Wellness holidays: World's 15 most amazing spa retreats

It's one of the strongest growing sectors of the travel industry, estimated to be worth a staggering $4.6 trillion, according to US-based Global Wellness Institute, and Australians can't get enough of the wellness holiday.

We're all detoxing like celebrities, navel-gazing to help us cope when we return to our frenetic schedules and going so far as to alter our appearances on so called spa-cations.

At home, Australia's health and wellness industry has grown on average 4.7 per cent a year since 2010, generating more than $387 million, estimates market research company IBIS World. Growing numbers of men are jumping on board. Increasingly travellers are seeking help for burn-out and exhaustion, while medical tourism, including the likes of dental work and cosmetic surgery, is on the rise.

Gregg Cave, co-founder of Gaia Byron Bay, says Australians are investing more time in their health and wellbeing, and giving themselves permission to look after themselves, minus the guilt.

Judy Chapman, Australian spa curator and treatment trend expert, agrees. Sleep programs are an emerging trend; given sleep disorder is a global pandemic, while meditation and silent retreats are on the rise, Chapman says.

In the hotel sector, rising numbers of urban properties are taking wellness beyond the spa with healthier mini-bars, in-room yoga channels, gluten-free and organic in-room dining options, natural amenities, air purifiers and non-allergenic bedding. Some five star hotel spas have introduced complimentary meditation for guests, while in-room fitness equipment is also on offer, Chapman says. 'E-toxing' is another fast developing sector, says Brigid Walsh, general manager of Golden Door Elysia, to; "help individuals let go of their dependence on technology, have time out to rest and then re-engage with the world a lot less wired".

But travellers are not fully aware of the difference between the various wellness offerings, especially with mainstream hotels and resorts jumping on the healthy holiday bandwagon, says Walsh and other industry experts. Put simply, not every wellness getaway suits everybody.

Whether you're after a pampering getaway, want to make a significant life change, undertake a digital detox or challenge yourself to a serious boot camp, our hand-picked retreats will put you on the right track.

Destination spas

CHIVA SOM, HUA HIN, THAILAND

THE PITCH Lifestyle transformation.

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WHAT WE SAY It's the queen of all health retreats whose guest list includes royalty, celebrities and Fortune 500s. Asia's first dedicated wellness resort practically invented the destination spa concept, yet stays ahead of the game with its blend of Western diagnostics and Eastern philosophies served up in swish surrounds.

WHAT ELSE TO DO Try the Revitalising Body Cocoon, which starts with an invigorating lemongrass-spice scrub, followed by an aromatherapeutic body wrap to stimulate circulation and calm the senses.

INSIDER TIP Book an oceanview room. Not only can you fall asleep to the sound of the ocean, you'll be near all the spa action.

ESSENTIALS An all-inclusive three night retreat costs from $2990 per person twin share. chivasom.com

GAIA RETREAT AND SPA, BYRON BAY

THE PITCH Your life, your retreat, your choice.

WHAT WE SAY It's been just over 10 years since Gaia (meaning spirit of mother earth) opened its doors after co-owner Olivia Newton-John and general manager and director Gregg Cave came upon the 10-hectare site. Yet Gaia refuses to rest on its laurels. Recently it ramped up the luxe factor with the opening of three new Komala Villas with saltwater infinity plunge pools and views across lush foliage to the distant hills. Gaia has never embraced the boot camp philosophy; it's all about choice, meaning no one will be banging on your door to get you up for yoga, meditation or for meals. "We give our guests a place to really surrender and ground themselves, by reconnecting back with Mother Earth and the spirit of intuition," says Gregg Cave.

WHAT ELSE TO DO A remedial massage with therapist Tim Acklin will sort out your aches and pains.

INSIDER TIP Purchase the Gratitude Cookbook by head chef Dan Trewartha​ to recreate Gaia's inspired organic cuisine back home.

ESSENTIALS Two-nights cost from $1145 a person (single occupancy) inclusive of all gourmet meals and snacks, morning yoga, scheduled daily activities, one-hour massage and transfers. gaiaretreat.com.au.

