Slow Travel author PENNY WATSON reveals nine of the best wellness getaways, retreats and experiences that indulge the mind, body and spirit.
In the rarefied air of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, 40 minutes from Queenstown, Aro Ha¯ is all about breathing and B.R.E.A.T.H: being, relating, eating, activity, toxicity, healing. At this intensive wellness haven, these elements are addressed through a fusion of Zen-styled eco-accommodation, self-sufficient permaculture practices and a program that encourages rejuvenation of the human spirit. Enjoy vegetarian cuisine (Paleo friendly, gluten free, dairy free and enzymatically active), healing bodywork and daily mindfulness practice and combine it with subalpine hiking, vinyasa yoga and dynamic movement. The six-day itinerary usually starts with a sunrise flow yoga class, energising breakfast and hike into the UNESCO World Heritage–listed mountainous surrounds. After a ‘nutrient-dense’ lunch, the pace changes. Indulge in rejuvenation and spa time, a massage, strength training and a nutrition demo. At the end of each day, relax with a restorative yoga class, mindfulness session, leisurely dinner and even some journalling time. The end result is returning to the real world with a still mind and an energised body.
2. THE FARM AT SAN BENITO, THE PHILIPPINES
Lush tropical jungle and mountain views set the scene at this eco-luxury resort in Lipa, Batangas, 90 minutes south of Manila. Known throughout South-East Asia for combining traditional healing techniques with integrative medicine, the Farm’s ‘healing retreats’ start with detox cleansing, wellness spa treatments and organic vegan food alongside yoga, meditation and a fitness regimen. In addition, with fully trained integrative medical doctors, nurses, spa therapists and nutritionists on hand, guests can sign up for personalised natural and holistic health programs that deal with common fast-world ailments such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, stress and depression. Mind you, it feels more like a tropical resort than a clinic. Treehouse-style suites and villas sit among palm-fronded greenery and the recliner-busy swimming pool is sweetly scented by frangipani trees. There are group walks in the morning and tai chi classes in the afternoon, and the spa offers Hilot massage, an ancient Filipino healing technique.
Remember in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love when the protagonist travels to Bali to find inner peace and healing? Well, Bali’s Como Shambhala Estate offers something similar, if not a little more luxurious. Sitting above the Ayung River, near Ubud, amid verdant fruit trees, exotic flowers and vine-covered palms, Como Shambhala is as close to an earthly paradise as it gets. Opened in 1997, the Como flagship retreat has long been into body, mind and soul, offering organic cuisine and Pilates and yoga classes long before they became on-trend in the West. You can put the pressures of the modern world on hold with all-inclusive packages that include massage and bodywork, spa treatments, intuitive counselling and ancient healing therapies, such as Ayurveda, an Indian healing system. When not building a better self, simply enjoy the serenity. Shambhala refers to ‘a sacred place of bliss’ and this wonderful place achieves it. There are natural spring-fed pools, suites and villas adorned with Balinese teak furnishings, and a forest filled with rambutan, durian and white mango trees. Heaven on Earth.
Mount Taygetos, rising 2407m above sea level, is the tallest mountain in the Greek Peloponnese and Euphoria Retreat is built into its rocky mountainside. The four-storey wellness haven’s beautiful rock walls and terracotta rooftops blend seamlessly with the native fir and pine trees. ‘Euphoria’ in its original Greek translates as ‘a state of happiness and bliss’ and this new holistic wellbeing destination hits the mark. The hybrid East–West wellness ideals fuse ancient Taoist and Hellenic philosophies with Chinese and Hippocratic medicine. In short, the wellbeing program revolves around earth, fire, water, wood and metal to address emotional, physical and spiritual health. You can come here for day visits, but the seven-day signature intensive retreat, the Euphoria Emotional and Physical Transformation, is the standout: a three-step approach to soul cleansing combining exercise, nutrition and mental coaching with energy balancing treatments, nutrition and group therapies. If you have the inner stamina, activities and workshops include wellness lectures, nutrition classes, meditation, yoga, Qi Gong and Pilates. There’s a dreamy pool with an opening in the rock wall so you can swim from indoors to outside. Time-out on the sun-deck is another must. Beyond the citrus groves, olive trees and modern town of Sparta is the fortified town of Mystras, a World Heritage site with Byzantine churches, palaces and fortresses.
Trisara resort, on the mountainous tropical island of Phuket, sits so close to the Andaman Sea it’s almost possible – at a stretch during high tide – to dangle your fingers in the infinity pool while tickling your toes in the ocean waves. The gentle rhythms of Thai life are evoked in this serene environment – each villa has sea views, a private swimming pool, large teak beds, ceiling fans and outdoor showers surrounded by tropical gardens. The beauty spa has wellness packages with treatments and yoga sessions that you can tap into at leisure over the course of your stay. But the highlight is PRU, the resort’s degustation restaurant and the first Phuket restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. The restaurant has turned its gaze away from the dazzle of the ocean to focus inland on sustainable farm-to-table dining from Phuket’s own terroir (PRU stands for plant, raise, understand). It sources 100 per cent of produce from within Thailand and 75 per cent from Phuket, much of it from the resort’s own farm and wild garden where foraged ingredients – sweet fruits and sour leaves – give each dish distinctive Thai flavours. The dishes all have neat little backstories about their island origins: carrot (the best carrot I have ever tasted) is baked underground for six hours and served with a fermented carrot juice hollandaise; the wagyu beef is sourced from a Thai farmer; fresh-picked rosella leaves make perfect sorbet. It’s wellness worth eating.
