A journey to a tiny island off the coast of Nicaragua in search of a happiness upgrade pays off in blissful dividends.
You have to admire the ambition in selling a vacation experience called a "Happy Pack." Sure, we all want to get happy, but the concept is pretty subjective. For some, happiness lies in the quest to become a better person; others might crave nothing more profound than massages and cocktails. Yemaya Island Hideaway & Spa in Nicaragua targets bliss-seekers of all kinds with a spectrum of activities, from private meditation classes to dedicated margarita and hammock time.
Intrigued by the alluring premise, I sign up for a three-day Happy Pack experience at this year-old resort on a tiny Caribbean island. Before I arrive, the resort's wellness director e-mails me about my goals for the retreat. I tell her that I'm seeking a more serene self (preferably one with a washboard stomach), and together we formulate a plan of attack: private yoga practice, meditation, a little snorkeling, and some spa treatments.
You know what doesn't make me happy? Waking at 4 a.m. to catch a flight. But that's the reality of getting off the grid at a place like Yemaya, which involves flying to the city of Managua, catching a small plane to Big Corn Island—a remote speck in the Caribbean Sea—and then riding in a panga (a small, open boat) to Little Corn Island, where Yemaya's barefoot boat captain completes the last leg of the journey.
Luckily, the destination is well and truly worth the odyssey. Yemaya is situated on the pristine northern coast of Little Corn, a 1½-square-mile isle with no paved roads, no cars, and no streetlights. It can be complicated getting simplicity right, but this place has the formula down: hand-painted wooden signs, a breezy, open-air lobby, technology-free rooms, and a top-notch restaurant serving inventive smoothies (noni-fruit colada, anyone?) and healthful, delicious food with a Thai spin.
The resort's 16 casitas are strung along the beachfront (it's raked daily) and are decorated simply but stylishly with white, ocean-facing daybeds, wooden screens, and splashes of turquoise and aqua. The ocean is 10 feet from my terrace, beyond a hammock strung between palms, and the waves crashing on the sand create a soundtrack that's both dramatic and soothing.
After settling in, I consult my Happy Pack and see that I have a yoga lesson, to be followed by a massage. Tough stuff. I head to an open-air pavilion set among the banana palms to meet with my instructor, Rebecca, who takes well-being and inner harmony seriously enough to be taking University of California Berkeley's online course called The Science of Happiness.
When I tell her I'm a hopeless klutz at yoga, her habitual smile switches to high-beam. "I love teaching beginners," she says, and proceeds to gently guide me through a meditation and Hatha yoga class. A breeze rustles the palms; happy chickens scratch around in the dirt nearby, having meandered over from the resort's organic garden. Post-Namaste, Rebecca leads me to the spa cabana, where my masseur asks me to think of a word to describe how I want to walk out of there. "Um, floating?" I venture lamely. He nods solemnly, and then performs a transcendently wonderful massage so full of seamless flowing movements that I feel I'm not so much floating as levitating when I leave.
The next two days follow a similar pattern: wake up super early, drink amazing smoothie, take private yoga class, get facial, do more yoga (my favorite incorporates a Buddhist concept of peace and benevolence), swim, laze in hammock, eat some sublime Thai food, fall into bed, and sleep more soundly than I can remember.
On the final day, I go deep-sea snorkeling on the reef and take one last yoga class, this just after sunrise on the ocean-facing deck. As I board the panga to depart, I experience a little, well, pang at saying goodbye to all this: the slowed-down pace, gorgeous ocean views, time to reflect—all luxuries in short supply in my daily life. Rebecca hugs me goodbye and presses a final gift into my hand—a "long-term health plan" outlining how to keep the happy vibes going back home. In it, she encourages me to keep up my good habits (biking, walking, "staying curious," following a vegetarian diet) and modify my bad (ahem, staring at a screen all day). Happiness may be an elusive concept, but this idyllic place delivers.
Rates start at $330. Happy Packs start at $195 per day (includes all meals, spa treatments, daily activities, and yoga, meditation, or fitness classes); 50/58/239-5330 or littlecornhotel.com.
Photos, from top: Courtesy of Yemaya Island Hideway & Spa; M Swiet Productions/Getty Images