KAMALAYA, KOH SAMUI

THE PITCH Life-enriching, healthy holiday.

WHAT WE SAY The extraordinary, wellness retreat - favoured by the likes of Sarah Ferguson, Elle McPherson, Oliver Stone and Annie Lennox – is the complete package. There's five-star detox cuisine, scheduled holistic activities and a world-class, clifftop wellness centre offering acupuncture, Chinese medicine, naturopathy and seductive spa treatments. Set on a hillside overlooking a private beach on the south-eastern side of Koh Samui, Kamalaya's wellness programs include optimal fitness, detox, sleep enhancement and retreats with renowned visiting practitioners.

WHAT ELSE TO DO Don't leave without trying a Thai massage in an open-air treatment room overlooking the sea. You'll walk out a new person.

INSIDER TIP It's worth paying the extra money to book a beachfront villa (unless you've got dodgy knees) for the calming views; the incidental exercise from the steep climb to and from the restaurant will also accelerate fitness goals.

ESSENTIALS A three-night retreat costs from $2446 per person, single occupancy. kamalaya.com.

Yoga retreats

RADIANCE RETREATS, BYRON, BALI AND EUROPE

THE PITCH Leave healthy and inspired.

WHAT WE SAY Facilitated by renowned Byron yogi Jessie Chapman, these lush retreats are a mix of yoga and meditation, nutritional talks, guided nature walks, gourmet meals, cleansing juices and massage treatments. They're run in beautiful locations including Australia's own yoga capital Byron Bay, Ubud, Bali, Spain and Tuscany. Jessie has been teaching yoga for almost two decades and has published four books; instructional DVDs and has her own line of yoga clothing.

WHAT ELSE TO DO Wake before dawn to catch the sunrise at Cape Byron Lighthouse, perched high on a windswept headline at the most easterly point in the mainland.

INSIDER TIP Get a bunch of girlfriends together for a healthy, fun filled week.

ESSENTIALS A four-night Radiance Retreat at Sangsurya, Byron Bay costs from $1595 twin share including all organic meals, twice daily yoga, one hour massage, daily guided beach walks and healthy cooking demonstrations. radianceretreats.com.

BALI GODDESS RETREATS, BALI

THE PITCH Follow your bliss.

WHAT WE SAY Beginner yogis and Bali first timers will love this retreat's safe, supportive (all female) environment in the heart of trendy Seminyak. The program mixes yoga twice daily, healthy food and pampering with three days of 'bliss' activities ranging from cycling through rice paddy fields, visiting an elephant safari park through to learning the art of batik painting. It's no boot camp, nor a serious wellness retreat, rather a chance for women travellers to take time out.

WHAT ELSE TO DO Take a surf lesson with the talented and encouraging instructors from Rip Curl School of Surf.

INSIDER TIP Request a private room (this costs extra), otherwise you'll have to share a room and a bathroom with someone you don't know, and that can detract from the experience.

ESSENTIALS From $US2195 ($2977) for six nights with transfers, shared accommodation, healthy meals, activities, daily yoga, spa treatments and much more, until August 31. See baligoddessretreats.com.

CLEANSE AND NOURISH YOGA RETREAT, BELLS AT KILLCARE, NSW

THE PITCH Live a healthier life, nourish the body and clear the mind.

WHAT WE SAY Nourishing meals created by the Manfredi at Bells chefs in conjunction with nutritionist Michele Chevalley Hedge, are tempting enough. Throw in morning and afternoon meditation and yoga with Fiona Pullen, nutrition sessions with Michele, group bushwalks and boutique accommodation at the Hamptons-inspired, adults-only retreat owned by ad guru John Singleton, and I strongly suggest you book now.

WHAT ELSE TO DO Take a coastal bushwalk in the nearby Bouddi National Park. From the nearby Marie Byles Lookout you can see all the way to Bondi.

INSIDER TIP Don't forget your runners; the nearest beach is quite a walk away.

