chili, saffron, and paprika that was transported along the country’s spice route during the 15th century.
Cranfield’s research also helped her create original spa treatments that incorporate African storytelling, tribal beads, and native ingredients such as snowbush and Kigelia africana (from the African sausage tree). “Just 11 years after apartheid, South Africa, and Cape Town especially, is in a new place; there is a hopeful energy that I wanted to capture,” says Cranfield. “And yet, at the same time, this is an ancient land, with deep-rooted customs and traditions to which I also wanted to pay tribute.”
Such tribute includes a 70-minute African Cape Massage, during which Cranfield speaks softly of the Khoi San, the first people of Africa known as the Bushmen, whose stone-age culture was rich with storytelling and art. She also describes a healing ritual during which tribe members would dance for hours in circles around their medicine man. “This continuous circular movement put them in a trancelike state,” she says, “which is when they believed true healing took place.” To honor this practice, the massage incorporates only circular movements and uses local shea butter, which is similar to the animal fat the Khoi San rubbed on their bodies.
To gain relief from the desert heat, the Khoi Khoi, another indigenous African tribe, would crush roots into a powder and dust it onto their bodies. The spa’s reflexology dusting treatment, which includes a foot soak in warm peppermint water and a light powder dusting, is intended to evoke this practice. A reflexology treatment focused on the reflex zones of the feet follows the dusting to promote balance and overall well-being. The spa’s massages also incorporate the use of beads, which many African tribes use to mark significant passages in their lives: marriage, births, and mourning.
The most intriguing adaptation of ancient African traditions is the Thaba massage, which employs four hands (two therapists) and a knopkierie, a knobbed stick that Zulu warriors carried during battle. “People see the stick and ask what we’re planning to do with it,” Cranfield says with a chuckle. “But ultimately, they love the pressure.” Still Cranfield uses the knopkierie sparingly, for she recognizes what, she says, the ancients also knew. “What people really want,” Cranfield says, “is human touch.”
Spa at Cape Grace