The Fastest Digital Detox Is in the Middle of the City
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the New York Times app sent a flurry of notifications about Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court confirmation, Vox published an interview with an ex-congressman who was caught buying cocaine from an undercover cop, 78 people liked one of my Instagram photos, and SoulCycle pushed out the following alert: “Clarity. Confidence. Breakthroughs. What are you [eyes emoji] for? FIND IT!”
But from one of the hushed treatment rooms at the Spa at the Mandarin Oriental, New York—35 floors directly above the largest transit system in the world—I missed out on all that. As therapist Jim Patrick explained the supposed health benefits of shungite, an ancient Russian mineraloid consisting mostly of carbon, my phone bleeped and blooped from the snug confines of a neoprene “sleeping bag” tucked behind the spa’s reception desk.
I had relinquished the device that day to test out the Mandarin’s Digital Wellness Escape, an 80-minute spa package fit for overacheivers that’s meant to “ease stresses and strains resulting from the frequent use of digital devices,” according to the official description. The treatment ($240-$365) starts with a shungite-infused bath aiming to help the body eliminate the “free radicals we get through our technology.” Post-soak, it ends with a targeted massage designed to counteract postural imbalance and repetitive stress caused by hunching over hours of Candy Crush.
Throughout was shungite-infused water, for hydration. By the time Patrick admitted that the mineral “doesn't really have a discernible flavor,” he was just confirming what my palate had already discerned. He reassured me that “it’s more of an energetic charge.” I tried to feel it, and failed. I could have been too relaxed for such subtleties.
Not Just Another Spa Day
Though Patrick is only one of 20 therapists who provide digital detox treatments at the Mandarin in New York, he estimates he gives one Digital Wellness Escape treatment a week, mostly to resident New Yorkers. “We have a very metropolitan, almost aggressive, energy to our city—that whole idea of, ‘if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,’” he explained.
Counterintuitive as it might seem, going to the spa doesn’t inherently constitute a digital detox. “A lot of people have a difficult time letting their technology go while they’re here,” Patrick pointed out. “We always try to gently correct people using their cell phones, because we want this to be a sanctuary where guests can restore,” he said. But despite the hotel’s best efforts, the Instagram geotag for the Spa at the Mandarin Oriental, New York is a vast and curious world of skin-mask selfies, enrobed selfies, and even the occasional midbath selfie.
That’s why Mandarin Oriental has added stricter phone-free offerings at all its 29 hotels, situated chiefly in major urban centers; they range from isolated spa treatments, such as my shungite fest, to daylong and weekend retreats. Imagine: yoga, journaling, and note-card writing, all conducted under the soft glow of Himalayan salt lamps, right on the Las Vegas Strip.
Getting Away Without Getting Away
The idea of getting a reprieve from your screen is most often associated with remote, sun-dappled destinations that naturally inspire unplugging. Think Costa Rica, where the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica and Nayara Springs both offer digital detox programs; Vietnam, where Intrepid Travel is hosting one of its phone-free Digital Detox expeditions this year; or even a remote cabin in the woods, which serves as the inspiration behind Getaway's tiny, Walden-like vacation houses, each stocked with a cell-phone lockbox.
But what about those who can’t wrap their heads around the thought of sitting alone in the forest with nothing but fire-building tools and literature about knot-tying? Does one really need physically to flee the kinetic fury of city life to detach from their corporate email account?
Not at all, said Jeremy McCarthy, the Mandarin Oriental’s group director of spa and wellness, who helped spearhead the brand’s Digital Wellness programming. “It’s really in cities where this is needed—the pace of life is faster, and people tend to be more connected—not to each other, but to their devices,” he says. At the Vegas retreat last autumn, he recalls, “A woman came over and said, ‘I can’t look at my phone, so I might as well talk to you guys.”
Soft Lights, Big City
McCarthy isn’t alone in that line of thinking. In an era when you can’t refresh Twitter without hitting another story about “self-care”—an era marked by $100 phone beds—it’s no surprise the travel industry, too, has jumped aboard the mindfulness train. In-room meditation sessions (such as the ones offered by MNDFL at Park Hyatt New York) and digital detox treatments alike all underscore an overarching escapist theme: Going away should feel like a palpable respite from the slog of the daily grind.
Since the Westin Paris Vendôme launched its digital detox overnight in 2014 (from €458, or $499), the hotel has handled about a dozen bookings a year. The package, which starts when you ditch your phone, includes a 30-minute spa treatment, a guide to the City of Light’s parks and gardens, New Balance workout gear to borrow, a “Sweet Kit” that includes macarons from the in-house pastry chef, and a stack of print magazines “to rediscover the joy of traditional reading.”
At the Renaissance Pittsburgh, also a Marriott brand, a digital detox package ($229-$309) comes with a riverview room, a voucher to rent a kayak or a bike, board games, and literary classics such as Pride and Prejudice in lieu of a TV. An upfront reality check is also part of the deal: “Your laptop, cell phone, and all other digital devices must be surrendered upon check in, and will be held safe and secure for you until your departure.”
So what exactly do you do without your phone in a major city? “I sat on one of the ledges in the Tranquility Suite and looked out at Chicago,” says Kate Gleason, who won a Black Out Digital Detox Package at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Chicago after entering a Facebook contest on a whim. Before her staycation, Gleason, a Chicago native and an account executive at Wagstaff Worldwide, filled out an intake questionnaire with such prompts as “How do you embrace your inner artist?” and “What is your favorite magazine?” When she arrived, she remembers, “The room had a bottle of wine and this book I'd been wanting to read, plus bubble bath and a notebook and a pen. It was really very sweet.”
The Monaco Chicago recently axed its digital detox programming in favor of another suddenly hot trend—the Danish breed of cozy décor known as hygge. But its sister property, the Kimpton RiverPlace, in downtown Portland, Ore., offers a year-round Romance Revival package ($75) that requests (wink wink) that guests leave their phones in a front-desk safe for the night.
The Quickest Fix for Workaholics
Earlier this year, Beth Weitzman, a Beverly Hills–based branding and marketing consultant and content creator, treated herself to a Digital Wellness Escape while staying at the Mandarin Oriental on a two-week business trip in Atlanta. “You cannot get to a sense of balance and relaxation and focus on yourself if you’re so consumed with emails,” says Weitzman, an avid traveler who was attracted to the rapid-fire nature of the treatment. “If a hotel puts together something that says ‘digital detox,’ even if it’s only for 80 minutes, it’s just easy to say, ‘Yes, sign me up for that. I need it.’”
Weitzman concedes that she didn’t care for the few quiet minutes of preamble before the bath and massage, when she was given the option to partake in quaint activities such as journaling. “I was just ready to go in and do the deal—I’ve got a very Type A personality,” she says. But she found value in “forcing yourself to take the time away from life and from craziness and to allow yourself to get into a Zen space.”
I somewhat agree; although 80 minutes didn’t feel like enough time to truly unplug, I did take comfort in knowing that my phone was nowhere near the pocket of my bathrobe, where it might be stored during more conventional spa treatments. And after, instead of retrieving my phone from the locker room and immediately refreshing my email, I didn’t do much of anything at all other than gaze out over a foggy Midtown West from the windows of the plush relaxation room.
That’s not to say you’re so far removed from reality that you can’t slingshot back. After her treatment, Weitzman did what any modern media woman would do: She posted about it on Instagram. “I like to show how I balance things,” she says. “I could be in Vegas at the Cosmopolitan one night, and then the next day I’m in Atlanta doing a digital detox. To me, these elements make for an interesting, well-rounded life.”