ESSENTIALS The three-night retreat from September 27-30 costs from $1499 per person twin share. Beverages and spa treatments extra. A two-night Empowering Yoga Retreat from October 14-16 with Suzanne Fraser from East Coast Yoga School costs from $990 per person twin share. bellsatkillcare.com.au.

Transformative retreats

THE CASSOWARY TRANSFORMATIONAL RETREATS, DAINTREE, QLD

THE PITCH Relaxation, rejuvenation and reflection.

WHAT WE SAY You'll unplug and reboot at this stunning purpose built rainforest retreat with infinity pool overlooking Mount Demi and Thornton's Peak. Daily life coaching sessions are broken up with beach walks, swims in the Mossman River and outings to Cape Tribulation. Nutrition and fitness sessions with Melbourne-based Revive Health and Wellbeing personal instructor Liam Crivelli are inspirational; while local chef Jed Sneddon provides the ultimate fusion of organic seafood and produce.

WHAT ELSE TO DO Don't miss a private sushi making class, and a massage with Mai Adamson delivered with the calming soundtrack of the rainforest.

INSIDER TIP A customised schedule means this retreat is suitable for the whole family (BYO nanny or carer for younger kids). The corner suite with elegant four-poster teak bed, spa bath and private outdoor rain shower is the pick of the accommodation.

ESSENTIALS The next transformational retreat runs September 16-23, while customised retreats are available. cassowary.com; facebook.com/luxurygonegreen.

SAMADHI RETREAT, DAYLESFORD, VICTORIA

THE PITCH Self-discovery and self-healing.

WHAT WE SAY It's all about you at this customised east-meets-west retreat fitted out with heated polished concrete floors, an open fire, neutral calming decor and alpaca rugs. Located in Glenlyon, a one-shop town near Australia's spa capital, Daylesford, Samadhi offers a mix of dynamic counselling and healing sessions, wholesome and artistically striking meals and soothing body treatments in the spa, which connects to the retreat through beautiful Chinese doors.

WHAT ELSE TO DO The Himalayan Rejuvenation body treatment combines a mineral crystal salt scrub, warm detoxing oils, a thermal vitamin rich mud wrap, scalp massage and soporific full body massage.

INSIDER TIP Book a life coaching session with Wayne Mirananda​, a meditation instructor, healer and therapeutic practitioner. Before you know it, you'll find a new way of seeing things.

ESSENTIALS Samadhi offers a range of customised retreats from overnight stays, up to nine days, from $1250 per person, twin share. samadhiretreat.com.au.

THE LIFECHANGE PEOPLE, CHIANG MAI, THAILAND

THE PITCH Sort out your problems while on holiday.

WHAT WE SAY Because it actually works. Alex Gunn and Chrissy Richman, British operators with 30 plus combined years in psychology and life coaching, offer life-changing holidays in the beautiful city of Chiang Mai, the spiritual heart of Thailand. Retreats are kept small, and there is never more than a handful of guests at one time for individual attention. Each change holiday is tailor-made and includes the change program, which is roughly equivalent to three to four months of weekly sessions. "Motivation for change can be accelerated and manipulated, making it possible for people to make changes, big and small, in incredibly short spaces of time," Gun says.

Unquestionably the biggest benefit is the 12 weeks' online support afterwards, ensuring you take action on any issues holding you back.

WHAT ELSE TO DO Visit an elephant sanctuary where you learn to look after your own elephant for the day.

INSIDER TIP Bring your partner or family along for a life-changing holiday everyone will enjoy.

ESSENTIALS Tailor-made seven-night life coaching holidays from $1237 per person staying at a local guesthouse. lifechangepeople.com.

Bootcamp

GET COMMANDO FIT TRAINING CAMPS, BINNA BURRA QLD

THE PITCH There are no excuses.

