The New Word In Wellness: Santani, Sri Lanka
Santani is the new word in wellness. Tucked away in Sri Lanka’s verdant hills, it was one of 2016’s most anticipated openings. Has it lived up to the hype asks luxury travel writer Julianna Barnaby?
Santani is set in the lush landscapes of Sri Lanka’s hill country. It has been impressing visitors with its wellness programmes, minimalist architecture and beautiful location since opening last September.
It was one of 2016’s most anticipated spa openings, both within Sri Lanka and across the high-end wellness industry in general. Why? Santani promised a new approach to wellness, billed as wellness 2.0 – in addition, it was a luxury property opening in Sri Lanka, a destination with increasing appeal for luxury travellers.
The hotel was the brainchild of owner Vickum Nawagamuwage, who grew up in Sri Lanka before leaving to pursue his career overseas. Vickum has always understood the beauty of Sri Lanka, and when he started to think about opening a luxury wellness resort, it was the first place that sprung to mind.
Over the years, Vickum had undertaken several wellness programs at internationally-renowned centres across the world, but thought there was scope for a new kind of resort. This was very much the driving force behind Santani.
But what is wellness 2.0? It may be easier to discuss in terms of what it is not. It is not a one-size-fits-all destination catering only to those looking for a very strict and prescribed regimen. Neither is it a place that enforces a particular program on guests. Instead, it focuses on creating a completely personalised experience for each visitor, tailored completely to their needs and personal goals.
“Wellness 2.0 is all about personalised and sustainable wellness. Most 1st generation wellness resorts are regimented and do not account for each guest’s practical realities. For example, most resorts will just serve you vegetarian food without any differentiation [as to whether you are usually vegetarian].
Another example is juice detox or yoga being the answer for all your wellness concerns. However at Santani, while we do provide all the above, they all form part of an integrated approach.” Vickum explains.
Santani is the luxury spa and wellness destination that wellness devotees, first-timers and even those simply looking for a relaxing escape in Sri Lanka will love. Together Vickum and his General Manager Shane VonHagt have created one of the most exciting luxury destinations to open in recent years.
Santani is very much a contemporary design-hotel. Built in what was previously a tea estate, it spans an area of over 48 acres, giving guests plenty of space to explore. The buildings are set in a relatively small area of that 48 acres, with the reception, guest villas, spa, pool and dining/social area no more than a few minutes walk from each other.
Construction started in May 2015, and it opened in September 2016: Santani is one of the newest hotels on the island, yet also one of its most innovative and eco-friendly.
Vickum was keen to incorporate an architectural design that would mean that the hotel could be cooled without the use of air-conditioning. This requirement guided his choice when he was looking for a suitable location for Santani.
Down on Sri Lanka’s coast, the days and nights are too hot, making air-conditioning a necessity for any high-end resort. The hill country is much cooler, a fact that is maximised through Santani’s design: the villas are built on stilts on the side of the hill to ensure the air can circulate freely and stay as cool as possible.
As air-conditioning generally accounts for 70% of most hotels’ energy usage, this forethought and consideration puts Santani in a strong position to back up its environmentally-friendly claims.
In fact, it’s this level of thought that generally sets Santani apart, both as an eco-friendly retreat and as a wellness destination. Vickum sees the two as inextricably linked: for example, what’s the point in spending your days focusing on cleansing the body to fill guests’ lungs with re-circulated, recycled air as soon as they get back to their villas?
The word San-ta-ni is derived from the Sanskrit word for harmony: an overarching theme found across the resort. The guest villas are nestled into the hillside and surrounded by growing vegetation. The same materials, such as the polished concrete floors and reclaimed wood panelling, are seen throughout the hotel. Together, they achieve a cohesive minimalist style across the different buildings.
There are 16 stand alone villas, each with a private balcony overlooking the valley. The villas are spacious, around 500 sq ft each and decorated with natural materials in understated hues. There are also two double bedroom family suites for families or larger groups (though Santani only allows children over the age of 11).
Furnishings are simple but of the highest quality – super-comfortable beds with crisp white bedlinen are covered with practical mosquito nets (this is the Sri Lankan highlands after all). There are chairs inside, and a pair on the balcony from which you can appreciate the impressive vista laid out in front of you.
The floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the valley are the main source of light for the room: there are no windows on the sides of the villas. As with everything in Santani, this is a deliberate choice – so guests can focus on relaxing into their surroundings without being distracted.
