A man who treks to Bhutan's Buddhist monasteries. Another who cleanses that most precious of substances, water. A woman who concocts fragrant potions. When we consider spas and resorts, we often think of indulgence, seldom of invention. But working at the leading edge of the wellness movement, expanding the definition of spa, are five visionaries. Whether architect, healer, ecologist, adventurer, or all-around spa magician, these gurus share one overriding concern: finding the purest, most authentic experience. Their state-of-the-art destinations take us deeper, to places of true peace and renewal.
VIGILIUS MOUNTAIN RESORT
With a design incorporating abundant glass and ecologically correct—and beautiful—recovered wood, Vigilius Mountain Resort looks as if it grew out of its setting in the Italian southern Alps. Call it organic architecture; even the hardware is hidden behind walls of stone, slate, and bamboo.
Now, do you recall Memphis, the seminal design firm of the eighties? Its loudly colored creations, whimsical furniture included, couldn't contrast more with this resort's purity of form and function. Yet the same man originated both the Memphis style and this stunning spa.
Yes, Vigilius's architect Matteo Thun was one of the group's five young designers who worked with mentor Ettore Sottsass. Today at his studio in Milan, Thun pursues what he calls "artistic research and a continuous evolution of language." Judging by Vigilius, as well as Terme Merano (Thun's next spa hotel project), that evolution is far from the eighties self-consciousness. "We adapted the environment—nature with all its sounds, materials, perfumes—finding luxury in minimalism," he says.
The hotel can only be accessed via cable car; instead of the traditional lobby and reception desk, guests find an entrance lounge and piazza. Inside the spa, an aromatherapy bath and a traditional hay bath provide the backdrop for intensive self-renewal programs.
Perhaps it says something about the spa's place in our modern dreams of escape that, of all projects, this is the one Thun wished most strongly to design. A spa, he explains, "helps people find peace with themselves. What can be more exciting than creating the right place for this?"
MORE HIGH-DESIGN SPAS C-Side Spa at Cowley Manor Cowley, England. A truly contemporary Mies van de Rohe-esque design by De Matos Storey Ryan distinguishes the spa at this trendy hotel fashioned out of an 18th-century manor house. 44-1242/870-900; www.cowleymanor.com. Hillside Su Antalya, Turkey. The city's first supersonic hotel, by Eren Talu, is all white overlaid with colored lights. Within, the spa's hammam looks 21st century but is thoroughly traditional. 90-242/249-0700; www.hillside.com.tr.
I think there aren't that many companies [covering] the whole gamut" of spa design, says Susan Harmsworth, CEO and founder of E'Spa. Call this an example of British understatement: There may be other companies that serve as consultants to the industry, but E'Spa truly takes care of everything—the design (from the smallest tile to the full architecture), treatments, training of therapists, management, and E'Spa products used in the treatment rooms. The latter are the purest on the market, Harmsworth claims, made with 98 percent organic ingredients (the remainder are preservatives, as required by law).
Harmsworth has been a passionate proponent of the holistic approach for 30 years. While running a number of spas in Canada and Scotland she championed the integration of all the body's systems—the mind included—long before the concept was widely embraced. Her standards for therapists are mountain-high. "We cover everything: chakras, holistic energy work, clinical aromatherapy, ayurveda, the lymph system," she explains. "People are tired of the hype, of treatment menus written by a marketing person. Those experiences don't deliver."
Harmsworth brought her philosophy to the United States four years ago, at the Miami Mandarin Oriental, where the 11 treatment rooms are now perennially booked solid. Today, with 45 more five-star hotel spas worldwide in the works—Pond Bay Club in St. John (opening late this year) and the Peninsula in Hong Kong among them—Harmsworth has her choice of clients. "But I have to be very careful about selecting," she says. "We're very niche." This is one niche everyone can get behind.
E'Spa at the Mandarin Oriental in New York, 212-805-8880; Miami, 305-913-8332; Washington, D.C., 202-554-8588; Honolulu, 808-739-8888; www..com.
