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On nature

Nature is what consumers want. It’s where spa began and the pandemic has increased everyone’s appreciation of the world around us. Mary Bemis reports...

Forward thinking spas are bringing forest bathing into their programmes Shestakov Dmytro/shutterstock
Nature is integral to the Ritz-Carlton Reserve Spa Botanico in Puerto Rico Courtesy of Dorado Beach, a Ritz Carlton Reserve
Courtesy of Dorado Beach, a Ritz Carlton Reserve
Immersing oneself in nature is a real and ongoing trend John Athimaritis

“Nestled high above the historic mining town of Telluride in Colorado, is the 42,000sq ft Spa at the Peaks. Large picture windows dominate the spa, keeping clients constantly in touch with the great outdoors. The views are breathtaking, which is why you won’t find a lot of artwork gracing the walls. Nature is all the art needed here.”

These were the opening sentences of the very first spa feature I wrote for American Spa back in 1997, the year we launched the trade publication. That was a good quarter century ago and guess what? Nature is still all the art one needs. More importantly, it is powerful medicine. Bringing nature and the great outdoors into the spa environment – whether that be via design, spa service, or programming – is paramount today.

Nature has become the ultimate luxury. What’s surprising to me is how hungry people are for real nature – big trees and a sense of private communing with nature – which is why the retreat concept resonates more with consumers than the spa concept right now.

The original spa
Didn’t spa begin as a nature retreat? Mineral springs have been flowing and drawing people to remote areas since the beginning of time. The sun has been seducing people outside for eons, and let’s not forget that it was a search for the world’s best sunshine which lured Edmond and Deborah Szekely to Tecate, Mexico, 82 years ago, where they created Rancho La Puerta and accommodated their first guests in tents: North America’s first modern spa retreat.

We’ve been working up to this thirst for nature for some time now. The rise of indigenous botanicals in skincare and thus in spa treatments can be traced back to the 1990s, while the consumers’ quest for green and clean personal-care products dates back at least to the 1970s.

I credit spa pioneers like Sylvia Sepielli, as one of the first to truly bring the outside in through her design elements and spa menus which focused on indigenous treatments at properties like Mauna Lani Spa in Hawaii, Mii amo in Arizona, and Spa Village Pangkor Laut in Malaysia.

Healing powers
Around 2008, the International Spa Association (ISPA) predicted virtual reality technology would find its way into the spa, and yes, guests at certain spas do don virtual reality glasses which transport them from the treatment room to some fabulous beach or lush natural location of their choosing. Fast forward to 2015 or so, when the spa industry became enthralled by Louie Schwartzberg’s striking super-natural nature photos, often wisely placed in windowless spa rooms for visual healing.

(Although hospital data suggests no photograph has the healing power of a real window onto nature.) Also in 2015, the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) first identified forest bathing as a trend and it’s still going strong.

At first, I thought it odd, even a little sad, that we needed a term like forest bathing to get us to take a walk in the woods. But the term, and practice, actually does help people immerse themselves in nature, and those immersions, like nature herself, are becoming more extreme.

There is already an increased interest in cold-water practices and some spa and wellness properties are offering cold-water swims which are psychically and physiologically very powerful. Italy’s Grand Hotel Tremezzo went beyond forest bathing to introduce a Tree-Hugging Retreat, a three-hour experience which involves hugging and leaning on trees.

Tracking time
Thierry Malleret, economist and co-author of the book, Ten Good Reasons to Go for a Walk, reports an app called NatureQuant can monitor, quantify, and evaluate natural elements and exposure to nature. In other words, you can now track the time you spend in the great outdoors much like you count your steps. All of this simply points to the real and ongoing trend, for those consumers who can afford it, to literally get into nature.

As we careen into an increasingly degraded environmental future, the value of natural healing will only appreciate. There are astonishing new spa and wellness projects which give me hope. A few which entice me include San Francisco’s Alchemy Springs Communal Bathhouse. Designed by Ollie Lundberg, it infuses the history of the original Sutro Baths with a modern biophilic approach. Also Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Desert Rock project, created by Oppenheim Architecture and the Maldives’ Areka Spa at Joali Being, a nature-immersive wellbeing retreat situated on its own island.

A few of my favourite spas which exemplify nature include the sprawling Mohonk Mountain House in New York’s Hudson Valley; The Ritz-Carlton Reserve Spa Botanico in Puerto Rico, the brainchild of spa designer Tracy Lee; the spa at Six Senses Douro Valley, Portugal, conceived by Clodagh; and the lush Geo Spa at Four Seasons Resort Langkawi, nestled within Southeast Asia’s first UNESCO Global Geopark.

Case Study
Six Senses is one operator to put a real focus on nature with the launch of Reconnect With Senses. The company’s wellness pioneer, Anna Bjurstam, speaks to Kath Hudson

Reconnecting with yourself, others and nature are the foundations of the Reconnect With Six Senses campaign, launched in 2020, inspired by the pandemic.

“Something as simple as walking barefoot outside is so powerful, as the negative ions stored in the earth rebalances our systems, lowers stress and reduces inflammation,” says Anna Bjurstam, Six Senses’ wellness pioneer. “Conversely, not being in nature is harmful. During the pandemic we could only go outdoors so many more people were reminded of the importance of it.”

Six Senses’ Reconnection Experiences help guests to reset via a range of outdoor activities, including forest bathing, barefoot walks, nature hikes, harvesting sessions, star gazing and fire rituals. These nature-based activities are designed to tempt guests into rediscovering their sense of adventure, while exploring the flora and fauna.

Wellness Days introduce guests to techniques, treatments and activities, which help them build a stronger body, improve mental clarity and achieve a deeper sense of balance and fulfilment. They allow for time to reset during a full day immersion.

Six Senses also brings nature into the spas by using biophilic design, a design principle which increases connectivity to the natural environment through the direct and indirect use of nature, such as natural materials, ventilation, shapes and forms, as well as lots of daylight.

Bjurstam says this is an easy fix for spas to incorporate: “Even using a natural patterned wallpaper is calming. As well as using natural scents and sounds, such as wave sounds.

“Research shows that looking at nature in a picture and being in nature activates the same part of the brain, so even having pictures of nature around or using virtual reality can be beneficial. Spas need to work out ways of bringing nature indoors and amplifying it: if there’s no view in sauna, play a nature movie.” l

Not being in nature is harmful. During the pandemic we could only go outdoors so many more people were reminded of the importance of it
The sea and nature have proven benefits / Amber Toms
Taking a hike has numerous health / Christopher Wisebenefits
About the author:

Mary Bemis is the editorial director of InsidersGuidetoSpas.com and co-founder of Organic Spa and American Spa magazines. She is the co-editor of the book Nature Through Her Eyes: Art & Literature by Women.

Originally published in Spa Business Handbook 2022 issue 1
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