WHAT WE SAY Steve Willis, aka Commando Steve (Australia's Biggest Loser), is the only man I'd let yell at me while wearing Lycra. Commando's back to basics boot camps are not for the faint hearted; you'll be sore, dirty, and you'll curse the day you signed on - but you will see results. The action-packed agenda includes physical training every day with the fitness guru himself, adventure activities, and nutrition sessions. All fitness levels catered for, but remember there are "no excuses".

WHAT ELSE TO DO Pre-book a massage at Binna Massage; you're going to need it.

INSIDER TIP Pack light, as you will carry whatever you bring. A heat pack will soothe tired muscles.

ESSENTIALS From $1500 for three days including training, meals and shared bunkhouse accommodation. The next Commando Fit Training Camp runs November 29-December 2. If you prefer to push your physical limits in tropical surrounds, Commando Steve launches bootcamps in Tahiti in the New Year. binnaburralodge.com.au.

SUN, SEA AND SWEAT, ALMYRA RESORT, CYPRUS

THE PITCH Luxurious holiday meets ass-kicking training program.

WHAT WE SAY Striking the perfect balance between boutique hotel and fitness boot camp, Almyra on the idyllic Cypriot coast of Paphos plays host to a year-round series of triathlon camps, hosted by long-distance triathlete and sports journalist Sean McFarlane​, pro-coach Simon Brierley, and ex-champion triathlete and sports physiologist Kypros Nicolaou. Triathlon camps include open water swims, extensive road cycle routes and running sessions on coastal paths and trails. Almyra's chefs are on hand with nutritional advice and a Mediterranean menu, for optimum training.

WHAT ELSE TO DO Spend time in the Almyra spa with its sauna, steam rooms, yoga deck and marine-based treatments.

INSIDER TIP Book a seaview room overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. You've come all this way, so make the most of it.

ESSENTIALS From €350 ($526) per person for swim clinic (four sessions), and €1190 ($1787) for triathlon camps per person based on six days of training and seven nights accommodation on a half-board basis. See almyra.com.

BIGGEST BOOTCAMP AT SEA, CARNIVAL SPIRIT AND CARNIVAL LEGEND

THE PITCH Lose as you cruise.

WHAT WE SAY Fitness guru Shannan Ponton (also from Australia's Biggest Loser) puts passengers onboard Carnival Cruise Line's two Australian ships through their paces with his Biggest Boot Camp at Sea. Ponton's high-intensity sessions are a huge success, helping cruisers get fit, while raising money for his chosen charity, CanTeen. "It's great for anyone who feels like they have fallen into a rut, had trouble sticking to eating and training plans or those who just need to reboot and fire up," he says.

WHAT ELSE TO DO Have an Elemis Oxydermy facial in Spa Carnival, combining micro-dermabrasion and oxygen in one super-relaxing treatment.

INSIDER TIP Don't miss Ponton's motivational talk for some trademark motivation.

ESSENTIALS An eight-night Carnival Legend cruise to New Caledonia with Ponton is on sale (until tomorrow) from $700 per person twin share, departing Sydney on November 4. carnival.com.au

Detox

BYRON BAY DETOX RETREATS

THE PITCH Purifiy mind, body and soul.

WHAT WE SAY If you're going to put yourself though a detox, you might as well do it in a naturally beautiful setting, with the support and encouragement of a small, dedicated team of naturopaths and healers. Guests fast on organic cold-pressed vegetable juice assisted by colonic hydrotherapy (it speeds up the detox process), yoga, meditation, energy healing and detox supplements.

WHAT ELSE TO DO Head facilitator, Natalie Purcell, offers the ancient Chinese therapy, chi nei tsang, which detoxifies internal organs and releases negative emotions.

INSIDER TIP If scheduled retreat dates don't suit, book in for a personalised retreat tailored to individual needs.

ESSENTIALS Six-night detoxification packages from $2990 in a shared, beachfront holiday house. byronbaydetoxretreats.com.au.

ABSOLUTE SANCTUARY, KOH SAMUI, THAILAND

THE PITCH Give yourself the gift of wellbeing.

