Ananda in the Himalayas, Uttarakhand, India
Comforting destination spa retreat in the Himalayan foothills
Solo travellers in need of personalised, cosseting care
Anyone under 14
Set around an original maharaja’s palace in Uttarakhand, this renowned hilltop spa retreat lords it over thousands of km of plains below and offers a range of wellness packages for health and wellbeing that draw on ayurveda, yoga, meditation and vedanta. You are treated like royalty by warm and nurturing staff, who bow when they pass you and say prayers whilst washing your feet before each treatment – and everyone floats around in fine white pyjamas. There are oodles of treatments, and a highlight is the twice-daily, complimentary talks on Vedanta, the art of living, which even the most world-weary person is likely to gain something from.
The flutist playing at the centre of the spa each day. Floating around in crisp white pyjama suits and soft pashminas, which feels both filmic and comfortable. Two young ayurvedic masseurs singing a lengthy prayer for you, full voice, whilst they wash your feet. The daily Vedanta classes. The weekly dance show by a local orphanage. Taking tea and tiffin under original portraits of the maharajahs.
Some of the meditation and yoga teachers are more engaged and clearly spoken than others. Ask ahead if you are on a bespoke package to ensure you get the cream of the crop. We’d love to see the golf course turned into a proper, restful garden – no-one really plays golf on it and it doesn’t feel in keeping with the rest of the retreat.
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Come to do a dedicated wellness programme or just to relax and enjoy classes and treatments.
There are wellness packages for Detox, Yogic Detox, Ayurvedic Rejuvenation, Weight Management, Renew, Yoga, Stress Management, Active and the most recent addition, Dhyana Self Realisation, a meditation-focused programme. Each draws on a mix of yoga, ayurveda, Vedanta, meditation and other treatments and activities to help you get what you need from your stay,and includes one to one consultations including a nutrition consultation with the chef and ayurvedic doctor. All stays include daily use of the hydrotherapy facilities too, which offers you a steam room, sauna, cold plunge pool and a Kneipp hydrotherapy foot bath.
There are two group hatha yoga classes per day – sometimes held on the marbled palace terraces with vast views, and sometimes in the dramatic ballroom. Head of yoga is Sandeep Agarwala, who completed his Masters in Yoga Physiology from the prestigious Bihar Yoga Bharti School in 2005 and uses of asanas, conscious breathing and mindfulness through meditation to create a balanced practice.
The classes are good, but the truly transformative yoga (at least for reasonably experienced practitioners) is the excellent private or couple tuition. Through gentle yet precise sessions, instructors teach new ways to move into familiar poses, revealing their therapeutic, opening power.
Guided group meditation takes place every day, with a slightly different focus each session. From Pranayama yogic breath work to mantra chanting and Yoga Nidra, the classes are around dusk time and provide a relaxing way to end the day. You can also book private sessions.
You can undertake fully immersive ayurvedic programmes at Ananda such as Ayurvedic Rejuvenation or a full Panchakarma (ayuredic detox), or simply enjoy one-off treatments.
Programmes are supervised by young resident doctors who ask surprisingly diverse and enjoyable questions for their diagnosis and are happy to take on briefs at the meeting point of mind and body, helping with issues such as libido, sleep or hormonal imbalance as well as medical concerns such as digestive and respiratory issues, chronic ailments like stiff joints and arthritic pains, hormonal imbalances and skin disorders. If you bring a severe illness or come for a more intensive detox, they oversee the treatments closely too.
Each ayurvedic programme starts with a consultation, and you’ll be prescribed nourishing herbal supplements, recommended which dosha-specific menu to follow in the restaurant to balance your system and given a guide for sleep, exercise, diet and nutrition once you’re back at home.
Ayurvedic treatments use age-old powders, oils, copper vessels, wooden beds and treatment rituals which look and feel really exotic. Each starts with prayers in a warm, candlelit room and ends with the luxury of a shower overseen by the therapists, who wrap you in fresh towels before you step out into the world.
Unusual and brilliantly delivered, they include Choornaswedana (powerful pattering with detoxifying herbs in a cloth bag), Abhayanga (massage with four synchronised hands), Mukh Lepa (a facial with cranial massage) and Kati Vasti (when hot oils are continually administered into a sacral dam).
The core treatments are ayurvedic but there are international, fusion and beauty offerings too including aromatherapy massages and cocoons, ayurvedic full body wraps and facials, physiotherapy and sports massage, Swedish massage, Thai massage, Shiatsu, Earth Stone massage and Tibetan rituals.
Fascinating and nourishing twice-daily Vedanta lectures share ancient wisdoms; paradoxically for such a luxury venue, they dwell on the inverse relationship between material prosperity and mental peace. An ancient Indian philosophy which provides the bedrock of yoga, Vedanta helps you bring subtle philosophical themes into practical everyday living by bridging the gulf between the known universe and what Vedanta philosophers call the ‘unknown reality’ – the consciousness which underlies the universe. Literally translated it means the culmination of knowledge – ‘Veda’ means knowledge in Sanskrit, ‘anta’ means end.
Ananda hosts regular workshops and private sessions with Visiting Masters in different areas of wellbeing, including teachers, therapists, healers, ayurvedic doctors and guides from around the world. A regular visitor is Cameron Walker, an intense and spiritual man with a deep interest in alternative healing who offers Cranio Sacral therapy, a very powerful but gentle treatment of the whole body that originated from Osteopathy.
