On my first morning at Eremito, I woke up with the sunrise and listened to the silence until my ears began to ring. Was my brain rebelling against the quiet? No, I decided: it was the sound of my own listening—a sound I had not heard in a very long time. I live in a big city, with cars and rowdy bars and perpetual construction. My workdays are a losing battle against the Internet’s carnival of distraction. And in my free time, whenever I feel the creep of boredom, I do the same thing as everybody else: I fiddle with my phone.
The Umbrian hillsides blushed with the first reds of autumn, and plump clouds waltzed across the sky. Sergio, the brother of Eremito’s owner, had picked me up at the nearest train station in a battered white Land Rover. “He likes hotels in places impossible to go,” he explained as we forded a small stream. Though I had been looking forward to a few days in the Italian countryside, I had also been nervous about the hotel’s “digital detox” policy—and so I was relieved to pull up to Eremito’s stone gate and meet Peppo, the hotel’s gray-muzzled boxer and a much better companion than my phone.
This withdrawal is the allure of Eremito, a 12-room hotel in a nature reserve between Florence and Rome. Eight years ago, Marcello Murzilli returned to Italy from Mexico, where he ran the Hotelito Desconocido, to build a contemporary hermitage “where you are totally disconnected,” he says. He drove around Umbria until he came upon an abandoned monastery from the 14th century on a hillside in the forest. He hired local workers to raise a new building from the ruined stones. Murzilli’s hotel resembles the monasteries that still operate throughout Umbria, with cool stone floors, crackling fireplaces, clay jugs of wine, and a bare minimum of technology. And his vision is just as interesting for what it leaves out. Eremito has no proper spa, only a steam room and a Jacuzzi, open for a couple of hours every afternoon.
“Now to make a spa makes no more sense,” Murzilli says. The spa—at least as we know it, with its white robes, Swedish massages, and beauty treatments—is a thing of the past. It pampers at a time when travelers crave something more transformative—new ways of drawing closer to themselves, each other, and the natural world. “People are seeking all kinds of wellness programming that’s not only more holistic but is also far more active than a spa,” says Beth McGroarty, the director of research at the Global Wellness Institute. In response, innovative hoteliers, like Murzilli, are revolutionizing travel, drawing on local traditions and global trends and combining mindfulness, community, spirituality, and exercise to create immersive new wellness experiences.
“The new luxury is silence,” Murzilli says. He wanted Eremito to be “a small hotel where you can find identity, relationships, and silence.” Increasingly, he noticed travelers were yearning for more than just relaxation or exploration — they wanted to step outside of the deluge of 21st-century life, to reconnect to physical places, listen to each other, and re-evaluate their priorities. Every traveler was, in his or her own way, a pilgrim. “We are very isolated in the digital world,” says Andreas Wieser, who founded the Austrian hotel and health resort Lanserhof, one of the world’s pioneering wellness destinations. “Travel can create a space so we can think about who we are and who we would like to be.”
This space requires more than just a few hours in the sauna—which is why hoteliers are thinking outside the spa. They are responding to a growing receptivity to forms of spirituality and mindfulness that, a decade ago, might have struck many travelers as crunchy and strange. For example, La Granja Ibiza, a farmstead set among the island’s wild inlands, regularly hosts healers to lead guests in rituals and energy work across various cultures and disciplines. Sound meditation, which is most often associated with Tibetan Buddhism but can be found in some form across various cultures, is also gaining popularity.
“Sound enables us to disconnect from the busy brain,” says Alexandre Tannous, one of the world’s leading sound researchers. “This is the whole point of music.” An ethnomusicologist who has studied sound from Western scientific, Eastern philosophical, and shamanic perspectives, Tannous has recently been consulting with leaders in the hospitality industry, encouraging them to learn about how sound can deepen and enrich the guest experience. Increasingly, hoteliers have been turning to renowned healers, like Bobby Klein, a former rock music photographer who went on to study with Tibetan Buddhists and the Native American Hopi Tribe, before founding the Wisdom and Mystery School, an international pop-up forum that brings together leaders of various industries, including travel. “There seems to be a real appetite now for things that get you out of your head quickly and effectively,” McGroarty says. “They might have been called trippy once, but I think they’re answering a call for getting out of the constant bombardment of noise and work and emails and social media.”
