If you’ve ever scanned the homepage of Compare Retreats, chances are you’ve read the work of Compare Retreats Editor and Chief Content Officer, Rebecca Cairns. A NASM-certified personal trainer, running enthusiast and adventurous traveller who dabbles in all things wellness from hypnotherapy to nerding out about nutrition, Rebecca has written extensively for publications like Tatler, Travel+Leisure, Fodor’s Travel Guide, and Time Out. Compare Retreats’ Founder Dervla Louli quizzes her on her favourite retreats, top running routes, and why writing is important for wellness.
Tell us a little bit about yourself: where are you from, and when did your interest in travel and wellness begin? I grew up in Scotland, and I’ve pretty much always been interested in travel, even from a young age. My parents love to travel too, so I was lucky that I was able to experience a lot of Europe quite young. I went away for the first time on my own to Ghana when I was 16, and from that point onwards I was planning trips or working abroad every summer. After university, I moved to Hong Kong, for what was meant to be a year of working and travelling but I fell in love with the city — and that’s also when I became interested in wellness. I started running as a way to explore the city, and when I began working at Hong Kong Tatler, had the chance to meet a lot of amazing people doing great things in the health and fitness space.
What are some of your most memorable trips? It’s always the trips that go wrong or have uncomfortable moments that really stand out: backpacking in China for two weeks on my own, because I was pushed so far out of my comfort zone and really had to think on my feet, adapt, and also spend a lot of time with myself. Surfing in Bali is also up there — there’s nothing like learning a new skill on holiday — and finishing third in my first half-marathon on Mount Bromo, Indonesia, was another trip I’ll probably never forget.
What wellness retreats are on your bucket list for 2020? Bhutan as a destination has been on my list forever — the flight alone looks amazing, and COMO Uma Paro, Amankora and Six Senses Bhutan are all incredible properties I’d love to visit. I have so many Hong Kong friends from South Africa, so Bushman’s Kloof is definitely on my list for 2020.
Why do you think wellness travel is growing so rapidly in Southeast Asia? People are more stressed and working longer hours, so they’re in need of more (and more meaningful) downtime and recovery from burnout. Urban sprawl and density are taking a toll on people’s mental health, and they want to feel connected to something: fitness communities provide that connection. Specific to South East Asia, so many of the wellness ‘trends’ that are popping up in the west have been a fact of life here for centuries, like TCM and Ayurveda. Because of this, South East Asia already has all the knowledge and skills to put together these incredible integrative holistic retreats—plus, some of the most beautiful destinations. What we also saw from the Global Wellness Summit last year was the potential in China’s tourism market: the growing interest in wellness from Chinese travellers is a big factor in South East Asia’s growth, and it’s only going to continue to grow.
What are some of your favourite running routes in Hong Kong and what overseas races do you love? I live in Kowloon, so all my regular running routes are close to home — the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade and the West Kowloon Art Park are two of my regular running routes. For races, I think the more interesting the route, the better — the Bromo Marathon in Java, Indonesia, was an amazing race because the views were incredible. I’d love to do more of these world wonder races, where you get to experience the place as well as partaking in the global running community. Races like the Angkor Wat Marathon in Cambodia or the Midnight Sun race in Norway are high on my to-do list.
What are some self-care morning, evening and weekend rituals that you follow to get some much-needed respite from the digital world? My partner helps me enforce a strict no-phones-before-bed rule (which, I do occasionally break) so that I can switch off. I set aside a couple of hours every day for exercise and fitness, and I try to journal and/or read for at least half an hour each night before bed. Once a week I’ll do a Lush face mask, and try to go for one long run or hike each week in addition to my regular workout routine, to get a bit more fresh air and exposure to nature.
What are five things that you never fly without? A big shawl or scarf, because I can never work out if I’ll be hot or cold (and it doubles as a pillow). Palmer’s Cocoa Butter All-in-One mini balm: it’s super hydrating and can be used for lips, face, hands, wherever is dry. Deflatine, to prevent bloating. My iPad, which is a lot lighter and smaller than my laptop so I can bring it everywhere, and the cover doubles as a keyboard so I can always write wherever I am. And a reusable flask for water: travel is already so unsustainable, so I try to do a little bit to make it better.
