Spa trek: An Indian health spa
Run ragged and run-down, Kitty Melrose signed up to In:spa, a health retreat in India calling itself 'the Jimmy Choo of boot camps'. She endured exercise, yoga and a detox diet - but could she resist a Bloody Mary on the plane home?
Saturday 10 December 2005
June had not been my best month. I'd moved house, doubled my mortgage and my workload was staggering. I was run-down and dispirited. However, just as concerned friends were about to suggest "getting away from it all", an e-mail dropped into my inbox entitled "Yoga, Fitness, Detox and Tigers". Would I like to sign up for a week of exercise, massage and a cleansing diet in India?
Former City analyst Kathryn Brown, it said, had been going through a similar slump in her life and so had joined a six-week detox. She left feeling fabulous. But for her next holiday, she had wanted something more luxurious. "I realised that there was nothing out there that provided a high level of accommodation and offered more than just yoga," she explained. "I wanted the best of all worlds." So in January 2003 she set up In:spa, which takes guests to stylish locations, to be pampered by a team comprising expert fitness trainers, massage therapists, a yoga guru, a chef and a nutritionist. According to the e-mail, it promised to be an experience that would "energise your body, calm your mind, inspire and uplift".
Which is how I found myself on In:spa's first retreat to India. The Oberoi Vanyavilas hotel, our base in Rajasthan, was situated in a beautiful jungle resort on the edge of Ranthambore National Park and Tiger Reserve, around three hours' drive from Jaipur.
My room, or rather luxury tent, was on the regal side. With gleaming wooden floors, lavish furnishings, a roll-top bath and DVD player, absolutely no comfort had been spared. The only clue to the reason I was really here was that the entire contents of the mini-bar had been taken away. The gracious saronged staff would do anything for us - except bring us a local beer.
Although this is known as "the Jimmy Choo of boot camps" it is still strict: from the moment you arrive there is no alcohol, no caffeine, no salt, no dairy or wheat, no snacking and no sugar. I wondered feebly what else was left. I'm the person who regularly spouts, "I'd die without my morning latte", and believe a decent dinner should come with fine wine.
However, knowing I'd done all of the above too much lately, I was eager to try a bit of abstinence. Then I glanced at my personal timetable, which began the following day with a scary 6am wake-up call, yoga from 6.30am to 7.30am, before a breakfasting at 8am of juices, fruit, rye bread, poached eggs and wheat-free muffins.
This was to be each morning's routine. The rest of our days were scheduled with a mix of exercise - running, swimming, stretching and circuit training - along with learning about good nutrition, then dinner, and, at 10pm, a herbal tea "nightcap" before bed.
It was all focused towards our personal goals. Every guest was given one-on-one time with each member of the team (chef included) to talk through what we hoped to achieve. In fact, we all had to fill in a health and fitness profile before arriving, which the team were briefed on, as I discovered during my first session with yoga teacher Tenya. "I hear you're not convinced about yoga," she said, smiling.
Personal trainers Jon and James knew that after a two-year sabbatical from the gym, enthusiasm was high, but general fitness levels and conditioning was low. "I know what I need to do, I just can't seem to do it on my own," I told Jon, who developed a programme for me. I launched into it with his initial words of warning still ringing in my ears: "You can't spot reduce" (like most women, I want a smaller bum); and "You mustn't overdo it" (see day three).
Of course, like on any group holiday, we eyed each other up: who was the fittest? These groups can number anything up to 28 at a time, so there was bound to be one smarty lycra-pants. But I'm pleased to report my fellow guests were a real mix, aged from mid-twenties to early sixties, high-fliers and friendly. They included 40-year-old Christoph from Germany, who came with his father to "relax and make friends". Pasta-and-wine fan Alex, 32, wanted "to come back with a least one good habit". Marcus, 39, was "below a novice" when it came to yoga, while Gill, who'd never been athletic, proved that In:spa could help, whatever your age. It was her fifth retreat. She was 62 and about to run the New York marathon.
