With popular shows like 'Nine Perfect Strangers' giving wellness resorts and retreats a bad reputation, I decided to go and see what it’s actually like to stay at one.
If you’ve seen Nine Perfect Strangers, you’ll know the Hulu miniseries includes an all-star cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Melissa McCarthy, Regina Hall, and Bobby Cannavale staying at a fictional California wellness retreat called Tranquillum House. If you haven’t watched it yet, be fair warned that spoilers lay ahead.
While the staggering cinematography entices viewers to visit the real-life glass-fronted SOMA retreat in Australia’s Byron Bay, where the show was filmed, the storylines have courted controversy. Like Netflix’s The Goop Lab and (Un)well before it, the series has reignited distrust of wellness destinations, which are often believed to be dens of extreme restraint, starvation, inedible green juices, unscrupulous gurus, needless early rising, and in some cases, cultural appropriation.
The show’s Tranquillum House retreat is guilty of all of the above—and more. It features an unnatural mish-mash of wellness fads and health practices ranging from experimental to downright life-threatening. There was a Mexican temazcal sweat lodge, gong baths, regular blood sample collections, and forest bathing. All cell phones were confiscated, and participants confronted dummy replicas of wrongdoers from their pasts with samurai swords. The dubious “guru” running it (Kidman) spouts psychobabble, watches her guests asleep in their rooms (which she sneaks into), and makes them bury themselves in open graves. Worst of all, she secretly spikes their breakfast smoothies with micro-doses of the psychedelic drug psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), making the 10-day retreat a trippy journey the guests hadn’t bargained for.
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Despite what the eight-part drama depicts, wellness resorts are not inherently nefarious places. A real stay at a holistic haven can be rejuvenating, rewarding, and ultimately whatever you want it to be. For some pandemic-era healing, I recently checked into Rosewood Mayakoba, which thoroughly expanded my understanding of what a wellness destination could (and should) look like. This all-suite resort in Mexico’s Riviera Maya is Venice, the Amazon, and Eden, all wrapped into one. Guests are ushered to their lodgings in boats via winding canals, passing mangroves, and tranquil emerald lagoons.
A promising prospect, all of the massages at Rosewood Mayakoba’s Sense, A Rosewood Spa—which comes with its own cenote—are over 90 minutes long, and each has a unique narrative. One of the soul-soothing activities I embarked on was the Lights of the Seasons body treatment, a bliss-inducing two-hour massage harnessing the power of various seasonal ingredients. This was coupled with an experience in the resort’s Kuxtal Sensory Garden, where I created my own essential oil blend based on the two plants that I was most drawn to and received a reading about what my selections symbolized for my emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
There is a spiritual component that is authentically rooted in Mayan culture at Rosewood Mayakoba. My most moving experience was undoubtedly getting married to myself with a third-generation Mexican shaman. The hotel’s four-day Marry Oneself Journey is a healing ritual drawing on pre-Hispanic wisdom. I apologized to my heart, promised myself unconditional love, and vowed to prioritize self-care to have better relationships moving forward. I also took a sunshine gratitude walk on the beach with the resident healer, where I searched for my spirit animal and shapeshifted from a jaguar to a butterfly to connect with the earth and shed self-consciousness.
The experiences on offer thoroughly helped me nourish my heart, body, and mind. A Power of Breathing workshop in the airy spa palapa gifted me curative techniques that I could take home and dispelled some of my misconceptions about breathwork and meditation. For instance, there is no wrong way to breathe, and it’s fine for the mind to flirt here and there without restriction. I had free reign to devour whatever I desired from the various lagoon or beachfront restaurants with my favorite being Casa del Lago, where breakfast was served. Far from inedible, the juices tasted like heaven, and I indulged in a decadent burrata-topped shrimp chilaquiles on more than one occasion, and nobody was going to stop me.
“Wellness for us is happiness, and a glass of great mezcal is wellness too,” according to Rosewood Mayakoba’s Director of Culinary Operations, Juan Pablo Loza. While exploring the agave-filled “magic room” hidden in the new Zapoté Bar, he spread the good news that wellness does not mean omitting treats and vices entirely or only eating “clean” foods. “The reality of a taco is that if it’s made with the right ingredients, it can be as good as anything else in terms of nutrition, and it will also bring you a big smile, which is the best part,” he added. The resort does not tout restrictive diets, punishing workouts, or anything that you’re less than enthused about.
All around the hotel, there are wellness touchpoints, but I cherry-picked the ones that appealed to me the most. I am not wildly keen on early mornings, so I skipped the complimentary floating yoga and pilates classes in favor of leisurely pounding the pool-facing treadmills at the gym later on. The bicycles parked outside my suite were perfect for touring through Mayakoba’s jungle trails, but I preferred to unwind at the pool surrounded by palm trees.
The greatest challenge I faced was leaving my quarters as I was booked into one of eight new bi-level Wellness Suites on their own private island, a stone’s throw from the spa. My suite was a sun-kissed nirvana that smelled of incense with a private plunge pool and a serenity pavilion with an outdoor shower. There were complimentary fresh fruit bowls, granola, water, and a bottle of Montelobos mezcal, which I loved (it’s all about balance, you know?). Instead of standard pillow chocolates, the turndown service included a moon-aligned aromatherapy program to bolster energy levels and sleep quality. Every morning I woke up at the resort, I felt rested, fortunate, and unencumbered.
The COVID-19 crisis has contributed to notable societal and physical ills, including increased anxiety, depression, and rampant sleeplessness (or coronasomnia as it’s being called), so we could all use a bit of healing right now. A wellness resort is a fertile ground to shed stress, address your specific ailments, and find remedial philosophies to incorporate into your everyday life. While there, you can do as little or as much as you please; there is no standardized approach. Unlike Nine Perfect Strangers, the perfect wellness retreat is about defining and pursuing what works for you, and it needn’t include psychedelic drugs, yoga, or samurai swords.