The idea of taking time out -- completely for yourself -- to focus on health, both physical and mental, holds an appeal for most of us. Particularly after the past 18 months, everyone I know is a bit frayed, in need of self-care, and a little Zen. But it’s tricky to know how to start, where to go, and what to look for. Hilton Head Health, a secluded island wellness resort, may have all of the answers.
In my fantasy retreat world, this is what I seek…
The air is warm and salted. A barrier island, immersed in lush tropical surroundings, where tangled vines dangle from ancient oak trees dripping in Spanish moss. Red-breasted cardinals, with their melodic melancholy bird song, is my early morning wake-up call. A labyrinth of walking paths winds around lagoons where elegant snowy egrets gather. And a bicycle trail leads down to a white sandy beach, for sunrise walks and sunset swims in the Atlantic Ocean. My meals are chef-prepared, using local ingredients, and always a fresh catch of the day. All temptation of junk food, sugar, and alcohol overload -- removed. The absence of good coffee is not negotiable. There are shaded corners and rocking chairs for contemplation, relaxation, and reading. Hibiscus flowers and hummingbirds for company. Restorative cardamom-scented massages complete the day. A night swim in a warm saltwater pool. A lavish king-size bed, with soft white linens. Drifting off to sleep to the sounds of swishing palmetto palms and cicada lullabies, knowing that I get to do it all over again tomorrow.
Hilton Head Health (also known as H3) checks all of my fantasy retreat boxes and then some.
The all-inclusive island resort nestled in the exclusive Shipyard Plantation, on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, offers guests an opportunity to focus 24/7 on self-care. Boasting more than 40 years as the leading weight-loss resort in North America, H3 has recently shifted the focus to offer wellness-based getaways.
I attended the Healthy Getaway Program, a quick 4-day retreat, to help clear your mind, pamper your body, and kick-start a healthy eating and exercise routine. There is also the 7 Day LivingWell Program which focuses on personalized wellness goals and outcomes. Plus, the new WorkWell program, developed to inspire those new to remote work, to rethink boundaries and figure out work-life balance post-COVID.
The beauty of H3 is that you can be as busy or as laid back as you choose. With over 50 exercise classes to choose from and lectures and classes centered around wellness, led by experts in their fields, there are plenty of activities to fill your day. If getting into shape is your goal, the resort offers TRX training, Tabata workouts, Barre classes, aquatics, weight training, cardio, dancing, and a heated pool. If your mental health needs some TLC, there are plenty of tranquil meditation spaces, overlooking lagoons with Lowcountry birdlife and even the occasional gator. Sunrise and sunset beach yoga takes place daily. Lectures on everything from healthy sleep techniques to mastering motivation are offered weekly, with the option to personalize. If getting your diet back on track is a goal, there are classes on Mindful Eating, How to Turn Your Kitchen into a Healthy Kitchen, cooking demonstrations, and even one-on-one training with a private chef.
Most guests, like me, check-in on a Sunday, and program activities kick off on Monday. On arrival, a schedule of exercise classes and lectures for the week, which you need to sign up for the day before, was given to me. Guests are encouraged to attend the orientation class to get a sense of the resort and what to expect. The concept of the Wellness Programs is explained to give guests all the tools they need to make healthy decisions, even after their stay is over. H3 nutrition principles are introduced and information is given on how to navigate menu options and make the most of the dining experience.
I quickly got into the swing and relaxed cadence of H3. Thermal walks (15-20 minutes) are encouraged after each meal. Devotion to motion is the mantra, and guests are encouraged to take full advantage of the expert trainers, state-of-the-art equipment, and fitness spaces. Fitbites are perfectly-portioned-calorie-counted snacks to grab on the run. The silver water bottle, attached to the navy blue monogrammed backpack, could be filled with ionized-oxygenated water from conveniently placed water filters. Cellphones at mealtime are NOT okay. Instead, community and interaction are encouraged, but it was never forced or awkward.
But it’s not all classes and scheduled times. I rented a bike from the resort and cycled the length of the very bike-centric 12x5 mile island. At the Pinckney Island Wildlife Refuge, I explored 14 miles of scenic hiking trails that meander through freshwater ponds, salt marshes, and maritime forests. I also hiked the serene Seapine Forest Preserve, a protected wildlife habitat that winds through bridle paths and wetland boardwalks.
