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7 things everyone should know about retreats

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The Four Seasons Oahu at Ko Olina
Photos: The Glassy
Itineraries

Is this the most healing spot in Hawaii?


It's good enough for royalty—and a DIY retreat.

by Rebecca Willa Davis | 06.03.2018

Where do you go to find true healing when you already live in a tropical paradise? You go west—at least, you do if you’re on Oahu.

The western coast of the Hawaiian island has a long history of attracting quite literally kings and queens: Kamehameha (truly the big kahuna in the late 18th and early 19th centuries) and his wife Ka’ahumanu would retreat to the coast’s natural coves and ocean ponds, while Queen Lili’uokalani (the state’s last monarch) used the area now called Ko Olina—which loosely translates to “fulfillment of joy”—as a place to recharge away from her Honolulu palace.

Even during World War II, the healing powers remained unrivaled, and servicemen flocked westward to the grounds of Lanikuhonua, a property that means “where heaven meets the earth.”

Having survived a six-month stretch that included getting a business off the ground (that would be The Glassy—hi!) while also running a grassroots activist organization, maintaining a social life, and actually trying to eat and sleep on a semi-regular basis, I knew I needed to hit the reset button hard. But it was about more than just booking a nonstop flight to the dreamy island destination; I made the intention of healing myself in the way an organized retreat might be able to…only, I’d be solo.

The western coast of the Hawaiian island has a long history of attracting quite literally kings and kings.

And so, 11 hours after I waved goodbye to New York City I touched down in HNL, picked up my rental car, and drove west. Past the strip malls (yes, they even exit in Hawaii), past Pearl Harbor, past overpasses and multi-lane highways, until I hit the ocean.

Lanikuhonua still exists in Ko Olina, but it now has neighbors in the form of four resorts and a handful of gated communities. The newest is the Four Seasons, which abuts the Lanikuhonua property and worked closely with them to not only bless the space, but to help them incorporate local healing modalities into the resort experience.

I’m not sure if Kamehameha would kick off his visits with a freshly-blended green smoothie, but that’s what greeted me in my room—and it relaxed me way faster than a strongly poured mai tai ever could.

As a bit of a retreat junkie, I have a sense of what works and doesn’t work, so I decided to give my stay the same sort of structure I might find if I was heading upstate on an organized trip and plotted out an itinerary that balanced exploration time with quiet time, indulgence with moderation. With a game plan in place—and 48 hours to recharge, before I headed to Oahu’s North Shore—I tried to DIY a royal retreat. Here’s what I learned about making a solo recharge session a reality.

The Four Seasons Oahu at Ko Olina

Don’t be shy

The upside to staying somewhere like the Four Seasons—which, as spa director Shawn Hallum explained to me, is hyper-obsessed with customizing everything according to each guest’s needs—was that I could alert the hotel pre-visit to the fact that I was looking to have a healing, holistic experience.

By the time I got there, I knew that I wouldn’t have to worry about finding a chocolate on my pillow when I came back to my room at the end of the day (which usually I’m not mad at but, you know, there have to be some rules during a retreat, even if they’re self-imposed). Instead, I got a travel-size organic beauty kit filled with lotions, cleansers, and mists from the Hawaiian beauty brand Ola sitting on my nightstand.

Even if you don’t get such personalized treatment, more and more destinations are incorporating wellness perks into their offerings (the Four Seasons, for example, has an entire Global Wellness Day lineup planned). So letting the front desk know what you’re into makes it way more likely you’ll get access to those activities.

And even during my interactions throughout the day—with servers, with attendants, with the concierge—I’d always ask the same questions: Where do you like to work out? Where do you like to go when you’re eating healthy? Where do you like to go to relax? While not everyone was willing to blow the cover on their local spots, enough were that I quickly amassed an arsenal of options.

Yoga at The Four Seasons Ko Olina Oahu

Move your body

After a long flight—and no matter where you’re coming from, the flight to Hawaii is long—the first thing I wanted to do was move my body. While there is a golf course at Ko Olina and a generously sized gym at the Four Seasons where the elliptical machines face the Palehua-Palikea mountain range, what I really wanted to be was outside and in water. This is, after all, where the first king to unify most of Hawaii came for healing baths, so instead I opted for a SUP board and paddled myself around the cove, dodging kids with snorkels (the Four Seasons shares the beach with a Disney resort, which is less than serene but proved to be a good exercise in literally ignoring the noise) while I worked my arms and abs and breathed in the salty ocean air.

And though I wanted to sleep in, my retreat mindset (and, if I’m being honest, jet lag) motivated me to wake up in time for the regular outdoor yoga class held at Pohaku Point, a grassy spot overlooking the ocean and shaded by palm trees. I was glad for the early morning alarm: My instructor, equipped with a tuning fork, employed individualized vibrational therapy during shavasana, literally using sound waves to soothe my muscles and chill me out.

Four Seasons at Ko Olina

Heal your body

But no amount of time in child’s pose could ease up my back, which was still ache-y from the flight, so my afternoon activity consisted of spa time (two words that have been scientifically proven to instantly calm you the moment they’re uttered, I swear).

I was greeted at the 35,000 square-foot Naupaka Spa with a glass of kombucha and the most insanely lush robe, and whisked past an outdoor Zen garden to the women’s locker room, which also included a sauna, steam room, hot tub, and cold plunge. Up first on my itinerary? A lymphatic cleansing session, in which I got my blood pumping by alternating between the sauna and frigid pool. (Just like an organized retreat, you never know who you’ll meet—that day I struck up a conversation mid-shvitz with the incredibly cool, wellness-obsessed Jasmine Lombardi, who founded Aloha Apothecary.)

On my second night I opted to transform my marble-floored bathroom into a self-care zone.

