Cognition and Reflection

By Becca Hensley / November 8, 2012

Ensconced amid 13th-century buildings in Prague’s Mala Strana, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel sits amid a preserved Dominican monastery.

 Spas in contemplative settings recalibrate mind, body and spirit

Here in the monks’ garden, in a hidden courtyard at Cusco’s newly opened Palacio Nazarenas, the cacophony of urbanity seems miles away. Though the ancient city’s main square sits just behind the one-time convent (now a sleek, restored, boutique hotel), the silence is so ponderous one might think the entire staff and every guest has taken a vow of silence. From the garden, a medley of perfume—lavender, rosemary, thyme, chamomile—scents the air. Beautifully assembled plants, flowers and herbs, replicated from authentic medieval monastery renderings, make for a visual feast. Accompanied by staff, guests as meditative as labyrinth walkers, snip the plants of their choice to create bespoke baths, curative drinks, or healing spa treatment ingredients. The spiritual experience tweaks all the senses at once. Reflection comes naturally here.

Which is what Orient Express had in mind when it spent 10 years excavating and renovating this sacred space for reuse as a tony hotel.

Abundant with original arches, hacienda-style balconies, ecclesiastic artwork, hidden nooks, and glass floors that reveal not only colonial remains but Incan artifacts, Palacio Nazarenas ( revels in the mysterious allure and contemplative energy that imbues the place. Not surprisingly, the spa borrows from centuries-old wisdom, offering balms, oils and wraps created from the recipes of a coterie of local shaman then fine-tuned by beauty experts in France. Local ingredients like white sage from Lake Titicaca, pink Andean salt, eucalyptus and muna reference the region. And, throughout the hotel, the staff sport a signature aromatherapeutic scent, meant to leave an essence of tranquility in the air after they pass.

The Mandarin Oriental Hotel spa lobby

Of course, sacred sights have long attracted the contemplative. No wonder hotels and spas have begun to root into the pre-existing power of long cherished locations. Ensconced amid 13th-century buildings in Prague’s Mala Strana, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel ( sits amid a preserved Dominican monastery. Its spa, part of an adjoining building, hovers atop the former nave of a Renaissance church. Further below it, a Gothic chapel’s ruins can be seen through a glass floor for mind altering spa moments.

The pool in the Couvent de Minimes

In Provence, Couvent de Minimes (, a one-time convent, now Relais Châteaux property, partners with L’Occitane to honor the work of the herbalist nuns who once resided here. Profuse with the aromatic plants of Provence (lavender, acacia, verbena, rosemary), gardens here once ministered to pilgrims. Now guests can enjoy treatments outdoors, attuned to centuries of spiritual thought. Even amid the gentrified streets of bustling cities like Milan, refuge can be found. At the Four Seasons (, flanked by Milan’s chicest shopping streets, a converted 15th-century convent, adorned with original frescoes, warm stones and wooden walls, serves as luxury spa.

Often built on ley lines or energy vortexes, convents, monasteries, and such have drawn the ruminative since the beginning of time. In such places, certain energies are palpable to the intuitive, ancient whisperings can nearly be heard, and introspection and enlightenment come more easily. For the renewal of mind, body and spirit, such sanctums are what serious spa-goers crave.

Other Spas for Contemplation

Ourense, Galicia Spain

Atop a hill in northwestern Spain along the Portuguese border, where the Mina River meets the Rio Sil, this retrofitted 10th-century Benedictine Monastery recalibrates with a water-themed spa.

East Sussex, UK

Not ancient, but nevertheless holy, this one-time country house became a convent for the Sisters of the Order of Notre Dame in the early 19th-century. Now a posh retreat, the once-spartan habitat boasts such modern accoutrements as a golf course, but its chapel and haven-like spa evoke its past.

Shangri-la, China

In the foothills of the Himalayas, on the border of Tibet, a breath away from the golden rooftops of Zhongdian Buddhist Monastery, this spa hotel delves deeply into Buddhist and Tibetan traditions. Here guests on the quest for a mind-shift can enjoy local treatments like a Tibetan Butter Massage, blessings by a Living Buddha, yoga, and courses on Buddhism.

Becca Hensley

Becca Hensley

Award winning travel writer Becca Hensley can’t resist the unexplored alley, that glass of champagne in an unknown bar or taking the train far beyond her planned stop. Travel Editor for Austin Monthly and San Antonio Magazine, her work appears in myriad magazines and newspapers including Washington Flyer, National Geographic Traveler, Toronto Star, Fodors, Dallas Morning News, Coastal Living, Smart Luxury Travel and more. Reared in Mexico, Europe and the US, she now resides in Austin.
Becca Hensley

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