After the lockdown, Ambika Muttoo found herself again in a feast for the senses in Sri Lanka
Having the choice and freedom to travel again is far too valuable. For a lot of us, stepping out of the country has always been a privilege, and it’s even more so now. Escaping to the hills of Sri Lanka restores that vital essence we all have within us, robbed during the pandemic. An easy two-hour plane ride from Mumbai, or just under four hours from Delhi, the island country is ideal for a therapeutic visit. Consider Kandy, in the Central Province, which curls around Kandy Lake. It’s nestled amid numerous mountain ranges, including the famed Knuckles and Hanthana.
It’s also home to the Royal Palace (the last built in Sri Lanka) and the Temple Of The Tooth, which houses a sacred relic – a tooth of the Buddha. Kandy is equal parts charm and bustle; a hill town that’s the perfect foil to the many beaches that Sri Lanka is famous for. Further out of Kandy, on a winding, hilly road that’s both spooky and fantastical, when you drive at night like we did, is a rare and wondrous place. The Santani Resort and Spa has it all, and it has a host of awards to prove it. It’s been on some prime lists from Tatler’s Best Spas in The World, to the Greatest Places in The World by Time. Its spa – more on that later – has even won the prestigious Bawa Award for Architecture.
‘Wabi-Sabi’ is a Japanese word that has such a beautiful, layered definition. As per the dictionary, it means, “a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay.” A central tenet is the idea of finding beauty in nature and the natural order. Stretched out over 48 acres, on an old tea plantation, the Santani’s architecture blends seamlessly with nature, imbuing the very essence of the phrase. The infinity pool, lapping idyllically over a little hillock, sparkles hints of moss green, becoming a part of the heather and foliage around it. The restaurant is a marvel, perched on top of a slope, built via a harmonious blend of warm wood and glass.
Sheets of clear glass, that provide unparalleled views of the mountains around you, open up to the most refreshing cross-ventilation. The chalets (20 in total) terrace into slopes. With these, another Japanese word comes to mind – ‘ma’. Less is more, when the “less” is just as it should be. Built from unobtrusive concrete, each room has a bed as the centrepiece, with ivory mesh cascading down creating a cocoon that’s both bug-free and bubble-like. Floor-to-ceiling windows open via a sliding door, steps away from the bed, to a balcony that opens up to the sun, stars, hills and wildgrass. It’s inky at night – no light other than that in your room permeates. No sound other than a gentle breeze, cicadas and yelps of the barking deer you’ll soon get used to. Canvas lounge chairs encourage you to lie back, in stillness – there are no TVs in the rooms.
The Santani winds over verdant, pebbled walkways that take you to all its various parts – hitch a ride on the buggies the warm, hospitable staff often zips around in. It’s luxurious in a manner that’s actually good for your mind and body. You’ll find yourself walking (at your own pace) up and down wide, cascading steps to get to your room. Or up a slope to get to the restaurant. There’s a stunning yoga pavilion, open on all sides, with visiting teachers where you can practise and meditate. For the adventurous or the curious, there are various excursions – whether it’s a walk down to Hulu River or the Hanging Bridge – accompanied by a naturalist who will tell you all about the rich diversity of the flora and fauna of the area.
Being so close to the Knuckles Mountain Range, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, makes it a hotbed for diversity. Around the Santani, more than a quarter of the endemic species in Sri Lanka can be found. The country has around 34 species of birds; at the Santani alone, you can find 15. One of them, the Sri Lankan hill mynah, will provide the soundtrack to your visit with its buzzing legato.
The spa, contoured over three levels, provides exceptional design and services, especially in the field of Ayurveda that’s so deeply rooted in Sri Lankan culture. Each level opens to nature and gentle light, including the treatment rooms. The thermal salt soak pool (a full suite of hydrotherapy services is provided here), down on the second pool, is a cavernous structure with a sky light that rains down sun beams. It opens to a garden that stretches out, tall trees and ever-present mountains as far as the eye can see. A doctor on the premises will also talk you through the menu, to help match a treatment to your preference or ailment. There’s meditation, breath work and training for rehabilitation. They also create a vegetarian and raw food menu for your diet, to instigate a complete detox and cleanse.
You do not need to be ailing to visit a wellness retreat. This particular sojourn was to remove the fear of travelling again – to try and ease back into life in a manner that didn’t feel overwhelming. The Santani and its people are not preachy, serving health on a very large plate that you absolutely must partake of. They just want you to be happy and satiated. The food is nothing short of delicious, haute and hearty. If you’re on a juice cleanse, each concoction is made on the spot with the freshest ingredients. If you’re looking to perhaps shed a few pounds or detox, but in a manner that’s kind to your body, the plating and sheer variety of raw food available is a marvel.
There’s a variety here that is startling – light, flavoursome broths for lunch, freshly-baked bread with dips that are made from locally-sourced ingredients. Curries in steaming pots, vegetables bursting with flavour and desserts – crème brûlée or passionfruit tarts with the sexiest plating win… If you want butter, you’ll get butter. If you’d like a beer, or a cocktail – you’ll get it. The Negroni is world class, FYI, and you can’t leave without trying Sri Lanka’s essential brew, Lion. Again, this isn’t a place that starves any of your senses; it’s quite the opposite.
Also see: 7 Ways To Max Out A Summer Holiday in The Maldives