MORE ORGANICALLY INSPIRED SPAS E'Spa at Gianfranco Ferré Milan, Italy. In one of Milan's haute-est boutiques—the first in any fashion store—the dramatic black, gold, cream, and brown decor suits the setting. 39-027/601-7526; www.gianfrancoferre.com. Sequoia at The Grove Chandler's Cross, England. At this ultradesigned country estate near London, guests indulge in the Finnish sauna, saltwater pool, and state-of-the-art everything. 44-1923/807-807; www.thegrove.co.uk. Naturopathica Holistic Health Spa East Hampton, NY. Barbara Close, an authority on herbalism and holistic health, founded her company in 1995 to heal with natural therapies. Partner spas—130 of them—use Naturopathica methods and products, but this is the company's home. 800-669-7618; www.naturopathica.com/ourspa. Aveda Destination Spa at Le Sirenuse Positano, Italy. Horst Rechelbacher has built his environmentally scrupulous, socially responsible company into a global phenomenon. The famous Amalfi Coast hotel hosts one of seven Aveda destination spas worldwide. 39-089/875-066; www.sirenuse.it; www.aveda.com.
Uma Paro Resort, Bhutan
Shambhala Retreat, Uma Paro is the only spa in the world that arranges for you to picnic in a Buddhist monastery after an archery lesson. It sounds New Age, but this is the latest exquisite getaway developed by Christina Ong (of Parrot Cay in the Turks and Caicos) and Como Hotels. The luxurious resort located 7,000 feet up in the remote Himalayas needed someone extraordinary to run its programs. Enter Phil Bowen, Como's director of activities. The British-born Bowen is a photographer, adventure guide, windsurfing instructor, and pearl diver who has traveled from Yemen to Nepal, Antarctica to Ecuador. But now this wanderer is staying put.
"I have my dream job," he says. "It's the chance of a lifetime." The scenery is certainly incredible—blue-pine forest, sweeping valleys whose temples flutter with prayer flags, ruined fortresses—but it's the opportunity to immerse oneself in the local culture that has seduced Bowen and is bound to inspire guests. "They're charmed by the quirkiness of the place," says Bowen, who was pretty charmed himself when a guide said, "I'm sorry I missed work, Mr. Philip, but my sister was possessed by an evil spirit."
This is the future of the adventure spa experience: real, pure, unreplicable. "Here I can take things beyond the mainstream of adventure travel," Bowen says. His menu of hikes that can last from five hours to several days is often augmented by tailor-made itineraries. For example, when Bhutan's king, Jigme Wangchuck, visited the nearby Taktsang Monastery, accompanied by royal pageantry, Bowen took guests along for the spectacle. There are treks to the spectacular Tiger's Lair Monastery, Taktsang Goemba, dramatically sited on cliffs, and to the remote Haa Valley, only recently opened to foreigners.
Bowen's plans for the future are ambitious. To come are photographic hikes, fly-fishing expeditions, meditation retreats, and "motorbike tours on classic Royal Enfield Bullets"—all cushioned by the pleasures that the modern spa offers. "I'd never had a massage before this job," he admits, "but I am a convert. Nothing beats shiatsu after being in the wilds."
Rates, $250-$1,200. At Uma Paro, Paro; 975-8/271-597; www.uma.como.bz.
MORE ADVENTURE RESORTS Vail Mountain Resort & Spa Vail, CO. Ellen Miller, the only American woman to have summitted Everest by two routes, leads outdoor conditioning programs. 970-476-0700; www.vailmountainlodge.com. Hart & Hind Fitness Ranch Rio Frio, TX. The Hill Country resort has 5,000-plus acres for a mere dozen guests to ramble, hike, and ride. 866-868-1264; www.hartandhind.com.
JIVA GRANDE SPA
Taj Exotica, Flic en Flac, Mauritius
India has had a lasting effect on me," says Raymond Bickson, managing director of Taj, the South Asian luxury hotel group, and a practitioner of yoga and meditation. Fortunately for travelers, Bickson applied his expanded consciousness to Jiva Grande Spa, which opened last fall at the Taj Exotica Resort & Spa in Mauritius; the concept, which calls for many specialized treatments, will be introduced in other Taj resort locations in the region later this year.
The trend for all things ayurvedic is hardly news—many a spa visitor has endured the ritual of dripping oil on the forehead—but Bickson has regenerated the often diluted concept. He hired husband-and-wife team Samir and Bina Patel, who had founded nonprofit spiritual retreats across the Indian subcontinent, to create a new hybrid: the luxurious yet completely authentic Indian wellness center.