Eye-wateringly blue water and swathes of white sand underscore the remoteness of this pristine private island, part of Mozambique’s Indian Ocean Quirimbas Archipelago. This is castaway island stuff, albeit with a big fat dose of luxury. Nine seafront villas have thatched roofs, natural wood furnishings and earthy tones that set off the sparkling blue of private swimming pools. The uninhabited (by humans) island is mostly jungle, alive with boab trees and migratory bird species, while the surrounding water – fit for snorkelling, kayaking and swimming – is designated marine sanctuary. The Azura’s new ‘hyperconsciousness’ wellness program ‘Sounds of Africa’ aims to immerse guests in this environment by focusing on the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of Africa. It features African drumming therapy – a tribal combination of singing, meditation, exercise and rhythm to promote healing and self-expression; and mindful walking meditation, where guests are guided around the island and encouraged to tune in to the sounds of nature – the call of a black sunbird here, the song of a dark-capped bulbul there. Paying more mindful attention to the environment has various benefits including reducing anxiety and improving cognition – a win-win on holiday.
7. WELLNESS JOURNEY, COSTA RICA
Like a good yoga class, this eight-day G Adventures tour starts in San Jose where you set your intentions for the trip – then the journey really begins. The first feel-good stop is to sample the beans at Mi Cafecito Community Coffee cooperative, a G Adventures project supporting 200 local farmers and their families. Next is La Fortuna, an outdoor utopia where you’ll stretch into a yoga session overlooking the Arenal Volcano. On day three, you’re up and at ’em with a stand-up paddleboard yoga class (yes, it’s possible), followed by your choice of hiking, canyoning, rest or meditation. In the evening, rejuvenate your muscles, detox your cells and stimulate all your senses with a hot springs soak. Another highlight is Rincón de la Vieja, a lush jungle environment where sulphuric ponds filled with mud bubble next to volcanic thermal waters. You’ll take a therapeutic bath here before another yoga class for full invigoration. The final three days are based around the beach in Playa Carrillo with sand-footed beach yoga classes and sure-footed surf lessons. Then it’s time to take the new you back to San Jose.
Australian Indigenous tourism operator Lirrwi Tourism’s itineraries of the Yolngu Homelands in the Northern Territory’s East Arnhem Land includes the Dilly Bag Tour for Women. The ‘dilly bag’, known as gay’wu in the local language, is an important and powerful cultural symbol in its homeland of Arnhem Land, where it was first created thousands of years ago. Woven with dyed pandanus leaves, the dilly bag is significant both for its practicality in carrying bush foods and medicines, and for its spiritual meaning as a carrier of knowledge. Developed by Yolngu traditional owners, with multiple family generations participating, this five-day tour will immerse you in Indigenous culture, connecting you with Yolngu women and their land. You’ll learn about their culture, history and country through activities such as weaving, painting, healing and crying ceremonies (Nathi), cooking, bush medicine, dancing and oyster gathering. These traditionally female experiences will help connect you with Yolngu people environmentally, spiritually and philosophically.
The hot-stone bath treatment (known as a dotsho) on this trip is my kind of utopia, but the locals have bigger ideas. Bhutan, a landlocked Himalayan country, is a proudly Buddhist country with an official Gross National Happiness index. In the stupas and dzongs (fortresses) that dot the mountains and valleys, thousands of monks count beads and spin prayer wheels in anticipation of a heavenly Buddhist afterlife. In the capital of Thimphu, the fifth ruling king is keen on the idea of an earthly social paradise where happiness is more important than gross domestic product. He has eased his people seamlessly into the 21st century on this premise so that they ooze the kind of contentment that makes travelling here feel like a quest for happiness. Como Hotel’s five-day Himalayan Explorer itinerary explores Bhutan’s cultures and traditions with visits to ancient dzongs, temples and museums and – the highlight – a 5-kilometre (3-mile) hike to spectacular Tiger’s Nest Monastery, a red-and-gold-roofed temple clinging to a sheer cliff face 900 metres (2953 feet) above the Paro Valley. Inside, outrageously colourful shrines tell the stories of mythical creatures and historical figures. After a sweaty five-hour journey, that hot-stone bath really proves its worth – happiness guaranteed.
About Slow Travel
Slow Travel by Penny Watson is a beautifully designed and practical compendium of places, activities, tours and experiences that will inspire you to get on the road in your own time and on your own terms.
Watson explores slow travel as a physical and philosophical endeavour, taking readers off the beaten track and through nature, and unveils journeys that will nurture talent and ignite the inner-self.
Published by Hardie Grant, it’s available wherever good books are sold. RRP $50