Best health retreats worldwide: The big chill
Expanding spa horizons
Travel writer Kay O’Sullivan‘s first experience of a health retreat involved pre-dawn hikes, freezing water and a lot of beans. “Fortunately, the industry has changed now,” says Kay, who describes a health retreat as her ideal holiday.
Global wellness tourism is worth $474 billion a year, and Australian spa holidays have come a long way since the days of fat farms and boot camps.
As one of Australia’s most successful spa entrepreneurs, Lyndall Mitchell travels to health retreats constantly. On her last trip she visited 60 spas in 15 countries. Here, Mitchell reveals to Kay O Sullivan her 10 most magical places on earth to relax and recharge.
Lyndall Mitchell was still at school when she started working part-time at Camp Eden in the Currumbin Valley in Queensland. There, she found her passion for wellness. Her vision for a spa retreat in an urban environment, one where wellness was uppermost and people could come regularly to be replenished, relax and refocus on health, was realised when she opened Aurora in St Kilda 19 years ago.
She moved to St Kilda’s The Prince Hotel at the behest of the entrepreneurial hospitality family the Van Haandels, where she built a true urban oasis. Two years ago, Mitchell opened the second Aurora Spa Retreat at the Palazzo Versace. Here are her favourite holiday spot spas.
While central European countries have a long tradition of spa tourism, the pairing of holidays and health is a relatively new phenomenon in Australia. Until the 1990s, anyone who chose to go to a “fat farm” or “boot camp” was looked upon suspiciously, says Lyndall Mitchell, who was still at school when she started working part-time at Camp Eden, Australia’s longest-running health retreat, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Mitchell, who went on to become one of Australia’s most successful spa entrepreneurs, says convincing Australians that healthy could be fun was a hard slog in the early days.
Camp Eden, now known as Eden, is one of a cluster of health retreats located along the Queensland-NSW border that do consistently strong business.
Sharon Kolkka, another 30-year veteran of the wellness industry, says the health retreats of today are vastly different to the early ones.
Now the general manager of Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat, Kolkka says initially it was all about quitting smoking and losing weight. Today, managing stress and lifestyle issues dominate 21st-century health retreats. The focus on holistic health and ensuring guests feel taken care of and have a great time has replaced what she concedes was the boot-camp approach of the fledgling retreats. Last year’s makeover of Camp Eden, which saw it replace its hardcore beginnings with a softer wellness approach, is proof of this.
The focus at Gaia Retreat and Spa, which was famously founded by Olivia Newton-John, has always been on rest and relaxation. Managing director Gregg Cave recently tweaked the spa’s offering to include fitness, meditation and yoga programs.
Sam Gowing, a health industry consultant who has worked here and overseas, says hotels are now cashing in on the trend.
“We’ve had major players like the Westin and Hyatt chains offering healthier food and exercise programs for some time,” says Gowing, a chef, naturopath and yoga instructor.
“And now the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) has launched the first brand with health and fitness as its guiding principles.” Gowing says the Even brand is designed to offer in-room gym zones, fitness centres and nutrient-packed meals. “They are holistic urban retreats for people who are travelling for work.”
Just landed on our shores is Health and Fitness Travel, an English travel company specialising in tailor-made healthy holidays. Local travel agent Samantha Lippiatt approached the company to set up an outpost here.
Mitchell knows about urban retreats. It’s a concept that led her to create the Aurora Spa 19 years ago in St Kilda. “Having worked at Camp Eden, I realised there was a need for follow-up care, for somewhere in the city that would make you feel like you were on a health retreat with all its benefits.”
Reethi Rah spa
Como Shambhala Estate, Ubud
It’s a holistic health retreat like no other, an absolute feast for the senses. I left feeling like every cell in my body had been topped up with energy.
The retreat is on the side of a mountain in the rainforest. There’s even a natural spring you can swim in. (It’s supposed to have healing powers.)
The accommodation is as spectacular as the setting. Understated luxury. I had a villa with a private pool, outdoor shower, steam room and bath.
The food is phenomenal; it’s clean and lean, delicious and good for you.
You can choose from a number of multi-day wellness programs, including stress management, rejuvenation and Oriental medicine. If you just want to do spa treatments, that’s fine, too. They use the outdoors for exercise and treatments wherever possible, which is something Bali does so well. Resident experts include a yoga teacher, an Ayurvedic doctor and nutritionist.
What I tried Taksu massage. It’s an invigorating 90-minute massage that increases blood circulation. I was certainly tingling all over when I finished. Price: $70.
