The Good Spa Guide was delighted to receive an invitation to visit this renowned spa on the slopes of the Himalayan mountains, in gardens surrounding what was once the palace of a Maharaja.
Ananda isn't a place you arrive at by accident; you take a plane to Mumbai or Delhi, then a flight to Dehradun or train journey north to Haridwar, then a car journey through forests and along some twisty-turny mountain roads (feel your ears popping as you ascend) until you arrive at the large gates that open onto a little piece of paradise high above sea level. Peacocks preen on the green lawns and dancing butterflies hover over the pink foliage. For many visitors, a journey to the Himalayas has the feel of a pilgrimage: you are taking yourself to where everything is clean and pure; what you hope will be clean and pure at the end of your journey is you, yourself. Ananda's aim is to help you achieve that purity. Since it opened in 2001, the focus of this spa has been not just a deep-cleanse of your body, but also your mind and your soul.
What's on offer
A serene and calm environment with friendly, helpful staff at every turn; Ananda is an environment dedicated to wellness, and not primarily a holiday resort.
Once you have checked in at the palace, where a welcome ritual of candles and incense adopts you into the Ananda spa family, an electric cart takes you down to the main spa area, which consists of a block of rooms, the spa itself, which is large and built into the hillside, and the restaurant, which looks over the valley.
The separate women's and men's changing areas both include hydrotherapy facilities: a marble-benched, nicely hot steam room, wooden sauna, plunge pool, and a "hydro foot bath" which involves you walking on pebbles in a circular pool with sections at varying temperatures. This area is fairly basic and could do with some refreshing. The attendant, however, is supremely helpful in providing you with a locker, spa sandals, towels, water, and helping you in and out of the heat facilities and showers, preserving your modesty at all times.
To one side is an area with sofas and magazines where you wait for your therapist to collect you; to another is a walled-off relaxation area with four loungers and no reading material at all so your mind can stay calm and composed as you gaze over the palm trees. You can make the most of the hydrotherapy area throughout the day, from 7am to 8pm; you don't have to tie it in with a treatment. (Top tip: The steam room needs to warm up in the morning so don't come until 7.45am for the best heat.)
The spa embraces the philosophies of Ayurveda, Yoga and Vedanta, and is enormous compared to most UK spas, with rooms for hydrotherapy, treatments for couples, and other specialised rituals. With inner courtyards containing pebbles and greenery, the spa has a zen-like feel, with a peaceful atmosphere.
Each day there are yoga or meditation activities, some back up the hill at the palace. You can also join in exercise classes, morning stretches, swim in the outdoor pool, spend time getting fit in the gym, or improve your golf skills in the afternoons.
Most guests at Ananda are on a Wellness package, either to detox, lose weight, rejuvenate, or de-stress, so their spa treatments are part of a specific programme planned in advance in consultation with an ayurvedic doctor. The Ananda "Renew" programme, for example, available for seven, 14 or 21 nights, focuses on anti-ageing, with scrubs to rejuvenate your skin,lymphatic drainage massages to restore energy, and facials to make you shine. If you're on a Wellness programme, your spa treatments are scheduled to support you in reaching your chosen goal, your food is tailored to your body type, and the suggested activities also help to keep you focused on your aims.
You can also visit Ananda on a Getaway package, purely for some rest and relaxation over three or five nights, and "getaway" guests can choose their own treatments and make the most of a wider menu at mealtimes.
Wearing the white Kurta Pjama provided freshly laundered each day in your room can make you feel like you're a character in a themed yoga resort, but they are very comfortable, and make travelling light a breeze (as do the built-in adapters in the bedrooms for your laptop and other devices you shouldn't be bringing on a retreat). Just remember, though, when packing, that any neon-orange undies will show through the white cotton of the pyjamas. Most people wear the pyjamas dawn till dusk, but something smarter is not out of place in the restaurant for the evening meal.
When it's time to leave, the departure ritual reminds you that your stay in Shangri-La has come to an end, but that Ananda is there waiting for you to return (as many guests do, each year).
Treatments to try
There are over 80 treatments on offer. However, if you're on a Wellness programme, you cannot choose extra treatments or deviate from your prescribed regime without consultation; as Spa Manager Ritu Srivastava points out, an unscheduled and unapproved treatment could undo your other good work. "You need to trust the package and let go," she says.
If you're visiting Ananda on a Getaway package, you have freedom to choose your treatments according to what you feel you need. You can choose from Ayurvedic treatments such as Abhyanga, the “four-handed-massage”, in which two therapists work in synchronised harmony; Pizhichil, a slow and rhythmic massage with warm oils; or Shirodhara, where warm herbal oil is poured in an even stream on to your forehead (surprisingly soothing). The "International Experiences" include Tibetan rituals, facials, wraps sourced from local ingredients such as fruits, Indian herbs, salts and essential oils, hydrotherapy, and a wide variety of massages, including Thai, reflexology and hot stones, as well as the signature Ananda Fusion. You can also try reiki, crystal healing and treatments specifically for couples and for mums-to-be (after the first trimester).
