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Travel

Wellness Resorts Deliver Stress-Busting Vacations

A wellness resort can help you relax, get fitter, eat healthier—and have fun, too.

Courtesy Nemacolin Woodlands Resort

For nearly three decades, Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, in western Pennsylvania, has provided a scenic getaway for people who want to golf, ski, dine at its five-star restaurant, and indulge in a massage or facial at the resort’s well-appointed spa. Guests can also hike the 2,000-acre property, which in the early 1900s provided a fashionable hunting and fishing retreat for Pittsburgh’s industrial chieftains.

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But in recent years, Nemacolin has launched an ambitious effort to appeal to people who want more from their vacations than a respite from the daily grind. In 2014, the resort turned a building previously used for conferences into a Holistic Healing Center, where guests can take advantage of acupuncture, meditation classes, stress-relief therapy and metabolism testing, among other things. Nemacolin’s 94-year-old founder, Joe Hardy, visits the center regularly for massages and acupuncture treatments.

Hardy’s daughter, Maggie Hardy Magerko, who took over the business from her father in 2002, decided to create a center dedicated to health and wellness after visiting Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Ariz. Founded in 1979, Canyon Ranch is one of the oldest and best-known “healthy vacation” destinations in the U.S. These days, though, it has a lot of competition. Revenue from wellness tourism grew by 14%, to $563 billion, between 2013 and 2015, according to the Global Wellness Institute, a research organization. Faced with rising health care costs, many baby boomers have adopted healthier habits, and they don’t want to abandon them when they go on vacation, says Anne Dimon, founder of Travel to Wellness, an online magazine that has covered wellness travel since 2004.

A retreat for every style

If you’re intrigued by the idea of a wellness vacation, you have a huge number of choices, both in the U.S. and overseas. Wellness is a broad term, encompassing everything from meditation to pool Pilates, and wellness retreats can be pricey. We found resorts that will fit a variety of budgets, personalities and goals—which could include weight loss, stress reduction, digital detox or some combination.

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Structured. These types of retreats appeal to people who want a break from the stress of making a lot of decisions, says Katlyn Hatcher, Nemacolin’s spa and wellness director. “It’s hard enough for people to find the time to devote to themselves,” she says. “It’s great when it’s already laid out.”

In 2015, Nemacolin began offering four-day fitness retreats four times a year; it also offers a three-day workshop on diet and nutrition, and a weekend retreat for yoga and medi­tation. You can take yoga and fitness classes throughout the week.

Nemacolin’s four-day Fitness Adventure Retreat typically starts at 7:30 A.M. with a 90-minute upper-body strength-training class. After a group breakfast, participants embark on a one-hour fitness scavenger hunt, followed by two hours of free/spa time. The day concludes with a two-and-a-half-hour nutrition workshop. The remaining three days are similarly structured, depending on the season. Activities include yoga, hiking, more strength training, and gymnastics. The program is offered in June, November, February and April. The price, which covers breakfast and all activities for the four days, ranges from about $1,400 to $1,730, depending on the accommodations.

Some structured programs are even more rigorous. A typical day at the Ranch Malibu, in Malibu, Calif., begins at 5:30 A.M. with Tibetan chimes. After a morning stretch, guests have breakfast, then embark on a four-hour hike. After lunch and a one-hour nap, participants take a low-impact strength-training class, followed by yoga. Dinner is at 7, and bedtime is at 8:30. The cost for one week, which covers all programs, meals, a room in a private guest cottage and a daily massage, is $7,200.

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A structured program could encourage you to try a new activity that you might not attempt on your own, says Jessica Matthews, professor of integrative wellness at Point Loma Nazarene University, in San Diego. It’s also a good option for people who need some extra motivation, says Kate Hamm, a fitness instructor who has designed wellness retreat programs. “If you have the option of either lying down or taking a fitness class and you struggle to take the fitness class, then a structured program is for you,” she says.

Unstructured. If your life is already overscheduled, you may prefer a retreat that gives you the freedom to choose your own activities. Rancho La Puerta, in Baja California, Mexico, offers more than 70 fitness classes, along with classes in nutrition, meditation and organic gardening. Guests of the 4,000-acre resort, founded in 1940, typically stay from Saturday to Saturday and can sign up for as many classes and sessions as they want, says Chandler Taylor, a spokeswoman for the resort. “Some guests just like to come for the spa or to lie by the pool or go to cooking classes,” she says. The cost for a one-week fitness package, which includes meals and most activities, ranges from $3,550 to $5,750, depending on the room and the time of year.

Canyon Ranch, which has locations in Tucson, Las Vegas, Lenox, Mass., and Kaplankaya, Turkey, also allows guests to create their own wellness regimen. At its Tucson location, a recent daily lineup listed dozens of alternatives, including a 6 A.M. five-hour hike, meditation, wallyball, a golf clinic, a water workout, desert drumming, yin yoga and bingo. The cost for a one-week stay ranges from $7,600 per person for a room with a king-size bed to more than $12,800 for a luxury suite. The rate includes all meals, daily activities, classes and presentations, plus unlimited access to spa and fitness facilities.

Escapist. The world is getting louder all the time, so it’s not surprising that “silent spas” and resorts that encourage guests to turn off their devices are among the fastest-growing segments in the wellness business. Many of these resorts are on the sites of former monasteries, which encourages a contemplative, bare-bones experience. It’s also a more affordable way to reduce stress.

