Santillán review | yoga retreat centre, Spain
Boutique retreat in Andalucia co-created by Simon Low
The Quick Read: One of the UK’s best yoga teachers, Simon Low, has teamed up with the owners of a charming boutique hotel in the hills east of Malaga to convert it into a yoga and wellbeing centre. The new shala opened in July 2015 and is perhaps the best you’ll find anywhere in Europe, overlooking the wooded hillside and sea beyond and featuring an impressive customised yoga wall from The Great Yoga Wall Europe, packed with detachable hooks for belts and straps. We joined Simon Low’s inaugural retreat to check it all out – yoga retreats led by different teachers, Pilates and other movement therapy holidays will run throughout the year. A full spa is being planned – for now there’s a saltwater pool and treatments on offer, and simply gorgeous surroundings. Malaga airport, served by plenty of low-cost airlines, is just a half-hour drive away. Booking will be through individual teachers rather than the hotel, though you can also stay here on a B&B basis. An enticing find.
Who it’s best for: Those wanting to step out of a busy world and reconnect with nature and self in peaceful surrounds, with top-quality yoga instruction and truly lovely accommodation. It would suit solo travellers, friends or couples – rooms are spacious and there are plenty of spots to hide away, while meals are eaten together so it’s sociable too.
The yoga experience will obviously depend on the teacher, but Simon Low’s week-long Yin and Yang Yoga holidays are great for balancing and rebooting. Working with his second-in-command, Eija Tervonen, you’re in expert hands and will really deepen your practice and build strength. It’s challenging in a good way and works for all levels, although some experience of yoga would be a bonus.
What you can do: Yoga and chilling are the main components of a holiday here. Simon will run his signature Yin and Yang Yoga holidays and teacher trainings here, alongside other carefully-selected yoga teachers such as Jeff Phenix, who teaches both dynamic flow and restorative classes; UK-based yoga teacher Carol MacCartney, and Iyengar Yoga teacher Martin Zilbauer. Pilates and other movement therapy holidays are also planned.
On Simon Low’s yoga retreats, there are two yoga sessions a day, each lasting about three hours. Mornings begin with the more dynamic yang class at 8am, often after opening chants. It’s a fluid class with attention paid to joint care – to building stability and strength alongside mobility. Eija’s spot-on adjustments are particularly welcome.
Afternoon sessions from 5.30pm are for restorative yin yoga – deeply relaxing with lots of props and long-held postures, including a spot of fun on the impressive customised yoga wall, with its hooks for an array of belts and straps for supported poses.
The weather is great in this part of Spain, there’s usually a breeze up here even when it’s sweltering inland, and between classes and healthy meals there’s plenty of time for lying by the decent-size saltwater pool, relaxing in one of the many shady spots, or having a massage. A team of therapists is being finalised but the four-hand massage by Marian and Juan Antonio is highly rated. Visits by other therapists, from osteopaths to beauticians, can be arranged on request, and a dedicated spa is being planned. The surrounding area can be explored on foot or horseback when it’s not too hot. The varied terrain offers plenty of challenge for passionate cyclists too. If you hire a car you could hit the pretty beaches in less than 30 minutes, but most people chill on-site.
Day five is free after the morning yoga class and there is lots of choice: Malaga city is half an hour away by car with its excellent shopping, host of museums (including the Picasso museum – he was born in the city) and great bars and restaurants. The beach at Nerja and picturesque white-washed village of Frigiliana are other options – as are day trips to several cities from Cordoba to Rhonda and Granada (if you want to visit the beautiful Moorish fort Al Hambra you need to book ahead).
Where you stay: Originally built in 1990 as a small hotel in the style of a traditional Andalucian cortijo (farmhouse), Santillán feels much older and is full of character. Whitewashed outside and set in lush gardens, inside it’s all terracotta floors, with wide, dark, cool corridors and antique furnishings. It’s a popular wedding venue – and it’s easy to see why.
There are 20 spacious rooms (a mix of singles and doubles, though some can be converted into triples), tastefully decorated, some with wrought iron beds – and each has its own balcony or terrace. Bathrooms in the superior rooms come with double sinks too – ideal for sharers.
The pool is lovely and there are plenty of shady areas, with hammocks or sofas for lounging. Meals are served at a long table in a covered courtyard or out on the large terrace overlooking the valley.
One of the main things you’ll notice here is the peace – the whole valley belongs to the family, so there’s nothing else around, just the sound of birdsong.
Best of all is the shala, designed by Simon and Eija and top Spanish architect Fernando Visedo. It’s vast and flooded with light, with bamboo floors and floor-to-ceiling windows, a truly beautiful place to practise.
There’s a touching story behind how the place came into being – businessman Carlo Marchini decided to reinvent his life after a car crash and built a hotel in the midst of nature. After his death two years ago, his daughter Adriana decided to downsize her career in the music industry to build on the legacy and turn Santillán into a place of healing. It’s a very special place indeed (the Dalai Lama himself has visited and agreed – but that’s another story!).
