Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always thought travel should be reserved for bacchanalian indulgence. Tequila tastings, urban pizza tours, pastry pilgrimages – add them all to my itinerary. When I’m not travelling, I’ll try any workout and even give a juice cleanse a whirl (maybe), but I prefer to keep my health to my home turf. A holiday is an opportunity for me to let my glutton flag fly.
And yet, I’m not oblivious to the fact that wellness travel has become big business – to the tune of $563.2 billion (USD) in 2015 and a projected $800 billion by 2020, according to the Global Wellness Institute. There are hordes of people, at this very minute, abstaining from alcohol, caffeine and guacamole…WHILE ON HOLIDAY. Even more horrifying, about five years ago, while working at a women’s fashion magazine in New York, I learned of an Austrian clinic where the top echelons of society paid thousands of dollars per week to stay in prison-style bunkers and consume stale spelt bread along with Epsom-salt smoothies in order to, well, clear their guts. Extra-curricular activities included nasal reflexology, in which a specialist would jab cotton swabs into guests’ nostrils half a dozen times. ‘It’s supposed to be FAB-ulous’, I heard one editor coo to another. To me, it sounded like a case of the emperor has no clothes (and cotton rods up his nose).
I always figured, ‘well, better them than me’, until I recently came across a book called The French Beauty Solution, which in turn led me to Les Sources de Caudalie – a boutique hotel in Bordeaux, France that would forever change my perspective on wellness escapes.
The French Beauty Solution was written by Mathilde Thomas, who, along with her husband, Bertrand, co-founded the beauty brand Caudalie – a line of skincare products that harness the anti-aging properties of grapes. Mathilde begins the book by laying out the pleasure principle, which basically says: ‘If it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it’. That’s wellness advice I can get behind.
From there, I learned about Mathilde’s family. Her parents, Daniel and Florence Cathiard, are retired pro skiers who bought a 14th-century vineyard called Château Smith Haut Lafitte back in 1990. That’s where Mathilde originally found her inspiration for Caudalie and where, in 1999, her younger sister, Alice Tourbier, and Alice’s husband, Jérôme, opened the 60-room hotel, Les Sources de Caudalie.
If I had to imagine an ideal travel-wellness scenario, a boutique hotel set on a wine estate with a top-notch spa sounds exactly right. Which is why I’ve decided to pack my bags and fly to Bordeaux (leaving all my yoga clothes at home).
I arrive before check-in, so the front-desk attendant escorts me to Rouge, the hotel’s tapas bar, for lunch. On the walk there, I get a glimpse of the property, which is set up like a French village around a lake. Guest rooms are divided into chalets named for the nature and geography of the surrounding Aquitaine region. I’ll be staying in a building dedicated to Cap Ferret – the 11-mile stretch of sand about an hour’s drive from Bordeaux that’s famous for its oysters and low-key beaches. My room is, appropriately, La Plage des Américains, and I ask the attendant if they’ve placed me there because my French is so bad, but she assures me that’s not the case.
At Rouge, there’s a fire blazing and a pair of fellow Américains in the middle of a wine tasting. Next to them, I spot a group of French 20-somethings huddled around a charcuterie spread. I settle into a corner and order Iberian chorizo, ceviche, Pyrénées cheese and a glass of red wine. There’s not a slice of stale spelt bread in sight and already I can tell I’ve found my wellness tribe.
Soon I get word that Wilfried Morandini, Les Sources de Caudalie’s general manager, has invited me for tea. I’m eager to confirm the pleasure principle with a real-life French person, so I scoot back to the main building, where he’s arranged for freshly baked canelés to accompany our afternoon brew. I dive right in and ask Wilfried, ‘What does wellness mean to the French?’
‘It’s to come here and just do nothing’, he tells me.
‘Nothing?’ I repeat back, leery that either the jetlag has messed with my hearing or that nothing means something completely different in French; like it’s their translation for ‘high-intensity interval training’.
‘Nothing’, he confirms.
Wilfried regularly works 13-hour days in the hotel, managing a team of 90 employees (120 in the peak spring/summer months). He’s got a grand total of 25 Michelin stars under his belt, if you add up all the accolades bestowed on the places where he’s worked. He is certainly no slouch, so I take to heart his definition of living the good life.
My room is ready, which is perfect timing as I’m anxious to begin doing nothing (yes, I’m that committed to wellness). La Plage des Américains is a second-level suite with a separate bedroom and sitting room, plus a balcony – a sublime spot for practising the art of nil. The beachy theme is subtle, told through whitewashed tongue-and-groove wood panelling and a photo-collage wall featuring marine images, including sea grass, nautical ropes and sailboat pulleys. I rest my head on a sunshine-yellow toucan pillow and for a moment feel like I’m alone in an oceanfront shack, rather than surrounded by a sea of grapevines.
