Everyone’s looking at their smart phones. Nobody’s watching the world go by. Welcome to modern life. Even if you only half-embrace it, the chances are you will sometimes feel like you are full of toxic waste. But if you are like me, you don’t especially like being told so. Constantly. By lifestyle gurus who give you advice you can’t use. From decluttering your inbox to detox plans, to this year’s fitness fad, piloxing – a mix of Pilates and boxing, apparently – this is the time of year when the health and fitness evangelists are shouting their loudest. And the ones shouting loudest of all at the moment are the bootcamps.
It’s as if we are collectively self-flagellating, as if we have all bought into the idea that tough times are ahead and we must be punished for our past sins. Not me. I don’t buy it at all and I don’t respond well to military discipline. I would rather be soothed and caressed at the Shanti Maurice on the relatively untrammeled southern coast of Mauritius, the Indian Ocean island that Mark Twain once described as the blueprint for heaven.
It is easy to see where he got his words. The 40 minute drive from the airport to the hotel brings to mind his longer description, of a place that is “colour mad” with “green foliage, blue sky, purple shadows on mountains, and golden islands floating in crimson seas.” It’s rather like driving through the fantasy picture of a chocolate-box manufacturer; a fantasy I’d want to explore more.
For many guests though, Shanti Maurice is not just a place to rest their head each night, it is their destination. It is a former sister property to the Shanti Ananda Himalaya, the award-winning ayurvedic spa in the remote foothills of the Himalayas at Haridwar. Shanti Ananda Maurice (as it used to be called) set store on being less remote than its sister, whose isolation can be as much an obstacle as an attraction. In the Himalayas you are pretty much confined to the property and to spend your time on a rigorous programme of ayurvedic treatments. Mauritius has the added attraction of the beach and a route to escape.
The two hotels parted company in June 2010 when Shanti Maurice left the Ananda brand and relaunched as a destination spa with Nira Resorts, its feet now firmly planted in Mauritian culture. It hasn’t, however, left behind its dedication to Ayurveda, the ancient philosophy of wellbeing that originated in India.
To the uninitiated, Ayurveda can sound bewildering and complex. It roughly translates from Sanskrit as the “complete knowledge (veda) for a long life (ayus)” and consists of eight disciplines grounded in the metaphysics of the five elements. Thankfully, for the stressed, in the west we have a bowdlerised version that concentrates on the sensual pleasures of food and massage. And it is this version that Shanti Maurice presents.
Once I’d settled into my villa, one of 61 that splay out across 36 acres of gardens kissed by the ocean and that provide home to an orchestra of frogs, I was whisked off to meet Dr Mane, Shanti’s resident ayurvedic guru. Before I left England I had glanced at an ayurvedic recipe book that contained advice such as “never eat cottage cheese between the hours of 3pm and 6pm,” so I was wary. But Dr Mane is softly spoken and has a calming demeanour that instantly put me at my ease. His consultation took place in a charming tea pavilion surrounded by lily ponds. Birds sang and flowers blossomed in a colour mad splash that would have tickled Twain.
After Dr Mane had taken my blood pressure, asked me some pertinent questions about my eating habits, exercise regime and general lifestyle and established if there were any areas of particular concern – in my case a tendency to insomnia – he declared me a “kapha” dosha, or type. In ayurvedic medicine there are three doshas – kapha, pitta and vata. Kapha doshas are thought to be easygoing, self-sufficient and with a strong resistance to illness. That was my good news. Less good, however, was the prognosis that I have a sluggish digestion, a tendency to put on weight and a slow metabolism.
It’s hard to argue with a 5,000-year old philosophy, but the cottage cheese story had made me mindful it’s not impossible. I couldn’t argue with Dr Mane’s diagnosis, however, even if I’d hoped to kick-start my metabolism back to the days when I could walk up a mountain without pausing for breath.
Perhaps it’s my easygoing nature that led me to casually shrug off the news that I would never have a fast metabolism and could do with some work on my breathing, the latter easily attended to with a few sessions of Hatha Yoga and meditation. But I’m more inclined to attribute it to the surroundings. Everything about Shanti Maurice is designed to turn down the dial on your life, from the rustic barefoot dining encouraged at the hotel’s beach-side Fish and Rhum Shack, to the cool, crisp design of every villa using local lava stone, granite and hardwoods. I did secretly wonder, though, if it didn’t challenge those excitable vatas and impatient pitta types.
Dr Mane’s diagnoses are handed to the kitchen so that they can prepare meals to suit each guest, though you are by no means forced to stick to your dosha and the cuisine is much less about denial than balance. Executive chef Willibald Reinbacher is probably a vata dosha, energetic and highly imaginative. He dashes between the kitchen and the herb garden he has nurtured from the volcanic earth, playing with local Creole traditions and Cape cuisine, creating exotic curries flavoured with cardamom and simple dishes such as freshly caught snapper served in a simple miso broth.
Then there are the massage treatments. My own favourite was the Abhyanga Massage administered by two male therapists who basted me in aromatic oils in a sychronised choreography of gentle, yet firm strokes. Whether you believe it is beneficial to your health or not, it certainly felt good. There are more hardcore therapies available – such as Gandusa which involves the retention of medicated oils in the mouth and is said to be good for bad breath; or Sneha Vasti, an oil enema – but the African-inspired Intonga Amasatchi, a treatment using wooden massage sticks to relieve tension, and as vigorous as a proper Thai massage, was as brave as I got.
Much as it bills itself as a destination spa, the Shanti Maurice does encourage you to get out and explore, and the island’s small size makes that easy. I didn’t have time – or was too dialed down – to get to the north and west, the most popular areas for tourists. I did manage a leisurely drive around the south, however, past coffee and pineapple plantations and walls of sugar cane, the island’s cash crop, to Mount Piton, the highest point in Mauritius. It’s en route to Chamarel, a slightly disappointing bunker of multi-coloured earth that redeemed itself by also being home to some giant tortoises – knocking 90 years old and showing all the signs of being sluggish kaphas – and acting as a rest stop en route to Grand Bassin, also known as Ganga Talao. By turns gaudy and spellbinding it’s claimed this holy lake was created by Shiva spilling Ganges water into a crater. A giant Shiva statue on the side of the main road acts as a gathering point for an annual pilgrimage, and during the rest of the year where tourists and hungry monkeys congregate, not always in harmony.
I also booked myself a horseback ride along a deserted crescent beach – there are lots of them in the south – where earlier in the day I had seen the rhythmic dance of some dolphin pods. I got to watch Twain’s “crimson seas at sunset”, his “pallid moon sailing through the shredded cloud-wrack.”
And perhaps in the end that is all we need – a change of pace; some barefoot dining on the beach; orchestras of frogs; the scent of lemon-ginger tea; an Abhyanga massage or three; the soothing taste of miso; a slightly purple wordsmith.
Back in England I studied my kapha dosha profile in detail and discovered it will be hard to implement unless I change some fundamental aspects of my life, such as my job and where I live. But much of it makes perfect sense and is easy to put into practice. That is something I will never be able to say about piloxing.
Shanti Maurice currently offers a seven-night Discover Mauritius programme, including half-board accommodation in a Junior Suite and three excurisons for 510 Euros (£440) from 1 May to 31 October 2011. Call 00230 603 7200 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details are other packages. shantimaurice.com. Air Mauritius flies London, Heathrow direct to Mauritius from £591 return. Flights are also available via Paris from Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Manchester and Newcastle. airmauritius.com, 020 7434 4375.
Words: Andrew Copestake