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Inner Strength

Celebrating 20 years as Asia’s premiere luxury health resort, Chiva-Som—an oasis of healing on the spectacular gulf shore of Thailand—continues its reign as a wellness innovator, fusing traditional Eastern techniques with progressive Western practices for spa and fitness renewal at its finest.

The authentic Thai pavilion accommodations at Chiva-Som offer guests a relaxing oasis of calm amid lush gardens and placid water features.

As the go-to retreat for the frenzied, harried, hypertense and otherwise overworked jet-setters, Chiva-Som (said to mean “haven of life”), one of Asia’s first destination health spas, remains among the world’s best places to find tranquility, fitness and renewal. Located on the beach in Hua Hin, Thailand (a popular seaside retreat with Thai royalty), the resort spreads out over 7 acres of lush tropical landscape, replete with lakes and waterfalls that set the stage for an expansive menu of soothing Eastern and Western spa remedies, plus alternative and medical treatments. A rotating roster of visiting consultants—international practitioners in myriad disciplines—join Chiva-Som’s highly qualified staff, who outnumber guests 4-to-1 to ensure each guest is on a personal path to health and wellness by the end of their stay.

After months of my usual nonstop go, go, go schedule, decompressing for five days is a dream come true for my sister and me. We land at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok, collect our bags (pack light—there’s no need to dress up at Chiva-Som, and cotton Thai gear for meditation, massage and the like are provided) and board a Mercedes-Benz for the 2 1/2-hour ride to the spa resort, which, by the way, is a no-children zone. Upon arrival, we are escorted to our rooms and head straight to bed with the hope of making a quick adjustment to the time-zone change.

Morning brings vinyasa flow and stretch class in Chiva-Som’s open-air yoga pavilion overlooking the water. But breakfast in the Emerald Room—one of two dining outposts on-property—really starts our day off right. In true Thai hospitality style, there’s a buffet of fruits, cereals, muffins and breads, plus menu selections including seafood dumplings and a vegetable omelet. The caloric content is listed for each dish at the buffet and on the menu to help guests who are counting calories and to remind everyone that healthy, fresh food can be extremely flavorful. The coffee is outstanding and various juices are refreshing, but my favorite is the coconut water served straight from a freshly cut coconut.

Like the international spa cuisine, the views from the Emerald Room out to the pool, beach and Gulf of Thailand are wonderful. The second dining option, Taste of Siam, specializes in authentic Thai spa cuisine. Both award-winning venues feature superfresh seafood, grass-fed beef and lamb, and organic chicken and produce, along with local herbs and spices. After recently transitioning to a mostly organic and fresh-food diet, I find this is a very welcome five-day treat. In addition, both restaurants have daily changing menus, vegetarian and gluten-free options are readily available and the presence of dairy, wheat or nuts in dishes is always noted. To ensure that healthy eating continues after guests leave Chiva-Som, cooking classes are offered to teach guests how to prepare the same low-fat, low-calorie spa cuisine at home. The two classes we take are terrific! It’s great to learn how to cook authentic Thai cuisine, including one of my favorites, massaman curry with chicken. The resort recently published a new cookbook, Cooking With Light ($131), which features health-conscious recipes with nutritional information by the resort’s executive chef, Paisarn Cheewinsiriwat.

Guests stay for a minimum of three days, and 11 different packages allow serenity seekers to select a very specific menu of spa services, fitness classes and wellness treatments to best meet their needs. Fifty-eight accommodations include 33 Ocean rooms in the centrally located main tower, with private balconies overlooking the pool and beach; eight luxury suites, all with butler service; and 17 Thai pavilions along winding pathways, landscaped gardens, reflective pools and bridges that offer added privacy and space—their authentic architectural details are an immediate draw. Traditional and minimalist Thai decor—hardwood floors, large windows filtering in beams of natural light and a separate shower and bath—enhance the calm within these Zen-like quarters. In-room highlights include morning hot water and lemon to energize and cleanse the body, customized aromatherapy each evening, a pillow menu and soft or firm mattress choices. Sets of three pavilions form a compound, sharing a terrace and outdoor sitting area. Not far away are the gym, indoor pool, dance and Pilates studios, open-air pavilions, restaurants, treatment rooms and beach. After just one day, we feel relaxed and don’t miss the 24/7 connectivity at all. One thing we’ve learned after frequenting many destination health spas: If you want to get the most from your stay, ditch the cell and stay away from email if at all possible.

