Wellness around the world: our top 10 experiences
There are many paths to wellness. In Japan you can relax in geothermic waters, or be whipped by bunches of birch leaves in Russia. And you don’t have to step near a spa — in Tasmania, you can hike while taking in some of the world’s cleanest air, or follow the instruction of an experienced yogi on the banks of India’s River Ganges. We’ve picked some of the best rejuvenating, invigorating or relaxing experiences from across the world.
Lake bathing and a banya experience: Russia
Russia has elevated sauna and steam-room visits into a bit of an art form, and an important social ritual to boot.
Russian banyas (bathhouses) are complexes of steam rooms, saunas, plunge pools and lounge areas in which the great and good all come to mingle, relax, detoxify and rejuvenate (so the thinking goes). You flit between all of the rooms, and there’s the option to undergo venik — having your skin lashed by a fellow bather or therapist wielding bunches of birch leaves. It’s more invigorating and less discomforting than it sounds.
Be prepared for some banya etiquette: most banyas are single sex, and you’ll be expected to remove all your clothes, but you can take a towel in. Oh, and you’ll need to sport a felt hat — essential for protecting your head from extreme heat or cold.
Banyas vary. You could opt to visit Moscow’s Sanduny banya, a veritable palace of marble and architectural excess combining classical, rococo and Gothic interiors. Or, try a more workaday, smaller banya in Russia’s deep backcountry — there’s one we’re fond of in Irkutsk, Siberia, that you can visit as part of a journey on Russia’s Golden Eagle luxury train.
Irkutsk is also the gateway to the immense blueness of Lake Baikal. A swim in this iridescently clear, meltwater-fed lake is alleged to add 25 years to your life. At the very least, it’s a good place to experience the sense of wellbeing wild swimming is said to give you as you gaze over the dense boreal forest clotting the shores.
The world’s cleanest air and wilderness walks: Tasmania
Dove Lake and Cradle Mountain
It might seem fanciful, but you first notice Tasmania’s air when you step off the plane. Much of Australian air is dry and slightly dusty, blown in from the vast Outback desert of the Red Centre. But, Tasmania simply smells fresher. There’s a grassiness, a palpable greenness in the air, even a hint of petrichor. No wonder it’s hailed as the world’s cleanest.
The greenness hits you as you begin to explore this island state. The unspoiled west of Tasmania is cloaked in a thickset forest of huon pines, with the Franklin and Gordon rivers rushing through.
North of that, you’ll find the alpine landscape of Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park. Its crowning glory is the cluster of toothy dolerite columns on Cradle Mountain itself. If you’re looking to escape to the backwoods and enjoy a few hours of good hiking (and to breathe in that air at its purest), this national park is ideal.
You can summit Cradle Mountain in a day, but a calmer and more doable alternative is the circuit around Dove Lake, the body of water at the base of the mountain. The loop takes in an enchanted-seeming gum forest, where mosses encase trunks in fuzzy coats and the air feels heavy with moisture. At dusk, look out for wombats and echidnas snuffling about.
Where to next?
Staying in Tasmania, you might like to try some private bush tours. You’ll find more on these, plus suggestions for other experiences to include in your trip, in our highlights guide to Tasmania.
Take the waters like the ancient Etruscans did in Tuscany
Thermal bathing pools of Saturnia
At the thermal pools of Saturnia, sulphur-scented steam rises off the milky-blue waters that bubble up from the porous limestone. It spills over the sides of the natural basins in small torrents, creating a bubbly, swirling waterscape.
Locals have been coming here for thousands of years — since the Etruscans ruled the area — to soak in these hot springs, which are thought to have healing abilities. Even today, the minerals that give it that same slightly sharp smell are alleged to make your skin youthful, smooth and soft.
Regardless of their supposed therapeutic properties, the pools are a restful place to soak since geothermal heat keeps the waters at a constant blood-warm temperature of 37 C (98.6 F).
We can arrange for you to visit the pools as part of a guided tour of the area. Start in the old town of Pitigliano, with a visit to the small town’s Etruscan ruins as well as a 16th-century synagogue. Your driver can then take you half an hour west to the pools, where you can soak in the waters as the ancients did.
Where to next?
A visit to Tuscany can be just one stop on a grand tour of classic Italy, or you can concentrate on exploring the area more in depth by following a route that also includes Florence and the Cinque Terre.
Read more — and make a literary pilgrimage: Cuba
We all know the benefits of reading more: it can enhance focus, create calm and improve your cognitive abilities. And, if you’re looking to broaden your reading horizons, why not take a more literal approach, using your interest in a certain author to fuel your travel plans?
