I was stressed out. Days of rising temperatures outside and an ever-busy workload meant that I had got to breaking point. Which is why the chance to visit Ananda, the uber-luxurious spa resort in India’s Himalayas, couldn’t have come at a better time. That is, if I could choose from the mind-boggling array of packages on offer.
Should I opt for an Ayurvedic rejuvenation therapy or a weight-management programme? The Ananda Stress Management or a yoga programme? There were half a dozen other options available besides these, each appearing to be better than the last, and all promising life-changing experiences at the fabulous five-star property tucked away 1,000m above sea level in the majestic Himalayas.
‘So you’re opting for the yoga package?’ asked my colleague. She’d heard me boast about the benefits of practising the downward facing dog many a time.
But in the end, I chose the Ananda Stress Management. The website assured me it would help ‘reduce and help manage stress and enhance synergy in life.’ I’ve never figured out what my synergy is, and this would be the perfect opportunity to find out. The wife would definitely be happy too if I shed the grouchy moods I’d been shrouded in of late.
All booked up, a fortnight later I was off to Delhi, from where I took a 45-minute flight to Dehradun. A car from Ananda would pick me up and take me up the Shivalik hills in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, where the resort is situated.
Just minutes after I landed in Dehradun, I noticed that I had already started to de-stress. I found myself chuckling out loud on noticing the airport in Dehradun is called Jolly Grant. Feeling jolly good, I stepped out of the airport to find Ananda’s car waiting outside. Dressed in a smart white kurta-pyjama (ethnic men’s wear) and a red-and-white turban, my driver Ramved, who had a ’tash to match mine, was quick to welcome me with a cold facial towel and a bottle of chilled water.
We drove past flat, stark landscape for 20 minutes until we began winding up the Himalayan foothills, skirting a now dry stream that Ramved said during the monsoons emptied into the mighty river Ganges, which snaked through the nearest town, Rishikesh. Pausing at a hairpin bend on the road, he pointed to a large yellow building sitting on top of a mountain. ‘That’s Ananda,’ he said.
Although partially shrouded by sal forests, the structure looked fabulously resplendent in the morning sun. ‘We should be there in half an hour,’ Ramved said. Passing through the small quaint town of Narendra Nagar, driving past rows upon rows of little stores selling everything from mobile phones and dressed chickens to multicoloured umbrellas and garish saris, we cruised at a steady pace up a narrow road that hugged the mountainside. At one bend in the road, I spotted a troop of mischievous-looking monkeys sitting by the roadside munching on berries and staring at the car, brows furrowed.
Our car soon drew up in front of a pair of massive gilded gates that looked better suited for a palace than a holiday resort. ‘Actually this is a palace,’ said the driver when I voiced my thoughts out loud. ‘This was the residence of the erstwhile Maharaja of Tehri-Garhwal. His family handed it over to the hotel. It is still preserved as is.’
‘Wow’, I whistled. ‘I’ll be staying in a palace?’ Well, actually not exactly. It turned out the rooms are in a new wing a little away. But I didn’t mind. I’d still be staying close to the splendour of royalty anyway. Stepping out of the car, I was welcomed like a maharaja. ‘Namaste,’ one member of staff said, palms together and fingers pointing upwards. Another offered me an orchid, before garlanding me with a chain of rudraksha – seeds of the Elaeocarpus ganitrus tree, revered by the people in the region. She then recited a short verse in Sanskrit, which was Latin to me, but I later found out was an invocation to nature to ensure I’d have a pleasurable time at the resort.
Inside, there was no queuing up to check in. Instead, a staff member escorted me to a cosy tea room where, over a cup of English Grey and petits fours, she briefed me about the hotel and its facilities. ‘Ananda in the Himalayas stands on a 100-acre palace estate of the Maharaja of Tehri-Garhwal,’ she said. ‘Part of the resort is over a hundred years old and we offer world-class spa facilities, with specific focus on Ayurveda, Yoga and healthy cuisine.’
Those who prefer to skip the winding road trip have an option to be flown from Delhi or Dehradun by helicopter and land within the resort’s grounds. Impressive, I thought to myself. ‘We’ve got a valley view room for you,’ she smiled.
‘Is it the room that Vidya Balan stayed in?’ I asked with a smile, having read somewhere that the Bollywood actress had raved about the time she spent at the resort. ‘Ahh, no. She was in a similar room, though.’ Noticing my interest in celebrities, she added: ‘Oprah Winfrey stayed here a few years ago. We have also had a few other Bollywood celebrities last month but I’m afraid I can’t name them.’ Shame! Nestled high up in the Himalayas, with spectacular views of the mighty Ganges, it is easy to see why Ananda is a favoured destination for those well-heeled celebrity folk who want a bit of discrete luxury with some top-end authentic Ayurvedic massage therapies thrown in.
