The complete guide to Healing Holidays

A 'healing holiday' needn't be restricted to group hugging or navel gazing ­ it can actually be quite enjoyable. From swimming with dolphins in the Pacific Ocean, to reacquainting yourself with Mother Nature in a tipi in Cornwall, there are many paths to the gates of virtue and inner peace. Sarah Barrell gives a few hints on how to realign your chakras

Yoga, acupuncture and Ayurvedic spa treatments, activities and practices that were once considered "out there" are fast being gobbled up by the mainstream holiday market. Unlike as little as a decade ago, the word "alternative" is no longer really applicable; "heal thyself" is increasingly becoming the holidaymaker's tenet. It would seem that we all have well-adjusted chi, eat macrobiotic and meditate as a matter of course, but do we really know how to get the best out of a therapeutic break?

Heal thyself!

Yoga, acupuncture and Ayurvedic spa treatments, activities and practices that were once considered "out there" are fast being gobbled up by the mainstream holiday market. Unlike as little as a decade ago, the word "alternative" is no longer really applicable; "heal thyself" is increasingly becoming the holidaymaker's tenet. It would seem that we all have well-adjusted chi, eat macrobiotic and meditate as a matter of course, but do we really know how to get the best out of a therapeutic break?

But I'm perfectly healthy!

Ah yes, but are you? And even if the answer is "yes", as soon as you start thinking about a holiday, your stress levels are bound to grind up a gear or two. Planning a holiday can be one of life's most stressful endeavours, especially for families. Perversely, it seems the less time you have to squeeze in a holiday, the more you need it. And if, three days into your hard-earned beach break, you find that you are still twitching and thinking about your in-tray, then perhaps a healing holiday is for you.

Active relaxing, structured de-stressing or just plain old self-indulgence ­ healing holidays cover everything from learning about alternative medicine in China to something as simple as taking a holiday from hotels by staying somewhere novel, say a tipi in Cornwall or a nomad's tent in Turkey.

Isn't this all a little worthy?

Doesn't have to be. Those scared off by the thought of embarking on a pseudo-religious "learning experience" should consider something utterly indulgent instead. Villa Tranquilla, in southern Spain, is a new property to come under the wing of the Ashburton Centre (01364 652784; www.ashburtoncentre.co.uk). This UK-based company, specialising in creative, cookery and health retreats, has just started seasons at a converted cortijo (farmhouse) in Estepona on the Costa del Sol.

You can learn the art of Mediterranean cookery, using Moroccan herbs and spices to recreate ancient recipes, or alternatively indulge your creative side, on a writing course guided by writers such as Hanif Kureishi and Hugo Williams. Yoga, art and music courses are available at no extra cost during these one-week courses. Accommodation is in one of the cortijo's three luxury villas, and the cost, per person, is £485 ­ based on two sharing a twin room ­ including full board and all courses. Flights to Malaga and transfers (which the centre can arrange for £10 each way) are extra; reckon on £200 return for a no-frills or charter flight in July or August.

Where's the most popular place to get yourself together again?

A pilgrimage is the original "healing" holiday for both the body and soul. In the Christian world, nowhere does it quite like Lourdes ­ even though this Pyrenean city is a relative latecomer to the pilgrims' trail. Lourdes is Europe's most popular pilgrimage site, attracting over five million visitors each year ­ more, in a good year, than Rome. The Christian faithful are drawn to the curative properties that a dip in the waters here is said to afford.

Those who don't have the time or the health to make the traditional pilgrimage on foot can take a weekend trip to Lourdes with St Peter's Tours (020-8244 8844; www.stpeter.co.uk). Pilgrimages operate three times a month between April and October, and the cost of a three-night stay is £259 per person, based on two sharing, including full-board hotel accommodation, return flights and transfers.

I Get only two weeks holiday a year ­ have I got time to 'heal'?

Yes. You don't have to opt for six months subsisting on lentils in an ashram. It might be unwise to expect to "find yourself" in a fortnight, but there are various ways a short break can put the life back into an ailing soul.

Escape it all and head for the hills, the Malvern Hills, for a weekend break at Runnings Park Centre for Health, Healing and Self-Development (01684 573868; www.runningspark.co.uk). The centre is set in 17 acres of parkland, and offers courses on everything from how to "heal your home" with feng shui to (one for brave boys) "Exploring Your Manhood".

For the uninitiated, however, the most accessible way to enjoy a weekend in rural Worcestershire is with plain old-fashioned pampering. Two nights of "Health and Relaxation" at Runnings Park consists of two massages and a choice of a further two treatments (flotation tanks, reflexology, aromatherapy and holistic massage and healing), and costs £188 per person based on two people sharing a twin room, and includes all meals.

How do I know that i'm not getting a quack?

