7 Ways Wellness Is Changing How We Travel

By, Elaine Glusac 

Fundamentally speaking, travelers seek change. We’re attracted to new sights, experiences, foods, and friendships. As a frequent globe-trotter, one of my main goals is to return home looking changed. Not by wearing that Andean alpaca sweater that seemed to work in Peru (and just doesn’t back in the States), but by displaying trail-toughened muscles developed on Spain’s Camino de Santiago or callouses forged while sea kayaking in British Columbia. Feeling changed – from enhanced mental focus stimulated by sleep programs in Scottsdale to a new serenity induced through meditation practice on Bali – is equally essential.

But whether my souvenirs are physical or spiritual, it’s all about seeking active, restorative ventures that improve my life and mark me as a wellness-addicted traveler. 

Like a lot of people, though, I don’t simply want to maintain my current wellness routine when I’m away. Sometimes I want to take it to a higher level. Other times, I want to learn from locals about their traditional health and cultural practices, such as forest bathing in Japan, cleansing at a Mayan sweat lodge in Mexico, or studying calligraphy in China.

Vacations have always been about restoring energy, but travel today is much more personalized when it comes to wellness, with a diversity of trips ranging from trekking pilgrimages to medi-spa retreats, fitness cruises to learning vacations. Here’s to the latest health trends that are not only broadening the travel industry, but also travelers themselves.

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1. Active Endeavors 

From hotel stays to safaris, trips that once championed sedentary pastimes are now adrenalized, as fitness goals influence properties and programming. Sure, you can still lounge by the pool – but maybe after a 20-mile bike ride in the surrounding hillside or post-paddleboarding.

In Bali, the 30-room wellness resort COMO Shambhala Estate combines yoga, meditation, healthy eating, and Pilates with more hard-charging endeavors ranging from tennis and weight training to martial arts and single-track bike rides through Ubud’s rice fields. Closer to home, guests can check into Texas’ Lake Austin Spa Resort and take advantage of a bevy of fitness programs offered each week at the 40-room property, including cardio classes and full-body TRX circuit conditioning. Or cruise Alaska’s glacier country with UnCruise Adventures on fitness and yoga voyages that combine kayaking and rain-forest hikes with shipboard salutations to passing humpbacks and harbor seals.

Active vacations needn’t be one-note trips for jocks, though. They can also include a cultural element simply by mixing movement with curiosity. 


2. Science at the Spa

In the search to customize treatments, medical spas have ditched the food pyramid and weight charts and begun using modern science – including DNA testing and biofeedback tools – to prescribe bespoke health plans.

Switzerland’s 160-room Waldhotel Health & Medical Excellence, part of the sprawling Bürgenstock Hotels & Resort complex on Lake Lucerne, houses a 37,000-square-foot medical center staffed by doctors specializing in everything from dermatology to orthopedics. Canyon Ranch Lenox, a 126-room destination spa in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, uses guests’ DNA samples to customize nutrition advice.

3. Continuing Education

The expanding scope of wellness travel includes an imaginative, mental component, which holds that learning is critical to well-being.

Creative and cultural programming join the holistic wellness fold at Amanyangyun, a 25-acre resort near Shanghai with Ming and Qing dynasty houses among its 37 suites and villas. In Nanshufang, the property’s cultural pavilion, experts host classes in calligraphy, Chinese brush painting, and traditional music. Singapore’s 49-room Six Senses Duxton infuses its cultural programming with wellness, including morning yoga in a nearby park, appointments with a traditional Chinese doctor, and classes in tea preparation. At Newfoundland’s Fogo Island Inn, guests of the 29-room retreat join local craftspeople in boatbuilding, quilt sewing, and jam making.


4. Preservation Pursuits

Every spa worth its exfoliating salts touts antiaging therapies such as facials and Botox, along with vitality-promoting exercises like strength training and Pilates. Now, taking cues from professional athletes, they’re also providing cutting-edge rejuvenators that aim to slow the aging process.

Cryotherapy is said to shorten recovery times following workouts, increase energy, heighten mental clarity, and rev metabolism. The Ranch Malibu, an 18-room resort near Los Angeles that offers multiday programs designed around fitness, nutritional counseling, weight loss, and detox goals, recently installed an Impact Cryotherapy chamber. Called a cryosauna, it uses nitrogen gas at temperatures as low as minus 184 degrees Fahrenheit. Users stay in for up to three minutes while oxygen rushes through the body, reputedly reducing inflammation and promoting fat burning.

At its spa, The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong applies cryotherapy to facials, using purified air at minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit with the goal of reducing puffiness, exfoliating dead cells, and smoothing skin, to produce youthful complexions. The 312-room hotel also offers nonsurgical facial-toning treatments.

5. Secular Pilgrimages

Historically, a pilgrimage was a way to express faith via a long journey on foot to a sacred site. Taking religion out of the equation, secular pilgrimages challenge travelers to tackle a big, often difficult goal in a soul-searching trek.

Several years ago, I went on a ten-day hike along the Camino de Santiago, the historic route across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, where the bones of Saint James are reportedly buried. Everyone I met was on some sort of quest – mainly, to examine their lives and determine their next steps. Only some of them were Christian pilgrims.

6. Enriching Eating

Begone, food-fearing fat farms! From a wellness perspective, eating has evolved from the depriving diets of decades past to an emphasis on mere nutritional functionality to, now, seeing food as a sensual pleasure to be celebrated as part of a balanced life.

And today’s travelers have more culinary options than ever before, from visiting local markets to cooking with an award-winning chef. At Baja California’s Rancho La Puerta Fitness Resort and Spa, guests can take a guided morning hike to the nearby six-acre organic farm that supplies the 86-room destination spa with fresh fruits and vegetables; there, they have a from-the-earth breakfast and tour the garden. Or they can learn how to make a light and delicious fusion of Mediterranean and Mexican cuisine at the resort’s farm-based cooking school. Tasteful highlights at Tuscany’s 34- room Relais Il Falconiere & Spa include classes with Michelin-starred chef and owner Silvia Baracchi, who stresses healthy foods and the ethical use of the land.

7. Deep Sleep

By the time I laid down on a cushioned mat at Scottsdale, Arizona’s 116-room Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa, where yogi Taffy Wallace covered me with a Mexican blanket, I’d had, thanks to meetings, an accumulated ten hours of sleep in the prior two days. Exhaustion drove me to her class in yoga nidra, a guided meditation practice that helps you mimic the deepest states of rest – on the verge of falling asleep – while remaining conscious, providing the benefits of a night’s sleep in just 45 minutes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three adults doesn’t get enough sleep, meaning seven or more hours per day. Any less and you run the risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and mental distress.

No wonder spas, hotels, and even cruise ships are promoting slumber. At the 50-room Six Senses Douro Valley in Portugal’s wine country, yogic sleep programs combine yoga nidra with stretching and breathing exercises. Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort, a beachfront hideaway with 152 rooms on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, offers seven-day sleep programs that apply the Ayurvedic principles of energy balance, massage, and nutrition in combination with yoga, painting classes, and visits to Buddhist temples.

Do programs like these work? In my Scottsdale experience, fully. Not only did yoga nidra offer mental clarity that day, but I lost that nagging feeling of drowsiness. At night, I slept like a baby.

Sally Winston