Design Your Own Retreat

Looking for the perfect getaway? Choose from an à la carte menu of activities and therapies offered at today’s leading spas and wellness centers.

A loon calls, and I’m lulled by the gentle lapping of waves as I survey the driftwood-strewn beach of Canada’s Hollyhock Retreat Centre from my lounge chair. My journal falls into my lap as I nod off, my worries of the last weeks forgotten. I feel perfect — even with a cast on my foot.

I came to this magical British Columbia island even though I’d broken my ankle and couldn’t kayak or hike through its cedar forests. Fortunately, Hollyhock has so many options that I was able to shift gears and rejuvenate both my spirit and my injured body. I had time to relax in the organic garden, meditate, and receive healing vibrations as didgeridoo players trained their instruments on my ankle in the earthy sanctuary.

More than just self-pampering destinations, today’s spas and resorts are increasingly becoming healthy-living centers where guests learn take-home skills for creating a more fulfilling life. Many, like Hollyhock, offer “design-your-own” packages and à la carte options so you can customize your experience and get exactly what you want (and need) from your time off.

“People today want more than just a resort vacation; they seek to be inspired to change their life for the better,” says Peter Jensen, marketing director for Rancho La Puerta in Baja, Mexico, North America’s oldest and most revered destination spa. At a regular day spa, you have pampering services done to you, explains Jensen. “Our philosophy is that you initiate the action and take advantage of the educational component.”

Multiday spa visits blend active, outdoor elements with health-savvy staff members who guide your exploration into fitness or wellness. What you choose is entirely up to you: from tai chi classes to herbal body wraps, from nutritional consultations to cooking classes.

Select between a resort that offers a full spectrum of activities and therapies or a location that concentrates on one thing (such as a yoga retreat). The goal is to return home feeling energized and confident about what you learned and how to apply it to your life.

The Health and Fitness Recharge: Rancho La Puerta, Baja, Mexico

For San Diego salesman Brad Snyder, a perfect day at Rancho La Puerta starts with a morning hike up sacred Mt. Kuchumaa, followed by movement and dance classes, a massage or facial, and plenty of siesta time.

Relaxation wasn’t always Snyder’s strong suit. Twelve years ago at the age of 41, he suffered a major panic attack while making a sales presentation — at a hospital. The doctors advised him to de-stress. The Rx: a Rancho La Puerta getaway with an emphasis on mind-body fitness. “I dove into tai chi and qigong, which helped me slow down and meditate through movement,” he recalls. “I also did yoga and went running on the center’s nature trails.”

Snyder successfully left work behind during his “life-changing” week at this luxury destination spa, where guests stay in secluded casitas amid lush gardens and pools. Set on 3,000 mountainous acres 45 miles south of San Diego, Rancho La Puerta offers 50 daily fitness classes — from cardio-boxing to tennis to Pilates. In addition, there’s a full-service spa; classes in bird watching, cooking and crafts; daily nutrition lectures; and an organic farm that produces the spa’s healthy fare. “At the Rancho, you can attend classes all day or lie by the pool. It’s totally your choice,” he says.

That freedom is one big reason Snyder returns annually. He also credits Rancho La Puerta with giving him the tools and inspiration to live a healthier life when he returns home. “Every year I meet new, inspiring people, and I get to come back to center for the rest of the year,” he says. “I’m addicted to the wellness this place brings.”

The Lifelong-Learning Awakening: Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, N.Y.

A retreat helps you unplug and escape day-to-day demands, but it can also broaden your horizons. Omega Institute, a nonprofit center for holistic wellness and personal growth, offers 350 educational workshops led by experts from all over the globe. “You can explore an interest, passion or curiosity with one of our classes — and still have plenty of time for ¬canoeing on the lake,” says Carla Goldstein, Omega’s director of external affairs.

Lasting three to six days, workshops cover topics ranging from money mindfulness, overcoming fear and creating work you love, to horseback riding and flying-trapeze experiences, so there’s literally something for everyone. There’s always free time during workshops, so you can relax at this serene, rustic center in the Hudson Valley. The emphasis at Omega is simplicity, and the atmosphere is like summer camp with cabins, tent cabins, dorm rooms and even campsites.

You can also opt for an R&R Retreat, so you have wide-open time all to yourself. These are truly design-your-own getaways: Your fee covers daily classes (yoga, tai chi, meditation), plus access to facilities on the campus, which is surrounded by 195 acres of rolling hills and woodlands. Kick back in the sauna, shoot some hoops, or enhance your experience with additional services (for an extra charge) like a massage at the Wellness Center or a motivational session with a life coach.