WHAT WE SAY Awarded UK Conde Nast's "Best Value for Weightloss" in the 2014 Spa Awards, Absolute Sanctuary will have you looking your svelte best. This is a retreat for die-hard detoxers. Think juice detox, daily colonic treatments, raw food and a bucket load of yoga (at least four classes on offer each day). The Moroccan-inspired retreat's hillside setting, excellent Thai massage and beauty treatments in the Detox Spa and central pool, will ease the pain of cleansing.

WHAT ELSE TO DO Try a four-handed massage; the ultimate stress buster.

INSIDER TIP Ask for an upstairs room for a pool or sea view, unless you have trouble with stairs.

ESSENTIALS Seven-night detox from $2229 per person (single occupancy), until September 30. absolutesanctuary.com

CABARITA OCEAN HEALTH RETREAT, NSW

THE PITCH A holiday with health benefits.

WHAT WE SAY This high-end wellness retreat offers a healthy holiday inspired by holistic principles. It's not unlike staying at a friend's swanky private beach house – a feeling cultivated by the friendly, professional staff. Cabarita has a no alcohol, no caffeine, no dairy, no sugar philosophy and days start with a wake up call at 6am for a fast-paced beach walk. After a few days, you won't even think about what you've had to give up, given how much you'll gain from the seasonal, local wholefood menu, the fun, fitness classes and time spent in the onsite Sodashi spa.

WHAT ELSE TO DO Try the new oxygen facial for a glow that'll last for days.

INSIDER TIP Stay as long as you can. I was kicking myself for only doing three-nights.

ESSENTIALS A three-night Taste of Cabarita costs $1650 per person twin share including all meals, one spa treatment, and scheduled activities; see cabaritaoceanhealthretreat.com.au.

Sheriden Rhodes became hooked on wellness holidays after a two-week retreat in Bali. She's experienced psychotherapy, a private class with a New York yogi guru, has been wrapped in papaya, scrubbed with coffee grounds, and found answers to life's issues in Chiang Mai.

The guru speaks: Judy Chapman

WHAT ARE THE CHOICES AVAILABLE TO AUSTRALIAN TRAVELLERS THESE DAYS?

The main options are Ayurveda, detox, yoga, fitness and adventure, medical, holistic and meditation retreats – but many others are springing up catering to niche markets, such as writing and silent retreats.

WHAT SHOULD THEY CONSIDER WHEN CHOOSING A RETREAT?

Aside from price and location, consider the quality of the food (whether they serve organic, nutritious cuisine) and what sort of fitness activities are included. It's also helpful to ask yourself if you want a group environment to connect with others on the same journey, or if you prefer quiet time to decompress. Some people blossom in luxury surrounds with all the creature comforts while others prefer to spend money on healing treatments. 

HOW HAS THE MARKET EVOLVED?

We've definitely evolved, however, fitness and weight-loss programs remain top sellers globally. Wellness is a multi-billion dollar industry driven by the aging baby boomer generation (who want to live longer and healthier) and the quality of retreats is staggering. That said, many Australians have access to excellent therapists, yoga and fitness instructors, so retreats and spas need to deliver exceptional experiences beyond what one would normally get at home.  

HOW OFTEN SHOULD I TAKE A DETOX HOLIDAY?

I definitely recommend an annual or twice-yearly detox retreat where you can give your digestive system a break and continue to learn more about how to improve your health and take your fitness to the next level – the benefits of even a five-day retreat can be life-changing. There's something about being away in a different environment that can re-inspire you about everything from your health, career to your life's purpose. 

WHAT DO AUSTRALIANS WANT?

Australians are some of the most educated folk about the wellness movement – including men! Overseas, Australians are considered fairly good spa goers at resort spas but don't seem to need to spa as frequently. Perhaps because Aussies live more of an outdoor life and are already fairly relaxed. 

Judy Chapman is a former editor-in-chief of Spa Asia magazine and author of four best selling books on spas. She is the editor of thechapmanguides.com, a curation of the best in wellness travel, retreats and spas, and lives between Bali and New York.

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