Why wellness cruises are the new health trend

Photo: Getty Images; art: Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle

Breathe, I told myself. Chill.

I was lying on a yoga mat on the deck of the National Geographic Sea Bird. It was just before dawn, the sky above me violet. As we floated in Ensenada Grande, a pristine bay in Baja California Sur, about two dozen people — including a female rapper from Chicago, a middle-aged woman from New York and her niece, and a couple from Miami — lay quietly breathing with me. We’d all come to the serene Sea of Cortez, where Spaniards first sailed in 1533, to get away and find bliss.

The trip, called Base Camp Baja, was a new wellness cruise offered by Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic in partnership with the lifestyle brand Exhale. Over two days and three nights, we explored the protected desert islands of Isla Partida and Espiritu Santo, where we didn’t see another soul. Reflecting the theme, the cuisine was decidedly healthy — mostly vegetarian and gluten-free, with snacks like dried mangoes and desserts like black bean brownies and Mexican ice pops called paletas.

Besides our Exhale instructor, who led yoga classes twice a day, there were two Lindblad wellness specialists with years of massage and yoga experience. My one regret of the voyage is that I didn’t set aside time to get one. I was too busy.

Photo by Mona Gable; Art by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle

Each day, we engaged in several physical activities, from island hikes and nature walks to snorkeling with sea lions and stand-up paddleboarding. There was adventure and solitude. During a rigorous hike through a canyon one morning, two young women spotted a baby grebe on the path, probably dropped by a peregrine falcon. (The bird was happily returned to the sea.) One afternoon, I took a 4-mile walk on the shell-speckled shore of Bahia Bonanza, a white sand beach, dipping in and out of the clear green water when I got sweaty. I was totally alone on the beach. And in heaven.

Speaking of heaven, on another night as we were heading back to the ship in a small Zodiac boat, naturalist Linda Burback cut the motor. Then she beamed a light up into the black star-drenched sky, pointing out Orion and other constellations. It was a moment of wonder. But she wasn’t done yet. “Put your hand in the water, and swish it around,” she said. I did, and zillions of tiny lights like fireflies erupted, a phenomenon known as bioluminescence. The effect was mesmerizing.

It’s no wonder that wellness cruises like this are a fast-growing niche in tourism. According to the Global Wellness Summit, wellness tourism is slated to make $680 billion by next year. “This wellness trend is really big all over the world,” said Amy Sobesky, one of the wellness specialists on the ship, who did her yoga training in Baja and India.

According to a 2017 report by the Adventure Travel Trade Association, people are increasingly seeking out travel experiences that focus on mental, spiritual, and physical health, and in exquisite natural settings. The uptick in wellness travel is relatively new, but it also reflects a broader interest in fitness and health. “Well-being is part of our everyday conversation now,” said Carly Renshaw, a wellness travel expert in Vancouver, British Columbia. “People want to live better lives, and travel is a major component.”

Photo by Mona Gable; Art by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle

As such, companies are peddling a variety of wellness trips to health-minded travelers seeking meaningful experiences. And what better way to practice self-care than aboard a paradise-bound ship?

Yet trips that emphasize wellness promise a lot. Can they really be as transformative as they suggest? Will you come home feeling restored?

Although that’s a hard question to answer, wellness cruises are the latest fad to take advantage of the wellness craze. Like most aspects of travel, they run the gamut, from posh to down-to-earth, from quick getaways to long excursions. As such, you can pay anywhere from $2,000 to $15,000. There are also different ways to define “wellness” — is it meditation, massage, yoga, organic food, and no booze? Or fitness classes, gym facilities, and some yoga with beauty treatments thrown in?

“To me, wellness means coming to places you wouldn’t normally be, connecting with nature, being still with yourself, to help you connect with who you are,” Sobesky told me. “People feel more grounded.”

The spirit of the place is essential. “I’ve been coming to Baja for a long time,” said Michelle Brugiere, Lindblad’s other wellness specialist. “When I come here, I feel like I’m coming home, like I’m being embraced by the land. Lots of people say the same. They will talk about the magic of Baja. It takes you away from the craziness.”

Photo by Mona Gable; Art by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle

UnCruise Adventures, a small-ship adventure tour operator with capacity for only 48 passengers, sails to cool places like Costa Rica, Panama, and the Sea of Cortez, and has a variety of wellness instructors onboard, from fitness and yoga teachers to skin care and nutrition experts. On shore, they provide activities like kayaking, hiking, and snorkeling.

On the grander end, luxury cruise line Silversea offers Wellness Expeditions to such far-flung destinations as Phuket and Ho Chi Minh City. The ships are large, with nearly 600 passengers, so the experience is more like being part of a floating small town. Onboard, you’ll find yoga and Pilates classes, but also high-end gym facilities. Needless to say, the focus is on healthy cuisine — you can even consult a nutritionist. One of Silversea’s newest ships, the Silver Muse, has a full-service spa, where you can indulge in holistic therapies, aromatherapy, and other sensory treatments.

Some of these trips cater to a wealthy clientele, but wellness doesn’t have to be so extravagant. There’s a lot of room in wellness travel right now for cruises that are smaller, intimate, and more affordable. For me, the best part of my wellness cruise had nothing to do with expensive spa treatments but rather the beauty of nature. The best part of your wellness cruise could very well be the same.

One early morning in Baja, a flurry of splashing erupted about 100 yards off the bow. Binoculars were lifted, people gathered from their cabins at the rails. A pod of orcas were meticulously driving to the surface a group of panicked manta rays. The rays were their breakfast.

“I’ve been coming here for 22 years,” said Burback, as she stood at the rail looking out. “That’s maybe the fifth or sixth time I’ve seen killer whales.” She shook her head. “You’re on a trip for two days, and you see killer whales? You’ve hit the jackpot.”

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