Eventually I break with my nothingness to Google ‘Can good interior design make you healthier?’ There’s no easy answer (nobody’s claiming, for example, that the presence of crown molding will lower your cholesterol), but there is some food for thought. Basic principles of both Chinese Feng Shui and Indian Vastu Shastra call out the therapeutic benefits of design that’s in harmony with the environment. In addition to all the marine tributes in my room, the buildings at Les Sources de Caudalie have been built with recycled local materials. I’d say they’ve nailed the nature-design-harmony quotient. I also find a study from the University of Minnesota that says high ceilings boost mood and creativity – my room nails that, too. I can’t find evidence that toucan pillows make serotonin levels surge, but I can anecdotally confirm that this plush bird indeed brings me pleasure.
It’s not only my suite that’s so well appointed. Each room is unique and they are all a trove of antiques and artwork, thanks to Alice Tourbier, who leads the interior design efforts across the property. ‘The style of Les Sources de Caudalie is authenticity’, Alice later tells me. ‘We want it to be like a French home. There’s plenty of furniture here that has had a previous life, and I found it very interesting to bring those pieces to light again and give them a new life in our hotel.’
The crème de la crème – currently decked out in the colour crème – is L’île aux Oiseaux (Bird Island). This overwater suite on stilts gets a complete overhaul every two years. French bridal designer Delphine Manivet created the current iteration, which features gauzy textiles, a blush-pink chaise, fashion photography and a standalone tub covered in iridescent tiles. A new design will be chosen this year. ‘Maybe we’ll go with another fashion designer, or maybe it’ll be an artist who has stayed with us. We’ll see…’ says Alice.
Of course I have to ask Alice for her definition of wellness, and she immediately brings up the French paradox (which is also the name of the bar just off the lobby). Coined in the 1980s, the phrase was an attempt to explain contradictory findings that, despite eating a diet high in saturated fat and drinking loads of wine, the French have relatively fewer cases of heart disease, especially when compared to Americans and Brits. Wine was hailed as a superfood that would allow us to gorge on cheese and croissants with abandon. Unfortunately, it turned out that wasn’t exactly the case, but even so, research did confirm that wine has heart-protective qualities, thanks to chemicals found in grapes called polyphenols.
‘For us, wellness is all about feeling good, eating good food, having one or two glasses of wine a day’, Alice explains. ‘In Bordeaux, we say one or two glasses of wine a day keeps the doctor away.’ Considering the hotel’s vineyard location, guests at Les Sources de Caudalie should have no problem hitting their daily quota.
Only a narrow dirt path separates the hotel from Château Smith Haut Lafitte, where the wine making happens and where Alice and Mathilde’s parents still work today. I head over and meet Alix Ounis, wine tourism manager, who shows me around a 16th-century tower, a workshop where an onsite cooper builds barrels, and an underground cellar with 1,000 vessels of aging wine.
The château, just like the hotel, is in tune with nature. Alix explains the eco practices at play, including the use of solar panels, horses for ploughing (rather than herbicides) and a stealth eco cellar – hidden in the forest beneath a vegetative roof – that recycles carbon dioxide waste into sodium bicarbonate (which can then be used to make toothpaste, for example). ‘If every château in Bordeaux recycled their carbon dioxide,’ Alix explains, ‘it would balance the carbon footprint of a daily round-trip flight between Bordeaux and Shanghai.’
When I ask Alix if wine is an integral part of wellness, she shrieks, ‘Of course!’, practically tumbling out of her chair in the process. ‘We have a philosophy here: less but better. Drink less wine – maybe a glass per day – but drink really, really great wine. And if you don’t drink during the week, have two or three glasses during the weekend.’
Following the ‘less but better’ philosophy, Nicolas Masse more than does his part to create really, really great food. The Normandy-born chef oversees all three restaurants at Les Source de Caudalie, including Rouge (the tapas bar), La Table du Lavoir (a bistro set in a reconstructed 19th-century wash house) and La Grand’Vigne (the fine-dining experience that has earned two Michelin stars).
As soon as I meet Nicolas, I tell him I’ve heard rumors that those from Normandy are men of very few words. Fittingly, he responds only with ‘Yes.’ I soon discover that his food is similarly to the point. ‘I often put one product on the plate,’ he tells me, ‘and anything else I add is just to make that one product better. If I added too many other foods and spices, it would make the plate difficult to understand.’ Also important to his cuisine, the use of local ingredients, including those from the vineyards. Nicolas uses wine yeast in his bread, and smokes beef in the branches from grape vines.
