Imagine this: Lately, your anxiety’s been more like a roller coaster than usual — up, down, here comes a curve, then a dip, then you slowly inch upward and think everything’s finally going all right. Right when the roller coaster reaches another peak and you’re about to take in the amazing view, it suddenly drops — and your anxiety’s worse than ever. You’re doing all you can for your mental health — therapy, group therapy, meditating, getting out in nature, calling and making plans with friends (especially since you work from home) — but you really need a break. Which is where a calming respite like Asheville, North Carolina comes in. It’s the perfect mental health escape, and I should know since I experienced its calming magic for myself on a recent visit.
I’d heard mumblings about this charming city of around 94,000, where most of the shops downtown close by 6 p.m, and was definitely intrigued by its serene and restful reputation. In fact, I think I may have manifested my visit by posting about moving there on April Fools’ Day this year (and fooling all my friends in the process). Yes, just a few weeks after my Facebook prank, I got invited to stay at Asheville’s Omni Grove Park Inn (which was also pictured in my April Fools’ joke — what are the odds?!).
Naturally, I took this all as a sign to seize the opportunity, and it turns out my instincts were correct. Read on for my thoughts on the under-the-radar wellness destination everyone should try for themselves.
Love At First Sight
Now, to be clear, I’d been in Asheville twice before and had visited the Omni Grove Park Inn — I’d used the lobby, with its amazingly oversized fireplace, as my “office” and also sat in one of the many relaxing rocking chairs both inside and outside of the hotel, each with amazing mountain views. (OK, so maybe I hadn’t so much as manifested this recent stay as much as wished it into re-existence.) But I had never stayed overnight there. And from the moment of check-in, I felt a nurturing and welcoming vibe coming from every which way.
While tempted to spend the rest of my week-long stay in my room’s comfy king-sized bed — sleep is a very real part of self-care and wellness, after all — I didn’t. Instead, I discovered that whether you’re in Asheville a day, week, or month, there are a ton of wellness activities to choose from to help you truly unplug. Ahead, a few of my faves, some of which Explore Asheville thought up and sponsored. (By the way, they are an amazing resource and can give you 101 ideas on things to do.)
A Wild Food Foraging Tour
The Omni Grove Park Inn has a Wild Food Foraging Tour with No Taste Like Home, founded by famed forager Alan Muskat. The experience entails wandering through the nearby meadows on the hotel property and learning how to safely identify, and choose, various mushrooms and plants to eat — either on the spot or to cook up later. And, no, you don’t have to cook on your vacation — once you get back to the hotel, you just hand over your ingredients to the Guest Services staff and a chef at the upscale Vue 1913 will create an appetizer (or dessert) from your foraged findings.
Unwind In The Asheville Salt Cave
Have you ever sat in a cave, surrounded by pink Himalayan salt as you listen to a meditation, then sit in near silence for about 40 minutes? Neither had I. It turns out that salt therapy, also known as halotherapy, is really good for you. It can do everything from reduce stress and anxiety (yes, please!) to clear up your skin (another hard yes!).
At the Asheville Salt Cave, you can go sit quietly alone or with others, engaging in a five-minute meditation and then left to just lie back and relax (either on a zero gravity chair or yoga mat), with soothing ambient music playing in the background. Afterwards, there are several subdued, cozy areas you can decompress in even more, or you can try a steam room or massage. The sky’s — erm, the salt’s — the limit here.
Have Your Aura Read
If you’re wondering what kind of energy you’re emanating, you can stop by ADORAtherapy at the Grove Arcade in downtown Asheville (which was the first enclosed shopping mall in America!). In just 20 minutes, you can get your aura read. Auratherapist Jim Levinson uses biofeedback and has you place your hand on an aura reader. Plus, he takes a biofeedback picture of you, to see what colors surround you — they’re associated with different chakras in your body and are based on your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual states.
Levinson then interprets and explains your Chi (the energy running through your body), offering suggestions on how to better balance your chakras. These suggestions could include using certain essential oils or picking out a specific energy crystal.
Indulge In Swimming, Sauna, And Cold Plunging
The Omni Grove Park Inn is renowned for its insanely beautiful, cave-like spa. Only, I’m not really a spa person: I have rosacea (wherein my face sometimes looks sunburned) — and spa-like heat is not rosacea’s friend. Plus, my OCD was a bit hesitant about getting into pools of water with strangers. So I had some anxiety, to say the least ...