Staying there The Rejuvenation package includes five days’ accommodation, two beauty treatments, a 60-minute massage and a two-hour body treatment, meals, airport transfers, daily activities, from $3605. Book by June 30 for a bonus night’s accommodation and $US100 resort credit.
More info comohotels.com/comoshambhalaestate
Mii amo Spa, Sedona, Arizona
What you get with this destination spa is an extraordinary authentic spiritual experience. Native American tribes, including the Apache and Navajo, have long considered this area in Arizona’s Red Rock country to be a source of spiritual inspiration and healing. Everything about Mii amo is mindful of the legacy of the Native American people.
The resort’s 16 rooms, treatment rooms and public spaces nestle into the spectacular Boynton Canyon, so you are immersed in nature. (Mii amo is set within a larger Enchantment Resort, but completely separate.) And like Byron Bay, the best healing therapists have been attracted to the area because of its spirituality. The treatments, which draw heavily from Native American tradition and indigenous ingredients, are exquisite. Food is amazing, too.
Mii amo means to continue one’s path or journey. That certainly happens here.
What I tried The 90-minute Anasazi Ubtan blends Ayurvedic wisdom and botanicals from the American south-west. It starts in an indoor treatment room and the last 30 minutes can be done in the private outdoor wickups (Native American hut) with views of the red-rock canyon. $253
Staying there Seven-night package, including accommodation, meals, two spa treatments daily, from $5022, twin share.
More info miiamo.com
This is Europe’s trendiest natural hot-spring spa, but that’s not the reason it’s on my list.
From an aesthetic and architectural point of view, Therme Vals is extraordinary. Nothing else comes close.
Even its story is amazing. In 1986, the villagers of Vals (about 170 kilometres south-west of Zurich) hired architect Peter Zumthor to create a spa that would attract visitors to their town. It took 10 years and 60,000 slabs of quartz, but they got what they wanted.
We arrived at night to find a silent bathing session in progress. It was magical. There are 13 pools with water from the surrounding mountains. In the central pool you look up at a square of light and see the Alps above you. There’s a fire-red pool with water at 42 degrees, an ice pool with a chilly 14-degree temperature, a petal pool, and you can swim through a tunnel into a pool that has music by Swiss composer Fritz Hauser playing underwater. The next day I swam in the outdoor pool. It was snowing and there were sheep grazing next to it. You can have treatments, but for me it was all about the thermal pools. Entrance to the Therme from 11am to 8pm, $80.
What I tried Night bathing, Wednesday, Thursdays and Sundays from 11pm to 12.30am.
Staying there Therme Vals starts at $300 a night per couple or $180 for single occupancy, excluding breakfast.
More info therme-vals.ch
Kamalaya, Koh Samui
To my mind, it’s the best retreat in Thailand. What you get here is a heartfelt, authentic experience. The owners, John and Karina Stewart, both have long history in Eastern philosophies, wellness and complementary medicine. They are passionate about health and don’t take any shortcuts.
The site is extraordinary, too. It’s built in and around boulders on a cliff. The centre-point is a cave once used by Buddhist monks as a place of meditation. There are 14 temples on the property, and all rooms and the 40 treatment areas open onto the gardens. I love it that you can hear and smell the ocean or one of the many waterfalls.
What I tried The detox program. On arrival you meet the naturopath, who adjusts the program to suit you. You have two to three treatments every day – there are approximately6- 7 classes each day to choose from. (The yoga and meditation were amazing.) The food on the detox is vegetarian.
Staying there Seven-night detox and rejuvenation program, including accommodation, all meals, various treatments and airport transfers from $3600 single or $2900 twin.
More info kamalaya.com
ESPA Life at the Corinthia Hotel, London
This is the pinnacle when it comes to urban retreats. ESPA’s founder, Susan Harmsworth, has led the way in the spa world for decades, with her ESPA brand in high-end hotels and retreats globally. Her mission to infuse more wellness into spas has been realised over four incredibly glamorous floors in the hotel near Trafalgar Square.
ESPA Life is best described as an integrated health facility. You can have your blood analysed, there’s osteopathy, physiotherapy, traditional Chinese medicine and naturopathy. There’s a team of complementary and alternative medicine practitioners who work alongside fitness and spa experts. It offers a number of multi-month programs, including optimum vitality and stress management.
