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Welcome to the future of Wellness Travel

24 January 2018

It’s while sitting in what could be the whitest room on the planet that I begin to wonder about what goes on in the wellness industry. Like, really wonder.

To bring you up to speed, the walls are white, the sofa: white, the floor: white. It isn’t restricted to the fixtures and fittings either. The immaculately groomed staff wear pristine white uniforms and appear in a constant state of ethereal glow. Everybody else, apart from me, float around in impossibly fluffy white dressing gowns. It’s like the opening scene from a light-hearted version of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. My only ally in all of this is a grey (off-white?) contraption containing three small test tubes filled with vividly coloured liquids. It’s an oxygen bar, apparently. Strange thoughts fill your mind in this type of room – have I unwittingly joined a cult? being the main one. The answer is that I have, well, of sorts. Behind it all – and the reason I find myself sitting nervously in the waiting room of SHA Wellness Clinic in eastern Spain – is one the of the largest and fastest growing industries in the world.

Wellness might appear to be a modern term, but its roots lie in ancient medicine; from Ayurveda to traditional Chinese medicine, Greek medicine to organic farming. But what began as alternative, has now become seriously mainstream. The Global Wellness Institute estimates the industry’s worth at US$8.7 trillion, with wellness tourism accounting for roughly US$563 billion of it. It’s an industry that, depending on who you speak to, can offer anything from life altering opportunities to vastly overpriced yoga mats. But whether you’re in or you’re out, there’s no denying that its success represents a seismic shift in conventional wisdom.

“I think people are starting to take health into their own hands,” says Dr Lanalle Dunn, founder of The Chiron Clinic in Dubai. “The old conventional ways of medicine and the attitude that ‘the doctor’s word is law’ is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. People are now very receptive to natural and functional medicine. It’s super logical, really.”

Although my own reasons for getting involved come under the guise of work, as a man recently turned 41 I have to admit secretly hoping for revelation. The industry might well be in rude health, but I, unfortunately, am not. I get up in the morning and I ache. The energy I had in my youth, to run and jump and climb trees is long gone, and my diet is based on a carefully balanced equation between Deliveroo waiting times and guilt levels. Conventional wisdom, particularly amongst men, is to grin and bear it. In fact, don’t even grin, just bear it. This is your lot. But in the age of wellness, just how far can you right wrongs?

And so I find myself sat in a picturesque spot amongst the Sierra Helada Mountains, and a resort that gently nudges the shores of the Med. Befitting its location, SHA appears more a five star resort than a place of health and well-being. Your stylishly minimalist room has mountain views and the terrace deck on the roof is as well appointed as any beach club you care to mention. It’s in keeping with an industry that attracts burnt out A-listers and worn out wealth managers by the bucket-load.

Realistically, you could come here to deal with any problem – the 360-degree programming offers help with nutrition, fitness, aging, re-education of habits (don’t open that box) and more. However, the growing trend is for a retreat to specialise. Yoga escape, detox clinic, eco-friendly health resort, meditation centre, fitness camp…. the list is endless and most will offer you an Instagram-perfect location and hunger pangs through a luxury filter.

Thankfully for me, SHA is of the notion that you can push yourself as hard or as gently as you wish. Programmes range from the basic discovery package at US$1,525 to the 28-day life reset package, at an eye-watering US$23,000.

For Dunn, these luxury retreats aren’t necessarily about extreme lifestyle changes, however. Rather the chance to reset. “It’s really an opportunity to rest, recuperate and get healthier,” she explains.

My time at SHA, as with most wellness centres, begins with an assessment. I’m weighed, measured and assessed. Eventually I receive a personal schedule – most days begin at 7am and end with dinner at 9pm – a healthy habits calendar for the week, featuring a plan of walks, classes, yoga sessions and more, and a piece of paper featuring handwriting that only a pharmacist could decipher – I later discover it to be a prescription for probiotics and Aloe Vera. It’s all quite reasonable until I’m given a diet to follow. The good news is I’m on the biggest food plan. The bad news is that it’s 1,500 calories per day. That’s 1,000 less than the usual daily amount.