But this was the main event of my trip, so I wanted to make a point to try as many of the amenities and treatments as possible (without sending my sensitive skin into a tizzy). So what’s a trepidatious wellness writer to do?! Jump right into the metaphorical — and physical — spa pool. Which is exactly what I did.
It was around 9 a.m. at this point and the spa was open until 7 p.m. — I figured I’d try each spa activity a few minutes (with the exception of the massage, which was 75 minutes), and stay until noon or so.
My favorite part about being in the spa was that there were no tech devices allowed, which I loved. It forces you to not only detox from your everyday rush-rush-rush life, but to digitally detox, too, and live in the present moment.
First, I got a hot stone massage, which I’d never had before. I’m not really a massage person. But this one agreed with me — so much so that just thinking about the hot stones against my skin, combined with the scented citrus massage oil, makes me want to book a flight back to Asheville right now.
After my massage, I headed for the hot tub, which was right next to the cold plunge pool — it essentially looked like a stand-up bathtub and was ideal for one person at a time. The hour or so I was in this section of the spa, though, women took turns going in, alternating between it and the hot tub. I tried the cold plunge for myself, but it was definitely a challenge. It was freezing (of course) and my legs tingled from the cold. I know cold plunges are very good for you — Kate Hudson says she does them every week — though I was a bigger fan of the hot tub. That said, I saw many women go into the cold plunge tub effortlessly, as though it wasn’t like soaking in a snowbank. Impressive. My takeaway? l need a lot more practice at it.
I then went on to try other parts of the spa, like the lavender sauna and eucalyptus steam room, which were as enticing as they sound. The scents were so relaxing that they made me want to drift away and nap — I definitely felt my anxiety evaporate.
Afterwards, I ventured upstairs to explore a couple other hot tubs, which have therapeutic waterfalls you can stand under. I can’t begin to describe how wonderful the water felt hitting my back — which is often sore from my bad posture while writing/working — and I envisioned my stress splashing away. This ended up being one of my favorite spa activities, if I had to choose (though I hate to play favorites).
Oh, another favorite amenity of mine was the musical pool. Wait, what is this, you ask? Well, they are essentially heated pools that allow you to hear relaxing music when underwater (or floating just above the surface). I honestly could have floated there all day …
When I finally pried myself away from the pools and waterfalls, I sat by one of the indoor fireplaces for a while and relaxed with a cup of coconut water. (It’s important to stay hydrated.) Other women read books or just sat with their eyes closed. No matter where you turned, relaxation was the theme. And it worked. As I watched the flames dance in the fireplace, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d relaxed this long, especially without my phone, which usually tethers me to something — a ping from a boss or an interview source, an “urgent” message from a friend, or a “like” or comment on a social media post.
But, here, none of that mattered. Only the present moment did. And it was a great lesson in making time for me. In that moment, I decided to schedule “me time” every day. (Even if it just entails five or 10 minutes per day of quiet moments to yourself, something is better than nothing.)
Before I knew it, it was nearly 7 p.m. and the spa was about to close — but I didn’t want to leave. I’d officially become a spa convert! (And my face wasn’t too pink either!)
Asheville: The Perfect Wellness Hub
My final morning, I ate breakfast at the Blue Ridge Restaurant — which overlooked the mountains, of course — and asked my waiter how long he’d been working there: 20+ years. “So you must like it?” I said. “No. I love it,” he replied. And I couldn’t blame him.
If you can’t tell by now, Asheville proved to be the mental health escape that was the perfect salve for my anxiety.
I went back to L.A. feeling more rested and refreshed than I had been in a long time. I also started looking up flights back to Asheville almost immediately — there are often good deals, so it’s quite affordable — and decided to go back later this year. (Trying to decide between going to see the fall foliage in the Blue Ridge Mountains or The Grove Park Inn’s National Gingerbread House Competition, which is amazing.) Plus, there are so many wellness activities I ran out of time to do, including visiting the Wake Foot Sanctuary, with all kinds of aromatic and salt-based foot soaks, and doing a Sound Healing Session at Skinny Beats Sound Shop.
Also, having come from L.A., everything in Asheville seemed so affordable, from $24 for the communal salt cave session to $45 for the aura photo and detailed report. This not only makes Asheville a viable wellness destination, but also an affordable one. And, in this day and age, that’s key.
As for my anxiety, by trip’s end, the roller coaster definitely didn’t feel as scary as it rounded unexpected twists and turns. And instead of fearing the drop from the top, I embraced it, appreciating the views on the way down.