It's not often you see wellness travel and children in the same sentence. Let's face it, detoxing with kids, sounds like an excruciating form of torture no one should ever have to face. Even the act of eating healthy, or exercising on holiday with children (or a reluctant partner) can be a challenge. I should know – this is the road I've been navigating during the past eight years travelling with my daughter, and husband whose idea of a holiday is pretty much doing nothing. And I've only got one child, let alone two or three.
So when a five-star wellness centre comes along that also caters to families, well frankly I'm all ears. Before I've even stepped foot inside Amatara Resort and Wellness, I believe they're on the money. Formerly the Regent Cape Panwa, this sublime resort tucked away in the quiet southern part of Phuket, rebranded as Amatara last October. At first glance, it looks like any one of Asia's beautiful five-star resorts with its lily ponds and seductive private pool villas. However, the Thai owner made a calculated decision to open the island's most comprehensive wellness centre – a 2000sq m destination spa – and offer five different, all-inclusive wellness retreats. Eventually, long term, the entire resort will become a wellness property.
Sure health and wellness retreats today are a dime a dozen. What makes Amatara special is that its wellness director, Australian Phoebe Boonkerd, and others on the senior management team are Chiva Som alumni – Asia's pioneering detox retreat – giving Amatara an impressive wellness pedigree. But the fact it caters for families (without being solely aimed at those travelling with children) puts it in a class all its own.
So how exactly does that work? In essence, a family can visit the resort and one or both parents can complete a wellness retreat while children and non-retreaters enjoy their own holiday. Depending on the children's age, they can go to the kids' club, enjoy the resort's other facilities (a 55m infinity pool, water sports, a library, three restaurants and a gorgeous secluded beach), and spend time as a family when parents are not participating in the program. "This makes Amatara pretty unique as most resorts offering this level of wellness don't allow children," says Boonkerd, herself a mother of a seven-year-old.
We test out the concept, arriving in the dead of night from Sydney. We're driven by luxury car transfer (it feels like an airline's first class cabin) about an hour's drive south from Phuket airport, whisked down winding paths to our hillside villa overlooking the cape. The 150sq m villa oozes luxury with its own jacuzzi, sprawling bathroom, espresso machine, king-size bed and private pool overlooking the sea. By moonlight I can make out the Andaman Sea framed by coconut palms. By the time we're in bed it's 5am back home and we drift off to sleep to the sound of waves crashing on the small beach below us.
We awake the next day, flick open the electronic blinds and discover we've landed in tropical utopia. Our private pool looks out over the serene bay dotted with boats coming and going from the nearby harbour. I report to the wellness centre for a consultation with Russian ex pat Yana Portnyagina; my pre arrival questionnaire sitting on her desk. I've chosen a five-night Spa Revive package, with its appealing mix of spa treatments, private yoga, healthy Thai cooking class and a visit to Amatara's incredible new Thai Hamman – claimed to be a world first. Amatara's wellness packages range from three to seven days and the one I've chosen sits somewhere between its detox and active program. We discuss what I hope to get out of the retreat and my program is tweaked to suit.
This is one of the many benefits of Amatara. With only 105 rooms and currently about 30 per cent of guests on retreat, participants practically get a bespoke program. Realising, I get a lot out of seeing Amatara's holistic physiotherapist, Khun Pop, I'm booked in for two sessions rather than one, swapping it for another treatment. Pop, who did her training in Chiang Mai, works her magic on my shoulder, painful from too many hours bent over the keyboard. She also treats a painful IT Band injury on my left thigh with ultrasound therapy. Another day Phoebe slips in a fun chocolate bubble bath for my daughter Ella, while I enjoy a signature massage. And all the family attend a healthy Thai cooking class at The Retreat, where those on wellness programs eat their meals.
Rather than being a place of deprivation, The Retreat (dedicated to retreat and pool villa guests), serves up striking healthy options that make your average hotel restaurant offerings look bland and uninspiring. On the menu are raw juice and super food smoothies, soups, broth and scrumptious desserts using unrefined whole foods, free range products and cold pressed oil. There are no additives, pesticides, toxins or refined sugars.
We eat the majority of our meals here and the family aren't complaining. We love the black mango sticky rice, the incredible gazpacho soup decorated with balsamic vinegar balls and the gai yang (grilled chicken) with green papaya salad. Children have their own healthy inspired menu and Ella tucks in, none the wiser (although, like any kid, she asks for hot chips several times). The Retreat also has its own infinity pool and we often take a swim here after breakfast – the only ones using it.