The first two days were hard. A few of us had splitting headaches from lack of caffeine. Day three, and it hit: I was sick. This, I was told, is normal. "Your body is clearing out all the toxins," nutritionist Natalie explained when visiting with a banana and bowl of boiled rice (my worst meal of the trip). Mind you, at that point my overworked body was more than relieved to have 24 hours in bed.
The next day, and I was ready to go again. Yoga has never been my thing - I'm too manic to concentrate on my breathing, but I did my best to let go, and to be open-minded. Tenya teaches Ashtanga, and she guided me through postures such as Warrior, Down Dog and Up Dog. It was graceful and exhausting, and while finding it difficult to fit all the pieces together, I desperately wanted to "relax, and feel as though the tension of life is flowing out of your body", as Tenya put it.
What I loved most, though, were the personal training sessions. Over the course of the week, I mastered jog offs, press-ups and lapped up new bum-tum toning tricks with the Swissball. I left dripping in sweat, but as physical activities go, this was more like it.
It was not all work and no pampering, though - there was plenty of time to draw breath. We swam, swapped stories by the pool, played tennis, bought handmade sarongs and gems, and watched a curry cooking demonstration. I read in my private garden by the lake. It was gloriously sunny; at times, reaching 40C, almost too hot, but immeasurably peaceful. Best of all, we indulged ourselves at the spa.
As with most resorts, we were cut off from everyday life, so I didn't get to see the real India. Next time. But we did see tigers. The national park next door is one of the best places in the world to see these magnificent creatures. Out of the 7,000 left in the world, it's thought around 32 tigers live here, so a sighting is far from guaranteed, as our first game drive proved. But the second was more successful - there was a tiger taking it easy up on a remote hillside. We talked about it for the rest of the trip.
By day six, after a combination of exercise, heavenly early nights, massages and facials, I realised I was feeling better. And that a lot of that was down to the detox diet - which was delicious. Especially if Aussie chef Al was cooking. Despite eliminating all the unhealthy products (cream, sugar, butter, salt), his food never left me bored or hungry: carrot, coconut and ginger soup, herb-encrusted salmon with mango and pineapple salsa, lemongrass protein salads and citrus cous-cous, local curries, beetroot juices.
Actually, my consultation with nutrition expert Natalie made me realise that I don't eat that badly, but she also got me thinking about how to beat bloating, control my blood sugar balance (yes, coffee binges will put you in a mood), and how to eat a better breakfast.
By the end of the trip I definitely felt less stressed. I had lost the bags under my eyes and four pounds (one of the group dropped a stone). My blood felt cleaner - and I had had fun. A fantastic body wasn't built in a week, but I headed home far calmer and energised, with a new perspective. There'd been a mental shift.
OK, I admit it, it was Bloody Marys all round on the return flight, and first stop on landing was the coffee shop - I'd really missed my fix - but somehow that's not enough anymore. I now go to a local gym and have hired a personal trainer, Ben. In the two months I've been working out, I've lost 3cm off my hips, same again on the waist. Chefs and tigers seem a long time ago, but In:spa left a lasting mark. It was one of the most restful and constructive breaks in my body's life. Now I've heard they're investigating a private island off the coast of Brazil. Where do I sign?
The writer travelled to India with In:spa (0845 458 0723; www.inspa-retreats.com), which hosts week-long retreats from £1,850. Flights are not included. The nearest airport for Rajasthan is Sanganer in Jaipur, which has flights from Delhi with Jet Airways (020-8970 1500; www.jetairways.com), Air Sahara (00 91 11 2335 9801; www.air sahara.net) and Indian Airlines (020-7565 7979; www.indian-airlines.nic.in). Delhi is served by Air India (020-8560 9996; www.airindia.com) from Heathrow and Birmingham and British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) and Jet Airways from Heathrow.
Oberoi Vanyavilas, Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan, India (00 91 7462 22 3999; www.oberoivanyavilas.com). Tents from $630 (£350).
Ranthambhore National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, Rajasthan, India (00 91 11 5526 8363; www.ranthamborenationalpark.com).
British passport holders require a visa to visit India. Application forms can be downloaded from www.hcilondon.net.
India Tourism (020-7437 3677; www.incredibleindia.org).
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