In the foothills of the Himalayas overlooking the north Indian town of Rishikesh, where the Ganges begins and the Beatles found their maharishi, sits Ananda, a spa resort that has hosted both Prince Charles and Oprah.
I was a guest of the resort earlier this year, arriving via a 45-minute plane ride from New Delhi followed by a 40-minute drive into the mountains through a forest preserved for rare white elephants. The resort is tucked behind gilded gates that open up to an actual maharajah's palace.
Built in 1880, modified in 1940 and opened by Ananda in 2000, the property has much of its colonial grandeur intact. Additional structures have been added to the campus that include a luxurious spa, a modern hotel with 75 rooms, a restaurant with a patio nestled in the treetops and three well-appointed villas. The simple but elegant rooms, while referred to as "spacious" on the website, are fine for a couple but tight for two travelers sharing a room. The valley-view rooms have private balconies and on a clear day, a view of Rishikesh and the Ganges below. All rooms are well appointed, with marble bathrooms that feature generously sized tubs and separate showers. The villas are roomy and offer a high level of privacy with their own gardens and swimming pools. The viceregal suite situated in the main building of the palace is a plush, one-bedroom apartment including a terrace with a Jacuzzi. Despite its remote location, Ananda maintains connectivity to the outside world with good WiFi and cellphone reception.
The resort’s blue-tiled outdoor pool.
Upon arriving, guests are graced with prayer beads and a white cotton kurta-pajama outfit.
"Here everyone is the same," said General Manager Nikhil Kapur about the guests, and it seems to be true, with Indian couples celebrating anniversaries, international bankers taking time away and world travelers on break from spiritual pilgrimages. All walk the grounds in quiet, almost somnambulistic states of tranquility in their flowing PJs. The attentive staff greets everyone by name and with a friendly namaskar, a traditional Indian term of respect.
The focus here is not just on beautiful and peaceful surroundings. Ananda's mission is to heal those who visit from around the world. As the on-site ayurvedic physician said, "The body is like the Ganges, and we help to keep that river flowing." Ayurveda is a centuries-old system of health focusing on proper diet, specialized treatments, yoga and exercise as well as Vedanta, or Indian philosophical, teachings. Most who come to Ananda take advantage of one of the seven- to 14-day wellness packages that include a visit with the physician who evaluates and specifies your individual dosha, or body type, then prescribes a regime of treatments, herbs and diet to help bring your body and mind into balance. Ananda also offers three- to five-day getaways catering to couples and world-weary travelers.
Spa services include ayurvedic and other alternative healing treatments as well as a full menu of facials, pedicures and Western-style massage. Before and after each treatment, a prayer for healing is sung sweetly by the practitioners. Abyanga, an ayurvedic four-handed, synchronized massage, is an experience not to be missed. The 24,000-square-foot spa houses a modern exercise facility where an experienced trainer makes sure guests stay on task.
Mornings begin with Ananda's ginger-lemon tea, delivered to your room as a wake-up treat, followed by a breakfast buffet of fruits and pastries in the restaurant. In addition to the calorie-conscious spa menu, Ananda has a fine selection of international cuisine, blended whiskeys and wine. The food is expertly prepared and customized to suit not only your dosha but also any food sensitivities or preferences. The downside is that when the restaurant is full, the wait can be long because every meal gets individual attention. The chef gives cooking classes to guests several times a week.
Yoga classes are held at the resort’s pavilion. Spa services include ayurvedic and other alternative healing treatments.
Down a fragrant pathway of sal trees that line the forest-covered grounds, guests arrive at a stately outdoor pavilion, where yoga classes are held. Taught by locally trained instructors, hatha yoga, meditation and pranayama (breathing exercises) are all offered. The blue-tiled outdoor pool is a relaxing spot where guests cool off during the warmer hours as resident peacocks wander by. The weather in the mountains varies by season but generally tends to be warm during the day and cool at night, tempering India's mostly tropical climate.
For those who want to venture beyond the resort's protected gates, an excursion to the Kunjapuri Temple offers a vigorous hike and a walk up a steep stairway to get a glimpse of the snow-capped peaks of the highest mountains in the world. A journey into the valley town of Rishikesh to observe the Ganga Aarti is a stirring ritual to witness; a nightly ceremony where disciples of a local ashram offer fiery blessings to the mighty Ganges River. Whitewater rafting trips and nature walks are also available.
While one can't argue that Ananda is a lovely retreat, it is not for everyone. Evenings are early-to-bed, and the tone is introspective and restful. This is a destination where you can take a break and recalibrate your life. High-season, room-only rates begin at $600 per night.