Of course, these ideas didn’t come out of nowhere. In 1962, Stanford graduates Michael Murphy and Dick Price founded the Esalen Institute on 27 acres of coastland in California. Influenced by thinkers like Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts, the idea was to create a refuge where people could experiment with alternative methods of exploring human consciousness and learn new skills to help them engage with the outside world. Among the earliest guests to Esalen was Fritz Perle, the German psychologist whose theory of “Gestalt therapy” held that perception is an active construction process that could always lead to deeper understandings. He stayed for five years, and Gestalt therapy became one of Esalen’s core philosophies. Over the following years, the Institute became the center of practices and beliefs associated with the New Age movement, introducing many ideas around topics of personal growth, alternative medicine, and mind-body interventions that would later enter the mainstream—and eventually make its mark on the travel industry.
But the current evolution of wellness hospitality also stems from travelers’ desire to learn about and participate in the unique cultures and histories of the places they visit. The digital world unmoors us from physical spaces—and travel is a way to anchor us back to them. In Umbria, Murzilli discovered old monastic traditions that helped visitors to reflect, and felt authentic to the region. He built a small chapel at Eremito where guests are invited every morning to a brief nondenominational prayer, and he decided to have guests eat dinner together in silence, like Franciscan monks. I felt strange at my first dinner sitting quietly beside the other guests in the candlelit dining room, but once the food started to arrive I relaxed and began savoring the flavors. Every night, Eremito’s kitchen prepares four vegetarian courses with ingredients from the garden, and it was easier to enjoy them without having to make chitchat with the other guests. After the meal, we all settled in around the fire to discuss our lives—and Eremito’s chefs were happy to drop by and share their recipes for our favorite dishes.
Other hoteliers are similarly looking to local traditions to create unique wellness experiences. “Five years from now, spas will look funny in hotels,” says Valéry Grégo, the owner of the Hotel Les Roches Rouges in Southern France. He is currently planning to rebuild Les Roches Rouges’ spa in the style of a Roman bath, like the ones you found in the region 2,000 years ago. “In a Roman bath, the whole wellness concept was a mini journey, like a geographical path,” he says. “You would first enter the cloakroom and then you would do sports so that you would start sweating. Then you would go into cold water to stop it and get your oil treatment. Then you would have a massage and then you would relax.” At the same time, hoteliers want to give visitors flexibility to pursue their own programs. Many hotels, including Eremito, offer daily yoga classes and meditation. “Eremito is a Franciscan box, but inside, you can mix what you really need in order to find your harmony,” Murzilli says.
For me, Eremito’s best wellness treatment was one of the world’s oldest: the company of a kind old dog. Peppo was always available, sleeping on the cold stones or snoring on his own mat in the yoga studio. Eremito’s staff catered to its guests and Eremito’s guests catered to Peppo, taking him for walks, sneaking him snacks, or scratching behind his ears. Peppo captured part of what felt special about Eremito. It was luxurious, but also easygoing, without any of the stiffness you sometimes encounter in high-end hotels. The small staff joined the guests for meals, and afterwards by the fireplace. It felt like a community.
A sense of community is, perhaps, the most healing thing a good hotel can offer at a time when people feel increasingly isolated in their everyday lives. Many properties today, from La Granja Ibiza to Les Bains in Paris, to the ambitious Ovolo Nishi in Canberra, offer guests cultural and communal programming that also links them with an extended local community. Wieser says a good hotel should be like an agora in Ancient Greece: “It was the place where people communicate, where people speak together, where people learn things together.”
“We are very isolated in the digital world. Travel can create a space so we can think about who we are and who we would like to be.” – Andreas Wieser
Recently, Design Hotels launched the Further initiative, a set of planned trips meant to not only connect participants with each other but also to a greater social purpose. “It’s bringing different people and brands together to co-create a new way of experiencing, while elevating everyone to another level of conscious thinking,” says Markus Schreyer, vice president of the Americas at Design Hotels. In September, Further hosted a three-day event at Scribner’s Catskill Lodge in upstate New York. It included a movement and meditation program, communal outdoor dinners, musical performances, and a panel with the United Nations Development Programme to discuss how art, music, and design can create global change.
After the first morning in Eremito, I realized I could tune into the sound of my listening whenever I was alone—at dinner, on the forest path, reading on the lawn. It might seem like a minor and silly thing, but it was a part of myself I had not been in touch with in a very long time, and I wondered if I would still be able to hear it in the noisy outside world. Sitting in the airport in Rome, I closed my eyes and concentrated, and faintly, despite all the bustle, my ears began to ring. For now at least, the silence was still with me.
The preceding article by Ben Crair is excerpted from the 2018 edition of Directions, the magazine by Design Hotels™—more than 200 pages of vividly illustrated travel content by leading writers, photographers, illustrators, and designers. Buy it here for €10 or get a complimentary copy when you order the 2018 Design Hotels™ Book.