Mauritius: Welcome to therapy on sea
Holidays are meant to be relaxing. But some claim to offer a life-changing experience. The author Tim Lott tries to refresh his spirit at the new Shanti Ananda Maurice in Mauritius
Sunday 11 March 2007
Three years ago, I experienced what I still think of as the perfect holiday. Alone at a luxury spa outside Rishikesh in India, I spent seven days at the foothills of the Himalayas wearing nothing but white pyjamas and hardly speaking to a soul. I meditated, performed yoga daily and lived on a diet of tea, water and vegetarian food.
Afterwards, I concretely felt what so many holidays promise but rarely deliver - transformation. I had never felt so light, so airy and relaxed. It even seemed that I had converted one of my greatest fears - boredom - into the experience of stillness, something I could embrace and even enjoy.
This year, that same spa, the Shanti Ananda, opened a second complex on the island of Mauritius, a place I know well as a hedonists' paradise since I run a literary prize there. The Ananda, however, is not simply about having a good time. It is - or claims to be - about much, much more.
The Buddhists say that human tragedy is the attempt to repeat experience. But Vedanta, on which the whole philosophy of the Ananda Spa is based, seems to contain no such injunction. So I arrived at the new complex hoping to renew myself for a second time, because I had become a bit dog-eared, both spiritually and physically, since my original visit.
The Ananda Spas go further than most holiday destinations in their imagining of leisure as a combination of medicine and therapy. You are not here simply to enjoy yourself - although that clearly comes into it. More importantly, you are here to attempt a change, to embark on a new pattern of eating, thinking and exercise that you will take home with you and use as a tool in your everyday life.
Had I not already experienced the Ananda regime, I am sure I would have been sceptical about the resort's chances of fulfilling its stated purpose. With 17 treatment rooms, a dizzying compendium of therapies ranging from oil enemas and induced vomiting to facial treatments and body wraps, and its 50,000sqft spa, it would have once struck me as expensive hoodoo.
After all, from the cynic's point of view, the marketing formula could easily be seen as so much snake oil. At root, the equation is this: the more it costs (and you're not going to get much change from £3,000 for a week) the more easily you are going to be convinced that it works. This is known in psychological circles as cognitive dissonance, and is one of the cornerstones of modern marketing strategy in the well-being industry.
To put it in slightly different terms, the more you pay for something, the less likely you are to admit it to yourself that it was a waste of money. And this concept is ideally constituted for a place such as the Ananda, where the effect of therapeutic treatments cannot be easily separated from all the other factors at work, such as sun, clean air and the opportunity to loaf. Add on the eternal human fantasy of attaining "purity" - whatever that may be - and you have a winning commercial formula.
So there is plenty of food for the gullible here, the sceptics would argue. The thing is, I am no longer a sceptic - I am a convert. All I wanted the Ananda Maurice to do for me was to do what its sister spa did before. The only difference, after all, was that it wasn't located in the spiritual or topographical heights of the Himalayas, but on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean.
The hotel complex itself is not especially attractive, being comprised largely of buildings that are faintly municipal in their appearance, being finished with a kind of pink fake-wattle effect produced by spraying concrete. But the location itself is prime, with all the rooms having views over the ocean through a wall of glass set with sliding doors. The rooms are elegant, spacious and restful, and the beach is a few feet away from every bed. There are massive bathrooms and baroque outdoor showers. In this sense it is in every way the equal of its Himalayan equivalent.
The visit begins with a consultation with an Ayurvedic doctor who categorises you as one of three body types, or doshas: pitta, vatta or kapha. I was a kapha. This meant that I should consume a lot of vegetable soup, hot drinks and warm, spicy food. I was to have no oil, no dairy and no meat, although I could drink small amounts of wine and even have the occasional cigarette.
I was told that the kitchen would be informed of my requirements and that meals would be prepared accordingly. This was what I wanted - to have choice taken away from me. This element of well-intentioned nannying - or bossiness if you prefer - takes courage from an industry that pushes "choice" as one of its central mantras, but I viewed it with a sense of relief. Choice, to me, is one of the most tiring aspects of modern life, and if the spa was going to take hold of me and tell me what I needed to do to sort myself out, so much the better. If I had to rely on my willpower, any attempted transformation was liable to fail.
That night I took a long look at myself in the mirror. I reckoned I was at least 15lb overweight, and all the marks of a 51-year-old man were there: crow's feet, laughter lines, and red blood vessels showing in the whites of my eyes. My skin, bleached by an English winter, looked like drizzle-soaked cardboard. Transformation seemed a long way off. I woke up early to attend the yoga session which takes place at 8am every day. This was, frankly, a humiliation. Although the teacher was excellent, I was puffing and panting after five minutes.