The literally hundreds of services offered by Chiva-Som fall loosely into categories, like fitness training (Pilates, aqua therapy, golf biomechanics, sea kayaking, tai chi and power yoga), spa therapies (head-to-toe treatments for relaxation and detoxification) and alternative therapies (ayurveda, naturopathy, physiotherapy, traditional Chinese medicine, sacred crystal healing, blood analysis, colonic hydrotherapy and iridology analysis). Adding to the experience is the Niranlada Medi-Spa, a high-tech facility offering the latest innovations in aesthetic medicine—laser skin rejuvenation and surface refining, and anti-aging treatments.

The journey begins with an unintimidating wellness consultation to set objectives and tailor the program to my personal goals—to experience holistic therapies, relaxation and increased meditation. My sister’s focus is similar: to find tranquility that will offset the frenzy of her daily life. Rather than a rev-up, our trip is a reboot. As such, we choose not to follow a preset daily agenda. Rather than packing the days with nonstop activities, we strive for a mix of relaxation, quiet time and exploring Chiva-Som’s unique and wide-ranging offerings.

Both of us look forward to experiencing new treatments. My first is a facial consultation and skin analysis at the medispa with the medical director and skin specialist, Dr. Niwat Polnikorn. Using 3-D facial imaging technology, Polnikorn informs me that I have remarkably healthy skin. Then, after a delicious lunch that includes traditional papaya salad, tom yum soup and pad thai, plus a poolside break, I head to a physical analysis to define my current fitness state and assess my fitness goals.

The best part of the day is my three-hour retreat to the spa. After a 50 minute traditional Thai massage and an acupuncture session to keep my back and shoulders in check, I head to the relaxation area with water and heat therapy. Never overcrowded, the space features exceedingly comfortable water-bed lounges that lull me into a state of peaceful euphoria (an infrared sauna, steam room, cold plunge pool and Jacuzzi do the same). Then, in a beautiful state of bliss, I head to the beach restaurant, where I meet my sister for more healthful feasting—in this case, a dousing of coconut water and dinner of massaman curry with chicken and baked marinated sea bass with turmeric. Not a cellphone in sight, just the soothing sound of water hitting the shore and a calm recounting of the day.

The next day starts with a foot massage; always welcome, anytime. Then, in keeping with my goal of experiencing holistic therapies, I enjoy a 50-minute reiki treatment that is as intriguing as it is relaxing. From there I head to a metabolic breathing session to help increase my oxygen intake, boost my metabolic rate and release toxins. After some quiet time and a meditation class, my sister and I enjoy a dinner feast complete with soft-shell crab wrapped in nori seaweed and seared sesame tuna with creamy wasabi, followed by steamed grouper fillet served with daikon confit and mashed grilled eggplant, and hanger beef steak with king oyster mushrooms and mashed carrots. Although portions seem small at first, our appetites adjust quickly, and we feel now more than satisfied. (Double portions or multiple dishes are available upon request.)

For the next two days, I’m immersed in treatments, therapies, sessions and discussions that truly inspire me. They include shirobhyanga, an ancient ayurvedic scalp massage, and a sacred crystal chakra balancing that confirms I’m a free spirit and passionate person. I next enjoy a seminar by therapist Pat Thummanond—seven principles of fat burning that explains how each of us has the ability to ignite our own fat-burning hormones. By far the most awe-inspiring experience is my iridology analysis, which examines my eyes’ iris structure and pigmentation, and generates a report that details my systemic health and personality constitution. It’s accuracy is so spot on that all I can say is, “How is that possible?!” Add to this a massage, papaya body wrap, pedicure, second cooking class, some yoga and meditation, more beach time and a trip to town to embrace the local culture, and I feel like a new person. I even enlist in an early morning fitness boot camp to remind me of home. 

After spending five days of self-discovery at Chiva-Som, I recommend future guests stay just as long, or even longer. It is, true to its name, a haven—a place to appreciate the importance of a deep breath and living in the moment. If you’re open to the experience, Chiva-Som can be life-changing. For proof, just ask any of the many repeat guests, some of whom have made their 40th pilgrimage to this amazing spa resort; that should speak volumes about this destination’s very special appeal. Ocean room rates from $2,750 per person for three nights, Thai pavilion rates from $3,300 per person for three nights, and suites vary by type