Difficult. As difficult as regulating alternative medicine itself. Devoid of a divining rod, one way to seek out reputable practitioners is to ask the advice of a company such as Neal's Yard Agency (0870 444 2702). It styles itself as a "Travel Agent for Inner Journeys", though the only product the company sells direct is a programme of yoga holidays in Ulpotha in central Sri Lanka (see box, opposite). The firm can, though, provide information on a vast range of personal-development travel ideas and holistic holidays and retreats.

In terms of your rights as a holidaymaker, the best protection is to book a package covered by an Air Travel Organiser's Licence (Atol), which means that if the firm goes bust, the Civil Aviation Authority refunds your money. (Neal's Yard Agency, along with many other companies in this field, does not sell the flight along with the accommodation and therefore neither needs nor possesses an Atol).

You can also buy a certain degree of protection by booking with a company that belongs to the Association of British Travel Agents (call the premium-rate line 0901 201 5050 to find out if a particular firm is a member) or the Association of Independent Tour Operators (020-8744 9280). However, many specialist agencies dealing with healing holidays are small, independent outfits that are often not registered with these bodies.

What if I don't want to 'bond' with perfect strangers?

It's true that many holidays offering therapeutic activities are group-oriented. Increasingly, however, the fashionable way to find yourself seems to be at your own leisure, with many holidays offering courses that can be dropped in and out of with little or no pre-arranging.

Huzur Vadisi, in southwest Turkey is as far from a group hug as you could wish to be. Accommodation is in yurts (circular domed tents traditionally favoured by Central Asian nomads), and there is a natural stone swimming pool, making it a wonderful place "just to be". This friendly mountain retreat offers excellent walking trails in addition to all kinds of courses from yoga to belly-dancing. A "Relaxation Week" with full board is £285 per person, based on two sharing a twin yurt. Flights to Dalaman, and transfers are extra ­ reckon on around £200 in summer. The organisation is based in Aberystwyth in Wales (01970 626821, www.huzurvadisi.com).

What if I have a family in tow?

No problem. Families in need of a bit of therapeutic rest and relaxation have plenty of options that don't involve abandoning children to "kids clubs" or crèches. Back under canvas, you could try, for example, Cornish Tipi Holidays (01208 880781, www.cornish-tipi-holidays.co.uk) where you (and your children) get to play North American Indians. The tipis are constructed along authentic lines (18 feet high and made out of non-bleached canvas) are dressed with rugs and lanterns and scattered throughout a wild flower-filled Cornish valley. Formerly a quarry, the valley has a lake that is accessible for swimming, fishing and boating. No cars are allowed on site.

All equipment, save bed linen, is provided, making this one of the more stress-free camping holidays around. The cost is £250 per week for a tipi sleeping two to four people, plus a charge of £10 per head (from which under twos are exempt).

What if I want to stray beyond the confines of a resort?

You aren't restricted to retreats and campsites. Adventurous travellers after healing their itchy feet with a far-flung journey could try Master Travel (020-8678 5320, www.mastertravel.co.uk). This company specialises in traditional therapies and healing holidays to China, Russia, Japan, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Peru and Bolivia, India, Ecuador (including the Galapagos) and Chile. One tour, Complementary Therapies in China, takes place in the first two weeks of September. It compares the use of western therapies with more traditional treatments such as acupuncture, Tui Na massage and herbal treatments, and takes in the markets, therapy centres and sights of Beijing, Xian, Chengdu, Guilin, Yangzhou and Hong Kong. The cost is £2,265 per person, all-inclusive, based on two sharing.

It all sounds a little too PC for me ­ I want to take out my frustrations!

As far from passively correct as you'd care to get, fire off some pent-up aggression at a shooting range. For a really refreshing change of perspective, look at life through the barrel of a gun on a weekend retreat at Gleneagles Shooting School, in Perthshire (01764 662231). Choose from a range of clay pigeon shooting disciplines, learn how to fire an air rifle or take up archery with tuition at the Gleneagles estate, set in 800 acres of Perthshire countryside. The cost for two people sharing a twin room, full board, for one night is £545, including one session of stress-busting shooting per person.

And what about the dolphins?

No guide to healing holidays would be complete without reference to swimming with dolphins. The beneficial effects of bathing with the ocean's happiest mammal have long been noted; so much so that there are now unfortunately a number of money spinning operations where this therapy is being mishandled, to the detriment of the dolphins themselves.

One place where you can ensure that your sonar surgeons are truly swimming wild and free is on the Pacific island of Hawaii on a guided tour with Joan Ocean, author of Dolphins into the Future (yes, really). A two-week break (departing 8 November) costs £2,200 including flights, transfers, hotel accommodation, some meals, all boat trips and escorted swims. For further information, contact Diana Eder (020-8933 3253).

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