Nutrition is at the core of the philosophy here and based on founder, Alfredo Bataller Parietti, successfully battling early stage colon cancer by virtue of a macrobiotic diet. In his desire to then share his discovery with the world, the Argentinean real estate magnet established SHA on his Costa Blanca estate. It’s now a family-run business.

The majority of wellness centres adopt a specific approach to eating. And whether it’s style-based or portion-controlled, things can get pretty dark pretty quick. With a stunning location in the Austran Alps, Vivamayr is world famous for both its success rates and its strict regime. Here, patients will consume a diet of around 600 calories per day. They’ll undergo blood tests, stomach massages and chewing lessons (the ideal scenario is chewing each mouthful 30-35 times). Both the 5:2 fasting regime and the alkaline plan allegedly gained fame here and it was even the inspiration behind the Hoffler Klink that featured in the James Bond movie, Spectre. Thousands swear by its methods and return annually, others talk about it as a cautionary tale.

How about The Ranch Malibu? Here you’ll embrace long days of exercise in the Santa Monica Hills, a small, plant-based diet and a fee of about US$7,800 per week. Then there’s the Ashram in Calabasas that’s so strict that it allegedly made Julia Roberts run away and Oprah cry.

But as hard as these resorts undoubtedly can be, the reality of any health change begins in the kitchen. “We now live in a world where the quality of food has degraded to a shocking level,” explains Dunn. “Over the past 60 years, the use of pesticides and herbicides have contributed hugely to the emergence of the label: organic. Our grandparents ate organic, of course, but back then it was just called food. Milk, eggs and meat free of hormones… vegetables, grains and fruits all free of chemicals. Because the quality of our food is now so toxic, we live in a time where inflammation is an epidemic – and this is a precursor to every autoimmune disease. You are what you eat is a truth.”

I’m not expecting much as I make my way to the rooftop terrace for my first meal at SHA, but here’s where being at a resort helps. If I’d been told to follow this diet at home, chances are I would have tried it for a day and then given up. But as I walk to my table, one offering a full view of the sun melting into the mountains, I’m feeling pretty good about it all.

Then the food arrives.

It’s small, that’s the take-home message. But it’s also beautifully presented. It’s only a bowl of gazpacho soup, but it wouldn’t look out of place in a high-end restaurant. There’s always a soup course at SHA – even at breakfast – generally followed by a vegetarian dish, or fish if you’re really lucky, and then even a dessert. It’s genuinely tasty and, despite the size, the slow pace at which you’re encouraged to eat means you leave the table feeling satisfied. Before I head back to my room for the night, I spare a moment for those here on the Kushi diet – 700 daily calories named after the Japanese dietician who popularised macrobiotics. I take a drink of the delicious apple and cinnamon tea in their honour.


Like dealing with children – perhaps because most people abandon all semblance of adult responsibility at places like this – distraction is the key to overcoming hunger.
Your daily schedule means you’ll have little time to think about the rumbles in your stomach. You’ll either be walking along the beach, or to the lighthouse, or perhaps trying Tai Chi or cookery classes.


It’s hard not to be impressed by the set-up, but here’s the rub: none of this is real. Unless you’re in the one per cent, perhaps – the resort’s helipad and vast royal suite is testimony to the fact that there are plenty of those here – but for everybody else, maintaining this lifestyle is tough. Once you’re not being served your delicious morsels in a picturesque setting three times a day, it all becomes a bit tricky. The juicing, the planning, the prep… it’s just not realistic, and a big reason behind the fact that two out of five people on a new diet ditch it within the week.


If food is the first pillar of any self-respecting wellness resort, then it’s closely followed by fitness. As an adult you simply stop moving. You’re a product of decades of bad habits, bad posture, and bad decisions, and by the time you hit 40 your body is furiously trying to work out which part hurts most.


