One week in heaven

How better to escape the stresses of modern life than on a trip to India for massage and meditation? Jo Laycock tries it out

When the travel desk suggested a week in India I was interested. When they told me it would be non-stop pampering interspersed with relaxing yoga sessions I sat up straight and paid attention. What nobody mentioned until later was the small fact that this heavenly trip was scheduled to take place right in the middle of monsoon season.

When the travel desk suggested a week in India I was interested. When they told me it would be non-stop pampering interspersed with relaxing yoga sessions I sat up straight and paid attention. What nobody mentioned until later was the small fact that this heavenly trip was scheduled to take place right in the middle of monsoon season.

Why travel halfway round the world to get wet, I wondered. To fully experience the benefits of ayurvedic therapy, I was told. Surely the best arena for this would be, say, a top notch spa in Chelsea, I countered. Ah, but I was overlooking the cleansing nature of monsoon season - when your pores open, preparing the body for renewal and making it receptive to the oils and unctions with which you are lathered.

Admittedly I was in need of some cleansing and relaxing, and a luxury spa hotel in India seemed as good a place as any. In Udaipur, to be more precise, a regular stop on any itinerary of the Palaces of India, or tour of Rajasthan. Most people touring this part of the world follow a hectic sightseeing schedule in the intense heat. But the idea here was to spend several days slowing down, experiencing yoga, massage and rejuvenation in one of the most enchanting places in the world.

From the window of the aircraft our descent revealed that Udaipur, famous for its desert location, was now a rich, green landscape. This was three months into the monsoon season and the rain had clearly already arrived. Only the next four days would tell whether I could be similarly transformed.


We arrive at the Oberoi Udaivilas hotel at 8am. A deluxe vintage taxi and elegantly dressed young men await our arrival and whisk us to the hotel. Most people arrive by personal ferry across Lake Pichola, but a long drought prior to the monsoon means that the water is still too shallow.

The hotel is built in the style of a Raj palace, and its carved stone columns, pavilions and reflecting pools sit in 30 acres of grounds. Everything is tranquil, tasteful and visually pleasing. My room is fabulous, with a large television and a CD player dispensing tranquil music. Beyond the king-sized bed, an alcove seat offers uninterrupted views of Lake Pinchola and the Jag Mandir island palace less than half a mile away. Beside the alcove a door leads to my own semi-private pool, the edge of which disappears over the horizon towards the lake. Although the pool is inviting, it starts to rain heavily. So, breakfast first.

Breakfast is a choice of the usual fruit, cereals, and omelettes, yet also puris and dosas - my first real taste of India. Then it's straight from breakfast to the spa, where jasmine and sandalwood fill the air. The therapists literally glow with good health, which is inspiring. The menu of treatments has me reeling: a range of holistic, ayurvedic and aromatherapy therapies, plus body scrubs and wraps to suit every skin and 17 different massages, applying a range of pressures and oils. And there are some treatments that pamper you for several hours. I am here for four days. Exactly how many can I fit in without seeming obsessive?

A glance at the very well-equipped gym reveals not a soul toiling away. I make a mental note and go off to be massaged. My first spa experience is to be a body scrub followed by an Ayurvedic massage. Apple, a tall Thai girl, rubs the scrub all over me, cleanses me with oils and massages me for what feels like half a day. I gaze out of the window at a view of the lake. I am so relaxed that I feel I might need help to get back to my room. But I have only four hours before my first yoga class, and having managed not to stretch or bend for my entire life, this is a daunting prospect. I fill my time with a swim in my pool under a violent sky, the rain beating down on my face.

At 6.30pm I walk across the lawn in light rain to an open-air building of balustrades and columns. This is where we will stretch and breathe at the correct times for over an hour, with only the sound of birdsong and the mating call of peacocks intruding on our concentration. With guidance from our teacher Monica, I go from no-hoper to beginner. I am pretty pleased with myself. Dinner includes plenty of meat and fish, and as a lifelong vegetarian I cannot remember having ever had so much temptation. I eat a delicious meal overlooking the enchanting Lake Palace Hotel as the light fades.


The bed and feather pillows are heaven, which makes it difficult getting up for yoga at 7am. Monica waits for us patiently. After yesterday's exertions I have started to stiffen, and begin to think I need to call short this two-hour session. But surprisingly I get through it. I even start to get the all-important breathing right.

