Pure heaven at the Regal ANANDA HIMALAYAS

Ananda’s co founder Neelam Khanna says it doesn’t set out to offer a “pampering experience”. This may well be true.  After my stay there, the spa reviewer’s cliché “I was scrubbed, exfoliated, pummeled and gleaming” is a small part of what I was.

Ananda’s core focus- holistic well being- integrating yoga, Ayuveda, dietary advice, meditational practices and a range of spa treatments, aims to create personalized plans for living. This has a much longer-term effect than initial signs of radiant skin and de-stressed muscles.

Ananda as ashram

Having lived In India a while, I’m wary of “spirituality” here. It can be hackneyed; a cliché of sadhus, yoga and nirvana packaged for the tourist industry.  But Ananda dispenses with all unnecessary trappings of spirituality so-called, and instead offers an authentic, uplifting and practical interpretation of ancient Indian Vedanta philosophy supported by Ayurvedic healing practices and Hatha yoga from the Bihar school.

The more philosophical tenets of Vedanta, concerned with a sense of higher purpose are lent practical interpretation and what you take from these at Ananda is a question of personal choice.

General Manager Anupam Dasgupta told me that Ananda increasingly focuses on “goal-oriented” wellness packages which target key effects of stressful urban lifestyles and gives guests the tools to manage work and daily challenges with on target effectiveness. He says that Vedanta poses questions for “how we transcend some of the things that pull us down and prevent us from delivering our full promise. Truth is often right under our nose but we don’t see it”.

Yoga and mediation sessions with Vinay Kaushik one of Ananda’s resisdent yoga teachers, gave insight into mediation practice and he interpreted Vedanta teachings into some practical tools for dealing with daily work stresses. He often couched these in beautiful metaphors, which have given me much pause for thought since.

What’s great about Ananda is its structure and flexibility. Daily activities include yoga, meditation sessions, Vedanta lectures and Ayurvedic cookery demonstrations, trekking and bird watching.  These aren’t compulsory but do offer a more sociable “ashram-like” experience. Alternatively, you can concentrate personal well being on private yoga and meditation sessions.

Ananda’s regal history

The spa is near the pilgrimage towns of Hardiwar and Rishikesh, the scared Ganges river runs through the valley. The ornate summer palace built for the Maharaja Tehri-Garwhal (private from the resort) is set on the foothills above the valley and provides the centre piece for Ananda resort. Nearby, the Viceregal palace, built in 1910 for guests, is today the hotels reception. There is a small library oak lined library where you can read books or play at the oldest billiard table in India. Afternoon tea is served between 4 and 6 pm in a very mannered evocation of this buildings regal history.

Ananda’s accomodations

Seventy deluxe rooms, suites and villas are built in contemporary interpretation of traditional Himalayan chalets. The villas are the kind of place you would retreat to work on a book or project with no distractions. In top secrecy Oprah Winfrey came here, after her whirlwind tour of India. She relaxed for a few days when everyone thought she has already flown back to the US. Each villa’s set apart with private swimming pool and butler on hand 24/7. Decorated in cool colours with antique paintings of yantras and warm teak floors, Understated yes, but huge mirrors hung over beds and wonderful antique wooden sculptures hint at the sybarite.

In all Ananda’s accommodation, I most loved small touches such as exquisite hand blocked quilts made in Jaipur (they can also be bought in the spa’s gorgeous boutique). Turning crafts into luxury home wares is a theme across Ananda and part of the spas commitment to engaging with communities though sustainable livelihoods. The deluxe rooms each have a large glass wall opening onto a balcony, allowing for incredible light and views of the Himalayas into the rooms. Attention to detail makes staying here so nice. For example, a bowl carefully arranged with concentric circles of fragrant, red roses, orange and white daisies were placed on my bedside table each day. Comfort is key, huge beds topped with crisp white linen and mountains of pillows. In my room, a desk contained useful things like pens and stationery. The Wi Fi is super fast.

Big walk in closets all lined in teak and green marble bathrooms have a 1930s art deco feel. Deep bathtubs give way to picture windows of the Himalayas beyond. A saffron and milk candle-lit bath can be ordered with a crisp vodka martini, to soak and watch swallows darting in and out of the foliage as pink-orange sky signals sunset.

For the single traveler it’s a good place to enjoy a relaxed retreat, service is attentive but never intrusive. Rooms have cable TV, DVD menu and books on Vedanta. The best thing to watch for hours here though, is the expanse of blue sky, and shimmering horizon of mountains. At night, pitch-black sky is luminous with stars. Dinner can be enjoyed in the restaurant which has an open air area built on the hill ridge; it’s like sitting in a big tree house. There are also many places dotted about the hundred acre gardens where yoga and mediation sessions are held, drawing on the tranquil natural surroundings. After months of city dwelling in this country of 1.3 billion, I was mesmerized by the silence, space and beauty.

The spa

I didn’t have any of their Western style massages, use the gym, hydrotherapy rooms or pool but concentrated on Ayurvedic treatments. After consultation to diagnose my dosha type, a specialized plan was made. A packed routine ensued, with at least three daily spa treatments plus personal yoga and meditation sessions and general spa activities.

Treatments are targeted to detoxify and target areas of imbalance identified through dosha analysis. Laid out on a traditional Ayurvedic massage table made from a single slab of neem tree (its wood is considered medicinal). My favourite was “Choornaswedana” where two therapists began an hours deep full body massage with warmed sesame oil, followed by further massage with big heated poultices of herbs kneaded into the skin. These induce sweating, improving circulation, releasing toxins and relieving muscle pain.

Some Ayurvedic treatments can be hard going, such as Talpana, having warmed medicated ghee poured into ones eyes to improve eyesight and remove impurities. The highly trained therapists were fantastic, and consistently sensitive to the person in their hands.

Ananda is popular amongst Bollywood star and HNWIs in India. Anupam Dasgupta tol me that over the past few years, the guests profile has shifted from around seventy five per cent of guests from overseas, to a fifty-fifty ratio leaning more towards domestic tourism. In part driven by the growing number of Indian HNWIs and growing spa culture here. I noticed that whilst long stay European guests dominated week time occupancy, at the weekend I met many guests coming in for short breaks from Delhi and Mumbai and further afield from Chennai.

The Indian spa industry is growing rapidly with franchised chains at the middle level pursuing aggressive expansion plans. But Ananda’s very uniqueness will make it hard to replicate and scale up. Instead, it remains the ultimate luxury  destination spa in India, the pinnacle for both affluent and aspirational consumers.

Ananda is starting to offer activities like white water rafting, which broaden its appeal as a destination spa. Personally I can’t imagine why anyone would go to Ananda and not just want to relish every minute spent immersed in the incredible atmosphere of the spa and its gardens.
Phyllida Jay