Ever dreamed about checking in to a spa that could make you live longer?

Henri Chenot Spa, Tyrol, Italy
The outdoor pool at the Palace Merano, Henri Chenot Health Centre, a spa in the South Tyrol region of Italy.
| Credit: Courtesy of Palace Merano

In my late 20s, realizing that my career as a reporter was largely playing out in dangerous and physically grueling war zones like Chechnya and Taliban-held Afghanistan, I did two uncharacteristically sensible things. I took out a small pension that forced me to save money, and I promised I would try, once a year, to do a proper detox. Like everyone else on the planet, I felt stressed and tired and overworked and keenly aware of the fact that I was getting older. I loved the idea of entering a luxurious hospital, padding around in a white bathrobe while being told what to do for five or six days, and emerging a new person.

The practice of detoxifying the body by fasting or going on a restricted diet has been around for thousands of years. Long before Gwyneth Paltrow popularized the stay-at-home cleanse, most religions built an element of fasting into their doctrine as a way of physically and mentally refreshing their practitioners. Learning to feel better can be revelatory — which is why a world-class detox should be something everyone does at least once.

To me, attempting this process at home is paradoxical. You can't starve yourself at will any more than you can effectively wax your own legs. You need help.

Over the years, I've tried most of them. The FX Mayr Clinics in Austria, which began more than 40 years ago, are the original detox centers, but they are very strict. For dinner, you get a cup of tea and a spoonful of honey, and after a few days the deprivation starts to wreak havoc on your mood. Then there are yoga or hiking detoxes. My Italian friend Gloria, who is a philosopher, goes to a place in Brittany run by a woman named Céleste where you drink lemon-scented water and hike all day, inhaling the sea air deeply all the while. More recently, Ashtanga yoga camps became fashionable, along with military-style boot camps. I tried both — and left feeling more tired than when I arrived.

If you're looking for a truly life-changing spa experience, the best of the lot is the Henri Chenot Health Centre in Merano, in Italy's South Tyrol region. The method, now offered at eight spas in Europe and Africa, has been practiced for 43 years. It is based on a combination of traditional Chinese medicine and modern Western science that helps eliminate toxins while "assimilating nutrients and rejuvenating the body." These were the words of the staff. I tried not to think about what was happening to me. One of the great treats of Chenot is that you make no decisions — you are led around from dining room to massage to pool. A detox for the brain as well as the body.

Everyone has a different program, but you're encouraged to do a weeklong retreat, which can, if you choose, include 30 hours of fasting. The reward is a daily detox bath followed by a warm mud wrap and a deep-tissue massage, all designed to drain your system of impurities.

Dr. Henri Chenot is living evidence that all this works. He founded the center in 1980 after beginning his career studying marine biology at the Sorbonne. He is 74 but looks much younger, with a perma-tan and bushy gray hair. He resides on the property, and when you see him, he scratches out notes on a pad about what you should do to be healthier. There are no quick fixes for tons of pizza and booze, he warns. But if his appearance is any indication, following his method could help you discover the fountain of youth.

The Chenot Centre is in a former palazzo with Oriental rugs, stately columns, and sweeping corridors so wide you could do cartwheels across them (after the detox headache wears off around day three, perhaps). I woke up early when I was there, looked out from my balcony, and listened to the birds. The Dolomite Mountains in the distance were jagged and snowcapped; the air was intensely pure.

The real reason that Chenot is so unlike anywhere else, in my view, is the food. The formula is basically light fasting and small portions, but this is Italy, after all. So even if your meals are the size of thimbles, they are beautiful thimbles: delicate pastas made from vegetables, creamy soups, Kamut and brown rice disguised to look delicious, desserts that resemble sugar sculptures. But you are not consuming wheat, sugar, dairy, or caffeine. You are hungry. Then you adjust. You grow used to the empty feeling and you notice your body changing before your eyes.

I will not lie: on days two and three you feel awful. Personally, I experienced headaches of monumental proportions and was so tired each footstep felt Olympian. But there is hope. You can drag yourself out to the pool in sunny weather, order a "cocktail" made of mint and other green things, and pretend there is tequila inside. You can read an actual book, or you can fall asleep.

By day four, you begin to feel wonderful. Something happens to your eyes — they become bright, as does your skin. Your energy level increases and you spring out of bed. My friend Eve spent a week at Merano, and came out, she told me, "feeling as though there was a little motor in the small of my back pushing me forward."

It is pricey, but if health is a priority and you don't want to suffer in pursuit of it, then this is the place. I am not sure it can make you live forever — and who would want to? — but it will make you feel rather incredible for a while.