Monday April 15th, 2024
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Exclusive First Look at Aswan's The Zen Wellness Resort

Resting serenely on the banks of the Nile, this 200 acre resort is the first holistic healing escape of its kind in the Middle East. SceneTraveller’s Layan Ismail experiences true wellness…

Layan Adham Ismail

Exclusive First Look at Aswan's The Zen Wellness Resort

“You’re so lucky to be staying longer. And alone. I wish I could live here.”

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life – indecisive, reclusive, pessimistic, “needs help” – but “lucky” has never been an easily uttered word in my presence. Usually, when people take a comprehensive bird’s-eye-view look at my life, there’s only one prevalent feeling so palpable on their faces, it’s laughable they even try to hide it – empathy.

Besides an entire river worth of physical ailments that at their best make it impossible for me to consume/inhale my guilty pleasures and at their worst render me incapable of basic human functions, there’s also the fact that I’m spiritually nomadic, forever scouting new passions, convictions, ideologies; lost amidst a sea of energies. As for the mental – how much time do you have?

Yet, as the athleisure-clad Chinese woman sharing a golf cart with me sincerely spoke those words, I actually did feel lucky.

Even before that, as my ultra-lavish airport pickup took a turn off the main New Aswan asphalt road and onto The Zen Wellness Resort’s interlocked winding pathway, where a kaleidoscope of pearl-coloured butterflies immediately took fairy-like flight all around the leisurely moving car, I knew I was entering a different realm than the one I had just come from.

The resort, which is not aptly named because at 200 acres it more closely resembles a small city, seemed to embrace me – warts and all – before I could even entertain the thought of simply giving it a chance.

As soon as I crossed the threshold of the spa-like reception, which smelled of freshly plucked basil and refreshing lemongrass (the latter of which is infused into everything, from the soap to the air freshener, even the bedding carries the calming aroma) a welcoming committee made up of local staff flashed grins so wide and so wholehearted, I began to worry. I had never associated such all-around genuine warm-heartedness with, well, anything really.

One delectable hibiscus welcome drink later, I was handed a Nokia phone – the most durable and indestructible of all the human gadgets – which had every last relevant number on it, from the reception, housekeeping, butler and concierge to the spa, the wellness centre and their specialised “healthy nutrition” room service. A small and simple idea with bountiful convenience-related rewards. But that’s The Zen, which is what the staff dotingly refer to it, in a nutshell – a hospitality purveyor of “there’s a healing type of serenity subtly embedded within simplicity”.

But don’t get it twisted – “simple” this resort is most definitely not.

Stretching across an incomprehensibly massive area right on Aswan’s Nile – where you can spot gently gliding sailboats, tourist-teeming cruise ships, a spectrum of birds engaged in romantic aerial dances and a palette of colourful greenery, all of which I can describe in such poetic manner because I now belong in the “healed” category, thank you very much – The Zen is a wellness resort the likes of which this country, perhaps even this region, has never had the privilege of seeing.

Its (insanely) ambitiously pervasive approach to wellness is three-fold – holistic energy-channelling and soul-cleansing therapies, paired with regenerative medical treatments, and, last but not least, healthy and guilt-free culinary masterpieces. A triad that, by the end of my I-wish-I-didn’t-have-to-work-much-too-short four-day stay, would help me stitch up patches of my soul I didn’t even know needed mending.

I know, I know. You probably all think I’m just “hot off the press” (so to speak), which is why I’m so “kid in a candy store” ecstatic about this but after I’m done telling my occasionally too-good-to-be-true-sounding tale, I promise you’ll understand why.

Par example – all of the above is not even what initially drew me to this resort.

In my attempt to stop being part of the we’re-so-gonna-regret-this eco-problem (which often fails but I’m only human) I’ve generally been trying to shift more towards conscious travel, the newest à-la-mode sustainable tourism trend. And since it’s currently chic, for the love of God, people, at least try it on for wear.

So, environment-related panic aside, when I was CIA researching this brand new idyllic travel hub I learned about The Zen’s core ethos, which can be considered an amalgamation of ecotourism, where the environment is the axis around which the resort rotates (think bamboo straws, recycling, the works) and conscious travel, which goes even further, bringing local communities to the fore by honouring their cultural heritage and highlighting our social responsibilities towards them (most workers are native women and, later on, local artisans will set up shop right in the middle of the ancient riverbank’s thick verdant foliage). Additionally, in a move only an overachiever could ever hope to pull off, the resort also touches on another pillar of travel – medical tourism, which is where you relish in the comfort of hospitality while also tuning up the insides of your bodily vessel (“healed speech” for finally get that weird spot on your belly checked).

