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Hawaii Touts Abundance of Health and Wellness Resorts - 2004-01-24

It's the time of year when many Americans want to escape, from the cold, from daily stress, or simply to find a place to decompress and re-energize themselves. The Pacific island state of Hawaii is billing itself as that kind of place. Hawaii is promoting not just its beautiful beaches and fine weather but its abundance of "health and wellness" resorts- And the state has become the leader in a niche industry known as "wellness tourism."

Here at the Mauna Lani Resort on the west coast of Hawaii's Big Island, guests took out their mats, placed them on the grass at the edge of the ocean's surf and launched into a session of Kundalini Yoga With Gongs. It was one of many workshops and seminars presented as part of a four-day event called Ke Kumu, the Hawaiian word for "teacher" or "source of knowledge."

The Mauna Lani is one of many Hawaiian resorts and hotels that are promoting spa and wellness services in their tourism packages. These packages emphasize personal improvement, from learning yoga, to working with a chiropractor or a nutrition consultant, or listening to Hawaiian elders discuss life's challenges in a Hawaiian tradition known as "talk-story."

The Mauna Lani spa offers traditional treatments as well, but with a distinctly Hawaiian flavor. Spa attendant Kupono took this reporter on a tour of an outdoor lava sauna - built from ancient black lava rocks that simulate the lava flow of the nearby volcanoes.

"You sit in the sun for about 15-20 minutes," he said. "It opens up the pores, sweats out all the toxins in your body. After 20 minutes, we offer you black glacier clay -- looks just like mud that runs all over your body from the neck down."

And there's a new water massage pool that guests may use with the help of a therapist. Spa attendant Kupono explained how it works.

"This is a warm-water pool, they stretch you out, do a little deep work [massage]," explained Kupono. "It's also like a water dance where they take you underwater and you feel like a fish and they guide you through the whole thing. All you have to do really is lay there. It's a really nice water treatment."

At Mauna Lani's Ke Kumu spa retreat, guests can learn about both ancient and contemporary health alternatives from masters who come from all over the world including the renowned holistic practitioner Deepak Chopra, an aroma-therapist from South Africa, and local elders and "aunties" who pass on some of the teachings of ancient Hawaiian culture.

"They talk about the spirit of place and I really sense that here," said Greg Gamble, who traveled to Hawaii from McKinney, Texas. "Personally, I think it's healing just being here."

Rupli: Do you find this to be a better idea, than say, sitting on a beach drinking a(n alcoholic beverage like a) Pina Colada?

Gamble: "Oh, absolutely. I participated in some yoga classes this weekend and learned a lot from that. And I guess there's still a percentage of vacationers who like a very passive vacation and baking out by the pool. But I think most people are looking for something more than that right now."

That was also the finding of a U.S. marketing firm that monitors Americans' travel preferences. Ken Yesowich of Yesowich, Pepperdine and Brown in Orlando, Florida, says about one third of all adult leisure travelers say they would like to visit a spa on vacation.

"That number has grown a good 10% over the past seven to 10 years," he said. "So it is now about twice the percentage of adult travelers who tell us they want to play golf on vacation, to put that in perspective. So it's a very large, robust and growing group."

But Hawaii's Big Island seems to be leading most other places as a destination for "wellness" tourists. An estimated 20 percent of the state's six million annual visitors come for a spa-type experience. Mauna Lani Spa Director Sylvia Sepielli says she believes Hawaii's volcanic landscape has contributed to the Big Island's popularity as a therapeutic getaway.

"The mountains represent strength and healing," said Sylvia Sepielli. "And of course the volcanic action on this island is very powerful. I believe a lot of people who are attracted here and one of the reasons it's become known as the 'healing island' is, of course, the land itself and the indigenous people, but because of this source of energy. Healers and massage therapists from all over the world are gravitating here. I'm not sure how to express that, [but] there's something about it that they want to be here. It's the place where people want to do their work."

At the end of the four-day Ke Kumu at Mauna Lani, visitor Debbie Osterholt looked relaxed and happy as she congregated with others at a garden party.

Debbie Osterholt: "For me, this has been very different from what I've done before. Typically when we've been in Hawaii we've been in a condo and kept pretty much to ourselves. I think the most special part of the weekend was the aunties listening to them talk about their place in Hawaiian culture, their connectedness with the land. That to me was the most special."

Rupli: How do you connect that with wellness in your own mind?

Debbie Osterholt: "For me, it's paying attention to yourself, to the place you occupy and the people that you occupy the place with. And I think if those relationships work, wellness is probably a likely outcome."