Retreat from the world at Santani in Sri Lanka
Perched high up in the mountains on a former tea plantation, you’ll find Santani, a sleek wellness resort that seems far removed from the craziness and hustle of Kandy, even though it’s really only about 30 km away.
This is the kind of place for people who just want to hang out and chill, whether for you that means doing a full detox or simply kicking back with a hike, swim, and soaking up some of the most picturesque views. It’s not a hardcore yoga retreat where you’ll feel awkward or like you’re missing out on the experience if you opt to drink a glass of pinot whilst gazing off into the distance rather than do another warrior pose.
At Santani, it’s like you’ve been plucked out of the rowdiness and gently placed among the soothing hilltops where you can switch off, relax, and let yourself recharge.
Like many Sri Lankan properties, Santani came about rather organically and as a solution to a real life issue. In the case of co-founder and owner Vickum Nawagamuwage, it was about the pain of finding place of solitude to counteract the buildup of a demanding job, and turning it into a gain in the form of this luxury retreat.
Full of smiles and passion, Vickum and I had a good, long chat together about why he decided to invest what was probably no small sum into this haven.
In his pre-Santani life, he was once a corporate slave out in D.C. working in strategy consulting and would often run off to well-known Santa Fé retreats to calm and manage his stress, constantly seeking solitude and serenity. Upon meeting the thirty-something now, you’d never suspect that he once battled to find peace and tranquility.
After the Sri Lankan Civil War came to an end, Vickum headed back to his home country, nurturing the idea of a mountainside retreat. This became Santani, a getaway centred around mindfulness, wellness, and sustainability.
Design & Interiors
Thoughtful, sustainable design has played a huge part in the identity of Santani.
Vickum explained: “You generally look for three things—massage and treatments, healthy food, and (the key ingredient in my eyes) surroundings. People will travel for settings and of course, when you’re relaxed, then others follow right behind.”
I completely get it. After all, we can chill out in a yoga studio on the 25th floor of an office building in the city but at the end of your 90-minute session, you’re dumped back into the real world. Not very relaxing or enticing, is it, when you think about it?
Santani’s design is modern and minimalistic, mixing materials of glass, wood, and metals, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a bit of a Japanese inspiration rooted in it all. The main building is like a glass cube with floor to ceiling windows encapsulating the structure on both levels, allowing the sunlight to stream in throughout the day and giving you unbridled access to the natural beauty surrounding Santani.
On the airy lower level, with its polished concrete floors and sofas, you can sip on some tea, marvel at the breathtaking views, and just chill out. Upstairs is the kitchen and eating area, where you have front row seats to the magnificent hilltops and infinity pool. The dark wood floors add warmth to the dining room and some of the windows swing open, further blurring the lines between indoors and out.
Vickum explained that when he chose architect Thisara Thanapathy, they spent a lot of time discussing mindfulness and how to communicate it through the design. She told me: “Colour stimulates so with Thisara, we decided that nature comes first and then we could [come up with] a design that blended with the outdoors. The aesthetics blend with the land.”
Which they seem to have achieved perfectly. I had the niggling question of why there wasn’t perhaps some soft music or a bit more colour but then Vickum said: “I had the idea of having some beautiful flowering trees by the infinity pool but then Thisara convinced me against it saying that if you want calming, then no object should stand out or attract your eye…The rooms are all based on a cave concept. Meditation used to be in caves which allowed nothing to screw up the concentration.”
So on that note, Pra kept quiet but the question never left my mind. Couldn’t some calm music, played very low in the background, maybe work in the main building?
Getting There & First Impressions
After a moment of feeling overwhelmed and lost when you arrive at the property, you’ll sweep around to find the entrance. I was greeted by a team who took some personal details and then whisked me off on a golf buggy to the main building. Here I was handed a welcome drink of Beli Mal Tea before being shown to my room located down 3 flights of stairs. (Thank you to the gents who carried my luggage!)
If you have any mobility issues, getting around Santani might pose a problem (it’s a “walking” property with lots of stairs and ground to cover) but definitely contact the team first before making any decisions. From my experience here, the team is super accommodating and it feels like just about anything might be made possible here!
Staff & Service
The staff here are exceptional and so willing to do whatever it takes to make you feel 100% at home and taken care of. I met two people in particular who were from very strong, established brands and I think it says a lot that they gave up security and brand recognition to come live the dream with Vickum. We all follow the leaders in life so from that perspective, I have to high five you all.
So Santani staff, you guys should be very proud! I don’t think I ever saw any of you without a sincere smile on your face and you all went above and beyond to help guests. On top of that, you were super gracious in helping Pra with her photography and thanks to your onsite photographer, I actually picked up a few tricks for my new Canon!
Where You’ll Sleep
Nestled within 48 acres of utter lushness, there are 16 standalone double-occupancy rooms, or ‘Ambalamas’ (a Sri Lankan word meaning “place of rest”), plus two double bedroom villas (if you’re travelling with friends or family) scattered throughout the property, all within walking distance of both the infinity pool and the main dining area.
The open-air structures have been built on stilts to protect the ground below and the ventilation/AC system is simply a gap between the floor and bottom of the walls that lets in fresh air. The single rooms are perfectly sized for a couple and blissfully minimalistic with that same mix of glass, wood, and metal.
The smooth concrete floor feels deliciously cool beneath your feet and the bed is draped with a dreamy voile that ripples with the slightest breeze. The entire room is set up so that it overlooks the most spectacular views of the hilltops – imagine waking up to this in the morning! There are two chairs and a small coffee table inside but why not just drink up the scenery from your balcony as you just sit back in your bathrobe on one of the low-slung chairs and unplug from the world?
