Life Lessons From a Wellness Retreat in the Berkshires

Canyon Ranch isn't just a getaway. It's a gateway to healthier living.

March 9, 2024 6:48 am
Bellefontaine Mansion in Lenox, Massachusetts, which is part of the Canyon Ranch campus. Here's our review of the wellness retreat.
The mansion at the center of it all. Here's what it was like to spend four days at Canyon Ranch.
Courtesy of Canyon Ranch

I’ve always wondered how “well” one can possibly get on a wellness retreat. The phrase’s individual words are somewhat oppositional: a retreat is a short-lived reprieve, while wellness, as we’ve come to understand it in recent years, is a lifelong pursuit.

Today’s wellness retreats have come a long way, to be sure. They don’t operate like the “fat farms” of yore, where self-loathing adults absconded to eat too little and spend too much. Interested parties can now choose between running camps, tech detox villages, pickleball clinics and mountain spas that happily bury guests in volcanic mud. The menu is much longer than it once was.

Still, does reserving PTO days and hard-earned dollars for the mighty expectation of feeling better actually work? Or does it cultivate too much pressure, and run you the risk of travel regret? Can a wellness retreat actually leave you better than it found you? And if so — how, exactly?

As the old adage says: when you want answers, best to go straight to the top. Last month, my girlfriend and I took Amtrak’s Empire Line straight up the Hudson, from New York City to Albany, where a car was waiting to take us across the border (through the western backdoor) to the Berkshires in Massachusetts.

We spent four days and three nights at Canyon Ranch, which was voted one of the best spa resorts in the country for 2023, according to Condé Nast Traveler readers. Here’s an account of what the retreat offers, what I learned and how I felt upon returning to reality.

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We recently got acquainted with “aufguss,” a Northern European pastime

Welcome to Canyon Ranch

Quick dossier on Canyon Ranch: the company has three resorts — Lenox, MA; Tucson, AZ; and Woodside, CA — plus multiple spas in Las Vegas hotels.

The brand goes further back than you’d expect. (Assuming you just took a cursory look at its Instagram, which is populated with skincare models and Olympics cyclists.) It was founded in 1979 by Mel and Enid Zuckerman, after the former, an Arizona land developer with roots in New Jersey, had a pair of middle-aged “aha” moments.

First, at the age of 40, Mel was told by a doctor that he had the physiological profile of a 65-year-old man. Little wonder: he dealt with his chronic stress by eating half a gallon of ice cream a night. A decade later, his father was diagnosed with lung cancer and died within six months. Mel recalled his dying father holding his head in his hands, saying over and over again, “If only I had listened to my doctors.”

Not long after his father’s death, Mel traveled to an early-years wellness retreat, in Ojai, CA. Overweight and asthmatic, it took him 25 minutes to walk his first mile. But he stayed for a full month, losing 29 pounds while gaining a new dream. He resolved to open an approachable, holistic retreat home in Tucson. More resorts followed in the decades hence.

Mel died just last year, at the age of 94. According to trainers I spoke with at Canyon Ranch, he could still be seen bouncing around the facilities’ gyms well into his 90s.

A look at Canyon Ranch's daily schedule.
A typical day at Canyon Ranch includes a stunning variety of activities.
Canyon Ranch App

The Daily Schedule

What initially drew my attention to Canyon Ranch — beyond the accolades or backstory — was the daily schedule. Each day, the resort posts a lengthy, seasonally-specific itinerary, allowing guests to sign up for all manner of workout classes, fitness tests and meditative seminars.

The schedule speaks to the breadth of Canyon Ranch’s gyms and studios, sure, but also to the depth of its wellness philosophy. The idea is to borrow from (and partake in) a wide variety of experiences; as opposed to retreats that hinge on a core concept like “lose weight,” or, “don’t say a single word,” the mood here is less mission-based and more celebratory — of movement, of moments, of miscellany.