If you check in to a place called the Extreme Hotel, you should be under no illusions as to what you’re signing up for. Don’t let the fact that their Extreme Fitness Camp is at an eco-friendly, solar-powered beachfront hotel in the Dominican Republic fool you; you’re there to work. Variety – and intensity – is the key here, so could wind up trying anything from kickboxing to trapeze work to salsa (yes, salsa). You’ll leave with a new sense of vigour, fitness, and presumably rhythm.


Should you prefer something a little more immersive, how about Mountain Trek in British Columbia? This basically does what is says on the tin, and aims to help you gain strength, improve sleep and lower stress by walking in the mountains. For those with a reasonable level of fitness it’s by no means an extreme camp; in fact the toughest part is probably when the staff turn off the Wi-Fi in the evening to help you get better quality sleep.


Back at SHA, I’m put through a decent workout in the small, but well-equipped, gym before sweating through a cookery lesson – more a case of tight scheduling as opposed to fitness levels, hopefully – but the majority of time is spent attempting yoga and Pilates. There are certainly worse things to try than yoga on a rooftop terrace in an early summer’s evening, and I come away moving better than I have in months. It’s not all plain sailing, of course. It’s unlikely that there’ll ever come a time when I can chant the word “om” (signalling the beginning and end of a class), with any level of seriousness. 


But it’s not simply physical healing at play here, its spiritual, too. Yoga is proven to help with anxiety and depression; it can boost memory and concentration and even help deal with the effects of traumatic experiences. The American Psychological Association claims that Hatha yoga has been effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD. 


A mindful reset is one of the biggest reasons people seek out a trip to a wellness resort, and while it seems like the concept of mindfulness is here solely to fuel the countless memes that clog your Instagram feed, it’s actually an ancient wisdom that was popularised by the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn in the late 1970s.


“One of our favourite definitions of mindfulness is from meditation teacher James Baraz,” explains Cindy Stocken at Mindful ME in Dubai. “He describes its as simply being aware of what’s happening right now without wishing it were different. That’s great because it reminds us that when we truly acknowledge what’s happening, we can compassionately accept it and begin where we are, instead of wanting to fix or improve something that has already happened – or even worry about what happens next.”


While at SHA there are daily meditation sessions, mindfulness lessons and even stress management classes – if you don’t mind paying the xxx extra. Elsewhere you can go from a meditation cave and shrine room at Vana Malso Estate in Uttarakhand in India, to a stylish celebrity haunt such as the US$1,100 per night Amangiri in Utah. If you want to really get to grips with your inner voice, then perhaps try the St Francis Retreat Centre at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. Here you can mix with Trappist monks on a month-long progamme of assigned work and observed silence, all for a suggested donation fee of around US$60 per night.


While mindfulness is just a small part of my experience at SHA, Stocken believes that a retreat should guide participants on a journey. “From letting go and arriving in the present moment, to resting in the quiet space, learning and growing their understanding of living mindfully and bringing a sense of calm to their lives as they return home.” 


As I prepare to return home after four days at SHA I have to admit to feeling good.
The diet has left me more active, I sleep better, my eyes brighter, my thoughts more clear, but it’s the idea of living in the moment that really resonates. Wellness resorts might well be a way to see the world while hitting reset, and some can help with serious illness, but the key to a calm and happy life is something you can do anywhere. At the risk of sounding like the moral message at the end of a ’90s American sitcom, it’s about how you act as a human being.


“This type of emotional health is about feeling a purpose in life,” says Dunn. “You’re a member of your community, you give back to others, you’re connected to family, friends, your professional community, your extended community and every other human on the planet. It also means that you’re connected to the environment around you… go for walks; go to the park, the beach. It instantly makes you feel better and realigns your priorities. Reduce fast foods, eat more vegetables, do something you enjoy and be more conscious about smiling. Believe me, it will make you happier.”

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