Sue Kenney once went on a silent retreat, giving up talking, writing and even eye contact for 10 days in favour of total dedication to Buddhist meditation. Another time, the Washago, Ont., resident walked 800 kilometres of Spain’s Camino trail in the middle of winter. But a five-day excursion she attended in Poland last December was, it’s fair to say, next level.
Kenney, along with 59 other participants, gathered for a cold-immersion workshop with Wim Hof, a Dutch extreme athlete and cold enthusiast known as “the Iceman.” The retreat consisted of progressive activities, from walking barefoot in the snow and doing handstands on the frozen ground to bathing under an ice-cold waterfall. (According to one inspirational quote on Facebook’s Wim Hof Method fan page: “Lonely people tend to take longer hotter showers to replace the warmth they are lacking socially or emotionally.”)
Being in the cold was “like being in a state of absolute peace," says Kenney, an author and speaker who now leads guided tours of the Camino. "When you’re sitting in an ice bath, you can’t think of anything beyond the present moment. It’s like wellness for your mitochondria, for your reptilian brain, for your mindfulness and state of awareness. [The retreat] wasn’t about proving I could do it, it was about connecting with my deeper self.”
In a bid for greater connection – and also, sometimes, just to prove they can do it – wellness travellers are finding the best way to get away from every day stressors isn’t a pina colada on the beach but a jolt of adrenalin. Wellness travel has moved from spa vacations and resorts with blocked WiFi to extreme self-improvement excursions, giving both mind and body the ultimate escape – and putting them to the test.
“There’s been a growing shift towards people pushing themselves to solve physical and mental issues,” says Beth McGroarty, director of research for the Global Wellness Institute, which recently published a report on extreme wellness travel. “They’re willing to go further and try harder. We used to think of wellness as a pampering thing and I think it’s broadened into life-changing experiences.”
The travel industry has, of course, been keen to deliver those experiences. One such way: the Yamabushido excursion. Held in the sacred mountains of Japan’s Yamagato province, the off-the-grid trip draws on Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism. Participants can expect waterfall meditation, guided walks over fire and the “powerful opportunity to begin again, by letting go of anything in your life that needs to be left in the mountain.”
Across the Pacific, travellers in Peru can participate in healing retreats organized by the Canadian-owned The 5th Dimension, which lets willing participants try ayahuasca, a plant-derived hallucinogen believed to induce consciousness-raising visions, and frog venom, under the care of an “authentic Shipibo shaman.”
If, like Kenney, you’re keen on a cold-weather pursuit, travel operator Intrepid now offers a Russia Expedition entitled Footsteps of Russia’s Reindeer Herders, which includes fishing, sledding and the opportunity to “have a personal encounter with reindeers” – which is, I guess, whatever you make of it. The company also offers dedicated digital detox trips, including trekking through glaciers in Patagonia or learning archery and wrestling in Mongolia.
Megan Bailey, Intrepid’s director of sales and customer experience, says that such itineraries cater to people who are looking to reconnect with themselves. “These people aren’t just looking for a vacation,” she says. “They want to push themselves physically and mentally, to expand horizons and push boundaries. People want to do things instead of have things, and they want really good stories to tell.”
One way travellers are sure to get a good story is with Black Tomato’s Get Lost program. Launched in 2017, these bespoke itineraries involve being dropped in an unknown location – although guests can narrow it down to options such as jungle, polar, beach, desert or mountains.
In Morocco, for example, Get Lost guests might start by navigating through a medina to find their way to dinner with a local family, pick up a 4x4 for some off-roading in a Saharan mountain range and then travel by mountain bike to a camp where they will be expected to build a shelter after being taught how to bake bread by local nomads. Black Tomato provides a satellite phone for emergencies, which has been preloaded with offline maps. The starting price for Get Lost is US$20,000 per person.
Created in conjunction with wellness expert Tanya Goodin, a self-described digital detox guru, Get Lost is intended to fuse personal transformation with complete disconnection from everyday life. “Self-improvement is at the heart of Get Lost and in an era of ‘wellness’ this is more than a pill you swallow or boutique fitness class,” says Tom Marchant, co-founder of Black Tomato. “Being completely disconnected, not near Instagram, e-mail or Facebook, the journey turns inward. There are challenges and roadblocks, moments of frustration but that is all a part of the process. The earned experience is a kind of finale like you’ve never seen.”
In the context of ubiquitous burnout and the cult of busyness, when it seems as though we’re working more than ever and that much of that work is futile, some people are also hungry for a sense of personal accomplishment. After all, how often at work do you get an objective win tantamount to successfully building your own shelter or taking home a nomad’s bread recipe?
Judi Wineland, owner of tour groups AdventureWomen and Thomson Safaris, says that it’s that need for personal achievement that drives many of her clients to book trips such as rafting in Nepal and canyoneering in Utah. “I think it makes people feel empowered,” Wineland says. “You suddenly realize that you can do a lot more than you thought you could.”
Extending yourself does come with risks. Gio Miletto, medical director of British Columbia’s Travel Medicine and Vaccination Centres, cautions anyone considering an extreme wellness trip to both investigate any underlying conditions they might have and to determine accessibility of medical care during the itinerary.
But even with risks, Global Wellness Institute’s McGroarty says it makes sense that travellers are seeking out transformative trips. “People are completely stressed out,” she says. “Lying by the pool isn’t dead, but there’s a growing percentage of people who want more.”
For Kenney, wanting more means pushing her emotional and physical limits. For her next adventure, she’s heading to Tulum, Mexico to learn cavern diving. “I’m not interested in going on a cruise,” Kenney says. “I want to explore the human condition and what I can do.”