The facilities are extraordinary and opulent – pool, private suites, steam rooms, an ice fountain, gym, hairdresser and a fabulous lounge serving nutritious food and drinks. (Champagne is served as well.)
What I tried The hot stone, back and face and scalp treatment. Two hours of pure bliss. $399.
Staying there Midweek package including accommodation, 60-minute personalised facial and use of swimming pool, vitality pool, sauna, steam room, showers, ice fountain and relaxation areas, from $1153 a night.
More info corinthia.com
The Rambagh Palace is one of the most beautiful palaces in India, located in the capital of India’s largest state, Rajasthan.
It’s an amalgam of Rajput and Mughal architecture set in lush gardens with peacocks strutting around. I certainly felt like royalty swimming in the ornate indoor pool that was built last century for the legendary beauty, Maharani Gayatri Devi. The hotel’s Jiva Grande Spa is right next to it. It’s new but exquisitely finished with chandeliers and antique rugs. Fittingly, the treatments are based on traditional Ayurveda principles, which is another tick.
What I tried The Sushupti treatment starts with a foot bath, then you are swaddled in a body wrap of flour, honey and cream before being massaged. The final step in this two-hour treatment has you luxuriating in a floral bath. $197.
Staying there Rambagh Palace, Jaipur, from $450 a night, twin share.
More info tajhotels.com
Grand Wailea, Maui
Set on Wailea Beach, the Grand Wailea is a massive resort with multiple pools, restaurants, rooms and amenities. The Spa Grande with 40 treatment rooms is the largest on Maui. Hydrotherapy is a speciality.
What I loved is that before you have any treatment you have a complementary exfoliation and hydrotherapy session. It takes an hour to get through it all – there’s a waterfall massage, Roman whirlpool tub, Japanese bath, and then you dip in five baths coloured with invigorating Hawaiian sea salts.
What I tried The Terme Wailea Hydrotherapy, an hour-long hydrotherapy session involving exquisite water treatments and an exfoliation. Free with any spa treatment.
More info grandwailea.com
Caracalla Spa, Baden Baden
People have been “taking the waters” at Baden Baden since Roman times. The waters are among the most mineral-rich in Germany, and the 12 springs feeding Caracalla are the richest of them all.
I always think of it as a theme park of the spa world. It’s a vast complex with cold pools, thermal pools, outdoor pools, a river, waterfall, a grotto with hot and cold pools, and even a saltwater inhalation room that works on your nasal passages.
Apart from the communal bathing areas, you’ve got saunas, steam rooms, relaxation lounges and food outlets. Upstairs is a clothes-free zone, as I discovered to my surprise. It took some courage to disrobe, and – let me tell you – there is no way to get into a spa elegantly when you are nude.
What I tried Black Forest Vital package – fir tree oil, thermal water and mud wrap, and Kneipp Vital treatment. $156. Four-hour visit, including sauna, $31.
Staying there Hotel Bischoff, 10-12 Gernsbacher Street, Baden (100 metres from Caracella Spa). From $142 a night.
More info carasana.de
One & Only Reethi Rah
Ultra-luxe. Very glitzy. Very cool. If you’re into celebrity-spotting, this private island resort is for you. But it also delivers a richly layered spa experience.
If you want a bespoke experience, this is the place for it. Accommodation and treatment facilities are the ultimate in luxury with a price tag to match. Many of the 130 villas are over water, as are some of the treatment rooms and the yoga pavilion.
What I tried Signature Treatment: The Maldivian Journey starts with a combination of shiatsu massage and yoga-like stretches in a heated pool, followed by a body scrub in one of the spa’s treatment cabanas that comes with a view of the Indian Ocean. Finish with full-body massage with ESPA essential oils. $450.
Staying there Beach villas start from $2100 a day.
More info reethirah.oneandonlyresorts.com
Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai
This is a majestic resort-style spa and wellness property that draws on northern Thailand’s rich history. It took Chiang Mai artisans more than three years to build the spa and wellness centre, the centrepiece of the resort. Modelled on the ancient Mandalay Palace, it has 18 treatment rooms and is an Ayurveda centre.
There are plenty of outdoor options for spa treatments, but indoor treatment rooms have a bath, steam room and heated marble scrub table. You can do yoga, Thai boxing or have a meditation class.
What I tried Kathi Basti. Ayurvedic oils are poured along the spine to ease away tensions and free up blockages. Your back is then massaged with warm herbal compresses. Bliss for 80 minutes. $149.
Staying there From June 1, rooms from $605 a night.
More info dharadhevi.com
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