I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor in one of the guest suites at Aman New York, a new luxury hotel in Midtown Manhattan where one might not expect people to be lounging on the floor. Yet here I am, meditating with my eyes closed as a chanting saffron-robed monk taps a large gong periodically with a thick wooden stick. When we open our eyes, he clutches the stick, palm side down, as a symbol of the things we hold onto and are fearful of losing.
“If your palm opens, you’ll drop it, because you’re scared of losing it, and this kind of attachment is conditional love,” Geshe Yongdong Losar tells the half-dozen journalists sitting before him. He then turns his palm to the sky, letting the stick rest in his open hand. “Detachment is unconditional love. In this case, if you like me or you don’t like me, I’m still here.”
I think of all the things I’ve held onto for dear life recently—an email response that hadn’t arrived, negative self-talk over a blown deadline, lost sleep over my aging cat’s slow-growing tumor. I realize none of it is in my control—a lesson the rhythm of daily life can easily drown out. Just a few minutes with Geshe La are enough to take the edge off what can feel like my relentless anxiety in this frenetic metropolis.
I’m getting a sneak peek at Aman New York’s Journey to Peace mindfulness program, a three-night experience that debuted in January at the hotel with guided meditation sessions, breath work, and explorations of five topics, including healing anger and letting go of attachments.
Tibet-born Geshe La, who now lives on Vancouver Island in Canada, has hosted these retreats at Aman sister properties in rural settings like Amangiri in Utah and Amanpuri in Thailand. It’s the first time he’s held a retreat in one of Aman’s handful of urban properties. I can’t think of a more challenging setting for finding inner tranquility—a key part of the self-betterment I’ve been seeking with increasing determination on my travels.
I’m not alone. More than ever before, people are traveling with the intention of improving their well-being. Wellness tourism is expected to hit $1.3 trillion by 2025, according to the Global Wellness Institute. Luxury travel advisor network Virtuoso reports that 21 percent of clients globally are traveling for the purpose of improving their overall well-being, and 29 percent say they intend to travel with that purpose in the future. A 2021 American Express consumer survey reported even higher interest: 76 percent of respondents intended to travel to improve their well-being following the pandemic.
Emlyn Brown, global vice president of well-being for Accor, a multinational hotel group with more than 5,000 properties, defines a wellness-focused hotel as one that offers intentional, results-driven programming, with a strong approach to such elements as nutrition and movement. “We discovered that four out of five guests across all demographics, all countries, all brands, are taking conscious daily steps toward well-being in some form,” Brown recently told me, adding that the company’s wellness-focused guests spend 55 percent more money at a property than the standard leisure traveler. “This is happening at different levels and in different ways, from reaching 10,000 steps to triathlete training. But most guests were making a conscious step toward change.”
Many hotels are rising to meet this growing demand—and AFAR editors have been hitting the road to better understand what a well-being vacation can look like today. We checked into the science-based Sensei Porcupine Creek in Southern California’s Santa Rosa Mountains and discovered that a little therapy on an old hiking injury went a long way in making us feel more present in nature. We explored our spiritual side with guided shaman meditations and forgiveness circles on the beaches and in the jungles of Playa del Carmen, Mexico at Palmaia, the House of Aia. We braved California-based Ranch Malibu’s new boot camp–style outpost in the hills of Lazio outside Rome. And in a fast-paced world where a good night’s sleep can often seem like a luxury, we rounded up the hotels that are helping people get better shut-eye. For my part, in addition to my meaningful encounter with Geshe La at Aman New York, I found another moment of peace during a CBD oil massage in the hotel’s three-floor spa and got one of my best night’s sleep in months in one of the hotel’s 83 nearly soundproof suites.
Many of these hotels are part of our list of the 20 hotels we love for wellness, the first edition of our new Hotels We Love series. We created this list to guide travelers to the most exciting getaways for wellness in the year ahead. Read on for the trends that will shape your next wellness-focused stay—and then let our list of Hotels We Love for Wellness inspire your next transformative trip.
The line between hotel and destination spa continues to blur
As more hotels and resorts create results-driven wellness programs, travelers no longer always need to commit to a destination spa or a restrictive boot camp. Some companies are launching entirely new brands: In 2022, Banyan Tree debuted Veya in Phuket, Thailand, based on eight pillars of well-being, among them Bonding and Connection and Harmony with Nature; the next hotel will debut in Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe later this year. One&Only Resorts’ forthcoming sister brand, Siro, which focuses on sports, fitness, mindfulness, and nutrition, will launch in Dubai this year and in Montenegro in 2024. Meanwhile, at Marriott International, the world’s largest hotel chain, international luxury hotel collection Ritz-Carlton has partnered with Espa to create Meaningful Wellness Journeys focusing on mind, body, and skin, with tailored programs for guests at a handful of properties including Turks & Caicos, Mexico City, and New York, Nomad.
Accor, whose high-end brands include Fairmont, Sofitel, and Raffles, has also gotten serious about wellness. In January 2023, the group launched a white paper that identified eight pathways that lead to overall human well-being. They include the link between physical and mental well-being, the importance of harnessing tech to measure results, and the interconnectedness of human health with that of the planet. The white paper, which will help shape hospitality experiences across Accor’s brands in the coming years, is backed by research from such institutions as University College London, which reported that generalized anxiety disorder has tripled in people ages 18 to 24 between 2008 and 2018, and the World Health Organization, which reports that obesity has tripled globally since 1975.
