Written by Susan Kime, MA, CPC, NCC, a wellness travel expert who writes about trends, destinations, spiritual retreats, and the intersection of travel and mental health. Find her work in Pursuitist, JustLuxe, Beau Monde Traveler and other lifestyle publications.
Retreat travels combine the expected and unexpected, often in distant locales. Perhaps this is why personal spirituality has become a growing trend among travelers. Recently, I had the opportunity to experience three spiritual retreats. All have garnered colorful memories and cultivated a sense of wellness and quietude. I have come to the awareness that the little things — extreme distance, organic food from retreat gardens, fresh water from local wells — add to the experience of well being often as much as the treatments themselves. As we all look forward to a time we can travel again, I hope you find inspiration in the details of these extraordinary places.
Ananda In the Himalayas, India: A True Spiritual Retreat
I spent ten days in India — New Delhi, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Udaipur, Gwalior and at the end, Ananda in the Himalayas. Set on a 100-acre Himalayan mountain estate amid Sal tree forests, overlooking the river Ganges, Ananda was established in 2000 as India’s first destination spa.
Known for its Ayurvedic medicine and Yoga methods, Ananda promotes a way of living that, once experienced, is carried back to a traveler’s own culture. Ananda cultivates awareness, attentiveness, and mindfulness. In my case, it was a pilgrimage from West to East. I needed to cultivate an awareness of slowing down to hear external sound, feel texture, see details and nuance of color. I also needed to have a greater awareness of my own body voice; when in pain, when not.
I had read Rumi, Hafaz, and Jon Kabat Zinn before this trip, but until India, I had not taken ideas of intention, and mindfulness to heart. And my learning would become even more intense at Ananda, slowly shredding the Western coil of a hurried, alarm-clock driven life.
I saw Ananda on the hill, as we drove out of Rishikesh, the closest town. In fading daylight as we drove, we stopped a few times for gibbon monkeys sitting on or crossing the roads.
When we finally arrived, I looked beyond the registration desk, to the west, and saw the ragged mountaintops of the Himalayas — not knowing then (or now) which was Mt. Everest. All were ragged, uneven peaks, laced with snow. But as the sun went down, they changed color: light pink to periwinkle. Memories of the gibbons, the sandalwood lobby scent, and the view of the Himalayas caused a unique cognitive split: I was not homesick, but I was deeply aware of the destination’s remoteness.
As I left the lobby, an attendant gave me a white jacket, slippers and pants to wear while at Ananda. In removing my western garb and donning the white outfit, I became more attuned to the environment of the Ayurvedic approaches of meditation, yoga, and body work. I had multiple treatments, but the most intense were Shirodhara and Marma Abhyanga.
Shirodhara Spiritual Treatment
Shirodhara comes from the two Sanskrit words “shiro” (head) and “dhara” (flow). It’s an Ayurvedic healing technique that involves having the therapist pour liquid, usually oil, onto the forehead — specifically on the “third eye.” This is a chakra, or body focal point, just above and between the eyebrows, and is said to be the seat of human consciousness. Shirodhara is a rejuvenating therapy designed to eliminate toxins and mental exhaustion as well as relieve stress. There was a sense of loss with this treatment, as I lost who I was and what I was doing there. I refocused without focusing in the first place. I am not sure the third eye opened, but I was sure I could see more clearly afterward.
Marmas (vital points) are important parts of Ayurvedic philosophy. A marma point is an anatomical spot where flesh, veins, arteries, tendons, bones and joints meet and prana (life force) is situated. A traditional synchronized full body massage given by two experienced Ayurveda therapists using herbal infused sesame oil; this experience is also known as the ‘four-handed-massage.’ This therapy relieves physical and mental blockages of energy. In my case, in a deeply meditative state, the therapist touched a part of my head, not strongly, but enough to cause unexpected pain. I opened my eyes, surprised at the intensity. It was only a second, coming and going quickly. The therapist said only, “no headache now.” And she was right.
On the last day, I ate breakfast outside – mango lassi, some fruit and green tea — and heard a rustling in the forests nearby, below where I was eating. “Was it a gibbon? A mongoose?” I asked the waiter.
“Yes, possibly,” he replied, “but we have large cats –black leopards here. It could be one of those.” I looked again and saw only bushes and trees. Still, the scent of star jasmine and wild rose permeated the breakfast area – and with the added possibility of large cats, or mongooses below, I came to see, third eye or not, that part of my Ananda awakening was the acknowledgement that east and west were mere boundaries. I had accepted the possible, no matter the outcome. What was, was. And what is, is. Such is the transformative power of spiritual retreats.
The Casas do Côro, Portugal: An Eco Retreat Rooted in Wellness
The discovery of the village of Marialva and the The Casas do Côro retreat was not on my Douro River of Gold original cruise itinerary. But this journey was offered, and it sounded unique.