Offering to take me on a tour of the property before showing me to my room, the hotel staff led me to the first floor of the hotel – to the Viceregal Suite – a fabulous three-room affair with a four-poster bed, a separate coffee and library room, and a jacuzzi and pool on the terrace. ‘This is where Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, spent a night more than 70 years ago,’ she said, reverentially. I stared wide-eyed.
The resort also has three villas, each boasting two bedrooms with a kitchenette and a lounge area. But the best feature is the swimming pool that opens out into the forest. So even as you are lounging in the pool, you can listen to birds chirping overhead or, if lucky, you’ll find a peacock putting on a show. Standing next to its glassy surface I inhaled deeply the cool crisp pine-scented air – and immediately felt a sense of calm.
We hopped in a golf buggy and made the 400m trip down a winding paved road through trees, skirting a spectacular amphitheatre before drawing up in front of a 74-room guest block. I spotted a few couples strolling on the lush gently sloping lawn that merged with a nine-hole green. Noticeably, none of the guests were buried in their smartphones – although WiFi is available. Instead, they were chatting and enjoying the fabulous scenic views of the mountains and the forest and each other’s company.
Kicking off my shoes after entering my room, I threw open the curtains, and that’s when the true meaning of ‘valley view room’ sank in. The spacious balcony juts out over a forest and through the trees one could clearly see the mighty Ganges, which originates in the Himalayas and flows for 2,525km through Rishikesh and onward to Haridwar before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. The spectacular view – easily the best natural de-stress therapy – left me transfixed for a few moments, staring silently in its raw exuberance, before a huge buzzing bumblebee chased me indoors.
The pleasant member of staff who had just delivered my luggage gave me a word of advice. ‘Please remember to lock the balcony door when leaving the room because monkeys might be tempted to slip inside to steal from the fruit bowl.’ I nodded obediently, and later sneaked out and left an apple and a banana on the balcony. Eager to explore the place, I slipped into a starched white kurta pyjama – provided by the hotel – and soaked up the silence. It was around 11am and stepping out into the bright outdoors the only sounds were of birds chirping and the wind rustling the trees. Ananda’s guest policy, which doesn’t allow children below the age of 14, perhaps explained the silence.
Standing on the lawns I admired the tall sal trees and the Himalayas in the distance, then made a mental note to sign up for the trek that the hotel organises every morning – ‘weather permitting’.
My first appointment was with a fitness expert at 2pm, so although I could have spent the entire day just sitting on the grass and reading a book, I dragged myself off to the fitness centre. The gym instructor, a well-built man, told me to kick off my shoes, get on a step machine and grip the handles firmly. A few minutes later it spat out a printout. ‘Your fat to muscle ratio is good,’ he said studying the report. ‘You only need to lose a bit of fat around your abdomen.’ I smiled guiltily and sucked in my stomach.
He then asked me to do a few stretching exercises, before suggesting an exercise regime for the next five days. The next stop was the spa, where I was booked for a grounding salt scrub at 4pm.
Rated among the Top 10 Yoga Retreats in the World by SpaFinder 2009, the 24,000 sq ft spa offers more than 75 body and beauty treatments including Ayurveda, reflexology, reiki and contemporary Western techniques. Here, it’s pampering fit for a king.
The therapist gently massaged my body for around 40 minutes with natural sea salts infused with rose oil before using a damp towel to scrub the body. The slightly gritty salts apparently ‘stimulate the skin, lymphatic and circulatory systems, grounds the mind and balances the being’.
All I felt was squeaky clean and very, very relaxed. ‘How about a round of golf?’ asked the kind resort manager, later when I met him while on a walk to the restaurant. ‘We have a coach who can help you practice your swing.’ I thanked him but said I’d prefer to skip the golf as I had an early start the next day with a personalised yoga session.
The one-on-one yoga session was fabulous. Starting with gentle stretching postures, I was quickly encouraged to do more strenuous moves, and by the end of the hour was feeling so energised that I felt I could trek up the Himalayas and right into China. The only thing that held me back was the pranayama session I had booked.
The word pranayama is composed of two Sanskrit words: prana, meaning life force (or noted particularly as the breath), and ayāma, to extend or draw out. It’s the art of fine-tuning your breathing to improve your life and is one of the cornerstones of yoga.
After practising the breathing exercises for around 40 minutes, I felt a rush of energy. ‘That’s pranayama and yoga working for you,’ smiled the therapist with a beatific smile as I let out a contented sigh. I vowed there and then to continue this practice every day when I returned to Dubai. (Of course, I didn’t.)