How was it for us: First impressions count and as I stepped through the huge wooden doors of Santillán, the signs were good. We’d turned off the main motorway to wind up into the hills – and this felt a world away from the bustle and heat of Malaga. A cool reception opened onto pretty gardens, complete with fountains and views out to sea.
Our group was mostly women (several yoga teachers among them), with two couples, and soon everyone was chatting away over wine and dinner (it’s a holiday after all, rather than a retreat, and the option for a drink’s there if you want it).
Days began in silence before the first yoga session – just birds singing and bunnies hopping past as we practised. We were the first group to christen the shala, excitedly dipping into the sweet shop of colourful, untouched props – the curious pet dog popped her nose in to see what we were up to.
Simon teaches in a relaxed way, while still being very precise, working at a steady pace, incorporating spiralling arm movements and anatomical detail along the way, the influence of chi kung felt in places. Gradually classes became more demanding throughout the week and I could feel tight muscles start to unravel and good movement habits become further engrained. You work hard, but it’s fun and inspiring at the same time and three hours genuinely pass quickly.
After a hearty brunch I made the most of some downtime by the pool or on the terrace of my room – venturing out only once to the beach at Nerja and the winding streets of Frigiliana. It felt great to explore, but even better to return to the sanctuary of Santillán.
My favourite part of the day was when the heat started to subside slightly and our yin classes began. Long-held postures working at a deep level. You might recline with plentiful props in ‘mermaid pose’ or use the yoga wall to try an upside down child pose (amazing, I didn’t want to come out) or use straps to sense into a deeper downward dog. References to meridians and traditional Chinese medicine offer insight rather than overwhelm. When it was time to leave, my body genuinely felt lighter and taller, my mind soothed and energy recharged.
What we took home: The peace and tranquility at Santillán can’t fail to get under your skin. Coupled with the expert yoga tuition, we left with a much more relaxed body and mind and a re-booted personal practice.
Would we go back: Definitely, as soon as possible – it’s one of the best settings and most professional yoga holidays you’ll find. The centre is bound to become one of Europe’s most sought-after yoga holiday destinations once the word gets out – and that’s before the wellness facilities have fully opened.
People watch: The delightful Adriana Marchini (daughter of Carlo who originally built the property) runs the hotel. Having decided she wanted to turn it into a wellness centre after her father died she teamed up with Simon Low (who’d been wanting to open a place in Spain for years), after a former Yoga Academy graduate introduced them. You’re in the best hands all round, with Simon and Eija’s expert tuition and the warmth and hospitality of the host family (Adriana’s mother Marta is in charge of the cooking).
Food watch: Food’s a big part of the experience and you’re not going to go hungry here. Dining is buffet style: pre-morning yoga class you can grab a light breakfast of fruit or muesli. Brunch is a selection of sweet and savoury dishes (the homemade tortilla was a firm favourite). It’s not all vegetarian – fish and meat are served too – but they were refining the menu when we visited to add more veggie and vegan options (highlights were a traditional aubergine and tomato dish and delicious gazpacho).
A mid-afternoon snack of salads and fruit is available if you can’t make it to through to dinner, which is served at around 8.30 or 9pm (actually early by Spanish standards). They don’t skimp on puddings either should you wish to indulge, with a choice of three most nights.
What’s queenly: The new yoga shala is one of the best places we’ve practised in – a stunning, incredibly well equipped space with plenty of natural light, great views and the brilliant customised yoga wall (we want one at home!).
What’s lowly: The full spa offerings were yet to be available when we visited (therapy rooms within a spa are being planned), although on-site massages and other treatments with local or visiting practitioners can still be booked.
Insider tip: Vegans could find dining options limited – although the hotel was looking to address this – so let them know in advance of any specific dietary requirements.
Price with a companion: Simon Low’s holiday costs £985 per person based on two sharing with a shared bathroom for seven nights, with six days of yoga. This includes all meals (except from Wednesday afternoon which is free-time) and all yoga classes. A taxi from the airport costs around 50 euros, but the hotel will arrange for guests to share. The price for retreats with other teachers may differ.
Price per person going solo: On Simon’s holiday the single supplement is £350 per person (so £1,335 total) for a private room with en-suite bathroom.
Value for money: With such a beautiful location, great accommodation and long, well-structured classes from world-class teachers, the Simon Low holiday represents good value for money, even if it seems a bit pricier than other one-week yoga breaks.
Sister retreats: Simon Low runs yoga holidays and weekends in destinations around the world, including Huzur Vadisi and Suleyman’s Garden in Turkey, and Samahita and Kamalaya on Koh Samui in Thailand. Read our review of Simon Low’s yoga teaching. You can also stay at the hotel on a B&B basis – see www.molinodesantillan.es.
Reviewed by: Jane Dunford
© Queen of Retreats