My attempts to arrange my body into various improbable postures were hopeless. Every time I attempted to stand on one foot I fell over. I didn't breathe when I was meant to, and breathed when I shouldn't. The only consolation was that many of the others in our group were as bad as I was, thus removing one of the great obstacles to taking up yoga in London - the derision of the inevitably younger and more flexible practitioners.
I was meant to start my dietary regime that morning, but it was clear that the kitchen had not quite got its mojo working. No one asked me what kind of body type I was, then or at any other meal. Others in my party were automatically brought food that appealed to the wrong dosha. One colleague became so frustrated that she appealed her vatta status to be instated as a kapha. Her appeal was successful. But she still got brought the wrong food.
One of the genuinely unique aspects of the Ananda is that it offers daily lessons in Vedantic philosophy. The teacher, a young Australian called Kane, faced a contingent of sceptical English journalists - among them a former Daily Telegraph executive and a philosopher of science. Vedanta, which seems to adhere to the view that everything is your karmic "doing" did not last long under this kind of scrutiny.
When I asked, if a plane crashed on our room would it be be our collective fault, Kane answered quite confidently in the affirmative. A certain atmosphere of scepticism began to take hold. Further investigations into the reasons for cancer in babies and the culpability of rape victims left Kane rolling his eyes in exasperation. Personally, I respect Eastern philosophies greatly, and it is a wonderful thing to go on holiday and hold these sorts of inquiries instead of discussing that week's beach volleyball schedule. But for the remainder of our stay, Kane had no further takers at his seminars. Such is karma.
My general sense of hoped-for well-being receded quite suddenly when I started to feel sick and afflicted by headaches. I retired to bed, rising rather optimistically only to attend a novel version of shiatsu massage called watsu. This is essentially underwater shiatsu, and it involved being manipulated by a physical therapist in a swimming pool for an hour. Frankly, it did nothing for my nausea. Or rather it did something; I threw up after 45 minutes, and fled the pool in horrified embarrassment.
I continued trying to replicate my time at the Himalayas. But it didn't quite work. For a start, the very attractiveness of the beach location makes it rather too easy to go sunbathing instead of working on your physical and spiritual well-being. The firm hand that is present at the Himalayas has a more relaxed grip here.
I found myself skiving, ducking out of meditation and yoga, therefore, more often than I ought. Meat was on offer, and coffee. (I had had neither in India.) As a result, despite throwing myself into every treatment going - reflexology, Thai massage, four-handed massage, head massage, green tea and jasmine facials and hot and cold stone treatments - I at no point experienced the sense of rebirth that I did on my earlier visit. I just had a nice time.
This is not entirely the resort's fault; you can't import the mountain air, or the sheer sense of divine immanence that is present in the birthplace of yoga and meditation. But by the end of my week, my will-power had let me down, and I felt pretty much the same as I did when I arrived albeit with a nice tan.
The problem for the Shanti Ananda Maurice seems to be that it can't quite make up its mind whether in Mauritius it is genuinely a place of spiritual rebirth, or a branch of the island hospitality industry with decorative bells and chants.
It will doubtless find its feet eventually; what it really needs is a firm hand, good communication between the kitchen and the doctors, and a bold nannying attitude that will make sure lazy people like me don't goof off to the sunloungers.
This will give it not only a USP, but also the sense that you are getting something more out of a visit to the Ananda Maurice than a holiday with a spa attached. I hope they succeed. But if they don't, they can be consoled by the fact that, according to their own philosophy, it's entirely their own doing.
My favourite walk
This one is very simple. Just get out of your bed, preferably at dawn so you can witness the extraordinary sunrise. Then walk on to the beach, face the ocean and turn right. Just keep walking for as long as you want - the beach is seemingly endless. Fishermen are out, locals are taking a swim, and the headland is breathtaking. Depending on the season, you are quite liable to be soaked to the skin in a downpour, but that's all part of the fun.
My favourite street food
I took a couple of excursions out of the hotel and visited the exquisitely beautiful Black River waterfall. In the car park there are a few vendors selling snacks and my guide bought me a bag of fresh mango and pineapple, sliced up and mixed with fresh chillies, tamarind and salt. It was a few rupees and it was spectacular - if very weird.
My best treatment
Strangely enough, the treatment I enjoyed most was also the cheapest - the Bath Menu. This appears in the bathroom of every room, costs 1,200 rupees (about £25) and involves the housekeeping staff coming into your room while you are out at dinner, running an aromatic bath (milk and saffron, wild rose salts, sea salts with rose and vetiver). You return to an incense-filled bathroom, candles, music and a silky perfumed soak.
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