With the rest of the day free to do as I pleased, I decided to take a walk in the woods. After a sumptuous breakfast of organic muesli, fresh fruit, a Greek omelette and toast at the picturesque al fresco restaurant, I set off on a trail that started from just behind the resort. Silent except for the crunch of twigs underfoot, it was overwhelming to be in the midst of nature.
Suddenly, a barrel of monkeys materialised, chattering and swinging through the trees. Disturbed by the raucous creatures, a couple of European goldfinches I was watching took wing. Jabbering and screeching the monkeys fought over some forest fruits, then disappeared as suddenly as they appeared, leaving the forest silent again. In the distance, a cuckoo cried. Sitting down in an open area, I just absorbed it all. Even the breeze seemed to pause.
Back in my room a couple of hours later, I made a cup of jasmine tea and sipped it out on the balcony. The fruits I’d left out earlier were missing. Ahh, those sneaky monkeys.
The next day, the resort arranged a trip to the Ganges. ‘Every evening, a large number of Hindu holy men in Rishikesh conduct a ceremony before the Ganges, one of the most revered rivers in India. It’s a fabulous sight,’ said Nikhil Kapur, the resort manager.
A 45-minute car trip took us to the little town of Rishikesh – clearly a popular destination for yoga enthusiasts, if the number of banners and billboards offering ‘yoga holidays’ was any indication. In fact, Rishikesh is chock-a-block with yoga schools and ochre-robed yoga enthusiasts walking around seemingly purposelessly. Half-naked men twisted into near-impossible positions smile down from hoardings advertising ‘the best yoga school’, ‘authentic yoga teachers’ and promising that you can ‘become a yoga teacher in 15 days’.
Hundreds of little stalls line the banks of the river selling knick-knacks like rudraksha garlands, precious stones and yoga mats. The over two-hour ceremony on the banks of the fast-flowing river is truly a fabulous sight, with the yogis lighting massive brass lamps and conducting an elaborate ritual with the ringing of bells and chanting of devotional songs. ‘It’s a ritual that is a magnet for people from across the country and even international tourists,’ said Akash Deep, a goateed yogi I got talking to on the banks of the river.
It was late in the evening when we motored back to the hotel, and as we entered the hotel grounds I spotted some wild rabbits bounding past. ‘If you are lucky you can spot herds of deer too,’ the driver told us.
The next few days slipped by in a flurry of spa sessions preceded by a detailed Ayurvedic consultation. The good Ayurvedic practitioner asked me an almost exhaustive set of questions including what time I went to sleep at night (11pm), whether I preferred spicy, salty or sweet foods (salty) and the amount of water I drank in a day (not enough), before informing me what my predominant dosha – life energy – was (pitta). ‘You are a deep thinker,’ he said, ‘and you need to relax. Indulge in some sport or yoga.’ He also suggested a diet plan and a set of Ayurvedic treatments, the first of which was shirodhara – where medicated oils are drizzled on the forehead. ‘It helps calm the mind and de-stress,’ he said.
For my treatment I was told to lie on a wooden table, where two masseurs massaged my body with herbal oils after which at least a litre of medicated oil was drizzled over my forehead over the course of an hour. I dozed off, fully relaxed. Next day was the aroma cocoon therapy – where aromatic oils are massaged into the body after which you are quite literally packed from neck to toe in a set of thermal blankets and allowed to steam for about an hour. ‘It helps remove impurities and toxins through sweating,’ said the therapist. Although I must have sweated buckets, it was one of the most novel treatments I’ve ever undergone. At the end of the session, I was tingling all over and felt truly alive.
But the best therapy I had was reflexology, scheduled for my last day at the resort.
‘By clearing blocked nerves it improves blood circulation to various organs and stimulates the body’s healing potential,’ said the reflexologist. ‘It’s ideal to relieve stress and tension in body and mind’ Applying pressure using his fingers on various points on the soles, he prodded, poked, squeezed and massaged my feet for an hour before smothering them with medicated oil and gently wiping them dry. Relaxing despite being a tad painful at times, by the end of the session I felt as though all my tensions and worries had just leached out of my feet. ‘That was amazing,’ I said gratefully. ‘The best therapy I’ve ever had.’
The next day, I reluctantly packed my bags and was checking out when once again I was garlanded by a staff member, who wished me a pleasant and safe journey. ‘You must return some day,’ she said.
I promised I would. And next time I wouldn’t be stressed out when deciding which programme to choose. I think I’ve already got a bit of synergy back in life.