The treatment itself was exactly what I needed: calming, restorative, and made my body feel like butter. Naupaka uses products from Sodashi, an Australian-based brand that utilizes ethically sourced, mostly organic natural ingredients in its luxe body products, so I didn’t have to spend the session grimacing at the thought of a chemical-laden lotion being rubbed all over my skin.

Of course, not every DIY retreat needs a fancy spa appointment to work its magic, so on my second night I opted to transform my marble-floored bathroom into a self-care zone: I lit a travel-sized candle, dimmed the lights, and, on a tip from the front desk, emptied my bottle of body wash into the tub. With no screens, no phones, and no TV set, I sunk into the bath and just allowed myself to be.

Mina's Fish House at Four Seasons Oahu

Eat clean

Finding local ingredients on an island as lush as Oahu is harder than you’d expect (thanks to a confluence of mostly political issues, from the mainland’s colonial-era mentality towards the state to the abundance of Monsanto-backed GMO farms); in fact, despite the pineapple plantations that dot the landscape, 90% of food on the island is imported. La Hiki, however, works closely with local farms (such as Kahumana Organic Farm, which hosts visits) and is on track to hit 65% local sourcing by the end of 2018, so its breakfast spread was a no-brainer.

I wasn’t disappointed: It included everything from smoked fish and grilled vegetables to an array of greens—different shapes, sizes, and colors, all seducing me away from the eggs and bacon. Yes, I opted for a massive a.m. salad while on vacation, and it was delicious.

Finding local ingredients on an island as lush as Oahu is harder than you’d expect.

Poolside lunch options can be hit-or-miss at big resorts, so my plan was to pick up some veggies and fruit at Down to Earth (Oahu’s equivalent to Whole Foods, which one Google Maps reviewer helpfully points out is frequented by Jessica Alba, herself a Four Seasons Ko Olina guest). But Hokule’a, the lobby café, had pre-made salads, hummus and rainbow veggies, and even Buddha bowls at the ready, along with a local kombucha, eight-hour cold brew, and matcha lattes. Instead of having to get in the car to go grocery shopping, I was sitting by the beach in under five minutes.

Dinner was the meal where I decided to go retreat-level YOLO: I headed to Mina’s Fish House, which literally has a fish sommelier (Jared) who talks you through the freshest local catch of the day and your taste preferences and gives his recommendation (moi, in my case). It wasn’t vegan dal and rice, but for a clean eating option that allowed mealtime to be undeniably Hawaiian in flavor, I finished dinner feeling very satisfied.

The Happy Haku flower crown workshop at the Four Seasons Oahu

Heal your mind

My biggest retreat breakthroughs have been connected to mindfulness; while at home I find my eyes fluttering open at the 10-minute mark of a meditation, when I’m away I can power through an hour and feel like no time has gone by.

So my initial intention was to set aside some time for quiet reflection each day. But my first evening, a bouquet of flowers changed my mind. Well, it was actually a haku lei that did the trick—in the lobby, Jen Johnson, AKA The Happy Haku, was leading flower crown-making workshops. While I was surrounded by roses, orchids, daisies, and the most exotic tropical blooms I’ve ever seen, Johnson talked me through the surprisingly intensive process.

Somewhere between setting out my alternating pattern of flowers, fillers, and greens and oh-so-carefully securing them in place, I hit my flow state.

Somewhere between setting out my alternating pattern of flowers, fillers, and greens and oh-so-carefully securing them in place, I hit my flow state: There was nothing I was thinking about but the plants in front of me. In fact, it was so immersive that I completely lost track of time (like, two-hours-late-to-dinner lost track of time). It was the most clear-minded I felt in months, and by the time I left—crown softly resting on my forehead–I couldn’t help but feel a bit like royalty.

So instead of carving out 30 minutes to play my usual guided breathwork track on Spotify, I decided to tune out by immersing myself in locally inspired activities: The next morning I strung teeny-tiny shells from the “forbidden” island of Ni’ihau onto a thread to make souvenir-ready earrings; later that day, I jumped into an outrigger boat and for an hour focused on aligning each pull of my paddle with my guide, who would shout “row” to make sure we were in sync. It rivaled my longest mindfulness sessions at home—but still had me feeling completely transported.

Th eFour Seasons Oahu at Ko Olina

Spend time in nature

The science doesn’t lie: Spending time in nature is one of the most instantly restorative things you can do. So incorporating the outdoors into my DIY retreat became a priority (admittedly easy to do when you’re staying steps from the ocean). There were the outdoor yoga, SUP, and outrigger sessions, yes, but I also allowed myself time to just wander.

Because ultimately, the major growth I’ve gone through at retreats often happens not when I’m in the middle of a session working through my shit, but in the moments between workshops and classes, when I can step away and just be.

I put the shell back down and walked past the very spots where Kamehameha and Lili’uokalani once ventured in search of serenity.

So on my last day, I went past the pool, past the cove lined with SUP boards, past the spot of grass where I had practiced yoga only hours earlier, and I went through a gate beyond the property’s outer boundaries and walked along the water. The tide was low and little pools had appeared within the volcanic rock that lined the beach, filled with shimmering fish and quick-footed crabs. I left my book in my room and opted not to bring a journal (side note: someone needs to invent waterproof journals), but the solitude allowed me to project whatever I was thinking onto it.

On my way back to my room, an ornately shaped shell caught my eye. I bent over to pick it up, and examined it between my fingers. It was perfect, with not a crack or a corner missing. I was tempted to take it with me, but then, as the water lapped at my legs and a breeze maneuvered its way through my hair, I decided that my memory of this moment was so much better—and so, I put the shell back down and walked past the very spots where Kamehameha and Lili’uokalani once ventured in search of serenity, taking with me the best souvenir of all: calm.

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