I had never experienced a wellness retreat constructed in the shadow of ninth century Roman/Spanish/Portuguese ruins. How did wellness fit in? I was to discover their spa, with its unique view of the ruins.
After being occupied by Visigoths and Arabs, the area was conquered by the Spanish king Fernando Magno (Fernando The Great) in 1063. But after Portugal gained its independence, in 1179, the Portuguese King Alfonso Henriques granted a charter to Marialva, encouraged its repopulation and built the castle and the fortress which now rises high on top of the town, population about 100.
Its history of changing cultures is still somewhat ambiguous, but what is not ambiguous is the reason the fortress was built where it was. It has an unimpeded view of the surrounding land. You could, no matter what your nationality, see marauding invaders coming from miles away.
In walking up and around the ruins stood a pillory, as well as crumbling fortress structures that have been conquered forever by pink oleanders, yellow daisies and lavender bindweed.
And the fortress ruins look down on this wellness retreat, Casas Do Côro. This small, spiritual retreat exuded the type of wellness defined by organicity: grape arbors, olive trees, fresh fruit, herbs and vegetables grown on the property. The contrast was striking: the battlement’s uselessness looking down on the retreat’s vivacity.
Casa do Côro is a collection of granite houses and eco cabins with a shared pool, garden and restaurant. The spa, CASAS DO CÔRO, distinguishes itself from others by its particular surroundings. Their Eco Friendly Concept SPA is equipped with double Jacuzzis, and Sauna and Hammams. The spa food, as well as the fine dining food, are organically sourced from their gardens and their animals. The wine selections include local varieties of Vinho Verde. And the water, from their well, is sweet and cold.
Although Casas Do Côro would hardly think to promote itself as a spiritual retreat, its deep historical roots and meditative commitment to nature lend a feeling of personal spirit pilgrimage.
Boen Gaard, Norway: Mindfulness Rooted in History
Coming to Boen Gaard was such an accident – it was not on our itinerary, and the itinerary was unusual anyway.
I was in Southern Norway, the only American covering the opening of an unusual underwater restaurant called Under, architected by Snohetta. I had written two articles about it and had written about Snohetta before, so I was asked to attend the afternoon launch. That evening, I went with Spanish and Portuguese food writers to Boen Gaard to eat dinner. None of us, save the Southern Norway Public Relations team, knew where it was.
It turned out to be one of the most exceptional, historic places I had ever seen. Boen Gaard sits in Southern Norway, north of the town of Kristiansand, and from there, north of the town called Tveit. It defined the meaning of distant — a place few Norwegians knew well, even though European royalty knew about, and now, so did I.
The Rich History of Boen Gaard
Built in 1654, it catered to English nobility and Danish and Swedish royalty who fished wild salmon on the Tovdal River, which runs through the property.
The main building, erected in 1813, reflects that time period in Norway in the furniture and décor. In contrast, many of the polished oak or gray marble tables and writing desktops had fresh flowers – peonies, Madagascar jasmine, and rose geranium with aromatic leaves. To my touch and my awareness, there were no plastic flowers or ferns anywhere. As Dagfinn Galdal, the resident Sommelier and General Manager of Boen Gaard said to me, “Everything is real here.”
The history is real also: standing outside Boen Gaard, the only consistent sound that can be heard is the salmon-rich Tovdal river that rushes noisily through the property. Wild salmon fishing has been in existence at Boen Gaard since the early 1500s. In July of 1891, Oscar II King of Sweden and last Bernadotte King of Norway, plus his entourage, came to visit Boen Gaard. They still have the hand-printed dinner menu, a 12-course meal that included salmon, sausage, truffles, smoked reindeer tongue, lamb saddle, vegetables, ice cream and petit fours.
Walking through this estate on that late March afternoon in the gloaming, and under a rising full moon, I knew I was seeing something exceptional, where past and present reconnected, and in every way, defined the meaning of enchantment, and of course, wellness.
A Transformation to Wellness Retreat
My questions about wellness and well-being circled around the question as to why Boen Gaard would be considered a wellness retreat — as it was actually an organic, historic hunting and fishing lodge. But there was something about it that inclined toward the meanings of wellness. It was distant from other areas, with the sound only of the rushing waters. The old buildings had been renovated, so those that stayed could partake of organic vegetables and meat, they could fish for their own Salmon, they could pick their own apples, raspberries and other fruits. They could drink their homegrown raspberry cider, and apple cider, hard or soft. And their water was sweet, cold, and fresh from the wells.
All of those things, all the retreats mentioned, allowed me, a mere human, to again redress the old wounds of urban life, the wounds, as Wordsworth said, of “getting and spending, we lay waste out powers.”
Breathing, tasting, listening and essentially slowing are essences of becoming more mindful, and these places, in such diverse areas of the world – India, Portugal and Norway – work the wounds, allowing us to create new skin that will help heal our broken places.