One of Santani’s main hubs is the building that serves as the social and dining area (the other being the spa of course). As with the rest of the resort, the design leans towards the minimal-luxe end of the spectrum with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides to maximise the ever-changing views. Small touches, such as the miniature bowls of rice growing on each of the dining tables, serve as reminders about Santani’s eco-friendly ethos.
Santani’s spa is the largest on the island and also features the only salt-water hydrotherapy pool in Sri Lanka. It continues the minimalist luxe aesthetic found throughout the resort, complete with open-ended therapy rooms, a sauna, steam room and open-air yoga shala.
The spa is managed by Dr. Sreekanth R. Nair, a qualified ayurvedic doctor and wellness expert. Guests sit down for a consultation with Dr. Nair when they arrive to discuss what they are looking to achieve throughout their stay (though this process often begins prior to the guest’s arrival to ensure their wellness programme can start at the same time as their Santani stay). They are also given a detailed questionnaire to fill out so that their treatment programme and diet can be tailored accordingly.
The menu is based on an ayurvedic philosophy, though it covers both ayurvedic and international treatments including Swedish and Thai massage, reflexology and cleansing wraps.
For those new to ayurvedic therapies, the list can seem overwhelming, but Nair patiently talks you through each one, along with its benefits and how suited it is to your personal aims.
The ayurvedic treatments are quite an experience – I opted for the Abhyangam massage, the traditional ayurvedic massage. All ayurvedic treatments are carried out in one of the pre-designated treatment rooms, which contain a custom ayurvedic bed.
As with much of the Santani experience, the massage was personalised through the use of a specially chosen oil and the deep pressure that I’d requested. It was perfect, the massage itself enhanced by the sounds of the surrounding hills from the open-fronted treatment room.
It’s not that often that the food at wellness destinations merits any particular mention. For those following strict dietary regimes, the food on wellness escapes can often be described as the lowlight of the day. Not so at Santani, which prides itself as the first wellness resort to provide fine-dining for its guests.
The head Chef Wajira Gamage artfully prepares tasty but healthy dishes from fresh, organic ingredients. Meals are created in accordance with each guest’s regime and dietary requirements, but are all bursting with flavour and display an originality and thought that is refreshing to see.
My particular favourite was the Sri Lankan dinner, which comprised a number of tasting plate-sized portions of local dishes. The meal was comprehensive: pumpkin curry, spinach dahl, curried okra, boneless chicken curry and coconut sambal were but a few of the dishes showcased that evening. Both my dining partner and I sampled a little of each of the dishes while trying to work out our favourite – a task that ended with us being full long before we could decide.
Breakfast and lunch at Santani are similarly enjoyable – mini gastronomic feasts that leave you feeling satisfied and energised for the day ahead. Guests can choose between Sri Lankan dishes (such as the famous egg hoppers with sambal and lentils for breakfast) or Western-style breakfasts and lunches. All are perfectly-executed and similarly presented.
When it comes to activities, Santani’s guests can be as active (or inactive) as they wish. Resident yoga teacher Jillian leads group yoga classes each morning and evening in the open air yoga shala next to the spa. The shala is multi-fuctional, also doubling up as a stretching and TRX area as required.
Hiking and walking in the surrounding area is a real highlight – understandable, considering Santani’s location at the foothills of the Knuckles mountain range, Sri Lanka’s biggest hiking destination. Whether you are looking for all-day hikes, or just a few hours of fresh air, they can arrange for a qualified guide to take you out on your chosen route.
You shouldn’t miss the 45-minute walk down to river. It’s a relatively short walk where the guide talks you through the local flora and fauna as you descend into the valley. The river is the perfect temperature for a short paddle before you wend your way back up to the hotel.
By the time it came to leave, I wished I’d booked a longer stay. Santani is a wonderful destination and a truly innovative resort that is quietly shaking up the luxury hotel scene.
Santani Fact File
Santani is a 3-4 hour drive from Colombo’s airports or 1 hour away from Kandy.
Rates start from £239 per night and include breakfast, lunch, dinner, scheduled wellness activities, workshops, yoga classes and use of all facilities. They also offer a range of spa and wellness packages.
Address: Santani Wellness Resort, Arantenna Estate, Werapitiya, Kandy, Sri Lanka.
Telephone: (+94) 11 722 3230 (Reservations)