The word jiva, Bickson explains, means " 'the energy that sustains life,' so Jiva Grande Spa is a sanctuary that allows the life force to manifest its healing potential. Our emphasis is on the metaphysical aspects of healing." To that end therapists are trained to provide consistent service, products are made from pure Indian herbs, and the pools, meditation pavilions, and private suites are intended to soothe both mind and body.
The multilingual, Hawaiian-born Bickson, a hotelier for 30 years, radiates a deep conviction that ancient practices can be completely modern. "An ayurveda consultation with our trained vaidya doctor goes way beyond the routine three doshas," Bickson says about the familiar physical attribute-based diagnostics. In other words, it's not simply about dribbling oil. Rather, he says, a visit to Jiva is "like coming home to one's source."
Rates, $785-$9,035. At Wolmar Beach; 230/403-1500; www..com.
MORE DEEP-HEALING SPAS Green Cove Resort & Spa Kovalam, India. Just opened, Taj Hotels' retreat of 57 cottages amid luscious tropical gardens near the Kerala coast features a mini version of Jiva Spa. 91-471/248-5590; www.tajhotels.com. Usha Kiran Palace Gwalior, India. A 120-year-old guesthouse built for the maharaja of Gwalior that once hosted the king and queen of England, this resort debuted last October as a 38-room Taj hotel with a Jiva spa. 91-751/244-4000; www.tajhotels.com. Deepak Chopra Ayurvedic Healing Center Dream hotel, New York. This spa, which opens in January, is the second one developed by the man who popularized ayurvedic principles. 212-247-2000; www.dreamny.com. Ananda the Himalayas This authentic ayurveda spa, complete with Western flourishes, incorporates the former residence of the Maharaja of Tehri-Garwhal; it is located 160 miles north of New Delhi and only ten miles from Rishikesh, a pilgrimage destination. 91-1378/227-500; www.anandaspa.com.
EL MONTE SAGRADO
Taos, New Mexico
In 1980 Thomas Worrell Jr., an owner of a newspaper company and a self-described master of the universe, was on safari in Africa. His group landed in "the middle of nowhere," Worrell remembers, and he walked toward a nearby river. Suddenly from behind him, the guide called out, "Don't touch the water! It will kill you!" "I realized then that I wasn't a master of anything—I was part of the food chain," Worrell says. "That's where the epiphany happened."
Water has been at the center of Worrell's life ever since. At his ecological paragon of a hotel, the 18-month-old El Monte Sagrado Living Resort and Spa, sparkling H2O bubbles through the spa's floor and nurtures the lush indoor microenvironment, the trademarked Biolarium. But El Monte Sagrado is hardly all science. Worrell's chief aim is to create what may be America's only ecologically sound, spiritually based luxury spa—one that, as he puts it, can "help people identify their true self." That's the claim of many a destination, but this is Taos, perhaps the most mystical place in the country. From the sacred circle (an empty grassy space, great for meditation) to the sweat lodge (where rituals are often led by a Lakota shaman), the spa can indeed be life changing.
Worrell will soon be doubling the size of the spa that serves the 36 suites and casitas, but its success is best measured by those guests whose lives are deeply affected—take the movie mogul who after three days returned home and changed her career. Worrell was not surprised. "I question things, but I don't doubt things," he says. "If something works, why ask why?"
Rates, $395-$1,495. At 317 Kit Carson Rd.; 800-828-8267; www.elmontesagrado.com.
MORE ECOSENSITIVE RETREATS Sundy House Delray Beach, FL. Dharma Properties' deluxe inn is set in a tropical garden. 877-439-9601; www.sundyhouse.com. Lalati Resort & Spa Beqa Island, Fiji. This hideaway on Malamu Bay was designed with the environment in mind. The spa has Fijian-inspired treatments. 877-252-5284; www.lalati-fiji.com. Daintree Eco Lodge & Spa Queensland, Australia. Near the Great Barrier Reef, you'll find upscale villas and aboriginal treatments, set in the oldest living rainforest. 61-7/4098-6100; www.daintree-ecolodge.com.au.