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How Hotels and Resorts Harness the Power of Aromatherapy

Scent plays a major part in wellness, from massage oils and diffusers to inhalation and bath soaks

by Stephanie Vermillion

November 8, 2023

Deck at Chobe Game Lodge, Botswana / Photo: Courtesy of James Gifford

It only took minutes on safari in Chobe National Park for me to confirm my favorite new scent: sage. “It’s the smell of Botswana,” Stephen Frenkel, marketing and sales manager for safari operator Desert & Delta, told me as we deplaned at Kasane International Airport. That afternoon, as our Jeep meandered toward Chobe Game Lodge, an escape tucked deep in the park, I saw—rather, smelled—what he meant.

Crossing the entrance gates felt like climbing into an aroma diffuser. Wafts of sage paired with sweet wild basil kept my nose perked as my eyes scanned for megafauna. It was a multisensory trip with daily doses of overstimulation, and while I attribute much of the awe to watching elephants roam and lions wrestle, the sage aroma contributed, too.

Scent plays a major part in wellness, and sage is a prime example why. For millennia, Indigenous cultures, such as Native American communities, have used the herb for physical and spiritual health. Aromatherapy is a mere fraction of its role among Indigenous people, but science suggests that even smelling the herb could enhance mood and cognition.

“Scent stimulates the olfactory system in our brains, which is closely connected to the limbic system, responsible for emotions and memory,” says Céline Leslie, the lead massage therapist at Spa at St Julien, a stylish getaway in Boulder, Colorado. “Different scents can trigger specific physiological responses, such as relaxation, alertness or mood enhancement.”

Spas incorporate aromatherapy “as a means to enhance their guests’ sensory experiences,” Leslie notes. Sage is just one of countless scents being harnessed for its wellness potential. Eucalyptus can help clear sinuses and boost mental clarity, she says, while citrus uplifts mood, increases energy and minimizes fatigue. Lavender and patchouli can also foster relaxation and lower stress.

Wellness enthusiasts employ multiple ways to enjoy scent’s healing powers, from massage oils and diffusers to inhalation and bath soaks, says Leslie. Some practitioners are taking the practice further, with offerings like “functional fragrances,” perfumes that unlock physiological or psychological responses, such as decreased stress.

Another growth area in the world of scent: aromachology, which Leslie notes is a more recent term. It “studies how scents influence human behavior and emotions. It can overlap with aromatherapy but is often more focused on the psychological effects of scent,” she says. Where aromachology is the study of scent and the human brain, aromatherapy can incorporate its learnings. The practices work hand in hand, giving us a simple, nonintrusive way to shift our emotions.

For instance, at Spa at St Julien, experts like Leslie lead guests through a customized aromatherapy experience based on their desired outcomes. “Guests select between our Alpine, Canyon Mint and Colorado Wildflowers blends as we guide them through breathwork at the beginning of their service,” she says. “They may be asked about their preferences and wellness goals, and then specific essential oils or blends are chosen accordingly.”

Courtyard at Omni La Costa Resort & Spa, Carlsbad, California / Photo: Courtesy of Omni La Costa Resort & Spa

At Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, California, travelers can join a class to learn more about scent’s role in well-being. These complimentary workshops help participants learn to strategically use scent in their own lives. Guests can also book aromatherapy massages with a variety of fragrances.

Massage suite at Palacio de los Duques Gran Meliá, Madrid / Photo: Courtesy of Melia Hotels

At getaways such as Madrid’s Palacio de los Duques Gran Meliá, a convent-turned-palace in the heart of the city, travelers enjoy an in-room aromatherapy menu to set the tone and emotion they want for the trip. The Kimpton Hotel Palomar Phoenix runs a similar scent-powered offering. The property has diffusers with numerous essential oil fragrances; visitors choose their scent as part of the hotel’s nightly aromatherapy turndown service.

Aromatherapy turndown service at Kimpton Hotel Palomar Phoenix / Photo: Courtesy of Kimpton Hotel Palomar Phoenix

And back at Botswana’s Chobe Game Lodge, a luxe safari escape with a fitness center and spa, Spa Kwa Maningi, travelers can take their immersion into this biodiverse stretch of Southern Africa even deeper. “Guests are in nature at the lodge and being treated by nature at the spa,” says lodge services officer Tumelo Mbanga, noting that during treatments, guests can hear everything from barking baboons to trumpeting elephants. “You feel connected to Botswana here—even the smells of the oils and creams are from nature.”

The aromas on offer at Spa Kwa Maningi include African Tsamma Melon and Khoi San aromatic oils. The latter, named after the region’s Indigenous communities, incorporates many signature Kalahari Desert scents—including the fragrant wild grasses and succulent plants that greeted us at the Chobe National Park gate.