It was a few minutes past eight on a brutally cold December evening at the inaugural Heart of Winter retreat at Troutbeck (rooms from $240) in upstate New York, and I had already gotten off on the wrong foot. I had come straight from the hotel’s restaurant—stuffed with roasted maitake mushrooms with einkorn and a mezcal cocktail—and was still dressed in my dinner attire. The Tall Barn, where Troutbeck’s wellness director, Sandrine Harris, was leading the retreat, was lit only by candles, and the other three guests were already lying on their mats, supine with eyes closed. I muttered an apology, kicked off my boots, and shuffled toward the only remaining empty mat at the front of the room, then awkwardly flung myself to the floor, arranging my skirt over my knees.
Harris was in the middle of explaining the scheduled activities in this weekend of reconnecting—with nature, with ourselves. There would be yoga and meditation, journaling sessions and forest bathing. “But nothing is required,” she said. “You can skip anything you like if you don’t feel that it’s part of your path.” After some guided meditation, Harris closed the evening with a recording of the sounds of water. Instructed to move with the rhythm, the other guests began flailing their arms about, their heads rolling back and forth as if on springs. But I hadn’t quite reached that level of zen yet. Feeling awkward and quite certain this wasn’t part of my path, I closed my eyes and swayed ever so slightly.
It can be a shock to the system to embark on a weekend of introspection and heartfulness (a word I’d hear often at Troutbeck) when you’re more attuned, as I am, to the high-frequency lifestyle of New York City. But that jolt into mindfulness is the aim of a trio of hotels across the Northeast that are offering new wellness experiences that demand a slower pace. The timing couldn’t be more appropriate: After a year of quarantining and obsessing over the daily horrors of the American news cycle, the idea of disconnecting sounded to me like a life-saving salve.
Despite my tepid start, over the next two days I found my path slowly aligning with Harris’s. Her laissez-faire attitude wasn’t something I’d experienced at wellness retreats in the past, and without the pressure to perform and participate, I found myself more willing to address my inner thoughts and feelings. In the Tall Barn—one of two new structures at Troutbeck that house a movement studio, spa treatment rooms, two saunas, and a small exercise room—I freely journaled and sketched in response to prompts such as “What is your heart’s longing?” The spartan setting, with a pitched roof and picture windows framing the ancient oaks outside, felt almost ecclesiastical. “We took great pains to make it feel simple,” Troutbeck’s owner, Anthony Champalimaud, later told me. “We want you to feel that sort of spiritual well-being.” And I did feel it—when forest bathing (something I had previously dismissed as just really slow hiking); when I chose quiet moments of silence rather than reaching for my phone; and when, on the last morning, I skipped yoga to sleep in and didn’t feel an ounce of guilt for it.
Troutbeck’s free-range approach to wellness reminded me of another East Coast newcomer: the Spa at the Inns of Aurora (rooms from $275) in New York’s Finger Lakes region. My path had taken me there earlier in the year, where, in the charming town of Aurora, American Girl doll founder Pleasant T. Rowland was working on a sprawling retreat to complement her collection of historic properties. The 15,000-square-foot complex—set to debut this spring in a trio of connected barns on a ridge above Cayuga Lake—had not yet opened, so Laura Coburn, the Inns’ director of serenity, took me on a walk to the edge of town, where a backcountry road led to the site.
“This project has a really sensitive relationship with the earth,” she told me, referring to acres of untamed forest surrounding the barns. “We’re putting a lot of energy into building our nature program.” In addition to offering the usual massages, facials, and bodywork, Coburn told me, the spa will encourage guests to discover wellness through interactions with the great outdoors: Bird-watching retreats, outdoor painting by the pond, sunset lantern hikes, and survival-skill training will all eventually be on the menu. “I want people to understand that they are themselves nature. The fire in your mind, the earthiness in your body, the air in your bones— nature is part of you, and you are part of it.”
I was certainly aware of the fire in my mind a few weeks after leaving Troutbeck, when my path took me to Connecticut’s Mayflower Inn & Spa, Auberge Resorts Collection (rooms from $829) to experience the Well, a new outpost from the Manhattan-based club of the same name that offers everything from tarot card readings to Biologique Recherche facials.
Before arriving, I had connected with Pilin Anise, one of the Well’s health coaches, for a casual consultation. The resulting itinerary she set for me—filled with meditation and yoga—clearly screamed, “slow down!” Which was how I found myself lying face up on a heated massage table in 30-degree weather under a cluster of trees by a lake.
The Forest Craniosacral aims to “lead your system into a deep unwinding process where deep harmony is restored.” Had I made my own schedule, I likely would have chosen something less dramatic, like a Swedish massage, but in the spirit of participation, I gave it my all as therapist Lua Fabbri gently pulled at different parts of my body. At some point in the treatment I finally let my thoughts go and, to my dismay, reached a rare moment of clarity—no longer ruminating over the past or planning for the future, but totally present. Then, with Fabbri touching my right hand and my left ankle, a feeling not unlike vitality washed over me, followed by a flash of whites, yellows, and greens. I felt as if I had fast-forwarded through winter to a warm spring day.
When I finally opened my eyes, the sun had fallen behind the spa’s roofline, dead leaves littered the ground, and the sky was gray and dull. I felt closer to the earth, and to myself. I hadn’t gone anywhere exactly, but my path had taken me right where I needed to be.