Here’s what happened when I spent 48 hours at a fancy wellness commune in the woods

January 29, 2019 at 08:12AM by CWC

When I first opened my inbox and saw an email about Serenbe—a wellness community located 30 minutes outside Atlanta that that promotes an active lifestyle, face-to-face interaction, organic food, and eco-friendly living—my mind instantly conjured a ’60s-era hippie-dippie commune where people live with the sole mission of spreading peace and love. I quickly realized the neighborhood wasn’t exactly that (for starters, this place seemed upscale), but intrigued I remained. 

Here’s the deal: Back in the early ’90s, founders Steve Nygren and Marie Lupo Nygren moved from Atlanta to a quiet, countryside respite in the woods. But when bulldozers started razing surrounding forest land for development, disrupting their serene slice of life, it broke ground for a big idea: Develop a sustainable community to not only preserve that 40,000 acres right outside the major city, but to also create a place unlike any other where people can thrive. After working with other landowners, developers, and conservationists, they devised a plan to keep 70 percent of the land as green space and work with the natural landscape to develop on the rest.

The first house was built in 2004, and since then, Serenbe has grown into an increasingly self-sustainable place with essentially everything you need to live comfortably. And technological advancements have made never leaving even easier. While plenty of residents work in or around Atlanta, many have full-blown careers right inside the comfort of the community, either by working remotely or owning businesses and shops. Now 14 years since its founding, 650 residents call Serenbe home. Well, 651 if you count me—at least for the next 48 hours.

Here’s what happened when I spent two days in a community dedicated to wellness.

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Day 1

Before arriving at Serenbe, I did as much research as possible (I watched videos, scanned websites, and looked for photos) to gauge what exactly I was getting myself into. But, put simply, peeping pictures online doesn’t do the real deal justice. After putting my bags in my room for the weekend—at The Inn at Serenbe, a $230/night bed-and-breakfast for visitors that’s actually the restored 1905 farmhouse where Nygren and his family originally lived—there was only one thing I wanted to do: some afternoon exploring.

The community is comprised of four English-inspired hamlets (or villages) with similar setups yet distinctive feels. Grange is an agriculture-themed hamlet that’s home to stunning townhomes and cottages, as well as Serenbe Farms, a 25-acre organic farm with a CSA program that provides 5 to 10 servings of veggies for $20 to $30 a week. Selborne, the founding hamlet focused on the arts and holds the community’s farmers’ market. And finally there’s Mado, a wellness-themed hamlet outfitted with a swimming pool (millennial-pink, natch) and the in-progress One Mado, a 30,000 square-foot commercial space that’ll host many businesses, including fitness classes, healthy eats (like a juice bar and build-your-own bowls), and access to all the professionals you need to stay healthy: doctors, dentists, acupuncturists, therapists, and nutritionists. (Residents might be able to snag some discounts on services provided, but people inside and outside the community are invited to use them.) A forthcoming hamlet will focus on education; the current vision is a K-8 public charter school, an international boarding school, and a university semester-away program that’s open to everyone.

Housing options include renting or buying the homes, townhouses, condos, and apartments. (Apartment rentals start at around $1,200 per month, and the houses and estates sell for between $390,000 and $2 million—so, here, you certainly have to pay to play.) No matter which type of home you inhabit though, you’ll see a lot of similar features.

Expect plenty of natural light, energy-efficient appliances, open designs, and futuristic tech. My favorite house even had the $8,000 Kohler Numi Intelligent Toilet, which analyzes your poop if you want it to—and for that price tag, you should want it to. (The slightly more affordable Toto smart toilets are more common in homes.) Many residences are outfitted with porches to encourage being social and neighborly, which is made even easier by sidewalks placed fairly close to the front steps.

Serenbe is a wellness commune—here's what its like
Photo: Serenbe

There are plenty of cars, but people don’t use them much. Most get around via golf carts they own (they’re also available for guests to rent at the Inn), and that became my main mode of transportation when I wasn’t walking the many trails that run between the hamlets.

