Recognising that an increasing number of people want to escape the rigours of the rat race, wellness coaches are flocking to the Southern Cape, where the idyllic setting provides the perfect backdrop for the business of replenishing body, mind and soul.

WORDS Yolande Stander PHOTOGRAPHS Lisa Greyling, Glen J Wray, supplied

From yoga retreats and kinesiology to animal therapies and faith-based getaways, the Garden Route and Klein Karoo offer a wide variety of spiritual and mental wellness options that attract people from all walks of life in South Africa and abroad.

While this sector has seen steady growth over the past few years, tourism experts believe there is potential for a flourishing industry.

“I strongly believe it is an industry that will blossom as executives and managers come under more and more pressure to produce enhanced returns to shareholders, and squeeze more and more out of their human resources and themselves. Time poverty is already recognised as a major problem in corporate South Africa, with less leisure time being taken and shorter holidays being a feature,” says Knysna-based tourism coach Shaun van Eck.

“The Southern Cape is perfectly positioned for this type of tourism. While the facilities at these centres are very important, it is well documented that getting out into nature unlocks the bad habits and blockages caused by corporate stress. The region has a wonderful variety of natural spots that are easily accessible, close to great resorts and with excellent practitioners available to facilitate the process,” says Shaun.

Nature’s Valley Health Retreat
Erna Fourie, who runs Nature’s Valley Health Retreat near Plettenberg Bay, opened her doors 17 years ago to offer therapies such as kinesiology, career planning, relationship counselling, Brain Gym, trauma and eating disorder counselling as well as teambuilding.

“I realised people need to get out of the over-developed big city rat race and find their own quiet centred space again. If people don’t get the opportunity to find some ‘mind space’, they could suffer a total burn out. There is definitely a growing need for spiritual growth and mental health,” says Erna.

Her passion is to “intervene as a facilitator when somebody comes to a stuck state in their life”, and the area is perfect to enhance what she offers, with its natural forests, breath-taking hiking trails, thriving birdlife and unspoiled beaches. “Here is limited development, no street lights and wild bushbuck still roam free. If one combines that with the pristine beauty and stillness, fresh air and indigenous yellowwood, stinkwood, and milkwood trees and other endemic species, it’s a real paradise for the overwhelmed tired soul,” says Erna.

Gratitude Horse Farm
Many believe in the healing power of animals, often used to help in treating a number of conditions, such as depression and anxiety. Outside Riversdale at the Gratitude Horse Farm, owner Vanessa Malvicini offers equine therapy.

“One of the two rivers running through the farm is called Wegwyzer, which means ‘showing the way’, and this is what we do here with the horses – we help people to find their own life path again,” says Vanessa.

At most retreats in the region visitors stay from a day or two, to weeks, depending on their needs. Guests vary from local and international tourists to people with high stress jobs and trauma patients as well as corporate groups.

Peace of Eden forest retreat
Over the years people from around the country have flocked to the Peace of Eden Forest Retreat in Rheenendal outside Knysna for workshops, including inspirational breath work, health and happiness retreats, Brahma Kumaris meditation weekends, story telling events, goddess workshops, crystal bowl sounds journeys and tantra yoga retreats. “We also offer silent retreats and self-styled retreats for one or more people, where you create your own programme with the therapies on offer, like massage, Reiki, specialised kinesiology, meditation, yoga, stress release breath work, soulful nature forest walks and much more,” says Jen Harvey-Butcher.

While the mind and soul take centre stage at the retreat, the team also ensures the body receives nourishment. All their retreats are fully catered for with healthy, organic, vegan meals, including raw and gluten-free options.

Iyengar Yoga Retreats
At Iyengar Yoga Retreats – which offers yoga retreats, teachers’ classes and training in Oudtshoorn – sessions are hosted over three or five-day periods.

Owner David Jacobs says retreats of this nature are slowly growing and there is definitely a need for the industry. “South Africans usually travel abroad for this kind of yoga retreat or vacation and it is centres like ours that offer a local alternative. Being in this region is an added bonus as it is a safe environment with clean air, quiet surroundings and spectacular nature.”

David says students from all over the country and abroad, including groups from the Congo and Switzerland, come to the retreats, leading to a positive knock-on effect on tourism in general. “The stay is often extended as they try to incorporate local travel in and around South Africa before or after their stay with us in Oudtshoorn.”

Benedictus Deus
The region also offers something for those who have neglected their spiritual side and seek a greater connection with this dimension of their lives. Leela Verity, spiritual director of Benedictus Deus (meaning ‘blessed be God’) in Plettenberg Bay hosts teachings, meditations, yoga and retreats for all religions to help people grow spiritually.

“As the pace of life gets faster and people become more stressed, there is a proportionate need and longing for peace, ease and harmony. Just as the body needs food and exercise, and the mind needs stimulation, the spirit needs nourishment. Modern life is out of balance and too much emphasis is placed on the material world.” Lila says it’s often only when people are in crisis that they realise their spiritual needs.

Carmel by the Sea
Carmel by the Sea, between George and Wilderness, provides similar spiritual upliftment through a variety of programmes, including entertainment coupled with meaningful ministry, rest and relaxation.

“Due to work demands, family commitments and other life pressures, a place like Carmel is a haven where one can find peace, make time to reflect, experience the presence of God and draw closer to Him,” says general manager William Horner.

Plettenberg Bay Tourism spokesman Patty Butterworth says health and wellness tourism is a rapidly growing sector in the industry. “New and emerging trends include spas, medical wellness, life-coaching, meditation, festivals, pilgrimage and yoga retreats. The natural beauty of the region allows for religious tourism or fitness of mind and wellbeing,” she says.

Shaun says the Garden Route has the potential to become a premier destination for this type of tourism, which could be a lucrative market that contributes significantly to off-season occupancies and spending in the area.

“The region can even go as far as to target a new category of tourism by combining the search for spiritual and mental wellness with innovation sessions, where executives are facilitated in thinking out of the box and coming up with new innovations and business ideas, while in the state of well-being that these resorts can bring. I’m suggesting this combined package be brought into corporate budgets, as opposed to the individual budgets that the health and wellness resorts tend to benefit from.”

Nature’s Valley Health Retreat
Erna Fourie
082 794 6207

Peace of Eden
Jen Harvey-Butcher
074 755 5859

Gratitude Horse Farm
Vanessa Malvicini
073 217 5775

Iyengar Yoga Centre 
David Jacobs
082 886 7568

Benedictus Deus Spiritual Retreat Centre
Leela Verity 082 410 4916

Carmel by the Sea
044 889 0019
[email protected]