People come to H3 from all over the country, as well as the rest of the world. During my visit, I mostly met women, spanning ages of 35-85 and who had come for different reasons. For many, it was an annual pilgrimage of sorts. Jennifer and six friends, from Houston, meet at H3 for two weeks every October and have done so for the past ten years. It’s their time to reconnect and hit the reset button. For Susan, a recently retired ER doctor, from Pennsylvania, it was her first time away without her husband and children and she had booked her stay for a month. Mother and daughter, Gayle and Gemma, from Wilmington, NC, were spending time together, focusing on recovery, after a cancer diagnosis. And many solo flyers, like me, in search of balance.
H3 is situated in The Shipyard Plantation, a seaside sanctuary on the southeastern side of Hilton Head Island, home to three golf courses, a tennis center, and a AAA 4-diamond resort. There are miles of walking paths and bike lanes, across 800 acres of moss-draped oak trees, palms, and lagoons that attract Lowcountry birds and other wildlife. The Sweetgrass Inn, where I stayed, is a two-story 38 room, 18,000 square-foot boutique-style inn just a few steps away from the pool, main resort building, and dining room.
The front porch, with ceiling fans and white rockers, is a stylish, casual, understated, Lowcountry Southern-style welcome. The name pays homage to the local Gullah culture, whose people have been weaving sweetgrass leaves into beautiful baskets for hundreds of years. The handcrafted baskets decorate the inn throughout, highlighting the Gullah heritage and reminding us that inner and outer strength are the foundations of a healthy and productive life. There is a home-away-from-home feel, with comfortable, cozy, communal spaces, like the Kumbaya Room, to read, write and recharge. My room was a spacious and charming 425 sq. ft. elegant space. A plush king-size bed (which I can honestly say is the most comfortable I have ever slept in), with enough goose-feathered pillows to keep me swooning in my happy place. The Deep Sleep Revitalize Engineered Sleep Sound speaker, was a nice touch, as I drifted off to sleep listening to ocean sounds.
The all-inclusive rate includes three à la carte meals per day in the comfortable and relaxed True dining room. The Mediterranean-style menu is calorie counted and portion-controlled for you, making eating healthy an easy option. The H3 plate is a unique way of creating a custom meal based on personal preference and nutritional needs. Executive Chef Thomas Carrig, crafts delicious, creative dishes inspired by fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Breakfast items included berry smoothies, fresh fruit crepes filled with whipped coconut cream, Huevos avocados, cinnamon oats, and Chef Carrig's signature seed bread toast. For lunch, options included pickled shrimp rolls, strawberry salad, and grilled grouper with lemon cream. Garlic roasted napa cabbage, crushed eggplant flatbread, and herb-roasted pork loin were a few of the gourmet dishes on the menu for dinner. There are perfectly portioned snacks, called Fitbites, available throughout the day. An assortment of berries, crudites, and dip, smoked salmon, cottage cheese, and crackers. Did I mention I discovered the latte machine, that made frothy delectable concoctions?
The onsite Indigo Spa offers a full spectrum of treatments. There were many aspects of H3 I loved, but the spa was unashamedly my favorite. On arrival, I was offered a big plushy dressing gown and slippers and shown to the relaxation room to unwind in the serene relaxation room overlooking an oak-shaded lagoon, sipping an organic mint tea. The facial esthetician Mercedes worked her magic fingers over my skin with a Transformational Facial. A gentle peel, a powerful shot of Super C Serum, and a personalized Eminence Organic rejuvenation mask, literally left me glowing. In between, my arms and hands were gently massaged with arnica oil, and my over-zealous eyebrows reshaped. On a different day, I was indulged in an 80-minute cardamom and amber deep tissue massage by masseuse Mark, which left me feeling instantly calmer and the tension in my body evicted.
I left Hilton Head Health feeling like I'd been taken care of. A resolve and overall wellness I hadn’t felt in years. It was a reset, guided by experts in fitness, nutrition, and mental health. I was able to leave with small but important habits I continue to incorporate into my daily wellness. I take thermal walks after each meal. I portion healthy snacks into little containers: blueberries, pineapple, smoked salmon, and cottage cheese. I keep my H3 silver water bottle filled at all times. I turn my cellphone off at 6 pm. I spend time outdoors every day. And while there may be no secret to balance and health, H3 taught me that health is a process of discovering yourself and that the small everyday habits we incorporate into our every day that make it sustainable.