Picture: 123RF/Irina Pusepp
Picture: 123RF/Irina Pusepp

If you google "wellness retreat" you’ll be buried under an avalanche of results for yoga offerings, weekends away to detox, stress-busting courses and mindfulness seminars taking place from Anchorage to Parys.

The very act of sorting through the endless online options might escalate your stress levels — but clearly, if they’re anything to go by, you’re not the only one feeling overwhelmed by life and its pressures. The world is apparently looking for non-medical interventions to feel better, and SA is in the thick of that quest.

Travelling for wellness is a trend that shows no signs of abating. The related industry is projected to grow to $919bn by 2022 as stressed and burnt-out people fly around the world to find the best retreats to detox and rejuvenate. This is unsurprising, given the global movement towards health consciousness and toxin-and stress-free living.

Hello Happiest, Cape Town
Hello Happiest, Cape Town

Such a search for happiness, health and wellbeing led Hello Happiest founder Christi Wasserman from a stressful, demanding path in the financial services industry to a flourishing wellness business and general peace of mind.

"I was doing my CFA1 [chartered financial analyst exam] and I was unhappy, burnt out, overweight and very stressed. I decided to turn my life around. So I started going to yoga classes, and doing yoga changed me as a person. I found healthy eating at the same time as well, and I lost something like 10kg a month in the first three months," says Wasserman.

This led to her training to become a yoga teacher and starting a yoga events business, where she saw guests once a month.

That was in 2016. She has since grown her business significantly, branching out into activities and treatments that include massages, fitness training, meditation and mindfulness, wellness coaching and life coaching.

She hosts her gatherings at 26 Sunset Villa in Cape Town, overlooking the swanky suburb of Llandudno and its patch of rarified beach. With its beautiful, uninterrupted ocean views and tranquil setting, the Villa is a great getaway from daily stresses.

"It’s just the perfect spot for people to feel like they are disconnecting and stepping into this seaside paradise," she says.

The "2018 Global Wellness Tourism Economy" study by the Global Wellness Institute says wellness travel grew by 6.5% between 2015 and 2017 — during which time it was valued as a $639bn market. It’s growing faster than overall tourism, which grew by 3.2% between 2015 and 2017.

The wellness travel sector is projected to reach an annual rate of 7.5% by 2022.

The institute says emerging markets are the ones to watch, with more than half of the wellness travel expenditure coming from these areas, which include North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Wellness travellers are known to spend a pretty penny for peace of mind, paying an average of $1,528 a trip in 2017. Local travellers are also happy to blow a lot of money on their wellbeing, shelling out more than $600 on a health trip, which is 178% more than what local tourists spend on an average holiday.

Hello Happiest, Cape Town
Hello Happiest, Cape Town

"What’s happening in Cape Town is that wellness is booming," says Wasserman. "There are yoga classes everywhere, there are lots of gyms and things like that, but there are also beautiful properties that are starting to create tailor-made experiences for people, like ours."

Accommodation company Airbnb found that bookings for wellness-related experiences have increased by more than 500%.

Over the past year, most of the people who have travelled to SA for wellness fixes have come from countries such as France, Canada and Germany. The biggest growth in this type of vacation has been among people aged 60 and above and those aged between 18 and 24.

SA saw a 196% increase in wellness travel between 2017 and 2018, with Cape Town the most popular destination, followed by Joburg, Durban and Pretoria.

Some of Wasserman’s guests found her through Airbnb, but many of her local guests have come via word of mouth. She’s got plenty of returning guests too.

Favourite activities for local guests are Wasserman’s sunset yoga classes, followed by champagne and canapés (so not just carrot sticks then), and one-night retreats. These stayovers are tailored specifically for guests and might include wellness coaching, steam and ocean therapy, as well as massages. You can expect to pay R400 for sunset yoga or yoga brunch and R2,500 for the one-night wellness sanctuary.

The experience is rounded off by healthy, fresh food.

"We have a holistic health private chef who makes any kind of cuisine guests want, from raw vegan through to banting and high protein. They tell us their health preferences and we make it happen," says Wasserman.

Inland escape

Clinical psychologist Julia Halstead-Cleak says the increasing number of people who consulted her about burnout and anxiety led her to start the Oxford Healthcare Retreat, a specialist detox guesthouse, in March last year.

Tucked away in Melrose, Joburg, the facility is an oasis in a fast-paced city where slowing down can be difficult.

At the retreat guests can make use of facilities including a sauna room, flotation pool and a music room. They are also served healthy food.

Karen Turis, the retreat’s manager, massage therapist and yoga teacher, says: "Our aim … is to offer skills and tools for wellbeing, through the yoga and mindfulness, but also to understand an individual’s needs and offer experiences which will translate into take-home skills for improved self-nurturing and wellbeing."

She adds that the yoga sessions are meant to encourage guests to reconnect with their bodies, so that those with aches and pains can release their stress, anxiety and tension.

In addition to yoga classes and mindfulness, guests are offered consultations with psychologists and nutritionists. The food served is centred on conscious eating.

"Meals are nutritionally balanced, low GI and as free from allergens as possible," says Turis. "We avoid preservatives and artificial ingredients. We often find that guests regulate body weight and digestion during their stay with us, simply by eating three balanced meals a day."

Joburg resident Jill Hindshaw has stayed at the retreat three times and has had treatments between stays.

The first time she stayed was for a week with her husband; the second time she went by herself for a week; and the third time was with a friend, with some treatments in between.

She had reflexology and massages and used the flotation pool.

The craniosacral therapy, a treatment that uses touch to manipulate the joints in the skull, had the biggest impact.

"I enjoyed the [craniosacral therapy] because I was so stressed out, I was so tense. I had got myself in such a state, I’ve never been so upset in my life. I was shaking, I was so angry and I was so stressed and frustrated, and within 10 minutes she [the therapist] had me asleep. I couldn’t believe it," says Hindshaw, who works in IT architecture.

She found Oxford Health Retreat peaceful, with great food and staff — things that are difficult to find for people who are stressed and are looking for a break.