Cuba, for example, is redolent with the ghost of Hemingway. You can take part in a private guided tour which takes you to Finca Vigía (Lookout Farm), 15 km (9 miles) from Havana, where the writer lived and worked from 1939 to 1960.
From its hilltop vantage point you can gaze out over downtown Havana. The chintzy living room, the fishing boat Pilar, a typewriter on which he wrote much of For Whom The Bell Tolls, a scattering of well-thumbed magazines — they all stand as mute monuments to ‘Papa’.
Next, visit the coastal settlement of Cojímar, where Hemingway would fish the Gulf Stream, and which provided inspiration for The Old Man and the Sea. It seems a world away from the humid, teeming watering holes of Havana — in particular the dark-wood interiors of La Floridita, where a life-size bronze of Hemingway continues to prop up the bar.
Hemingway lore decrees you should order a strawberry daiquiri at the Floridita, while over at La Bodeguita del Medio, another of his haunts, you should plump for a mojito.
Where to next?
Relax in the Viñales Valley or the northern cayes’ beaches as part of a classic Cuba tour (and for some quality reading time).
Get squeaky clean in Marrakesh, Morocco
The hammam at La Sultana, Marrakesh
A hammam is a routine part of Moroccan life, a weekly ritual to catch up with friends and family — as well as a good scrub and steam. You’ll find simple hammams in every village, town and city, but as the process can be quite confusing to the newcomer, we suggest that you opt for the luxury, attended experience.
On the outskirts of the medina, La Sultana is an opulent hotel which feels like a series of interlinked riads. Orange trees scent the courtyards and bronzed Moorish chandeliers hang from the ceilings. You’ll enter its hammam through a set of hefty, carved wooden doors which open into rose-scented rooms.
You’ll be met by an attendant who’ll guide you through the experience, which begins in a hot, dry room to sweat away the impurities. If you find it too hot, your attendant is on hand to splash cooling water on you (they may or may not offer prior warning).
Next is the bathing room, where you’ll be invited to lay on a heated marble bench and slathered in savon beldi (a natural black olive-oil soap). Your attendant will then don a pair of exfoliating gloves and scrub you clean — this is then followed by rinsing with warm water (if you do opt for an unattended hammam experience, it is important to be careful when rinsing as the water here can get very hot).
After emerging squeaky clean, it’s time to relax. You could opt for a massage, a cleansing mud wrap or a rehydration treatment with pure, nutty-scented argan oil. Then there’s plenty of time for a fresh-mint tea.
A hammam is an ideal way to relax tired muscles after over a week of exploring Marrakesh, the High Atlas and Essaouria.
Planting trees at Bisate Lodge, Rwanda
Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is best-known for one thing: mountain gorillas. Just spending an hour in their presence is enough to put your mind at peace — your entire consciousness is focused on observing their movements and interactions with one another, listening to the sounds of the forest, their snapping and crunching of leaves and branches.
Your time here doesn’t have to end with the gorillas, though. Stay at the eco-friendly yet luxurious Bisate Lodge, set in an eroded volcanic cone just outside the park, and you can help to reforest a piece of land where habitat had previously been lost.
You set out with the lodge’s agronomist, Jean-Moise, who shows you around the tree nursery and talks about the area’s natural ecosystem. Then, you head to the planting site, where more than 20,000 indigenous trees now grow thanks to Bisate’s staff and guests. The vegetation mimics that of Volcanoes National Park, with bamboo planted at the lower levels and hagenia and dombea trees added higher up.
Jean-Moise will demonstrate the best way to plant your sapling, which you then place into the earth, safe in the knowledge that you’re helping to create important habitat for wildlife including golden monkeys, endemic birds, side-striped jackal and, of course, gorillas.
Experience gorilla tracking, the Great Migration and seeing the Big Five all in one trip by following up with a safari in Tanzania’s Serengeti.
Learning new cooking skills in New Orleans, USA
Nothing feeds the soul like food, and the food of New Orleans is about as soulful as it gets. From warming chicken gumbo to tongue-tingling jambalaya and creamy crab bisque, the city’s traditional Louisianan fare reflects its French and Caribbean roots. Families pass down their own recipes from generation to generation, tweaking them to perfection, so no one dish tastes quite the same.
You can try making a selection of Creole and Cajun dishes at the New Orleans School of Cooking situated in the city’s French Quarter. Join a three-hour class led by a professional chef who, step-by-step, can take you through how to prepare your ingredients, then cook and season them to bring out the best of their flavour.