My first stop of the trip was the Blue Eyed Daisy café in Selborne, the country’s smallest Silver LEED-certified building, which is a globally-recognized symbol of sustainability achievement given to green buildings. I was instantly surrounded by families and groups of friends laughing and enjoying their veggie-loaded sandwiches and specialty lattes. I kind of wanted to reach out and touch them to make sure they weren’t holograms—everything seemed too perfect to be real.

The impeccable homes, custom-made street lamps, and lack of litter and potholes made me feel as if I were on a movie set rather than a place real people call home. But not only were these people real, they also seemed so genuinely happy, relaxed, and in-the-moment. No rushing around, no eyes glued to a phone while chatting with friends—even on a busy mid-Friday afternoon. There were still a couple people typing away on their laptops, but hey, it wasn’t the weekend quite yet, and work isn’t going to do itself.

As I continued on my walk, I found a courtyard behind the Blue Eyed Daisy with a whole lot of greenery. (The way the hamlets are set up, pretty much everyone has a forest in their backyard.) The rows of mailboxes behind the café instantly caught my eye: Instead of mail being delivered to each individual door, every hamlet has them grouped in a common area so as to increase the amount of interaction between residents—something research has shown is good for mental health, life satisfaction, and overall well-being.

In Serenbe, waste is stored in-ground and picked up weekly by golf carts—not loud trucks—to keep the peaceful and aesthetically pristine atmosphere on its A-game.

Then I spotted two green camouflaged metal surfaces on the ground that appeared to be manhole covers. Surprise: They weren’t. Instead, they solve a problem most people don’t even think about: having unsightly garbage and recycling cans sitting out, full of stinky discards. In Serenbe, waste is stored in-ground and picked up weekly by golf carts—not loud trucks—to keep the peaceful and aesthetically pristine atmosphere on its A-game. As I kept walking, Serenbe answered my every “but what do they do about…?” inquiry before I could even breathe my doubt into existence. I passed cute shops, an indie bookstore, and a yoga studio. I mean, what else did I really need?

At every crosswalk, there are blueberry bushes you can pick from to snack while you’re waiting. In fact, edible landscaping is a huge deal here: There have been more than 60 different types of species planted, including fig trees, apple trees, mint, thyme, walnut trees, and cherry tomatoes, all along the sidewalks and available for all. There are also medicinal plants (like ginseng and elderberry), plants you can use to dye fabric…basically nothing was put into the ground without a purpose. One thing you won’t notice, though, is grass in the yards: Mowers can be loud and annoying, and keeping lawns looking nice and green requires a ton of water. So to cut down on noise and waste, smarter, more beneficial forms of landscaping are used.

Serenbe is a wellness commune—here's what its like
Photos: Tehrene Firman; An English village-inspired development in Selborne.

Come dinnertime, I headed to the Farmhouse at Serenbe, a true farm-to-table restaurant. Most of the produce on the menu is grown in a garden right outside its front door, or at Serenbe Farms. As for the meat, it all comes from surrounding farms and local vendors. After eating a vegan meal loaded with some of the freshest-tasting veggies I’ve had in a long time, it was onto the entertainment for the evening: The Serenbe Playhouse’s annual performance of Sleepy Hollow.

Being that the production was a walking show in the middle of the woods, I ambled my way through the red Georgia clay on the dark, drizzling night to set of the first act—using only the flashlight on my iPhone to guide me. And to my surprise, there was a crowd. The event hosts hundreds of people per night, both from the Serenbe community, the surrounding towns, and Atlanta—and it’s easy to see why.

Keeping warm with some hot apple cider from the concession stand, no one seemed to care that it was cold and rainy; they were too distracted by the creepy special effects coming from speakers hidden in the trees and the pro-level acting skills from the talented cast (most of whom are local talent from the Atlanta community). I quickly learned this wasn’t the only show that attracts theater enthusiasts from all over. The Playhouse—which is supported by patrons, sponsors, and general donations—produces six shows a year, and all of them are performed outdoors in order to utilize existing structures, and with sets that are constructed with reclaimed and recycled materials. The cast of its The Titanic production, for example, literally acted on a ship set built in the middle of a lake. Yeah, seriously.

After I got back to my room, scrubbed my clay-covered boots, and laid down, my mind was racing: What is this magical place?

