Winning tip: Opera and thermal baths, Italy
Listening to Puccini and other Italian opera classics while sparkling stars lit the night skies was just the tonic I needed last summer. I stumbled on the lovely resort of Salsomaggiore Terme when I was driving around the verdant hills of Emilia-Romagna. I thought I might stay a day to enjoy the thermal waters – but ended up staying a week. The town is full of natural water fountains, belle époque buildings, peaceful cafes and eateries. The elegant Grand Hotel (doubles from €120 BB), where I stayed, offered open-air tai chi classes in the gardens, and all kinds of mud and relaxation treatments are available at most hotels in the town.
The forest treatment, Czech Republic
Miura spa hotel with views of the Beskydy mountains
I’ve enjoyed several wellness breaks in the forested Beskydy mountains in the east of the country, around Ostrava, where there are several spa and treatment hotels with forest trails to walk or bike during the day, before soaks in a hot tub or soothe your feet in a Kneipp bath (water tank with herbal extracts) at night. Čeladenec is one of the best, but I’ve enjoyed a stay down the road at Miura, too. There are wolves, lynx and bears in the woods, though you are more likely to spot woodpeckers and owls. Tasty grilled freshwater fish will supply your omega 3, and if you are there in summer, the Colours Festival in Ostrava (15-18 July) will feed your inner culture vulture. If you want to ditch wellness temporarily, Modrá Myš in the old town does a mean cocktail or two.
• Two-night package at Miura £405 full board with massages and spa (miura.cz); two-night packages at Čeladenec from £270
Sensory walking, Black Forest, Germany
My wife, two young children and I spent a day on a barefoot sensory trail at Park mit Allen Sinnen (Park with all Senses). It’s in Singersbach, 48km north-east of Freiburg. It involved walking for several kilometres barefoot over grass, sand, wood chips, stone, mud and more while exploring all five senses. Among the sensual experiences were hollowed-out trees with objects inside to feel with your hands and guess what they were, colourful flowers to see and smell, secret scents to guess, and relaxation huts full of sights, sounds and smells. We then washed our feet at the washing station and enjoyed an ice-cream.
• Adult €6, child €4, parkmitallensinnen.de
Something to digest, County Mayo, Ireland
I found the health retreat at Cloona Health Retreat, near Westport on the west coast of Ireland, to be authentic, kindly, effective and refreshing. It offers gentle detox and was partly inspired by Tibetan monks who had become refugees in the UK after the Chinese invasion of their country and had worked on restoring Cloona Mill in the late 1960s. The retreat specialises in improving diet and resting the digestive system. There are lots of skilled practitioners on hand, offering extra treatments such as Tibetan bowl therapy and deep tissue massage. The place is in lovely countryside close to the sea. I loved my five-day retreat there, and lost weight, even though I didn’t go on one of its specific weight-loss retreats.
• Five-day retreat €720pp full-board, optional extras €30-€70, cloona.ie
Surf and yoga, Jersey
Drift in Jersey is a wellness retreat with a real emphasis on the group experience. I wanted to experience something a bit different from a typical spa and wasn’t disappointed. I learned to surf, improved my yoga immensely and got to appreciate the delights of organic vegetarian cooking. Accommodation is in bunk b in a Martello tower but has a touch of luxury and a roof terrace for breathtaking views of the bay. The whole experience left me with an appreciation of nature and fully pressed the reset button ready for the new decade.
• Next retreat 26-29 June, from £660 full-board, including transfers, three nights’ accommodation, yoga and surfing, driftretreat.co.uk
Hiking and healing, Val d’Isère, France
After a break-up last summer, I booked a yoga and walking retreat with Make Some Breathing Space in the French Alps on a bit of a whim. It was the best thing I ever could have done. The people, the walks, the views, the food, the wild swims, the yoga instructors … everything was incredible and so healing. A highlight included hiking to the Italian border at 2,800 metres. Yoga was twice daily (a mix of hatha, yin, and restorative), there was a hot tub, and three delicious meals a day. A wonderful experience.
• From £850 for six nights in chalet accommodation, including transfers, full-board, guided hikes (tailored by ability), makesomebreathingspace.com
Yoga and meditation, Italy
The most healing experience I have ever had on holiday was in Puglia, with Kaliyoga. Staying in a rural trullo house in the countryside with pool, hot tub and bikes for loan was sublimely relaxing. There were twice-daily yoga sessions with morning silence, fully vegan,vegetarian or raw food, chanting and meditation, holistic treatments and excursions. The yoga instructor was incredible and my yoga practice came on hugely.
• From £1,550 for six nights full board including transfers, treatments, instruction, Kaliyoga.com
Tree houses and saunas, Italy
We enjoyed saunas, natural stone whirlpools and b of quartz sand high in the Dolomites in Caravan Park Sexten, while staying three metres off the ground in tree houses. Other treatments on site included massages and facials. Needless to say, given that this was the South Tyrol, there were magnificent views of the mountains in all directions. Each tree house had sensory showers and a hydro-massage.
• From €175pp pn BB, treatments extra, caravanparksexten.it
Turn the corner in Sicily
In the far south-east of the island, Floripa Yoga and Kitesurf House proved a fantastic environment for yogis and surfers alike. We found it friendly and unpretentious, with top-notch teaching, and, importantly, the food was delicious. The sandy beach of Santa Maria del Focallo is spacious and relaxing, and only 50 metres away. Interesting baroque towns like Ispica, Modica, Ragusa and Noto are within reach and there were organised trips out to places like Cava d’Ispica, an interesting gorge with loads of wildlife and once-inhabited caves.
• From €481 for a three-night yoga and surf holiday, including full-board, two yoga sessions a day and transfers, floripa.it
Spa hotel on a mountain, Sofia
I’ve stayed several times at the 6ato spa hotel by Vitosha, a 2,290-metre mountain on the outskirts of Sofia. It has a great little restaurant and very affordable prices. Vitosha is a great place for hiking and alpine fun and there’s the Boyana waterfall a couple of hours’ hike away – good for your lungs and your waistline. I usually either walk up the mountain and take in the fresh air or hire a mountain bike and do a few of the routes in the area. You can cycle into Sofia via the National Theatre park route or head up into the forest. After all this activity, the free spa access at the hotel is most welcome! There’s a pool, sauna, jacuzzi, treatments, Turkish bath – the full package. There are also plenty of restaurants in the area and a good deli down the road.
• Doubles from about £50 BB, 6ato-spa.hotelssofia.net