Nestled amidst the mystical mountains of north India, Ananda – in the Himalayas is a tranquil escape in more ways than one. First there’s the sprawling spa at the heart of it all – a 24,000 square-foot space of polished marble, brass lamps and millions of flower petals, housing 24 treatment rooms, plus an array of other facilities. There’s the Instagram-worthy infinity pool, with the sal tree-carpeted hillsides floating away from it. There’s the rejuvenating Ayurvedic cuisine, with the lighter, tailored-to-body types dishes, which are naturally better for the body, best enjoyed at the alfresco treetop deck of the main restaurant. And then there’s the scenic setting of meandering greens with plenty of quiet corners, viewpoints and pavilions that just beg to be wandered around and relaxed in.
But what the brochures don’t tell you are the many thoughtful little touches that make a stay at Ananda feel truly healing – the gentle bow and ‘Namaskar’ that every staff member always greets you with; the delicate lily and gardenia signature scent that you are greeted with, right from when you step into their luxury SUV for transfers, and is all-pervasive through your stay; and the sense of spirituality that is inescapable (this is, after all, one of the holiest regions in India, with the revered Hindu sites of Haridwar and Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganges, mere hours’ drive away).
The multiple award-winning and celeb-favoured resort is located in the Himalayan foothills near Dehradun, in a restored former royal palace belonging to the Maharaja of Tehri Garhwal. The historic grandeur is well preserved in the grand palace which houses the lobby, a library where afternoon tea is served, and a couple of suites; the rest of the accommodation is in a newer building, and outlying villas, all offering lush views, and five star luxuries such as sunken baths in marble bathrooms, and pillow menus.
The Indian essence is reinforced throughout, not in an OTT, kitschy way, but rather more subtly – whether it’s with the pair of freshly laundered white cotton kurta pajamas (Indian pant suit) that you find in your room on check-in, which almost all the guests live in during their stay (fresh sets are replaced every day by housekeeping); or the live classical music performances at the restaurant.
Your weekend of wellbeing starts as soon as you drive through the majestic gates of the palace grounds… everything here is designed to make you instantly decompress. The first step is a personalised consultation with the Ayurvedic doctor, who analyses your body type and condition, then recommends a tailored activity plan for your stay. The consultations are in-depth, taking into account individual lifestyles and preferences.
While Ananda offers various packages, they can be tweaked to adapt to the needs of each person, as their philosophy – which combines Ayurveda, yoga, and Vedanta (classical Hindu philosophical science based on the ancient Veda books) – is rooted in each individual being unique.
A typical stay would incorporate multiple daily treatments, including both Ayurvedic as well as international therapies. Treatments are offered at the well-equipped spa, with strains of Sanskrit chants reverberating throughout, where expert therapists precede each session with a foot bath and a prayer incantation (for Ayurveda treatments) to ensure the effectiveness isn’t just superficial.
The therapies are complemented by a personalised diet plan – according to Ayurveda, each individual can be classified into one of three body types, Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, and the restaurant offers set wellness menus for each type. Contrary to what you might think, these ‘healthy dishes’ aren’t bland and tasteless, but instead, leveraging the nutritional benefits of herbs and spices, end up being delicious creations such as chilas (chickpea pancakes) with fresh salads, subtly spiced curries, and even desserts like cheesecake and pannacotta. No need to worry about deprivation diets here, it’s all about balance. All the food is made using fresh, natural, organic and wholesome ingredients, many of which are sourced from local farms or the on-site vegetable garden.
Throw into the mix a variety of activities such as yoga, meditation, Vedanta lectures and fitness classes, and you’re never too far from a nudge towards a healthier life here.
But, this isn’t a punish-yourself-and-get-fit kind of retreat (although they do offer bootcamp-style fitness retreats too, for those interested) – not only is the setting luxurious, the route to health here is gentle, and you only take away from it as much as you want to. Somehow, the atmosphere is such that you naturally feel like being kinder to yourself. After all, getting motivated to do yoga at 7am is much easier when it’s in a breezy outdoor marble pavilion overlooking the Himalayas, than it is in a sweaty studio, isn’t it? Even meditation becomes that much more achievable when it is a guided session of Yoga-nidra (yogic sleep meant to induce deep relaxation) in a quiet spa room.
Not just that, such is the mildness of approach, that you can enjoy alcoholic beverages if you should so choose, and the restaurant’s menu includes international gourmet specialties apart from the healthy offerings. Plus… wait for it… there’s even a 6-hole par 3 golf course in the resort! For the activity-inclined, there is also a regular roster of extra-curricular activities, from cultural programmes at the open-air amphitheatre, to hiking opportunities, and the option of heading to town to view the Ganga Aarti (a daily sunset prayer ritual on the banks of the Ganges).
Which is not to say that you won’t get results. For those who follow the rules, returning recharged and rejuvenated – and no, not just in the spa brochure sense of the word! – is guaranteed. If you don’t believe us, ask Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Kate Winslet or the Prince of Wales, who are all former guests.
How long that feeling of wellness can be maintained is another matter, but they do offer tools to help equip you to transition towards a more healthful lifestyle even when back to the daily grind – whether it’s with their Ayurvedic cooking classes, or the aromatherapy accoutrements available for sale.
Irrespective of how much or how little you pack into your stay, Ananda (which is Sanskrit for happiness) is sure to inject a bit of happy back into your body and soul. After all, if it’s good enough for Oprah…
A version of this feature was previously published in Benchmark Magazine. Photographs are supplied (no, that's not me in any of them!).