Comfortable, curative and incredibly calm, Himalayan retreat Vana is an extraordinary place. This 21st-century spa will help you tune into a spiritual side that you didn’t even know was there
Needing a quick-fix for a floundering immune system, I headed for Vana, in the foothills of the Himalayas. For the first 24 hours, though, I struggled to acclimatise to its low-key health-improving ways. But within a week at this luxury retreat in Dehradun – a short flight north of Delhi – I was proselytising that a spell here is indeed life-changing (it won Most Life-Changing Retreat in Condé Nast Traveller’s 2016 Spa Awards). What’s the secret? Is it the Tibetan chanting? Healthy fine dining? Or just taking things down a gear? All of the above, and more.
Ayurveda, India’s ancient system of medicine, is at the heart of the Vana Malsi Estate, but this holistic resort has remarkable experts and facilities that extend beyond me being able to give it one label. The £40m sanctuary is the creation of Veer Singh, a young entrepreneur who hopes to open more Vanas around the world having created a notable, forward-looking brand.
At first, Vana felt like an elegant bubble that shielded my friend and I from the colourful, chaotic all-sensory India. First impression of the main salon space is that it resembles a giant art gallery in a symphony of beige. The forest of tall, slender sal trees surrounding the compound acts like a barrier to views of the Himalayas and any nearby hillside buildings. This lack of distracting awe-inspiring landscapes helps you be more reflective. So slow in pace is Vana that, for the first day, I couldn’t conceive of how this genteel hideaway, with its soft soundtrack of Hindustani flute music, could be transformative.
It’s learning to slow down that’s part of the healing. A strict electronics and photography ban encourages you to embrace the mindfulness – it’s as though any reminders of the modern world or life at home are considered jarring. There’s even a uniform of cream-coloured kurta pyjamas designed by fashion duo Abraham & Thakore (it’s great not having to even think about what you wear).
Daily regimes don’t feel dictatorial, just uplifting, yet as effective as can be thanks to the highest standard of practitioners and personalised programmes. There are therapies many spa lovers will have experienced (yoga, acupuncture, reflexology, meditation) and others that are exotic either in their Tibetan or Chinese names, in their methods or in their objectives (see below).
Everything at Vana has had a designer’s touch. Tiny stylish icons are moulded into notices that tell you to shush or where the steam room is – all the messaging has been refined through graphic-design perfection. And you won’t be compromising on any five-star habits either. Surrender and go with the flow is all you need to do. In under a day I twigged why most of the burnt-out executives, no matter how distinguished, were emailing the office asking their personal assistants to extend the trip for at least another week (no doubt on their smartphones back in the room; since you’re expected to leave laptops at home).
Joy is palpable at Vana more than at typical results-chasing spas with punishing calorie-controlled, intense exercising ways thanks to the generous eating and drinking – available whether you’re vegetarian, vegan, a meat- or fish-eater. There are two restaurants that promise delicate flavours and delicate presentations of dainty portions – total abstinence is optional. Ayurveda and diet are inextricably linked: diet and digestion are considered the cornerstones of good health.
Mindfulness is the main point of the nutritious menu, and local, seasonal, organic produce is a priority, with refined sugars, grains and oils eschewed. A high-quality, clean-tasting coffee every morning kept me sane, as did delicious, inventive desserts at lunch and dinner. Knowing I could have a chilled glass of wine at dinner saved me from my usual health-farm pangs of wanting to break out late at night in search of rebellion.
Most guests find that they eat all they want from the plentiful buffet lunches and à la carte dinner and they still shift a surprising amount of weight. The Ayurvedic restaurant, Anayu, could be a fine-dining establishment in Mayfair – aromatic curries and pickles tailored to your dosha (body type) served on hand-tooled copper thali services. Best of all, snacking around the clock is even allowed. Afternoon tea in a corner of the main salon offers a choice of savoury and sweet snacks.
But what makes this retreat stand out? The quality of treatments at Vana is what seems to be addictive. One woman was on her seventh visit since Vana opened 25 months before. There’s a calmly sociable ambience and the non-contraband glasses of red and white wine aid the conviviality. Health improvement feels effortless in this tranquil setting – it’s a perfect way to de-stress and regain energy or even enjoy an indulgent holiday in itself. Post-retreat guidelines and email support keeps Vana’s legacy alive.
To think I’d arrived wanting crash-bang-wallop instant results now seems so crass – that’s just not how this cut-above sanctuary operates. Of course, now I look back at the pre-Vana me slightly smugly and take a deep breath. I pretend to be enlightened and meditative, while really I’m calculating frantically in my mind how and when I can get back there. Where else can you lounge around in pyjamas all day, eat restaurant-delicious food round the clock and still lose weight?
Therapy – the Vana way
Ku nye (pronounced ‘coo-nyee’) Sowa-rigpa is ancient Tibetan healing, and this massage with Buddhist chanting uses herbal poultices and releases tension
Raag therapy (‘raga’) Healing from the musical vibrations of a live flautist
Ai Chi A balletic underwater combination of tai chi, qi gong and watsu
Dance flow A one-to-one session with a professional dancer which helps hone elegant panther-like movements to limber up even the stiffest of bodies
Vana: Getting there
British Airways flies to Delhi; return fares in economy start from £432. The hotel can advise on domestic-flight connections and arrange transfers.
Seven nights at Vana cost from £3,500 for a couple sharing a room, which includes all wellness cuisine and non-alcoholic drinks, arrival and departure consultations, an allocation of treatments and airport transfers.