I know this is all really big talk but see, what makes The Zen so special, is that it actually walks the walk. Though no one puts it better than the bespectacled CEO, Mohamed Mohey, himself.

“We don’t build. We regenerate,” he said to me one night at the violin-serenaded and three-course-menu-inclusive soft opening of Juzoor, the resort’s farm-to-table restaurant, over a relaxed cup of herbal tea, “We regenerated the restaurant, the villas, and the landscape. Our aim is to eventually regenerate the people themselves.”

Mohey’s philosophy beautifully materialises in the form of earth-tone-hued minimalistic co-habitation villas, remodelled into community-building dwellings, fully embellished with Aswan-crafted trinkets and with a (personally tested) heavy-duty hammock to spare. The villas, which are divided into intimate identical clusters, house several generously airy bedrooms, perfect for an “I need some space, like all of it” type of trip, each with an en-suite bathroom, private balcony and a stocked mini fridge with complimentary locally sourced snacks and healthy refreshments. So, it’s not hard to understand why, once I had wrapped up my journalistic room sleuthing, I Cheshire-cat grinned to myself and with – regrettably for my shoulder – uncalculated force, flung myself onto the bed.

Just then, my fully charged and therefore eternally operational Nokia started buzzing in my bag.

“Miss Layan, the doctors will see you now.” Okay, that’s probably not how the cheery receptionist, Tasbeeh, who would later treat me to a slurp-worthy cup of cookies-flavoured coffee, phrased it but it sounds more dramatic that way and I’m an October Libra.

And before you ask, yes – doctors, plural.

My very first day at The Zen, curly-haired Nadine, their resident pranic healing practitioner, sat me down in a Nile-side fully equipped yoga studio and, to the delight of my inner inquisitive nerd, explained everything in brief but meticulous detail. 50-minute-long story short, she asked me countless questions about my needs, preferences, and most insomnia-inducing struggles then proceeded to describe how (armed with a 12-page hyper-in-depth form I had filled out a few days prior) general practitioners, yoga instructors, naturopathic physicians, physiotherapists and many (many) more experts would convene around a (probably wooden or wicker) table and cook up a program to address every single one of my needs.

I mean, if this isn’t every New-Year’s-resolution-possessing hypochondriac’s dream, I don’t know what is.

Having received the specially tailored schedule via text and after a day of blood tests, InBody measurements, assessments, and as-delicious-as-they-sound meals like grilled salmon with warm wholewheat salad and avocado key lime cheesecake at Juzoor, the real healing work began.

This part I’ll have to keep brief (well, brief for me) because it involves a lot of tears and emotional attachments to what I knew, but refused to admit, were ephemeral friendships. And also because my moon is Cancer, so give my emotionally turbulent self a break (See? I’m setting boundaries already).

Anyway, since I’ve decided to wholly embrace all parts of myself, including the neurotic planner currently cataloguing her entire wardrobe on her phone to better outfit prep, the following will be methodically listed by tear-count in ascending order.

Therapeutic Yoga with naturopathic physician Dr. Shrutie was a teary-eyed but not full-on bawl PCOS-centred fest, out of which I got a mile-long list of save-the-cramps-day yoga poses my non-nimble self will literally never stop doing and was so grateful to be introduced to, I almost – but not quite – let the tear tap run.

A level four on the waterworks metre, my consultation with former NICU-based clinical dietician Dr. Heba, who admirably and patiently held her own amidst my barrage of questions, left me with life-long nutrition tips that have already started resolving chronic issues I had long-ago branded as incurable side effects of ageing. However, it’s her heart-strings-tugging and body-dysmorphia-healing words that are the reason this moment comes in second place.

Before we move on to the pinnacle of my weeping voyage, number three, here are some honourable wellness mentions: the guided Yoga Nidra session with Dr. Yaazhini was the most anxiety-alleviating experience of my life, physiotherapy with Dr. Marina was the complete unknotting of my every muscle using pure wizardry and Pranayama with Dr. Shrutti was a fundamental lesson on how to breathe with intention – to either give my Energizer Bunny alter ego the reins or let my sloth persona take the slow-paced lead.

