FROM the long balcony of my private villa up in the Balinese hills, I can gaze out over the kind of view that feeds the soul. The villa’s perch overlooks a jungle-swathed canyon that rises on the far side to slope upwards to the terraced rice paddies cresting the hills. Mix that with a soundtrack of croaking tree frogs, exotic birdsong and the rushing water of the river below, and you’ve got a setting of pure, close-your-eyes-and-give-thanks escapism. I feel like a parched plant taking on water as I drink it all in, the pressures of life simply dissolving – and I’ve only just got here. A programme of stress-busting treatments and therapeutic activities is all to come.
COMO Shambhala Estate, a health resort in the hills near Bali’s cultural heartland, Ubud, is a perfectly isolated environment of unsullied calm and beauty. Private residences dot the undulating fringes of an estate that was once hill-top rice paddies, and which retains a sense of rural Indonesian simplicity. At the highest part the complex of lobby, restaurant areas, spa zone and hydrotherapy pool are all elegant white stone pavilions with attractive verandas and walkways. Below, discrete pathways snake through terraced gardens and onwards down the forested slopes.
The resort is an outpost the COMO group, which also includes fashionable London hotels The Metropolitan and The Halkin and spa resorts in the Maldives, Bhutan and Turks & Caicos, plus another in the Ubud area. But the Shambhala estate is different from those – a dedicated health retreat that’s intended not simply to give you a few days of blissful repose or pampering, but to inspire change. You come here to relax, but also to reboot your way of life, and to heal.
To that end, your stay begins with a consultation session delving into your lifestyle, background and any health concerns. This may be with an Ayurvedic doctor, a counseling psychologist or a nutritionist, depending on your needs, and from it a programme for your stay is devised, as well as advice given on how to extend into your daily life what you gain from the retreat. The programmes can include elements such as yoga, hydrotherapy and pilates sessions, spa treatments, fitness training, special diets and further consultations with experts. It all depends how intensely you want to take it – three days is a minimum recommended stay, and programmes can last for as long as you can afford.
I confess I felt some trepidation before arriving – I generally glaze over when phrases like “holistic healing” come up. But my consultation with the estate’s friendly American nutritionist Lacey Hall put me at ease. As well as my diet, we discussed my lifestyle, work, sleep patterns, future plans, and I left with plenty of sound, steady advice. You’re not swamped in eastern mysticism, nor are you cajoled into activities that don’t interest you – though you’ll make the most of your stay with an open mind.
COMO Shambhala is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of a place – optional yoga sessions (beginners are encouraged), held in a beautiful open air pavilion, begin at 7.30am, as do strenuous walking tours around the estate and its surrounds.
The spa is housed in a minimalist Japanese-style building with a beautiful open-air foyer and a raft of scenic treatment rooms, each of which has a small garden area. As you’d expect, there’s a lengthy list of massages, scrubs and cleansing rituals to choose from – while staying at COMO Shambhala is about more than pampering, the pampering when it comes is superlative. A hot stone massage I received was pure, indulgent bliss but even better was a Balinese “taksu” massage – a soothing mixture of sweeping movements, joint needing and pressure point touch unique to this spa – for which I was led down the gorge to an open-air treatment pavilion by the river. You follow a stepping-stone path downwards to reach it, and receive your treatment with the sun glistening through the trees and the sound of the river and a bubblign waterfall in the background.
SOUND OF FIRE
You don’t need to spend all your time being treated, cleansed or exercised. Relaxation is vital, and the accommodation is designed to that end. There are just 30 suites, mostly bungalow villas arranged in groupings of four or five around a shared pool area. There are five such groupings, known as “residences”, with Indonesian names like Wanakasa (meaning “forest in the mist”) and Tejasuara (“sound of fire”). I stayed in the latter, where a fire-pit is lit at night, burning dramatically by the rectangular stone pool. Sun recliners surround the pool, and a lounge area of sofas and armchairs occupies an adjacent veranda that juts out over the gorge.
If you want to kick back in more private surroundings, each villa has a hidden outside area with a jacuzzi, a roofed-over mattress, and an al-fresco shower. Washing yourself while gazing out over the jungle tree tops only enhances the soothing sense of getting back to nature.
As do the villas themselves – they’re simple, calming and spacious, built in a style meant to reflect traditional local methods. There are polished teak floors, wooden walls and large sliding doors, while rustic wooden furniture pieces and Indonesian ornaments are scattered around. The main area is dominated by a huge four-poster bed draped in billowing white netting to keep the mosquitoes out (not that I noticed any), while a separate dressing area at the back gives way to a bathroom with a sunken bath so huge it’s practically a plunge pool. While it all feels natural and eco-driven, there’s air conditioning, a large flatscreen TV and an internet connection – though turning these on feels somewhat beside the point.
For those with larger budgets, there are bigger villas with private pools, second bedrooms, treatment rooms and other luxurious extras. No matter what the grade of your accommodation, however, you get a personal assistant who will help out in any way necessary, from booking treatments to driving you up to the restaurants in a golf buggy if you don’t fancy the walk.
Despite the small number of guests there are two places to eat, and the food, developed in partnership with the estate’s nutritionist, is as sophisticated, colourful and – thankfully – substantial as it is healthy and fresh. Kudus House, in an ancient Javanese villa brought over from that island brick by brick, serves traditional Indonesian food, while more globally-influenced cuisine is found at all-day restaurant Glow. There’s also a list of juices and smoothies for every therapeutic purpose.
You don’t need to reserve tables – simply turn up and eat at any time. The service is charming – I was greeted by my name each time I went to eat, no matter who was serving me. But it’s that kind of place – all worries are forgotten when you’re this well looked-after, and that’s the point.
ITC Classics offers three nights at COMO Shambhala Estate from £1,345 per person, or seven nights from £1,835, based on two sharing a Garden Room including breakfast, flights with Thai Airways from Heathrow and transfers. To book, call 01244 355 527 or go to www.itcclassics.co.uk
OTHER HEALTH DESTINATIONS
SHA WELLNESS CLINIC, SPAIN
Open a year and a half, Spain’s Sha Wellness Clinic, just outside Alicante, has put a whole new gloss on the old concept of the European health farm. In achingly stylish surroundings, get consultations with doctors, nutritionists, counselors and therapists, and take part in therapies that mix western and Oriental healing concepts. These include floatarium sessions, purified oxygen sessions, colonic hydrotherapy, acupuncture and massages, plus yoga, tai chi, cooking demonstrations and lectures. You’ll also get a two month follow-up programme. From £2,100 per person based on two sharing, or £2,400 for singles, including airport limousine transfer with Wellbeing Escapes. www.wellbeingescapes.co.uk
KALARI KOVILAKOM, INDIA
In Kerala, the heartland area of traditional Ayurveda healing philosophy, Kalari Kovilakom is not a place for the fainthearted. Guests are given simple pyjamas to wear and confined to the premises for two weeks as they undergo a strict Ayurvedic detox and replenishment. Daily yoga and meditation classes are compulsory, as are regular analysis of bowel movements. There are also plenty of massages – carried out on traditional wooden tables – herbal treatments, scrubs, steaming sessions, medicines and a carefully controlled diet. It’s a rigorous regime in a remote setting, but the results can be life-changing. From £3,100 per person based on two sharing, or £4,000 for singles, with Wellbeing Escapes. www.wellbeingescapes.co.uk.