As a wellness travel enthusiast, I’ve had the chance to visit some pretty great destination spas. I’ve gone on a few healthy holidays that helped me “unplug” and unwind. I’ve also survived fitness retreats that featured some fairly extreme dieting and enough exercise to fell a horse. While these trips have been challenging to say the least, they have also been educational, sometimes even life-changing.
The infinity pool at SHA Wellness Clinic
But since my experiences at health spas have been limited to the U.S. (and a few in Canada) I sometimes wondered whether these programs weren’t a little “American” in mentality as well. I mean, America is known as the land of the “rugged individual.” We favour action over reflection and this is also reflected in our approach to health and wellness: the U.S. is the birthplace of Jane “make it burn” Fonda and countless other “tough love” mantras. To paraphrase something my friend Marianne Vardalos, a Professor of Sociology, recently said to me, here in North America, when life gives you lemons, you make Lululemonade.
Thus, I was curious to find out what health spas overseas were like and whether their approach to wellness was any different. So when I recently had the opportunity to travel to the SHA Wellness Clinic, an award-winning destination spa located in the beach town of Albir, Spain, I was excited to visit what appeared to be a beautiful property. I was also eager to compare this Spanish spa experience with others I’d seen in North America. I understood, generally speaking, that European destination spas focused more on medical and relaxation therapies than on fast-paced fitness. Just as the slow food movement was introduced in Europe as a reaction to our fast food culture, I wondered if the Spanish SHA Wellness clinic would introduce me to a “slow spa” movement.
In the end I discovered that SHA adopts a very holistic approach toward health and wellness that is indeed a little more relaxed and inward-looking. As the spa’s doctor of internal medicine, Dr. Vincent Mera, would explain to me, the SHA wellness method is based on three main components: nutrition by way of a macrobiotic diet (natural foods which are carefully chosen to achieve “yin & yang” harmony); natural therapies (yoga, shiatsu and acupuncture, etc.) to alleviate ailments and a dynamic educational program (cooking classes and lectures in stress reduction, sleep and other related topics) all of which would lead to a natural approach to health and relaxation. Certainly these tenets are promoted at many North American health spas. But at SHA, there wouldn’t be the “boot camp” mentality that is so popular here.
This is not to say that athleticism isn’t evident at SHA (believe me, there were a few guests from France who would run circles around me on each of the daily hikes). Or, for that matter, that diagnostics services aren’t offered at spas in North America (one such example, Canyon Ranch, draws people from all over the world). It’s just that, from what I could tell, the methods used to achieve health are prioritized somewhat differently. And in the case of SHA, this is done in the most luxurious of settings.
A treatment room
To be sure, when I first arrived at the property, I was immediately taken in by the heavenly surroundings. The all-white, ultra-modern design provided a tranquil, almost dream-like quality. While some consider all-white interiors too sterile; I find them very soothing. Guest suites are spacious and also decorated minimalist-style. But the rooms also feature state-of-the-art amenities including a large, wall-mounted flat screen TV and an electronic light shade to keep out the morning rays. The high-tech gadgetry is commonplace at SHA, as I would later discover – it seemed everything on offer was done with the latest in technological innovation.
After settling in, I was provided with a schedule for the duration of my stay. Day One would be filled with consultations and appointments with physicians, nutritionists and other practitioners who would work to identify any health or lifestyle concerns. Clearly, SHA’s foundation lies with its diagnostics services. Individualized food plans (including custom-blend teas), choices of treatments and fitness programs stem from there.
Aside from tailoring my program to address my wellness goals, I also had the opportunity to see some of SHA’s cutting-edge equipment and treatments, including the Oxygen Bar (designed to increase the volume of oxygen to the blood, which helps to promote circulation) as well as the Polysomnopgraphy machine in the Sleep Recovery Unit. There was also a sensational hydrotherapy circuit that put others I had seen before to shame. But SHA embraces age-old, natural therapies as well, such as Chinese acupuncture and the “Bach Flowers” natural remedies whose floral essences purport to treat emotional issues such as fear and stress.
When it comes to cuisine, SHA’s macrobiotic diet was developed with the assistance of Mishio Kushi, a pioneer in the macrobiotic movement. Suffice to say, those looking for traditional Spanish tapas or traces of high-end gastronomy made famous at the country’s El Buli restaurant will need to readjust their expectations. The Kushi macrobiotic diet is Japanese-influenced and emphasizes cereals and grains, vegetables (seasonal as well as sea-based); natural condiments, beans, fruits, nuts and seeds, and some fish. Though quite restricted, the innovative use and presentation of dishes such as the smoked tempeh with red rice, lentil stew with bok choy, and seitan and mixed vegetables with ginger made SHA’s meals look and taste like “haute cuisine.”
And of course, the element of relaxation is one of the main goals of the SHA Method. While my initial activity at the clinic was focused on learning about the benefits of a macrobiotic lifestyle, the relaxation component was something that took no training at all. Lounging by the infinity pool outside the main building each afternoon during my stay, taking in the picturesque views of the Sierra Helada Mountains, I relished the idea of doing absolutely nothing. After a few days of this, I decided I would latch on to this relaxation thing when I returned home. It’s what the doctor ordered, after all.
Lynn was a guest of SHA Wellness in November 2013. Photos are courtesy of SHA.