Now, finally, the opening of the flood gates – Sunset Yoga with Brazilian dynamo Ezye. After a number of curated yoga poses, which included ones for self-love and showing of appreciation to oneself, she asked me to lie down, used a plush blanket to tuck me in and covered my eyes with a weighted sandbag. What ensued was a lengthy guided meditation that somehow managed to hit every single long-buried and bottled-up emotional landmine in my entire being. Words of encouragement poured out of her like gauze and, once the trance-like out-of-body experience had reached its tenderly resounding end, the tears poured out of me in a sporadic and uncontrollable manner, resembling – in water pressure and quantity – a sputtering, broken Aswan dam.

It was the unbridled emotional release I needed to finally turn the page on my “I’m just scraping by in life” chapter and to start the next – XXVII: Living.

Profound, right?

I told you you’d eventually start to understand.

And if you think this is the holistic climax, you’d be very much mistaken because with such fatiguing existential epiphanies, comes the exigent need for serene solitary reflection, which is just what Nadine prescribed.

“All we want is to make this as easy, safe, comfortable and fluid as possible for you, so please just forget everything and take some time for yourself,” she said to me, as we sat in her office, just having finished our chakra-focused Twin Hearts Meditation, “Grab your bike and sit somewhere, where you can just be with nature.”

And, in startling opposition to my sluggish, inflexible and insect-phobic disposition, I did.

I grabbed my electric bike and semi-hobbled down to the Nile-front Zen Promenade, the largest walkway of its kind in the entire city and open to the public, making it the optimal location for observing young couples picnicking and giggling bashfully, new parents holding hands and pushing small polka-dotted strollers, and The Zen’s eternally buoyant gardeners, happy to walk you through every single plant and seed.

Afterwards, I took an unrushed stroll down to the edge of the riverbank, dangled my feet in the cool water below, pulled out my journal, and began jotting down lyrical passages that streamed out of me ever so effortlessly, which, for someone with frequent writer’s block, is a euphoric experience.

With some nature-fuelled new-found energy, I then decided to bike up to the mammoth Zen Amphitheatre, which is basically a modern-day colosseum that could probably fit the entire population of New Aswan and will soon – understandably – host large-scale presidential red-carpet spectacles.

By the end of my three-hour (!!!) excursion, I felt revitalised in ways my brain could not even comprehend.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure (or misfortune, depending) of meeting me, you definitely know that none of this sounds even remotely like Layan (or Lino, Lilo, Luni, depending).

It’s like I’ve finally been able to let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding and now, I’m this super holistic, organic food eating and non-insect-fearing ball of peace? Believe me, I’m more weirded out by all this than you.

And, even though the treatments, sessions and meditations were life-changing in and of themselves, you know what truly touched my now-slowly-blossoming heart? The people.

Like Luxor-born German-speaking Dr. Anton, who’d wave enthusiastically whenever we’d cross paths, while trying not to lose control of our quite aggressively accelerating electric bikes. Or resident dentist Dr. Bassem, who silently drank unfiltered tap water just to avoid supporting non-BDS-friendly corporations. Or golf cart driver and sewing-enthusiast Mahmoud, who throws his girls the most lavish birthday parties and – as I was leaving – handed me a bag of gifts for my mom. Or soft-spoken acupuncturist Dr. Salma, who took it upon herself to tell me I was “warm and most deserving of love and kindness” completely out of the blue.

All of this, all of these (frankly lengthy, sorry) ramblings you’ve soldiered through are just a fraction of the reasons why The Zen managed to feel like home in the span of four meagre days. And for someone whose trust issues have taken up permanent residence in a bottomless blackened pit of dubiety, this is not just impressive, it’s a herculean feat.

What’s that, lazy readers who just want a two-line summary? How would I describe the experience in as few words as possible?

Indescribably soul-cleansing. Entirely surreal. And most definitely idyllic.

So much so that I can now safely say that I’ve officially hitched my wagon to The Zen and, even though long distance might be our reality until further vacation-request-pending notice, I’m grabbing my numerology-obsessed mother and running off to the edge of the Nile the first chance I get.


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