Wellness Getaways

Taking Time Off in Spas

By Nora Brunner

Originally published in Body Sense, Spring/Summer 2009.

If your last vacation left you fatigued, bloated, or vowing to disown your relatives, it may be time to revisit the purpose of getting away from it all. While there's some value in simply changing your routine and surroundings, there is such a thing as vacation hangover from eating and drinking like a Roman, going on blister-generating sightseeing excursions, and weighing a bit too heavily on a branch of the family tree. If your vacation pictures make you cringe, it might be time to rethink your leisure time.

You already know the value of making time to get a great massage--why not extend that idea to spending time off doing things that are actually good for you? More Americans are taking wellness vacations that feature spa treatments, moderate exercise, healthy eating, and some light educational fare that's fun, yet practical. One advantage you have is that hotel, spa, and retreat operators have picked up on this trend in a big way and are vying for your business. While many packages are pricey, retreat junkies swear by them and, with some research, you can find moderately priced alternatives.

Know Thyself

"The very first thing you need to know about selecting the right spa is yourself," says Anne Dimon, editor of a wellness e-zine and website (www.traveltowellness.com). "You need to acknowledge your tastes, interests, personality, budget, and, most of all, you need to identify your objectives."

Dimon says the number of press releases she receives promoting wellness vacations and retreats has tripled since she founded her website more than three years ago. "It's really a growing niche." But, she cautions, many promoters are jumping on the bandwagon without much substance behind their trendy labeling. There's a big difference between a genuine wellness experience and superficial features like rose petals on your pillow every night. Some hotel-based resorts offer luscious spa treatments, but simultaneously host regular guests who may be spring-breakers or have children in tow. Shop carefully. "It's a buyer's market," Dimon says. Her site features tips on choosing wellness vacations, as well as reviews of various spas and retreats.

A key decision is whether to go with a companion or strike out on your own. "I am surprised by the number of people who take wellness vacations alone," says Zipporah Andrews, spa director at the Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa in Shell Beach, California. "People live hectic lives and work hard. It's so nice just to go and be by oneself."
Jennifer Di Francesco, spa director at the Miramonte Resort & Spa in Indian Wells, California, says her business for couples and girlfriend getaways has increased dramatically since the spa was added to the hotel five years ago. "I think people appreciate solitude, yet are traveling to create memories of togetherness."

Restorative Effects

J. Travis, a 39-year-old professional and graduate student from New York City had been struggling with the recent death of his father, as well as a major muscle spasm in his back. While planning a getaway, he'd considered staying with out-of-state friends, but didn't want to be a burden, and the idea of traveling on his own to sightsee was too overwhelming. He desperately needed time for himself.

After some research, Travis set out "angry, depressed, and broken" for Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, for a week of biking, nutritional counseling, Pilates, spa treatments, and yoga. It took him only a day to unplug from his urban lifestyle.

"This was one of the most active vacations ever," he says. While it was expensive, it was worth it to Travis for the way he felt at the end of his stay. He experienced such relief, he admits, that he shed a few tears over having to leave his oasis in the desert.

"It was the best vacation I've ever had," he says.

Freelance writer Tiffany Owens, 41, chose an immersion vacation that might seem radical to some, but provided lasting benefits.

"I was tired of going on much-needed vacations, only to return more exhausted than I was before I left," she says.

Remembering how much she enjoyed a two-day stay at an Italian monastery as part of her honeymoon, she made a visit to the Great Vow Zen Monastery, a two-hour drive from her home in Oregon. She was the only non-monk on site, where the day began at 3:50 a.m. with the clanging of a handheld school bell. After that was a meditation session with the monks, followed by meals, liturgy, work, and rest periods, mostly in silence. Bedtime was 10 p.m.

"I didn't anticipate that the monks would be so warm and helpful," she says, noting their comforting presence and powerful meditative energies. "I was finally able to quiet my own overactive mind." Although her experience was relatively brief--just a weekend--it allowed her to start and stay with a meditation practice that's improved her life. Another plus for the austere approach: it costs far less than a luxury spa experience.

Lasting Changes

"Retreats are in demand," says psychotherapist and life coach Michelle Bersell, who recently led a retreat at Sundara Spa in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. The program, called Women's Wellness Weekend: Living Lighter, was designed to encourage eating lighter food, as well as leading a life that's spiritually and emotionally lighter. "People are looking to have an educational self-improvement piece along with their spa activities," Bersell says.

Bersell and a food coach offered their package in conjunction with the spa's services and included a cooking and tasting demonstration. "Because 70 percent of overeating is due to our emotions, it felt like a great fit to tie in how we can eat more holistically while also discovering a new way to approach our emotional well-being," Bersell says. The weekend closed with a segment on creating lasting lifestyle changes.

When it comes to healthier vacations, the creative possibilities seem endless for lighthearted activities that bring back memories of free-spirited childhood or simple pleasures that otherwise elude us.

Getaway Goals

Planning your getaway by jotting down a few goals, and perusing websites and brochures can be half the fun once you start dreaming about a respite. Whatever your style or budget, it's smart to take time out to plan your time-out. It's a bit of a cliche these days, but it happens to be true: the better you take care of yourself, the better you can take care of others. If you are still hesitant, ask yourself if the end of any other vacation you've taken has brought you to tears.