“Coming to a place like Omega gets you back into your body, back into nature,” Goldstein says. “Even a day or two of reflecting on your overall well-being lets you unwind.”

The New-Approaches-to-Health Getaway: The Crossings, Austin, Texas

Among the advantages of a wellness spa is access to health experts, including massage specialists, lifestyle coaches, fitness trainers and alternative-health practitioners. The Crossings, a luxury destination spa in the expansive Balcones Canyonlands Preserve in the Texas Hill Country, offers a wide range of health-oriented classes and activities, plus holistic services that leave you feeling refreshed.

“Our experienced practitioners are here to support guests in the healing process,” says Mark Nasralla, The Crossings’ therapist manager and a specialist in ayurvedic medicine.

The Crossings’ menu lists 50 massages, healing rituals, beauty treatments and personalized holistic services, so you’ve got ample selections. Here it’s easy to sample therapies you’ve never tried, including ayurvedic, Chinese, chiropractic or osteopathic medicine: Simply schedule a session with a licensed specialist who assesses your health, makes personalized diet and lifestyle recommendations, and provides a take-home plan to incorporate into your everyday life. He or she can even teach you how to choose a practitioner back home.

Get a taste of ayurveda with shirodhara, a calming therapy in which warm oils flow onto the forehead and scalp. Or make an acupuncture facial your entrée to Chinese medicine. Pick and choose your services with the help of a program adviser, who can help you clarify your goals and customize your getaway. Or consider a theme like the Deep Sleep Retreat, which blends stress-relieving treatments such as underwater massage (called Watsu) with an evening aromatherapy–hot stone massage conducive to good rest in the sleek, comfy lodge rooms.

Round out your stay with plenty of nature and movement: The Crossings offers classes in everything from yoga to water aerobics to Nia — plus hiking trails, a sweat lodge, a labyrinth and an infinity pool. “The Crossings isn’t far from town, but we’ve created a sheltered, pristine haven for guests,” says Nasralla. That alone is a recipe for rejuvenation.

All these getaways let you try something new or stick to your favorite stress-busting activities. Or just go and do nothing at all. Either way, you’ll get the rejuvenation and escape you’ve been longing for.

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Spiritual Exploration: Retreat and Heal, Sedona, Ariz.

Retreats also provide time for reflection and personal transformation.

Hypnotherapist and Reiki master Annie B. Lawrence, PhD, runs Retreat and Heal — located near Sedona’s spectacular desert red rocks that are reputed to be healing energy vortexes — with her husband, Jerry, a shamanic healer. “Our retreats are for people who are tired of being stuck in old habits and want to connect with the healing energy within themselves,” says Lawrence.

Retreat and Heal takes a specialized spiritual, energy-healing approach to reclaiming physical vitality and inner peace by blending spa services, hypnotherapy and spiritual Sedona vortex tours. At the Lawrence’s small center (maximum four guests at a time), you receive one-on-one personalized spiritual work with healers and coaches.

You can also choose from 10 combinations of spiritual treatments and exercises, including one- to seven-day packages such as the Personal Healing Retreat (for releasing habits such as binge eating, smoking and overwork), the Wellness Retreat (daily meditation and guided hikes, plus a blend of body-mind-spirit therapies) and the Couple’s Retreat (for deepening your heart connection and passion).

Christa Scalies, 40, of Wilmington, Del., came to Retreat and Heal in 2006 to recover from grief after a friend’s suicide and the end of a long-term love relationship. For four days, she and Lawrence worked together, using Reiki (a Japanese system of energy healing), medicine wheels and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), in which emotional trauma is released by tapping points on the body that correspond to energy fields. Although Scalies was previously unfamiliar with these treatments, Lawrence recommended them as ways to help her move through intense emotion.

“I’d never heard of Reiki or EFT before, but I was in the pit of depression, so I kept an open mind,” recalls Scalies. “I had a huge awakening; the experience gave me a new sense of who I am and confidence to build the life I always dreamed of.”

Lawrence directed Scalies to write down everything she wished for inside a blank circle drawn on a piece of paper. Outside the circle she wrote what she didn’t want in her life. “Doing this made me realize I spent a lot of time focusing on things I hate, so when I returned home, I started implementing my dreams instead,” she says. That dream fulfillment included founding Giggle On, a Web site that encourages laughter, while working to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness and suicide.

Retreat and Heal, Sedona, Ariz.: Three-day Inner Peace Retreat ($945) includes accommodations, two healing-energy sessions, one sacred vortex hike/meditation, one card reading, one EFT/hypnotherapy session or life coaching. 928-282-5237; www.retreatandheal.com

Writer Laurel Kallenbach’s secret mini-retreat is napping with her cat, Rimsky.

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