Next time you book a weekend spa break, make it a forest bathing holiday, says convert Kerry Potter. Even the NHS says it’s good! Here’s why and where to go

I don’t know how this has happened but I – city-loving, cynical journalist who is allergic to woowoo – am hugging a tree. Not only that but I’m really enjoying it. I mean, just look at my happy little face!

Kerry Potter at Forest Retreats

I’m on a forest bathing holiday, a weekend retreat combined with yoga in the Welsh village of Tintern. Like sound baths, cacao ceremonies and wild swimming, it’s the latest ancient-but-modern add-on to your wellness holiday, with proven wellbeing benefits.

With its roots in Buddhism, forest bathing is a Japanese import. Known as shinrin-yoku, it was a health initiative introduced by the Japanese government in the early ’80s to improve the wellbeing of frazzled city dwellers. Forest bathing – and now the forest bathing holiday – has taken off because it’s the ultimate antidote to always-on modern life. Strolling through the trees, you hear the sounds of the birds, feel the crunch of twigs underfoot and absorb phytoncides, health-boosting compounds emitted by trees (and validated by scientists).

This year’s Chelsea Flower Show will feature its first forest bathing-themed garden and medics too are taking it seriously. Various NHS trusts have been trialling forest bathing for two years and it will be increasingly recommended in social prescribing – when GPs ‘prescribe’ wellbeing lifestyle changes to patients, instead of traditional medicine.

What’s more, the first research to show the positive impact of forest bathing on young people found that 16 to 18-year-olds who forest-bathed three times a week for just three weeks had lower stress levels. It could prove a useful tool to help manage the burgeoning teen mental health crisis.

What is a forest bathing holiday like?

We are increasingly demanding wellbeing gains from our weekends away and venues are now giving us options outside the walls of the traditional hotel spa. Some holidays are centred around forest bathing, where you immerse yourself in the practice, while others offer it as part of their wellbeing menu.

Forest Retreats, where I am, is run by Hayley and Tom Court; the former a yoga teacher, the latter a qualified forest bathing guide, who has led our group of eight into this ancient woodland on a meditative two-hour walk. It has been quite the revelation. Not only have I cuddled bark, I’ve smelled a chunk of moss and traipsed barefoot through mud. I’m not sure what’s come over me but I feel strangely serene - and that’s not a word I’d normally apply to my mood or indeed life.

What exactly is forest bathing?

I thought forest bathing was going for a restorative stroll in the woods, but there’s more to it than that. It’s a walking meditation – and there’s not actually that much walking involved. We spend two hours covering a distance that you could nail in 20 minutes at a normal, brisk pace. The key is to dawdle, touch, observe, smell, feel, hear, breathe in, and fully engage with, the green beauty around you.

"We are living in an age of disconnection and suffering from digital overwhelm and chronic stress,” says Tom Court. “Being mindful and being in nature are proven ways to restore balance. Being mindful in nature is the basis of forest bathing.”

It’s best done with no phones, no dogs and no chit-chat with your companions. Tom guides us through exercises, such as doing a standing meditation with our eyes open for five minutes to take in the patterns of the foliage, finding fungi and heading off the beaten track to forge our own path through the trees (there’s definitely a metaphor in there).

He intersperses these tasks with educational nuggets about the history of the forest and the various varieties of trees and plants. It’s as lovely as it sounds, despite the fact that it started hailing at one point. (We didn’t care – we just hid under the tree canopy.)

I’ve had spa breaks in the past, where the ‘relaxation’ bit has been disappointing: ineffectual massages, overcrowded steam rooms and saunas, inexperienced staff, the dreaded discarded plaster in the showers. But given that nature rarely gets it wrong, more hotels and retreats should look beyond their spa facilities to the great outdoors around them. I’d take a dreamy forest bathing session over a cursory, massage, soundtracked by naff pan-pipes, every time.  Not only does it recharge your batteries but you can do it yourself for free.

What are the benefits of forest bathing?

“Forest bathing helps improve our immune systems, to reduce stress and blood pressure, boosts creativity and brings clarity,” says Tom. “Being in nature brings us out of our heads and into our body, restoring balance and a deep sense of connection.” It’s enough to make you run away to the woods, build a treehouse and never come back.