Serenbe is a wellness commune—here's what its like
A colorful home in the hamlet Mado, golf cart and all.

Day 2

Waking up in Serenbe is a weird experience: It’s so quiet. At Farmhouse for breakfast, the chef whipped me up another vegan dish: fresh, homegrown sautéed kale and a bunch of veggies that tasted so amazing, I had trouble believing the only added ingredients were just salt, pepper, and a splash of olive oil.

Full and fueled up, I walked the trails to a yoga class in Selborne, giving plenty of love to some pigs and goats at the Animal Village along the way. (Don’t worry—they’re not used for food. They’re there for residents to engage with, as well as for animal-education purposes.) Eventually, we stepped inside the quaint studio, joining some local regulars for a restorative class. Honestly, I almost fell asleep five minutes in: With no heavy traffic, sirens, or honking trucks in the background like I had grown used to in other “restorative” classes, I ended those 60 minutes completely relaxed and in a total daze, like I had just woken up from a 100-year slumber. Basically, I finally learned what a restorative class should feel like.

With no heavy traffic, sirens, or honking trucks in the background like I had grown used to in other “restorative” yoga classes, I ended those 60 minutes completely relaxed and in a total daze, like I had just woken up from a 100-year slumber.

After grabbing a latte at the Blue Eyed Daisy, I felt like a local, bumping into numerous people I had met the day before. Then it was time to head to the General Store in Grange, currently the only place you can buy groceries in the entire community. There wasn’t aisle upon aisle of groceries inside, but the small space meets nearly every need: fresh organic fruit, healthy snacks from brands like SkinnyPop and Siete, gluten-free cookies, plenty of wine, and healthy grab-and-go meals like soups, sandwiches, and salads for those days you don’t feel like cooking. If there’s something it doesn’t have that you want, the locals say you get it delivered to your doorstep via Amazon—or ask if the General Store can add it to its shelves.

Serenbe is a wellness commune—here's what its like
The General Store in Grange, where everyone buys their groceries.

While sitting outside the store, sipping a fresh and creamy blend of mushroom coffee, sprouted almonds, and dates hand-bottled from Bamboo Juices—Serenbe’s cold-pressed juice company—I noticed kids playing in the park across the street. There were no adults worriedly watching their every move, and there was only a low, foot-high fence separating them from the street between us instead of the more typical high ones. The fence height, I learned, is intentional: to teach kids to look both ways rather than just run out and chase after their balls, but without making them feel fearful or trapped.

Serenbe is a wellness commune—here's what its like
A home in Selborne.

The final hours

On the last morning of my trip, I woke up more excited that I had felt in quite a while for one very important reason: It was time for some goat yoga, a popular class that’s open to both community members and visitors for $35/person. (Regular yoga classes, however, run for $18/person.) After walking down a tree-lined trail from the Inn, I joined a couple other people for the class taught by Serenbe Yoga owner Heather Ruth and her adorable squad of Nigerian Dwarf goats, which are her personal pets. Doing acro-yoga with the animals proved weirdly mood-boosting—despite them trying to eat my hair and poop on my yoga mat. Having their tiny hoofs dig into my back is also one of the best massages ever.

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Adding goat yogi to my résumé. 🐐

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Once the class was finished, it was already time to pack up and head to the airport—but not before visiting the Blue Eyed Daisy to grab one more latte and some lunch (a chopped salad with tofu), where I now knew half of the people enjoying their Sunday brunch.

Sure, I probably won’t be move to Serenbe soon (or ever, TBH), but spending my weekend in the wellness community was eye-opening. It’s nice living in an area where people share your love of being eco-friendly, staying active in nature, and enjoying the simple things in life. Serenbe certainly makes nurturing those priorities easier, but mid-mindless Instagram scroll session while waiting for my flight, it hit me that I can channel that energy anywhere. With a little more effort, I can live more sustainably, get more fresh air, spend less time glued to technology, and get more face-to-face interaction in the real world, too. When you simplify your life and focus on what’s important, you’ll thrive—and this trip was the reminder I needed to do just that.

These are the most harmless cities in the country. Or, try on these cozy homes for size at this lakeside Wisconsin community.
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Author Tehrene Firman | Well and Good
Selected by iversue

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