While Ella is at kids' club and my husband does his own thing, I head to the wellness centre where I'm welcomed with blue butterfly pea tea (made from a local plant) and a cold scented towel. I should say upfront that while Amatara caters for families, if you're travelling sans children you won't even realise they're there. There are no children in the spa (unless you book a mum and daughter treatment), none in the fitness centre and Ella is the only child eating at the Retreat.
My days typically start with yoga or a physio treatment and end with a massage from one of the gracious Thai staff. I try the chi nei tsang healing abdominal massage, the Thai yoga massage (brilliant) and the Indian head massage. The highlight, as expected, is Amatara's new Thai Hamman – the spa's signature treatment – and it's unlike anything I've ever experienced. I laugh, I scream and even fall asleep in this marathon three-hour treatment. I am scrubbed raw with an exfoliating mitt on a heated stone block, ice is thrown over me (cue screaming), and I am covered head to toe in high mineral Hungarian Moor mud. I'm glad no one is around to witness this, given Amatara's Thai Hamman is designed to be much more private and luxurious than a middle eastern Hamman. I spend time in a Himalayan salt cave, stumbling out into the late afternoon light feeling reborn.
Later we regroup at the phenomenal Grill Lounge – an alfresco rooftop bar where sundowners are served (complimentary to pool villa guests) with 180-degree views of the Andaman Sea. Ella tells me all about her adventures at kids' club, where she has had fun face painting, doing craft and playing with the other young guests from Korea and India. Hubby sinks into one of the comfy lounges, looking tanned and relaxed. Tonight, we break from the program and eat downstairs at the Grill, the resort's upscale restaurant. It's a calm, balmy night and the mix of great food, attentive staff and mesmerising views make it a night to remember.
The next morning we take one last swim at Amatara's secluded and charming beach, descending the steep stairs through lush tropical foliage to the sand. Ella screams excitedly as I push her on a giant swing over the small waves. Miraculously, I've managed to do a wellness retreat and have a holiday with the family. We head home relaxed, sun kissed and even feeling a little pious.
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Amatara Resort and Wellness.
Jetstar flies direct Sydney and Melbourne to Phuket four times a week, with connecting flights from other Australian hubs. See jetstar.com
A three-night wellness retreat package starts from ฿THB58,500 (about $2190) for one person, or ฿THB45,500 ($1685) per person twin share in a premier sea view room including airport transfers, three healthy cuisine meals (a la carte) per day or set detox menu, blood pressure check-up, use of fitness, steam and infrared sauna facilities, daily fitness classes, daily signature massage and treatments listed per package. See amataraphuket.com
FIVE OTHER HEALTHY FAMILY GETAWAYS
* TV presenter and model Rachel Finch heads up a five-day wellness retreat at the the Westin Denarau Resort and Spa Fiji from October 5-9, including ballroom dance classes, a nutritional breakfast session and a group run. Guests are encouraged to bring their children, who can enjoy the kids' club and resort facilities while mum (or dad) does their thing. From $FJ2380 per person. See westindenarauisland.com
* Wellness weekends covering nutrition, meditation, trail running, mindful hiking and sustainable life balance are on offer at the Fairmont Resort Blue Mountains – MGallery by Sofitel. While the retreats are designed for adults, the resort is particularly family friendly with a games room, school holiday program, Segway tours and more. See fairmontresort.com.au
* Six Senses Laamu in the Maldives has introduced specialised wellness programs for families including interactive sessions, meditation, yoga, junior spa treatments and health-focused games for children. The program includes family consultations on how to integrate wellness into everyday life, and private family yoga sessions. See sixsenses.com/resorts/laamu/destination
* Shanti Maurice, a boutique lifestyle resort on the south coast of Mauritius, caters to the adventurous family seeking a healthy holiday with kids' yoga, paddle boarding, vegan cooking classes and meditation sessions. Les Petits Dodos, the kids' club, offers everything from kids' aquatic yoga, non-motorised water sports, through to crab hunts, bike tours and line fishing. See shantimaurice.com
* Miraggio Thermal Spa Resort in Greece offers healthy family holidays, including fitness activities for children at Kids' Planet, healthy menus, personal training, group work-out sessions, thermal and thalasso therapies and nutritionally beneficial culinary offerings through its partnering with "The Queen of Detox", Amanda Hamilton. See miraggio.gr