It’s only the second meal of my stay, and I get to feast on Nicolas’s tasting menu at La Grand’Vigne. When the waiter asks me if I’d prefer the five-course option or the seven-course version, I remember another detail from that hellacious Austrian wellness clinic: second servings at mealtime were never allowed. ‘Seven, s’il vous plaît’, I respond, fully committed to a feast.
What follows is a culinary trek through Aquitaine. It’s made even more enjoyable because there’s perfectly paired wine – chosen by head sommelier Aurélien Farrouil – carrying me, like a wide-eyed and curious baby in a swaddle lined with grapes, from course to course. There’s sea scallop carpaccio, a single stalk of grilled white asparagus, a farm egg, sea-bass from La Cotinière (a fishing port north of Bordeaux), venison in grand veneur sauce, as well as candied grapefruit and a pear covered in meringue discs.
Because the hotel wants you to eat your seven courses without even a glimmer of guilt, there are exercise options available. There’s a fitness centre as well as an indoor lap pool, plus an 8km path through the vineyards for either jogging or cycling (the hotel has bikes to borrow). Additionally, there are tennis courts, and between April and October, there’s a personal trainer on the grounds for private workout sessions. But the onsite fitness feature I find most compelling is the Five Senses Forest, an eight-hectare stroll through the woods that the property added just last summer.
Described as an ‘open-sky museum’, the Five Senses Forest is essentially a two-hour nature stroll with art along the way. I set out on the trail one afternoon (stupidly wearing velour boots – like I said, I’m not a wellness expert) and discover sculptures, musical instruments, gurgling brooks, llamas, goats, a fragrant garden filled with roses and chamomile, as well as the eco-friendly stealth cellar that Alix mentioned. The whole Five Senses experience makes me think of Japanese forest bathing – a stress-reducing form of therapy practiced by simply being in the forest – though this version is so very French because there’s wine involved. If this all sounds like something that belongs at a boho retreat in the cannabis fields of California, trust a fellow cynic when I say, it is truly Zen.
Though I’m already pretty mellow following my forest foray, I have yet to experience the hotel’s most grandiose of health adventures, the grand cru of wellness exploits – the spa. As you’d expect at the world’s first facility devoted to vinotherapy, the grape is a pretty big deal here. Treatments include baths in red vine extracts, moisturizing wraps made of wine yeast, exfoliating scrubs with grape seeds, and relaxing fruit-focused rubs (one such massage is called, appropriately, Pulp Friction).
My appointment is early in the morning, and as I cut across the grounds I admire the fog that still hangs over the lake, making the L’île aux Oiseaux suite look like it’s floating on a cloud. As I approach the spa, a standalone structure made of blonde wood, I’m struck by how much the building itself reminds me of a wine barrel. It’s as though some ogre of a cooper (with perfectly exfoliated skin, no doubt) has crafted the spa from leftover oak. Unlike a wine vessel, however, what goes on between these wooden walls is all about anti-aging. It turns out polyphenols aren’t just beneficial when consumed in wine. They can also stave off skin damage caused by free radicals, such as sunlight, pollution and smoking, when applied topically.
I’ve booked a body scrub and a facial, but I get there early so I can take a dip in the spa’s natural hot-spring-fed pool. After my vinotherapist finds me kicked back on a lounger nibbling fresh grapes, she leads me to private treatment room. She then mixes up a sublime concoction of grape seeds, honey, brown sugar, and essential oils, which she expertly massages into my torso and limbs. Once I’ve rinsed off, she starts the facial, which includes a collagen-stimulating massage and a resveratrol-enriched mask. To be totally honest, it feels so good I don’t even care if the treatment is anti-aging or not, but I suppose youthful radiance isn’t a bad side effect.
From the time I leave the spa, to my trip to the Bordeaux airport later that day, all the way back to the States, I cannot stop touching my skin – it’s never felt smoother. I think of how Alix described feeling ‘shiny’ after a spa visit and I concur. My complexion is easily a 2018 vintage now.
Some 16 hours later, I’m home. I’ve decided to keep up with my newfound French health regimen, so before I even think about unpacking, I pour myself a glass of red wine. I then stretch out on my couch and alternate taking sips with spritzing my face with Caudalie Grape Water – a last-minute souvenir from the Bordeaux airport. Wellness, it turns out, really does suit me.