We try meditation. I clear my mind, I clear it again and then try to clear it a different way. I am getting somewhere. The woman beside me seems to have achieved something near nirvana: her breathing is deep and steady. I feel envy. When she doesn't get up to leave at the end of the class, we realise she has been asleep for at least half an hour.

I feel alert of mind and calm of body. This is a new experience for someone who normally thrives on adrenalin and stress. We breakfast and set off sightseeing. We circle the lake in a taxi, then meander into the old city with its narrow, winding streets full of chaos, sacred cows with incredible road sense and brightly coloured saris, wall murals and shops. Surrendering footwear outside the magnificent Jagdish Hindu temple, we mingle with worshippers patiently tolerant of tourists as they pray in groups, or give offerings to their god. The weather is warm and sunny, hardly a cloud in sight.

Our next stop is the towering, all-white City Palace. A maze of interconnecting courtyards, hanging gardens, bejewelled rooms and arched windows overlook Lake Pichola. After the trip, it's back to the hotel. The plan is for an hour and a half of yoga and meditation, but I feel I am weakening. The backs of my knees throb in the lotus position. During meditation all I can think of is the massage menu. I need one now. With a nod and a wink to Monica I quietly slip away, feeling like a quitter. It is too late to organise a massage so I slink back to my room for some Western indulgence: I put on a CD and relax in the bath with wine and chocolate from the mini-bar.


I wake feeling very stiff, so give the 7am yoga a miss. I struggle with the idea that I am a bad girl, but employ my best mind-clearing techniques to work through that. I have a massage booked for later that day. After breakfast it rains lightly as I swim in my pool. The monsoon therapy must have been working: I feel rejuvenated enough now for a shopping trip to Udaipur's fine jewellery, fabric and craft shops. The shopkeepers expect you to barter. An art form particular to Rajasthan is miniature painting: colourful scenes of courtly love; royalty and hunting, painted on rice paper with very fine squirrel hair. Their popularity means they are now being mass-produced, but at the local galleries you can watch artists at work on originals.

I am revived after my shopping trip by a Thai massage. I am stiff and aching from all this exercise and this seemed the best type of treatment: not too deep that it might bruise, but not too light either. A petite young Thai girl pours fragrant oil on my back and then climbs on top of me, kneading and pacifying where my muscles - unused to exercise - have tightened. I feel light-headed but peaceful, and pray that I have enough time to nap before my next yoga session.

I manage just under an hour of the deepest, dream-riddled sleep. Reluctantly I make it to evening yoga. This session pushes me further than the previous day's. I am starting to get the rhythm - the lotus, the locust, tree, cobra - positions that had taken thought are now beginning to flow. I feel myself getting competitive. My classmates have all practised yoga prior to this. What they can do, I can do, I think. And mostly can.


Morning yoga for two hours. After going through the positions, we spend time on meditation. I think I almost meditate, but I may have been mistaken. It is so hard to still my mind, but I seem to achieve something near to quiet, without actually falling asleep.

After breakfast I fit in my third massage in four days. This time it is Shirodhara: 60 minutes of oil trickling onto a small area between my eyebrows. This is said to trigger healing and restore health. I expect to find it hard to stay still for so long, but am cunningly disorientated by a dual massage involving two therapists; one massaging my head and neck, and another my feet and legs. After this I feel it is fine just to relax, to not go shopping or sightseeing. It is raining again so I lie on the bed, with gentle music on the CD, watching BBC News 24. With the volume down.

Before dinner we go to see the famed sunset from the Monsoon Palace, a shooting lodge where the royals went to escape from the rain. A fairytale palace, now in need of repair, it rests on one of the tallest peaks with a panoramic view of the city's lakes, palaces and the Aravalli Hills. The sunset is rather muted on our visit; heavy mist has settled over the lake and we are denied what might well have been a breathtaking sight.


Departure morning. There is one more session of yoga to attend before we leave. But I go AWOL. It isn't a good idea to exercise before such a long flight, I tell myself. Instead, I go for a walk in the grounds, waiting for the sun to rise through the early morning mist. I've missed my yoga class, but it doesn't seem to matter: I feel cocooned, at peace with myself and rejuvenated.

Jo Laycock travelled with BA to New Dehli and Jet Airways to Udaipur courtesy of Greaves Travel (020-7487 9111; She stayed at the Oberoi Udaivilas hotel ( Greaves offers tailor-made nine-day trips to Udaipur for around £1,665 per person, based on two people sharing. The monsoon trip is available April to October

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