Review: Sha Wellness Clinic
I’ve had many far-fetched ideas since turning 40 earlier this year. These are mostly unworkable schemes towards either radically downsizing in lifestyle or making one final big push towards middle-age affluence, as tends to be the case men at a certain age. But there was one notion that did seem achievable: I wanted a relaxing holiday this summer; the sort of break where you come back healthier than when you left. That’s a tough call when vacations have always been about having as much experiences in the shortest possible time, interspersed with too much food and alcohol (because excess doesn’t count on holiday, right?). But really, what is a break for if it’s not to rejuvenate mentally and physically? And if you’re that way inclined, spiritually also.
So this summer I decided to visit Sha Wellness Clinic, which I’d heard about from friends who had made the trek over to Spain and come back as clear-eyed, revitalised converts. I’d also attended an event a couple of years back organised by Alejandro Bataller Pineda, vice president and son of the Sha owner and founder. He travelled to Dubai along with Sha’s head chef to give a lunch and talk about the centre. The food alone that day had convinced me that I had to go one day, but what he had to say also stuck with me.
Pineda’s father, Alfredo Bataller Parietti, was successful businessman who for many years had suffered from many health issues. When this finally came to a head with the diagnosis of a tumour, he met a leading expert in natural therapies who radically altered his diet, curing him completely of the problems that had plagued him for decades. This wakeup call prompted Parietti to rethink his entire life. He wanted to share the unique blend of centuries of wisdom combined with the latest advances of western medicine. The result is Sha Wellness Clinic, in the hills above the small town of Albir a 90 minute drive south of Valencia on the eastern coast of Spain.
Opened in 2008, it looks like a very nice luxury boutique hotel from the outside. This impression is heightened by the infinity pool and sun loungers on the roof, tinkling water features, a sea-facing terrace and 93 well-appointed hotel suites. But don’t assume that “wellness” is a marketing tool for getting holidaymakers through the door. While a visit here will be as comfortable as any five star hotel stay – save for the absence of alcohol in the mini bar – Sha has 80 treatment rooms in the basement, where over 250 experts integrate natural therapies with the latest advances in medical science. The aim, so their literature tells us, is not just to fix ailments but to forge a pathway to an optimum state of well-being.
In practice this means a visit to the nutritionist and doctor when you arrive for test and a conversation to map out what you want to achieve from your stay. This might be simply to lose weight, gain muscle or look younger, but it quickly becomes apparent that most people have more substantial lifestyle changes to make.
The starting point for this overhaul is the food you eat. Sha nutrition is based on the healing principles of macrobiotics. For anyone who has followed the low-carb, gluten-free and Paleo diets popular over last few years, this is a little confronting to begin with, because it involves mostly grains along with some cooked vegetables, seaweed and sea vegetables, beans, minimal fruit, and only occasional animal protein in the form of fish. In reality this doesn’t mean huge bowls of pasta or mounds of brown rice. There are three menus that range from 500 to 1800 calories per day. Even on the upper end that still means small portions, and this is the first lesson: if your food is nutritious enough and you eat slowly then you don’t need to eat as much as you think you do.
“The aim, so their literature tells us, is not just to fix ailments but to forge a pathway to an optimum state of physical, mental and spiritual well-being”
Of course you will still wish you could consume more, especially as the beautifully presented meals, served on the terrace, are one of the best things about the entire stay. The lack of more commonly used ingredients has led the Sha kitchen to explore unchartered territory, to the extent that there were some combinations and tastes for which I had no reference point. It was a completely new experience, and all the better for it, which almost made up for the absence of caffeine and sugar. Alcohol also isn’t served as a matter of course but ask nicely they will pour a glass of (organic) wine.
Outside of the leisurely meals, guests have an almost bewildering array of options in the clinic. The natural therapies include acupuncture, shiatsu, deep tissue massage, reflexology and osteopathy. These are intended to stimulate the self-healing power of our body that is often blocked or weakened by bad habits. Two treatments particularly stood out for me. One was an aqua relax session where a masseur gently manipulated and realigned my entire body while I floated in a warm pool. The other was a detox body wrap, followed by a blasting off with a high pressure water hose manhandled by a big bald Russian man. It was weird, disconcerting and also strangely enjoyable.
And then you get into the nitty gritty of advanced medicine. Sha has several experts whose focus if to try and stimulate and naturally rebuild the different metabolic systems and processes that are required to live healthily and for longer. I had an appointment with Dr. Vincente Mera, head of Internal Medicine and anti-ageing, who is at the forefront of research into bio-identical hormonal supplementation, genetic and genomic assessment and telomeric evaluation. What medicine can do in terms of mapping out genetic health and slowing the aging process is fascinating and makes me wonder what we’ll know in the coming decades. Perhaps I’ll go back for my 90th birthday to find out?
The other consultation that stood out was with Dr. Bruno Ribeiro, head of the Sha cognitive programme. Dr Ribeiro assesses cognitive function and recommends brain exercises, foods and nutritional supplements to help keep your mind running at an optimal level – a concern that becomes of increasing importance in middle age and beyond.
These appointments gave a routine and structure to the day. I travelled alone but never had time to be bored, plus guests are all there for the same reason so it’s easy to strike up conversations. What I did notice is that I slept very well at night and had lots of energy in the day. I took several walks up into the nature reserve and clifftops of the Sierra Helada mountainside overlooking the sea, including a trail up to the old lighthouse which was worth the steep climb and heat. Walking into Altea was a stranger experience.
The seaside resort was full of overweight tourists drinking and smoking in bars, which was such a jarring (though slightly tempting) contrast with my temporary home up in the hills. Given we weren’t supposed to drink alcohol, coffee or snack between meals, I walked past all this and climbed above the promenade to the old district on the hill surrounding the church. With its cobbled narrow streets and pavement terrace restaurants overlooking the surrounding hills and sea it was typically Spanish and a nice interlude to an otherwise very untypical Spanish holiday.
When I left Sha to begin the journey home, my overwhelming response to the sight of stressed out passengers eating bad airport food was that, while we can’t live in a Sha-style bubble, neither can most of us live to our optimum potential out in the real world either. So much of what we do and what is what expected of us just isn’t sustainable. The more I learn about wellbeing the more I believe we need to make a serious personal journey towards finding it. But that could be the midlife crisis talking.
Rooms start at Dhs1,055 per night. A range of health packages are available. Visit shawellnessclinic.com for details