At the start of March 2020 - just before the chaos of the past year fully took hold - I headed to the Indian Himalayas in the nick of time, enjoying an awakening wellness trip filled with health, relaxation and spiritual discovery. As we're not able to travel right now, I am looking back to share my exceptional experience to inspire you for when the time comes. After all, you could probably do with a little R&R...
Travelling in Style with Oman Air
My trip started in serious style as I travelled to Delhi in Business Class with Oman Air. The totally flat beds were a dream when I came to have a snooze - that's when I could tear myself away from the amazing movie system that they have onboard. The service was attentive, the amenity kit was great, and the food was fabulous and varied. I particularly loved the strawberry smoothie on arrival, followed by Omani coffee and delicious dates. After a comfortable flight, I was met off the plane and whisked by golf buggy to immigration, where a rep stayed with me the entire time to ensure it all went smoothly. Once through to the arrival's hall, I easily spotted my transfer rep holding an Elegant Resorts logo. I was given a lovely garland of flowers and we left by a fast exit VIP door straight to the luxury car. This arrival experience is standard for all guests travelling with Elegant Resorts and truly gets your holiday off to a stress-free start. If you're having a stopover in Delhi before a flight elsewhere, there is a great new airport development with hotels from Andaz and Oberoi, while the city itself is just 30 minutes away by road.
Throughout my time in dazzling Delhi, I stayed at the Imperial Hotel New Delhi, a beautiful colonial style property with large rooms and suites that combine traditional furnishings with true luxury. The service here blew me away and - thanks to the exceptional afternoon tea, authentic Indian cuisine, vintage rattan furniture and old-school artwork - I felt as though I'd been transported to a bygone era of old-fashioned elegance. There was also a huge swimming pool and fabulous spa offering daily yoga sessions - the perfect retreat after a day exploring this bustling city.
To me, an important part of travelling is learning more about local people and ideally helping wherever possible. So, I was lucky enough to visit the Salaam Baalak Trust, an NGO-run project that helps to get children off the streets of Delhi. Here, our guide was an incredible girl who was once on the street herself. She told us her heart wrenching story of fleeing her abusive father and fending for herself, before being taken in by the trust and offered education and counselling. She was clearly so grateful for the lifeline from this project, and it was so wonderful to hear how her life was turned around. We visited the project's shelter where many kids come to learn both Hindi and English. I was struck by how happy this place was and we heard so many success stories of kids becoming guides and then getting places in university in the US - a big hall of fame board displays all the stories.
A rickshaw ride through old Dehli is also a must-do. We traversed the windy streets of the city, past spectacular sari shops, bustling street life and historic buildings - a crazy but exhilarating experience and a great way to get a feel for everyday life here. Other things I wanted to do but didn't get chance included a Bollywood dance class and shopping for saris in the old town's silk markets... oh well, an excuse to visit again right?!
Heading to the Himalayas and Arriving at Ananda
It was soon time to leave Delhi and head to the Himalayas. I flew to Dehradun, which took just 45 minutes with Indigo Airlines aboard a brand new A320 plane. Having collected my luggage, I spotted the friendly Ananda staff, dressed in their uniform red headscarf and ready to take me to the wellness retreat in the mountains. The drive (which also took around 45 minutes) brought us through a simply stunning national park. With frequent signs for tigers and elephants, it looks like something from The Jungle Book! You also pass through the riverside city of Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga and the place to head if you're seeking a spiritual awakening - but more on that later!
Ananda is about 13 kilometres up the mountains overlooking Rishikesh and the sacred Ganges River, and is set on a 100-acre Maharaja's Palace Estate, surrounded by graceful Sal forests, running tracks and an 8-hole golf course. In fact, the Maharaja still own the property but lease part of it to Ananda, while still using part of it for their personal dwelling... talk about living like royalty! From the moment I checked in at the palatial main reception, I knew I'd arrived somewhere special. Elegant high tea is served here each afternoon, while meditation also takes place daily in the palace. The guest rooms and suites overlook either the gardens or palace, and there are also some super private one- or two-bedroom villas with private pools and terraces if you're looking for a little more space and seclusion. Every room has a dedicated butler and mine was just wonderful. He brought hot water bottles when I felt a little cold, warm lemon and honey tea in the morning, and was always there to help when I needed something, yet was never intrusive.