Here are three forest bathing benefits that really resonated with me:

1. A stronger immune system. “Trees emit airborne phytoncides, antimicrobial organic compounds, which protect them from germs,” says Dr Gemma Newman, GTG Awards judge and author of wellbeing manual Get Well, Stay Well (£18.05). “When we breathe these in, our bodies increase the amount of white blood cells called natural killer cells, which are critical to our immune systems as they help our bodies fight disease.” Evergreens, such as pine and spruce, produce the most phytoncides.

2. Reduced stress. According to University of Oregon physicist (and major fractal fan) Richard Taylor, looking at a pattern for just 10 seconds can reduce stress levels by 60 per cent. The abundance of fractals (repeating patterns) in the natural world plays a huge role in that feeling of calm we get from being in green spaces – and just how pleasing it feels to gaze at a million leaves that all look exactly the same.

3. Intense relaxation. Dr Newman quotes a Japanese study in her book that compared groups who walked through the forest with groups who walked through the city. Those who got to hang out with the trees experienced “lower cortisol rates, lower pulse rates, greater parasympathetic nervous system activity and lower blood pressure” than the city slickers. After my day of forest bathing, my Oura health tracker noted a whopping three hours of ‘restorative time’ in its stress mapping function. On a normal day, I rarely reach 10 minutes. And I slept like a, well, log that night.

5 forest bathing breaks to book now

Best for glamping, yoga and views: Forest Retreats, Tintern, Wales

This deeply relaxing wild weekend in Wales’ Wye Valley also includes the use of an outdoor sauna, hot tub and plunge pool, plus several yoga sessions taught by Tom Court’s wife Hayley in a sun-drenched studio, surrounded by trees and soundtracked by birdsong. The home-cooked vegetarian food is nourishing and plentiful, and if you’d prefer four walls over their woodburner-warmed yurts, there’s a modern, self-contained room available too.

A two-day retreat, including a two-hour forest bathing session, costs from £415 per person. Book now

Best day spa for luxe tree-hugging: Lime Wood Hotel, New Forest, Hampshire

Formerly a medieval hunting lodge, today the 5-star Lime Wood is the height of rustic luxe, in a heavenly New Forest setting. Alongside a forest bathing session, their ‘Wild Wanderings’ one-day retreats include Pilates, breathwork, sound healing and use of the spa facilities. Or you can talk to the team and create your own bespoke programme, ideally with an overnight stay bolted on for maximum R&R.

One-day Wild Wanderings retreats from £265 per person, including breakfast and lunch. Book now

Best for walkers: Armathwaite Hall Hotel & Spa, Keswick, Cumbria

If you’ve ever been to the Lake District, you’ll know it’s so serene that your shoulders and blood pressure both drop the minute you get out of the car. And as well as lakes, they also give good tree up here. At the Bassenthwaite Lake four-star hotel and spa, the two-hour forest bathing experience across 400 acres of land, is capped off with a warming tea ceremony. And if you want to reconnect even further with nature, they also do moon and star bathing.

A two-hour forest bathing experience costs from £110, B&B costs from £295 per night. Book now

Best for getting your hands dirty: Cabilla Cornwall, Bodmin, Cornwall

Why just bathe in a forest when you can help actually create one? On this Dirty Weekend (not that type, sorry) retreat in Bodmin, you help restore and expand the Cornish temperate rainforest. Plus there are guided nature walks, a woodland sauna and sound baths, while you stay in cute cabins with log-burners. Dates are available for August 2024, at the time of writing.

A two-night weekend retreat costs from £425 per person. Book now

Best for wild swimming: 42 Acres, Somerset

This retreat centre-cum-regenerative farm is set on an impressive 173 acres of land in deepest Somerset, near Glastonbury, a locale that’s always drawn in spiritual types. The ‘Restore Wild Weekend’ includes guided forest bathing, as well as wild swimming in a vast lake, two 30-minute spa treatments, somatic movement sessions and bedtime yin yoga. There are various chic accommodation options, including a cute houseboat on said lake. The next one is 24-26 May 2024 so chop, chop!

A two-night weekend retreat costs from £350 per person. Book now