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The Art of Living Retreat in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains offers four-night silent retreats. The goal of the program, which includes yoga, nature walks and vegetarian meals, is to help participants “find silence in daily life,” says marketing director Andrew Keaveney. The resort, opened in 2011 on the site of a former transcendental meditation center, also offers workshops on meditation, philosophy and mindfulness in a rustic setting. Accom­modations range from hotel rooms with full- or king-size beds, a TV and a small refrigerator to simply furnished rooms with twin beds in a dormatory-style setting. Rooms have Wi-Fi, but guests are encouraged to put away their cell phones—and reception in the mountains isn’t very good anyway, Keaveney says. Rates for a four-night silent retreat that includes vegetarian meals start at $795 per person in a room with two other individuals to $1,135 for a single room. All rooms have private baths.

At Eremito, an eco-retreat located in an ancient monastery in Umbria, Italy, a gong sounds at 8 P.M. every evening to announce that it’s time for a silent dinner of rustic vegetarian food. There’s no cell-phone service, Wi-Fi or TV, but there is wine with dinner (it’s in Italy, after all). The retreat also offers yoga classes and massage. Rates, which include meals and access to the spa area, start at about $195 a night.

Guests at Le Monastere des Augustines, in Quebec, Canada, a spa and wellness center set in a 17th-century monastery, begin the day with a silent, contemplative breakfast of yogurt, fruit, breads and herbal tea. The center offers yoga, sleep therapy and massage, and at dusk guests can go to the chapel and hear the nuns sing Vespers. Rates, which include breakfast, start at about $76 per person for a double-occupancy room. There are no TVs or phones in the rooms, but there is free Wi-Fi.

Budget-friendly options. If a high-end resort such as the Ranch Malibu or Canyon Ranch is out of your price range and the monastic life isn’t your thing, you still have plenty of choices. New Life Hiking Spa, in Killington, Vt., offers a five- to 10-night “Jump Start Getaway” for $259 a night ($239 for double occupancy). The price includes accommodations, meals and snacks, a hiking program, all exercise classes, and one massage or facial for every three-night stay.As the industry has grown, more resorts are offering shorter programs, too, Hamm says. Ranch 4.0, a four-day retreat at the Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake Village, Calif., is a shorter version of the seven-day Ranch Malibu program. The price is $3,800 per person.

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If you have more time and want to explore somewhere new, you can find a wellness retreat just about anywhere in the world. Bali and Sri Lanka are among the places that have experienced a lot of growth in wellness travel, says Dimon, of Travel to Wellness. Santani Luxury Wellness Resort, located on a former tea plantation about an hour from Kandy, Sri Lanka, offers a slate of yoga, meditation and fitness classes, along with a spa facility. The cost of a seven-night wellness package, which includes a room with a mountain view, all meals, spa treatments and group activities, ranges from $2,961 to $5,544, depending on the room (single or double) and the time of year. A travel agent who specializes in wellness retreats can search for one that fits your budget. You can also search for retreats at www.spafinder.com.

Vetting a wellness resort

Some vacation destinations, eager to attract health-conscious boomers, have adopted the wellness nomenclature but are short on specifics. To help you determine whether the resort fits your goals, look for itineraries of daily activities and read online reviews.

Food. If a resort claims that its meals are “organic” or “healthy,” that doesn’t tell you much. Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions because food “is a central part of the wellness experience,” says Matthews, the Point Loma Nazarene professor. Some retreats publish their menus online, along with calorie counts. You should also be able to find out whether the retreat offers vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free options. If the food is healthy but unappetizing, you may spend your vacation craving a deep-dish pizza. Check to see if the retreat serves alcohol; not all do. If you’re interested in changing your eating habits, look for a resort that offers cooking and nutrition classes.

Staff credentials. One of the benefits of a wellness retreat is that you’ll get to work with top yoga instructors and personal trainers. Check the resort’s website for instructors’ backgrounds; if the information isn’t provided, you may want to give the resort a pass.

Cost. Make sure you understand what’s covered by the fee. Most wellness retreats include accommodations and meals in the daily rate, but they may charge extra for certain activities or classes. Some don’t cover all meals.

Wellness for a weekend

You may be able to book a healthy weekend retreat at a hotel near you, in a city you’d like to explore or as a bonus on your next business trip.

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Even slackers will feel compelled to work out at the Even Hotels, a division of IHG. At the Rockville, Md., location, a sign in the front lobby invites guests to “Jog with the general manager” at 6:30 a.m. Just down the hall is the hotel’s exercise studio, which is open 24 hours and is outfitted with treadmills, elliptical trainers, a rowing machine, free weights and TRX straps. For guests who prefer to sweat in private, every guest room is equipped with a designated workout area, a cardio ball, strength bands, a yoga mat and 19 workout videos. Most of the hotel’s customers are business travelers, but Even Hotels are getting a lot of weekend bookings from leisure travelers, too, says Jason Moskal, vice president of lifestyle brands at IHG. “More and more people are making wellness part of their everyday life,” he says. In addition to Rockville, Even has hotels in New York City, Norwalk, Conn., and Omaha, and plans to add seven more in the U.S. by 2018.

Westin Hotels’ “run concierges” lead guests on jogs around the city. Some Westin Hotels also offer rooms equipped with a treadmill or stationary bike. Element Hotels, part of the Starwood chain, lend guests free bikes and helmets.