High in the Italian Alps, our contributor finds tranquillity at Lefay Resort & Spa Dolomiti, a sustainability-focussed property that combines traditional Chinese medicine and Western wellness principles—to unique effect. By Peter Browne
A couple of years ago, I ran into an old friend who was just back from a retreat at the Lefay Resort & Spa on Italy’s Lake Garda. By coincidence, I had also just been at a wellness resort, this one in India, so was keen to compare notes. I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017, and by the time of this chance encounter, I had already undergone major surgery and six months of chemotherapy. A year later, I had a recurrence that was treated with radiation and, when the cancer came back for a second time, with NanoKnife—a new and, for me, painful treatment. I felt emotionally scarred, tired, and off-kilter.
So when I heard that Lefay had opened a second spa hotel in the Italian Alps a few hours’ drive north of its Lake Garda property, I was off like a shot. The new Lefay Resort & Spa Dolomiti is less of a medical spa than its sister hotel (there are no doctors or personalised wellness programmes, for example), but both share a philosophy based on sustainability and wellness, with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) at its core. In India, I had undergone a number of Chinese treatments administered by gentle Tibetan practitioners, and they had made a profound and lasting impression on me.
My first morning at the new Lefay was bathed in sparkling sunlight. Everything I could see from my lightly frosted balcony—the village of Pinzolo, the surrounding valleys, the proud Alpine peaks in the distance—seemed precision-etched, as if made by a laser. In winter this landscape is cloaked in snow, and most guests will take a gondola (located about a 10-minute walk from the hotel) up to the Madonna di Campiglio ski area, where there are 145 kilometres of downhill runs and four snowboarding parks to explore. But this being November (2020), there were plenty of hikers out on the still-green slopes. Lefay’s guides will take guests walking in the larch forests behind the hotel to visit waterfalls and ancient, frescoed churches, but I chose instead to stroll along the swift-flowing Sarca di Val Genova River on the outskirts of Pinzolo.
From the path along the riverbank, I was able to scope out the area around the new resort. Given the size—there are 88 bedrooms and 23 residences set on either side of the four-storey spa—the development sits surprisingly kindly in its setting. Together with their business partners, the owners—the Italian businessman Alcide Leali and his wife Liliana—have spent $80 million on the venture so far. Sustainability is taken seriously: the architects used local fir, larch, and Adamello tonalite, the granite-like stone you find everywhere in these parts, to ensure the resort blends in to the mountainside. Viewed from the river, the property is barely noticeable, with little to indicate its scale. The Leali family perfected this sustainability model at their hugely successful Lake Garda resort, which opened in 2006 and has been carbon-neutral for five years. Like its sister hotel, the Dolomites property uses renewable energy sources and smart electrical, heat, and water systems to minimise its carbon output. The Lealis then offset these emissions by donating to CO2-reduction initiatives.
Lake Garda is also where the owners devised the Lefay Spa Method, under the guidance of Professor Maurizio Corradin and Dr Carlo Di Stanislao—both disciples of TCM. The spa’s signature circuits are based on the concept that qi, or energy, moves through five different phases, depending on the season and time of day.
At Lefay, Corradin and Di Stanislao designed five treatment paths to choose from, based on an initial consultation: the Green Dragon (for impulsive and nervous people), the Red Phoenix (for anxiety), the White Tiger (for weakness and melancholy), the Black Tortoise (for stress), and the Centre (from which all four paths apparently emanate). Each path has a recommended daily sequence of specific sauna or steam-bath temperatures, massage, breathing/meditation activity, and phytotherapy (in the form of herbal tea), which all takes about four hours to complete.
Some spas will restrict treatments for cancer patients to the most basic and least interesting massages, but fortunately for me there are no such limits at Lefay. I decided to mix and match treatments from the White Tiger path with an 80-minute Western massage to increase my energy levels, a deeply effective facial massage, and 40 minutes of qigong exercises with an infinitely patient senior therapist who deftly adapted his instructions to take into account muscle wastage caused by my surgery, as well as common old cancer fatigue.
Over the course of my three-day stay, I also tried two Eastern therapies: the neigong tuina massage to balance the body’s yin and yang (a treatment that dates back to the Ming dynasty) and the application of hot pumice stones to improve mobility. My therapist, Sushanto Roma, was born near Kolkata, and trained in TCM and osteopathy for five years. The heat radiating from Roma’s hands was astonishing, and afterward he demonstrated how he could add to the intensity of the treatment by simply concentrating his mind. I was transfixed and left feeling a deep sense of well-being, with every muscle in my body as relaxed as a rag doll.
The architecture of the new building is equally celestial. Light streams into the spa and hotel through cathedral windows designed by the DemetzArch studio. The slick interiors by Alberto Apostoli are masculine, streamlined, and vaguely futuristic, with warm oak floors and curvaceous furniture crafted from burnished chestnut. At the heart of the hotel is a heated indoor-outdoor pool where I floated gently on my back beneath a star-saturated sky as steam curled up into the ice-cold air around me.
The hotel and its dazzling surroundings may attract sophisticated weekend skiers from Venice and dedicated spa mavens from Milan, but personally, it was the TCM that sold me on Lefay. That, and the ambition of the place—there are parts of the 5,000-square-metre spa I barely caught sight of. Perhaps a return visit to celebrate remission is in the cards? Well, the place certainly put enough spring in my step, and hope in my heart, to dream so. Doubles from INR 29,402; lefayresorts.com