My girlfriend and I found the classes low-key, informative and highly stackable: We assembled full days that felt challenging without feeling like chores. We took four different yoga classes (a different instructor each time), a barre class, a strength training course in an indoor pool, a balance assessment, a three-hour Nordic walk to see a frozen waterfall (evidently not far from Yo-Yo Ma’s house). We also spent an hour painting fruit in acrylic. The class started with our teacher handing around a Rick Rubin quote about the perils of chasing perfection in creative expression. It’s for that reason alone that my clementines did not look particularly realistic.

The Full Gamut

Outside the daily schedule, we also took advantage of more casual offerings: playing squash, shooting hoops and going for walks on the trails outside the Lenox property’s anchoring mansion (called Bellefontaine, and seen here in 1912). I also set aside a few hours for one of the resort’s more serious athletic “pathways”: taking a metabolic assessment, or VO2 max test, with an on-site performance scientist. More on that in The Charge next week.

Canyon Ranch doesn’t just sell a restorative weekend to clients, but proffers highly personal (and useful) health information, too, if you’re curious enough to obtain it. The campus has all the scanners, treadmills, cameras and monitors necessary to analyze body composition, perform sleep screenings and treat musculoskeletal pain. They also, I noticed, have professionals handy to fix your tennis serve once and for all.

Of course, some elements of the experience didn’t fully hit. As open-minded as I was about sampling courses beyond my typical weekly cycle of runs and lifts, I felt somewhat conspicuous in a “Long and Lean” barre class of 30 female retirees. According to one trainer I spoke to, the Lenox location has a reputation for being a women’s getaway (she cited the spa) from New York or Boston. Suffice to say, the men’s spa was a ghost town.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure that Canyon Ranch quite has the Equinox-esque edge it’s going for in some of its social media posts. I can’t speak to the Tucson flagship, but the Berkshires campus was more New England posh than New York City bougie, with a somewhat aged, tired feel in certain corners of campus. (See: snow-stained stairway carpets.) There’s also the unshakeable sense, at times, that one has stumbled into a retirement community, rehab facility or the basement of a church.

Gateway > Getaway

Should those details disqualify the place from your consideration? No, I don’t think so. Far from it. I felt quite at home at Canyon Ranch after a few days, and came to appreciate that the aesthetic felt more lived-in than intense. My girlfriend and I even remarked that we could’ve spent four more days there, if given the chance, just registering for more classes, taking more hikes and even eating more meals at the resort’s single restaurant, which, comically, we dined at three times a day, White Lotus-style, for the entirety of our stay.

I wrestled with my original question the entire time: How well can one possibly get on a wellness retreat? By the final day, I’d reached a conclusion: a wellness retreat can make you feel better, in a variety of temporary and tangible ways.

For instance, the food portions are smaller and use more local ingredients, and less salt. That’s a fact. Eating that way for days in a row will give your stomach a break. The yoga classes (four in four days, as I mentioned) will have you breathing more than you do in a month behind the computer. That’s another win, for brain and body. Then there’s the sheer fun of it; the blend of schedule and listlessness, from rallying for a hike to sitting by a fire in the library while waiting for dinner (my girlfriend and I rifling through a compendium of every New Yorker cartoon drawn and captioned since the 1920s). These things lift the spirit. Spending days in this way will remind you of what you like, of what you are like — separate from all the responsibilities and internet hours that clog up a typical week.

Still, ultimately, a wellness retreat’s bearing on your health and wellness depends on your desire and willingness to cling to the experience, to carry its touchstones back to reality. I left Canyon Ranch with a random slate of wellness impressions and ambitions:

  • Take more workout classes (especially yoga)
  • Read the newspaper more often (I really enjoyed this ritual at Canyon Ranch)
  • Go Nordic walking next winter (the poles are fun)
  • See if I can play squash somewhere in NYC (also wicked fun)
  • And test my balance more, I’ll need it when I’m older (one of the best ways is to simply close the eyes and attempt to tread in a straight line)

These aren’t earth-shattering conclusions, but I’m confident that sticking to just a few of them will contribute to my wellness journey for years to come — maybe even for the rest of my life. With a little luck, I’ll be walking into gyms when I’m 90 years old, too.

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