Embracing the Ananda Way of Life
Voted the No. 1 Destination Spa in the World by the Condé Nast Readers' Choice Awards in both 2019 and 2020, you will struggle to find a wellness destination quite like Ananda - I was blown away by my entire experience. A stay here integrates traditional Ayurveda, Yoga and Vedanta with other wellness practices, fitness and healthy organic cuisine to restore balance and harmonize energy.
Every stay at Ananda is made completely bespoke to each guest, so my first day was very much about getting to know the experts here and them fitting me to a perfect plan. As well as spending time with a yoga instructor who determined my level of practice, I met with one of the resident Ayurveda doctors for a consultation which included an in-depth questionnaire on my lifestyle, pulse check and assessment of my Ayurvedic body type (or dosha) - mine was one known as Pitta. Later, a chef met me to explain that, according to Ayurveda, eating the right food that is fine-tuned to your specific dosha determines your physical and mental wellbeing. So, he put me on a personalised menu according to my body type. The emphasis was on fresh, natural foods that are low in fat and calories, using whole grains, lean proteins and fresh fruits and vegetables, while avoiding added or artificial salts, colours, flavours, or preservatives. In fact, the hotel also houses extensive gardens, where I saw chefs picking herbs and vegetables daily. Healthy eating did not mean compromising on flavour though, and the food throughout my stay was utterly delicious and so varied.
Today it was time to get stuck in, and I started the morning with a personalised yoga session which took thing right back to basics, working on areas that I needed to most - including my sore shoulder and stiff hip. Afterwards, I unwound with 30 minutes of breathing exercises, before a heavenly treatment that included a beautiful blend of Indian spices. In the evening, we took a car down to Rishikesh, visiting a local temple to receive a blessing from a Hindu monk, before stopping at the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, which was visited by the Beatles back in the late '60s. Visitors stay here from a few days to several months to practice meditation daily and live a simple, spiritual life. From here, we had an amazing view of the Ganges and could hear the local Indian music across the valley - it was quite magical. We also got to explore the town itself which was charmingly crazy; cows and pigs were roaming the streets, shops were selling Kashmir scarfs and statues of Shiva gods, and yoga studios could be found on every corner. Every day, there is a free ceremony on the steps of the town, which I was lucky enough to join. There was lovely music playing, lights everywhere, and you could buy candles to light them, make a wish and then release them to float along the sacred Ganges.
Day Three and Beyond
More completely personalised yoga sessions kicked off the next couple of days (after all, Rishikesh is known as the 'Yoga Capital of the World'!), including a focus on Pranayama, where attention is paid to breathing in order to enhance relaxation. I also enjoyed the incredible Ananda Fusion Massage, a Thai massage and several fabulous hand massages, all using the signature Ananda body oil made from ginger, cardamom and black pepper. I also tried out Jal Neti, an age-old Ayurvedic technique of clearing out your sinus passage with salt water. It felt a little strange, but it is so good to keep colds away, relieve sinus problems and even improve eyesight! I met with the doctor a couple of times throughout my stay so that he could check how it was all going and how I felt during and after my detox. Evenings were spent meditating and, as every day was a different type, it was really about learning which worked for me. I loved the Yoga Nindra - or 'Psychic Sleep' - which induces a state on the borderline between wakefulness and sleep. It is a guided process of relaxation through which I lay down and visualised different body parts and objects to quieten my conscious mind and awaken the healing potential of my subconscious - fascinating and wonderfully relaxing! While at Ananda, there are also opportunities to go white water rafting on the Ganges, take a 4WD up the mountains, visit a nearby monastery, or hike up to see the mind-blowingly beautiful view across the Himalayas.
Otherworldly, eye-opening and like nowhere I've been before, my trip to Ananda was one I'll never forget. I left not only feeling revitalised and re-energised, but also with a greater understanding of holistic living and a renewed view on wellness.