A longtime leader in the hotel-meets-destination-spa model is Six Senses, the sustainability-minded luxury hotel group with close to two dozen hotels around the world and more than 30 in the pipeline. Wellness is so ingrained in the Six Senses ethos that even staff have programs at their fingertips that aid them in financial, social, and physical wellness. The idea is that wellness at a Six Senses resort starts with the people working there: If the staff can live the brand ethos, that reverberates in the experiences of guests, too.
Anna Bjurstam, whose title is “wellness pioneer” for Six Senses, has observed that more hotels across the board are offering flexible experiences that can guide guests as far as they’re willing to go on their vacation. “People want to go on a wellness trip, but they don’t necessarily want to go on a program with a lot of restrictions or requirements around what to eat or what classes to go to,” said Bjurstam. “Many people want something where they can just relax and go with the flow, but there needs to be quite a lot of wellness in there.”
There’s a bigger emphasis on community and connecting with others
“One of the biggest trends I see in the hospitality industry is community,” said Bjurstam, pointing to emerging brands focused on connecting with others like Habitas, Selina Hotels, and Aman’s forthcoming lifestyle brand Janu. She added that community and connecting have become an increasingly important part of wellness programs, pointing to studies that show loneliness can be as deadly as smoking and obesity.
In 2021, Six Senses launched an annual event called Alma, a three-day festival on the island of Ibiza, Spain, to bring like-minded travelers together under the banner of wellness, spirituality, and community. Joining the travelers were such leaders as Dave Asprey, an expert on biohacking, or do-it-yourself biology; founder Taryn Toomey of the Class, a spiritually driven workout method; and Michael Smith, CEO of the Calm meditation app. Experiences ranged from sound healing sessions to ceremonies with spiritual guides and fireside chats about sex. The next Alma festival is scheduled for November 2023.
Accor’s Brown agrees that hotels are much more focused on community than ever before, noting that more properties are inviting people to connect through social and fitness clubs, coworking spaces, and even spas and bathhouses. In response to the latter trend, community-driven bathhouse experiences will appear in such forthcoming properties as the Fairmont Hanoi, which opens in 2024, while a lakeside thermal wellness facility is planned for Fairmont Château Lake Louise in Banff National Park, Canada.
Hotels are tailoring wellness programs to both guests and destinations
Because there is so much variation in the goals and philosophies of clients, custom programs are now commonplace—and often, in the case of such resorts as Six Senses, that conversation can start with consultations before guests arrive.
Bjurstam’s wellness philosophy is all about openness, and at most Six Senses properties, guests can tap into programs led by experts ranging from medical professionals to energy workers from Indigenous communities. “We marry the scientific with maybe the less scientific because we know that people are searching,” she said. “That’s why the whole psychedelic market is exploding. People know that there’s more to it than what they can see.”
Six Senses also tailors programs around destinations as part of the guest’s experience of a place. As of January 2023, the company’s growing portfolio now includes Vana, a well-regarded center for wellness in the Himalayas of India that focuses on Ayurvedic traditions. The forthcoming London hotel will feature a hyperbaric chamber in the lounge and workspace areas in response to a growing interest in oxygen therapy. The company’s new property in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, features a Biohack Recovery Lounge to fortify skiers after a day on the slopes, complete with pulse electromagnetic field therapy.
Accor luxury brand Raffles, better known for its historic buildings than its wellness, is developing a Second Nature program that intends to weave wellness across the entire Raffles narrative, from design and food and beverage to in-room tech like individual temperature controls on both sides of the bed for optimal sleep. Meanwhile, Six Senses has been focusing on sustainable, biophilic architecture and design that harmonizes with nature as a key part of the wellness experience.
Six Senses architecture is increasingly following a Harvard-led study on the nine foundations of healthy buildings, which include higher airflow for more oxygen and ventilation, thermal health, and water quality. “We’ve changed our standards on how we build hotels,” said Bjurstam. “This approach to architecture is bringing us closer to nature, which is more or less what wellness is all about.”
The link between planetary health and human health is clearer than ever
Accor’s white paper used research to draw a direct line between human wellness and the wellness of the planet, bringing in such voices as economist Thierry Malleret, who emphasized the big picture: “You cannot be individually well if you live in a society that is profoundly unwell and in an environment that is equally unwell, due to biodiversity loss, due to pollution, due to climate change, due to catastrophe of all sorts.”
According to Brown, this growing awareness that people can’t be healthy without a healthy planet will inform the way Accor runs its business in the next few years. One big focus will be food waste, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports makes up an estimated 30 to 40 percent of food supply in the United States alone and contributes to as much as 10 percent of global greenhouse gases.
“If you’re doing something for your well-being, it means you’re definitely doing something to improve the health of our planet,” said Brown. “One of the biggest changes within our industry, certainly within our brands, is a move towards more sustainable food production. We’ll be putting more plants at the center of the food experience. It’s what guests increasingly want, it’s highly impactful for well-being, and it’s much more sustainable.”