Near the entrance to your room are the shower (spacious with a rainfall shower head), the bathroom, and a wardrobe where you can tuck away your belongings so as not to clutter up the beautifully clean space. Again, it’s all incredibly simple but perfectly suited to the environment and the Santani vibe.
My only gripe? The open-air design, although it was lovely to feel the fresh air and hear the sounds of nature, also allowed me to hear my neighbours chatting. They weren’t speaking particularly loudly but the sound does have a tendency to carry around here.
Where to Dine
Chef Wajira, can I just say you’re doing an amazing job? And what a fantastic, kind, and warm personality you have!
With a background that includes a 16-year career in France, Chef Wajira met Vickum and was immediately sold on his vision for Santani. After 10 years as Corporate Chef at Resplendent Ceylon, the classically French trained chef came aboard as the trailblazer to take Santani’s vision and standards and translate them into the food. He learned about Ayurvedic benefits which allowed him to create a menu that aligns perfectly with the wellness programmes.
The chef, who was working like a Trojan, took the time to speak with me in depth about the concept and was an utter delight through and through, so thank you for that!
It was super interesting to hear about how the Ayurvedic menu is based around the fire element tastes of salt, sugar, sour, bitter, astringent, and pungent. The menu is then further customised based on your Dosha, whether you are a Vata, Pitta, or Kapha. If you’re not familiar with this fundamental point of Ayurveda, just hop over to their site to find out more.
Should you be lucky enough to have the time for a 7 or 14-day retreat, you’ll be able to experience the full benefits of the surroundings, treatments, and food, but even a 3-day stay will give you a wonderful taste of it all (pun intended). My 7-course dinner was absolutely delectable, maintaining a delicate balance between the food and flavours without leaving me feeling stuffed after the third course (as often happens with tasting menus). Everything is fresh and well-prepared and, oh, and did I mention that you can have vino here? Pretty nice for a wellness retreat, hey?
Most of the produce is locally sourced but some of the meats are imported from Australia. At least three times a week, Chef Wajira can be found scouring the fish markets in Colombo for the best catches of the day. He’s selective and only wants to serve the best of the best—you can see (and taste!) his personality and passion shine through in the food that he prepares.
Where To Unwind
One of the things that Vickum spoke about really stuck with me—the trillion dollar beauty industry. She said: “Why is it that we spend millions on Botox, creams, facials—anything to keep us looking young? It’s because we can SEE it. After all, skin is a living organ. But what about our insides? We neglect and simply forget because we can’t see…until we’re sick or feeling run down, which of course then shows on the outside.”
The whole purpose of Santani is to be that place of wellness and mindfulness, where you can look after your insides but in a way that works with us busy people. They have a great array of packages, including Santani Detox for weight loss, Santani Fit for strength, Santani Sleep for…well, you get the picture! These programs start from as short a duration as three days, which is great because, let’s face it, not many of us have the luxury of having enough time off to do the 2-week program (although it would be absolutely blissful if we could!)
Clean lines and simple aesthetics dominate here at the spa, as is the M.O. for all of Santani. Across 3 floors are consultation cubes, a steam room, sauna, and a couple of lounges with an open-air saltwater pool kept at a toasty 40-45 ℃. There’s also TRX fitness equipment and for those who want to get even more physical, you can venture out onto one of the hiking trails or even go mountain biking!
But one of the best parts of the spa is the open-air massage rooms. Instead of being entirely enclosed or only allowing you to view nature through glass, they’ve completely done away with an entire wall, so you can indulge in a massage whilst taking in the sounds of nature around you. My massage therapist, by the way, was an absolute legend who offered a simple yet sensational aromatherapy relaxation massage. Originally from the famous Ananda Retreat, he was yet another example of staff who had come from impressive brands to join Vickum and his vision.
I also had the chance to meet Dr. Anil, Santani’s Ayurvedic guru and he was refreshingly direct. Instead of ramming Ayurveda principles down your throat, he simply stated that if yoga isn’t your thing, you can still find meditation through other activities such as gentle hikes around the property. It’s just about being one with nature.
“In my experience, high profile people are more fit than the normal man—as in muscle, but sometimes this isn’t the case with the MIND. Spirit and body need a perfect blend. If the mind is unbalanced, then the body is disrupted,” he explained.
How many of us do this—we hit the gym 3-4 times a week (and look good) but neglect to work on our spirit and mind? If anyone’s had a sleepless night recently because of a looming board meeting, I rest my case. Hearing this from Dr. Anil was a great reminder to take a 360 approach to wellness!
You can also unwind by the tranquil infinity pool with its picture-perfect setting, as you fall into a calming lull, stretched across the strategically placed sun beds with fluffy towels by your side. Outside of Santani, you can go on a wildlife safari at Wasgamuwa Wildlife Park or hike through Knuckles Mountain Range (a UNESCO world heritage site) just a short distance away.
This is like one big chill pill hidden in the hilltops. Make it a stopover during a full-on Sri Lanka adventure or set aside a long weekend (or more) and make this the main event. You don’t have to be into yoga to appreciate this place—from hiking to pampering to doing absolutely nothing, it’s all here for you. Plus, if you decide to have a glass of wine or two, you won’t be frowned upon!
I’m beginning to think that a 3-day detox here could be the equivalent of a Botox session…it might just be time to focus on the inside so that it naturally reflects on the outside!