You’ll usually make three or four dishes. You might start with crab ravigote, a tangy sauce traditionally used to revive not-so-fresh crabmeat (though yours will be made with fresh produce). Then, move on to a hearty dish like duck and andouille (smoked sausage) gumbo, a rich, thick, all-in stew.
For dessert? Bananas Foster — bananas cooked in butter, sugar and alcohol, served over vanilla ice cream (and sometimes crêpes).
At the end of your class, you can sit down and dine on your creations, taking the recipes (and your apron) home with you.
Early morning Yoga in Varanasi, India
Yes, yoga’s a common trope of wellness retreats and resorts worldwide. But, there’s nothing quite like going back to its roots, which have been traced back to around the 3rd century BC, in northern India.
The term can be roughly translated from its Sanskrit roots (the language of ancient Hindu texts) as the ‘joining together’ of mind and body. In Varanasi, yoga teachers Madhu and Jai aim to help you do just that, by re-joining yoga with its spiritual origins.
One of yoga’s common practices is surya nakaskar, a sun salutation to prepare you for the new day. Before sunrise, meet your yogi and take a boat ride along the Ganges to a secluded ghat (a river-side platform with steps leading to the water). By the water’s edge, roll out your mat and be led into pranayama (controlled breathing).
As the sun rises, you’ll be taught a series of asanas (postures) to limber up for the coming day and celebrate the rising sun. After your yoga session, which lasts around an hour (and will be tailored to your ability), you’ll walk to a nearby Surya temple.
In the carved stone surrounds of the temple, your yogi will take you through sunrise puja, an ancient Hindu ritual worshiping Surya, the sun god. After fruit has been offered and incense lit, you’ll boat back into central Varanasi, now lit by the early morning sun.
Varanasi combines well with a trip across north India, taking in Khajuraho’s erotic temple carvings and a less graphic ode to love, the Taj Mahal.
Soak in an onsen in Japan
When a busy person wants to relax in Japan, they often head for a ryokan (a traditional inn). Switching your workaday clothes for traditional slippers and a cotton kimono known as a yukata, you spend your visit indulging in multi-course kaiseki meals and luxuriating in an onsen — a steaming bath fed by mineral-rich hot springs.
Geothermically heated water seeps from the rocks, laden with dissolved minerals that are thought to have health benefits. Traditionally, the baths are located outdoors and many boast excellent views over mountains or the ocean.
Etiquette at onsen is strict, if simple: shower and rinse off thoroughly before getting in, never let your towel touch the water, cover up any visible tattoos, and always bathe naked. If this last item puts you off, we’ve sought out the most traditional ryokans that offer a private onsen option.
We like Wasure-no-sato Gajoen, a rustic-but-indulgent inn on the edge of Kirishima National Park. Stay in a room with a private onsen hand-hewn by the owner from single slabs of granite. You can also reserve the larger, public onsen for private use during certain hours.
If you visit, be sure to ask for directions to Inukai-no-taki, a narrow waterfall hidden deep inside the conifer forest. The tumbling slice of silvery water spilling down the stone lip into the round pool below looks like a scene from a sumi-e painting come to life.
Where to next?
Explore more of Japan’s natural landscapes and traditional culture on a self-drive trip through Kyushu that includes stops at the samurai residences of Chiran and the Mount Aso caldera of Aso-Kuju National Park.
A Québécois countryside retreat, Canada
Le Baluchon Eco Resort
Staying at this French-speaking eco resort (we recommend brushing up on your French language skills), you can hike or cycle the property’s 40 km (25 miles) of trails that wind through pine forest. Alternatively, paddle along the meandering Rivière du Loup by canoe, or kayak and take in the orchid-scattered Sabot de la Vierge archipelago on horseback.
Spend your days snow-shoeing, dog sledding and ice skating in winter and early spring, when the landscape is pillow-white and you can make maple taffy in the snow.
Relaxing is also on the agenda, from morning yoga sessions to organic spa treatments and outdoor massages. And, each of the four lodges housing the guestrooms has its own sauna and whirlpool.
Then there’s the food: locally sourced, refined, expertly cooked and seasoned. Savour fairtrade coffee and freshly baked bread from Au Bout du Monde Eco Café. And, in spring, you could pay a visit to the Sugar Shack for the traditional sugaring-off festivities, when maple sap is boiled down to produce sugar and you can sit down to a sugary feast.
Where to next?
Explore more of the province’s countryside on a self-drive trip through Québec’s Charlevoix region, taking in lakeside villages and pausing to go whale watching on the Saint Lawrence River.