Ananda uses ayurvedic products as well as ila, a company we in the UK tend to think of as local as the products are blended here, but some of their ingredients, such as the pink rock-salt crystals, are actually local to Ananda in the Himalayas.
To give you a flavour of what sort of treatments to expect, we tried the Tibetan Ku Nye massage, Abhyanga and the Mukha Lepa facial, which you can read about here.
A word to the wise: Book your treatments well in advance. The spa is committed to supporting guests on the Wellness programmes, and it is unlikely you will get the treatment you want if you wait until the last minute.
The food is fabulous. It needs to be. What you eat contributes to your health and wellness, a core part of the Ananda philosophy. Meals are served in the airy Pavilion restaurant, and I can report that every dish I tried was delicious, from the cauliflower truffle soup to the Goan fish curry to the gluten-, dairy- and sugar-free cheesecake.
If you're on a Wellness package, each day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the waiters will bring you the menu containing only the dishes suitable for your body type (your dosha): Vata, Pitta or Kapha. If you're at Ananda to lose weight or detox, the food has to be varied and interesting enough over the 14 or 21 days to reward your palate, make you feel replete, and not tempt you to stray from your allotted path. Chef Saurabh manages this by creating inspiring and fresh dishes using local ingredients, with a new menu for every day of your stay, with different dishes for each body type for each meal. This means that while we Pittas might be eating a cous-cous salad with green-pea puree (only 95 calories), the Vatas might be enjoying carrot and ginger soup. The individual menus are a clever way of making sure you lose weight steadily, privately, and without feeling that you are being denied. The Wellness menus do not just feature Indian cooking, but a variety of cuisines, so that you have a chance to learn about what foods you could cook at home to continue your healthy choices on return. (The cookery classes also help with this.)
If you are on a Getaway break, you can order from the "regular" menu, where there is a wider variety of choices, with influences from Thailand, Italy and China, good vegetarian options (we recommend the biryani), and freshly baked roti, parantha and other Indian breads. The waiters are very friendly and knowledgeable about the food choices on offer, and will take time to advise on dishes that might suit your dosha and tastebuds.
You can order (a therapeutic) wine with dinner, but otherwise, throughout your stay, you will be mainly drinking Himalaya spring water or the spa's delicious signature blend of honey, lemon and ginger tea.
Who would like it?
Anyone who simply wants some time out to relax, recharge or refresh: You will feel very comfortable at Ananda alone, as our Spy was, whether you're at a class, in the restaurant, or in the spa. Several women were visiting alone during our time at Ananda, and we noticed that occasionally they would share a meal together after a class or meditation session, so you can be solitary but you don't have to be lonely.
The spa is isolated -- which adds to its serenity -- but it is a little bubble in the "real" India, if that's what you're looking for. That said, Ananda provides a peaceful and safe holistic experience with authentic treatments.
Anyone who is committed to making a lifestyle change you can take home with you: Plan your treatments well in advance so you don't miss out when you get there, or opt for one of the wellness packages for peace of mind and total support through a prescribed programme.
Couples who want to spend time together: The "Couples Connect" package allows you to take treatments together and you can relax in a peaceful environment. No-one under 14 is admitted to Ananda, and you have to be 18 to enter the spa.
To get the most out of your stay, try all the activities on offer at least once: the yoga, the guided meditation, the morning stretches and the fab abs. (This last will make it very clear the minute you lift your legs from the mat whether you already have fab abs or not.) I very much appreciated my Thai morning stretches and Yoga Nidra (where you aim to achieve a sleep state while staying conscious) and in the cookery class I learned how to make a very healthy and tasty pumpkin and pea risotto and some khichdi.
If you can, choose a valley-view room on the higher floors: where else in the world can you spa then settle on your balcony, sip some tea, ponder the passing clouds and occasional monkey, and enjoy a view of the River Ganges and the holy town of Rishikesh? (Back in the 1960s, Rishikesh achieved overnight fame when The Beatles came to stay with their guru, Maharshi Mahesh Yogi.)
The spa treatments: Make sure you book what you want in advance and enjoy the soothing serenity of a treatment tailored entirely to you.
Expect to pay
Whether you're staying on a Getaway or a Wellness package, the spa facilities, outdoor pool, use of the gym and complimentary exercise sessions are all included.
The seven-night Ananda "Renew" programme, which includes over ten treatments, among them scrubs, wraps, pizichil and yoga, as well as a consultation with the ayurvedic doctor, works out at around $6,000 (exchange rates will vary) or rather more if you opt for your own private villa complete with swimming pool. Breakfast, lunch and dinner and transfers are also included in this cost (but not the flights to India).
The Weight-Management programme -- available only for 14 or 21 nights because you can't expect much difference with less commitment -- includes a variety of massages, fitness training and personalised yoga, and will cost you around $10,000. (These are the prices for single rooms; if two of you are sharing, the cost will come down.)
The three-night Himalayan Bliss getaway, which might be perfect as a taster for Ananda, costs around $2,400 for a single person in a Valley View room, and includes breakfast and dinner, a Wild Rose salt scrub, Swedish massage, Himalayan Honey and Rose facial, and a session of Yoga Nidra. Try this, perhaps, if you are considering a longer programme and want to see if the spa suits you.