If someone only had 24 hours in Edinburgh what should they have on their hot list? Arthur’s Seat and Calton Hill for the best views of the city; the Scottish Parliament to learn a bit about Scottish politics and see some of the weirdest contemporary architecture in the world; the Grass Market, where you can go second-hand shopping and hit the bars; the National Museum (that could take up the full 24-hours itself); The Royal Mile, because it’s beautiful; and hometown bias, but I’d suggest making a detour out to South Queensferry to see the Forth Bridges. The Forth Rail Bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the three together make a pretty spectacular site.
What are some Hong Kong spas and fitness studios that deliver authentic and results-driven experiences? I’m a big fan of boxing, and my regular studio in Mongkok, Santiachi, is relentless: it’s a 90-minute sweat-fest. I love LIGHTS/OUT, which has just moved to Sheung Wan, because it packs so much into 45 minutes. When it comes to chilling out, there’s nowhere in Hong Kong I’d rather be than the Four Seasons Spa: best views, best pool, best massages. I love the singing bowls they use for the Vital Energy Crystal Healing massage, which is just magic.
You’re an avid writer and poet. What are some groups that people can join in Hong Kong and why do you think journaling or writing is an important wellness ritual? Writing is a way to reflect on yourself: if you’re upset or angry about something, writing it down often puts it into perspective, while still venting the feeling. There are a lot of things that distract us every day, but when you’re writing it’s really hard to lie to yourself so it’s also a rare moment of self-awareness. Hong Kong’s literary scene is small but strong: I go to Peel Street Poetry regularly for their spoken word open-mic nights and Liars’ League for their short story readings.
What are some of your favourite travel publications or websites, and what does your trip-planning process look like? I’ll always check out the recommendations of my favourite travel publications — mainly Travel+Leisure, Conde Nast Traveller, and New York Times — but I’ll also try and find smaller blogs from people living in the area to find alternative places to go. This is really important for places like China, where there’s not a huge amount of good information in English, but a wealth of it in Chinese if you dig a little deeper. I’m a fan of spreadsheets (which everyone in the Compare Retreats office knows!) so I use them a lot to plan dates, times, itineraries. I’ll usually stash all my transport and accommodation information in one document, and then I’ll create an individual trip map on Google Maps with all the sights and food places I’ve found that I’d like to visit. In spite of all that planning, I don’t make rigid itineraries: using the map, I’ll head to an area and just explore. I’ll try to visit the places I’ve marked, but if it doesn’t happen or I check them out and don’t feel like it, I’ll go elsewhere.
What books can we find on your nightstand or in your kindle? Right now: The Mountains of Madness by HP Lovecraft; One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson; She Must Be Mad, poems by Charley Cox; Tales of a Chinese Grandmother by Frances Carpenter; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; and the third Game of Thrones book, which I tried reading years ago and never finished. It’s a bit of a mix, but it keeps things interesting. Oh, and I just downloaded Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic to my Kindle after reading this list of inspiring self-help books.
What are some of the most Instagrammable wellness retreats on your radar? The pool and spa suites at Four Seasons Hong Kong are incredible for photos. The Cook & Tras Social Library at Six Senses Singapore is also one of my favourite rooms in the world, though everything about that boutique hotel is super photogenic. I’d love to visit the glass-bottom pool at Six Senses Zil Payson. I think anywhere is ‘Instagrammable’ if you’re creative enough, and there are so many retreats where the location does the work for you.
How do you think wellness travel habits are changing based on your research? People – especially Millennials and Gen Z – are less interested in the name or brand of a place, and more interested in the experience being offered. There’s been a lot of talk among big travel publications like The New York Times and Washington Post about creating content to help people ‘live like a local’ when they travel, and you can see things like Airbnb Experiences popping up to fill that market. However, I think people are still looking for escapism when they travel, and as we’re all so busy and so stressed, for that to be made as easy as possible. Nobody has time to do the research – they want an itinerary that hits the highlights but also offers some off-the-beaten-track activities. And in wellness, I think the experience element plays even more into that – people want to visit retreats and do wellness activities that really transform and change them.
What’s your favourite quote to live by? “Take the risk or lose the chance.” Not sure who said it, but it’s a variation of many quotes with a similar philosophy: if you don’t take chances, you never grow. I watched a TEDx Talk back in 2016 by Lori Granito, co-founder of Little Burro and now a life coach: she was talking about being bold and taking chances, and used Steve Harvey’s ‘Cliff of Life’ metaphor. I loved the imagery of it so much, I got a tattoo of a parachute four months later. It reminds me to be bold, take chances that seem out of reach, and trust the process that eventually the parachute will open.
Follow Rebecca’s travel and wellness adventure on Instagram at @jetsetcreate.