At the spa a well-equipped gym is run by enthusiastic trainers who offer one to one personal training sessions and complimentary daily group classes in stretching, Core stability, focused work out sessions for the abs, and Pilates. You can have a fitness consultation and assessment at the start of your stay and a body composition analysis, to check your lean body mass and get advice on how to reach your target weight. There’s a 6 hole golf course to use, or you can go rafting on the spectacular Ganges and trek or work out in the Himalayan foothills.
Surrounded by graceful Sal forests, Ananda’s location in the foothills of the Himalayas and in the heart of a National Park make it a wonderful place to immerse in nature. Watch monkeys play in the trees while you enjoy breakfast on the Tree Top Deck overlooking miles and miles of forest, or take guided walks in the surrounding mountains for bird and wildlife-spotting – astonishingly, there are more than 400 recorded varieties of local Himalayan birds at the Rajaji National Park.
Ananda puts on weekly cultural performances such as music recitals in the hillside amphitheatre, and simple music and singing demonstrations and classes can be arranged with Ananda’s in-house musicians on request.
From various points at Ananda you’ll see the sacred river Ganges snake from its source at the glaciers above Gangotri in the Himalayas – get close to it with a visit to India’s yoga capital, Rishikesh, about a 45 minute drive away and to which Ananda can arrange for escorted visits.
In this wonderfully atmospheric place you can witness pilgrim families from all over the country dunking themselves in the sacred river, and sadhus smoking pipes in orange and red robes. Meander the atmospheric lanes of shops selling blankets, herbal medicine and handicrafts, and amble through the wonderfully restored Chaurasi Kutia ashram, where The Beatles practiced Transcendental Meditation under the spiritual instructor Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the late ‘60s and wrote about 40 of their songs. Finish your day at sunset by attending one of the regular Ganga Aarati ceremonies by the river – everyone is welcome, and it’s a burst of true spirit and soulfulness.
Bedrooms: There are 78 ensuite rooms, suites and villas across five classes of accommodation at Ananda, and newly refurbished rooms have given the well-established spa a recent refresh and upgrade. All bedrooms offer five-star comforts – fridge, tea and coffee station, TV and DVD player, WiFi, armchairs, dressing room and excellent bedding. Villas, Suites, Premier Valley and Valley View rooms are blessed with glass walled bathrooms and bathtubs overlooking the landscaped gardens or the valley.
Valley rooms all have a balcony, so you gaze constantly to infinity over the snaking Ganges river below, and are well worth the extra cost. Four suites have a lounge area, powder room and secluded private gardens, while further up the hill there are three private villas with plunge pools surrounded by Sal trees and a deck area with lounge beds. Within the palace itself is the historic Viceregal Suite, with its own private terrace overlooking the surrounding valleys.
Other places to be: Practice your asanas, meditate or simply relax and lose yourself in a good book on your balcony, in the gardens, or in the outdoor Music Pavilion, so named because of its gentle acoustics.
The daily Vedanta classes are not to be missed if you want to enrich your stay beyond the physical. Pack light, though do bring layers during chillier months. Most guests live in the white pyjamas during the day – and sometimes into the evening. The dress code is generally very casual. Solo travellers need not be afraid. It’s a wonderful place to be alone, and you meet people from across the world on similar wellness journeys.
Give some thought to planning your week, as the wellness programmes are busy with treatments. Feel free to cut some out if you need to so you can enjoy your free time and the surroundings. You need to be organised if you want to fit in some of the complementary activities.
When to Go
Late September to May is high season. March to May, and late September to November, is usually sunny and warm, while from December to February you can expect sunny days and cool evenings. Christmas and New Year are popular, so book ahead to avoid disappointment.
A circular restaurant falls out onto wonderful decks with a panoramic outlook. The central buffet (used for breakfast) is part of a sculptural installation, and you eat at window banquettes or outside. The mood around food is celebratory. There’s a cheerful hubbub of conversation at mealtimes, and often live classical indian music at night. Waiters are so attentive that they drop onto one knee when taking orders, and remember your preferences.
You can dine like a queen with daily specials tailored to each Ayurvedic body type or dosha, though it’s tempting to forget the Ayurvedic doctors’ advice and just enjoy the virtuoso cooking. There are weekly Ayurvedic cuisine demonstrations in a demonstration kitchen, should you wish to find out how everything is made.
There are weight loss, raw, Oriental, Indian or European menus, and the chefs achieve wonderful flavour, textures and balanced complexity across all these cooking styles and willingly make special versions to work around intolerances.
This might be a health retreat, but there are exquisite puddings made from fruit sugars and outstanding savouries available. There’s the signature ginger-honey-lemon tea, coffee, delicious masala chai and an international wine menu if needs be too.
Ananda still uses plastic bottles in its spa and on hikes, much to our surprise, but it uses reusable glass water bottles with a water bottling plant on site in the bedrooms and restaurants, and recycled water for its gardening (the golf course has synthetic turf deliberately to save on watering). All rubbish is sorted and recycled, and food waste is sent to a local pig farm. Ananda also supports organic local farmers and sources 90% of its ingredients locally.
Ananda also collects a voluntary monetary contribution from each guest that stays at the hotel and pools an equivalent amount towards vocational training of underprivileged girls from Uttarakhand at the Ananda Spa Institute in Hyderabad. Ananda also provides and assists in employment for these girls.
The destination spa has also adopted local schools for underprivileged children in Narendra Nagar, helping to maintain and upkeep them and donating furniture including desks and chairs. At the weekly cultural evenings, children from a local orphanage in Rishikesh perform and are paid for this.
Ananda In The Himalayas, Narendra Nagar Tehri, Garhwal, Uttarakhand, India
Airport: Dehradun (one hour flight from Delhi)
Transfer time: 40 minute drive