Tourists flock to wellness activities in Sonoma County since pandemic struck

While wandering the grounds of the Osmosis Day Spa and Sanctuary in Freestone, owner Michael Stusser noticed the wave of tranquility that typically embraces visitors who set foot on the secluded grounds among the redwoods of the Sonoma Coast.

Many are lured by the cedar enzyme bath and follow-up massage that can start at $290 per person. The meditation garden is another attraction, a place where people can practice mindfulness away from the temptations of smartphones and city life. The facility recently added picnic tables with a catered lunch option from Gravenstein Grill to go with a vista that overlooks pinot noir vineyards.

“Time stands still for people when they come here,” says Stusser, who opened the spa in 1985 and has been refining its services and products ever since.

Visitors have been coming in greater numbers since the pandemic – with weekend bookings now about seven weeks out. “I think the pandemic has completely awakened people to levels of importance (of their well-being) that were just under the radar and now they are front and center,” Stusser said. “People have come to realize what is most important in their lives.”

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That has been the experience of many in Sonoma County hospitality as more visitors and tourists seek wellness services and products to de-stress and detoxify from the last two years of COVID-19.

The industry ranges from traditional spa services to aromatherapy to acupuncture. It also includes those offering various yoga classes and forest baths, a Japanese-inspired practice of seeking mindfulness and serenity among trees. The services complement local businesses specializing in herbal medicines and treatments, such as Rosemary’s Garden in Sebastopol and Herb Folk Medicine. The latter recently closed its Petaluma store, but is still active online.

“We used to be known as a wine destination and the redwoods. It always will be. But there’s a deeper connection these people have come up with in terms of how people feel about wellness in Sonoma County. We just love that,” said Todd O Leary, vice president of marketing and communications at Sonoma County Tourism, the agency responsible for promoting local tourism marketing efforts.

Interest in wellness had increased in previous years, but the pandemic accelerated growth as locals and visitors tried to get out and prioritize their physical and emotional health. In fact, Sonoma County Tourism had promoted such activities in its “Life Opens Up” marketing campaign to showcase other options beyond the traditional food and wine business in a category that would drive nearly $2 billion in total visitor spending by 2021.

The most noticeable change? Wineries have realized they can have an edge if they also offer wellness services. Some have adapted to take advantage given the interest. That is the experience at Red Car Wine Co. in Sebastopol, where Jenny Harrow-Keeler takes guests to forest baths in the vineyard near Occidental.

Harrow-Keeler has a unique perspective on the subject as she served as director of hospitality at the winery and later earned a master’s degree in integrative health studies and became a certified natural therapy guide. She jokes that her clients don’t undress at the beginning of a session, but that she wants them to open up their sense of smell, sight and touch.

“It’s part of opening the senses, especially in the vineyards,” Harrow-Keeler said. “You taste the chardonnay … and this is from the country.”

In a post-pandemic environment, Sonoma County has an advantage over typical spa destinations, such as Scottsdale, Arizona, or Palm Springs, because of the wide variety of wellness practitioners who have taken advantage of the natural beauty that surrounds the area.

“People don’t want to escape the same way,” Harrow-Keeler said of travelers before the pandemic. “They’re kind of looking for trips to recharge.”

Deacon Carpenter agrees when he leads yoga sessions at Bricoleur Vineyards in Windsor, including a class titled “Zen, then Zin.” Carpenter has noted that since the pandemic, many yoga practitioners prefer classes in an outdoor setting.

“People are still a little hesitant about going back to a yoga studio or gym,” he said.

There are 16 local yoga studios that have weathered the pandemic, out of nearly 40 locations at the start of 2020, he estimated. But the demand for yoga remains popular.