Health & Grooming | Chronicles of a Spa Junkie

Spa Junkie in… the Maldives

Our incognito columnist pays her way at the world’s top spas, then reports without fear or favour

Spa Junkie in… the Maldives

Image: Jay Yeo.

May 06 2011
Spa Junkie

Part: 1 | 2 | 3

How To Spend It Editor Gillian de Bono introduces our new column:

Every profession has its eye-rolling moments, those times when colleagues or acquaintances ask certain familiar ill-judged questions. One of my bêtes noires is: “Have you ever thought of appointing a Spa Editor? Because I’d love to do that job for you.”

Now, I’m as keen as the next girl to kick off my shoes and have the undivided attention of a masseuse, facialist or cult therapist. I’ve never had a synchronised four-hand massage but I’ve absolutely no doubt it is utter bliss. But as for paying someone to lie down on heated fluffy towels while they do their hard reporting on the latest rejuvenating treatments? Let’s just say it’s not the best use of my editorial budget.

More to the point, I’ve never been convinced that the reviews in newspapers and magazines deliver much more than a thank you to the host clinic/spa/retreat, which inevitably provides the therapies free of charge. And then there are the glowing testimonials written after a single anti-ageing treatment when paying clients are told they require a course of six or 10 before benefits can be seen.

Which is why we are launching the Chronicles of a Spa Junkie. Our writer, who will remain anonymous, is a serial entrepreneur in her mid-30s who has built and sold several businesses spanning international branding and product development within the worlds of entertainment, hospitality, contemporary art and philanthropy. She works hard and plays hard, and the combination plays havoc with her health and her looks. And so, when professional commitments allow, she checks into a spa. She is not a Spa Editor because she pays for every treatment. Her only agenda is to seek out the best therapies and report her experiences, good or bad. Her first undercover experience follows.

Joan Collins once said that the problem with beauty is that it’s like being born rich and getting poorer. Like most women over a certain age, I’m enjoying a bank balance in the black but my health and beauty account gets deeper into the red with every passing year. Or put another way, I may finally be able to afford a Birkin but my body can no longer afford the repayment on the lifestyle overdraft that comes with it.

I can’t say when exactly this feeling set in. It wasn’t as if I had entered Annabel’s on the night of my 30th as a svelte, fresh-faced, frisky 29-year-old only to exit, post midnight, with a burst zip, crow’s feet and a hankering for early nights. No, the changes to my appearance and energy levels were far more insidious. Initially, I made excuses – food intolerances, stress, fluctuating hormones – but eventually it dawned on me that I needed an entirely new approach to life, one that would optimise my health and looks but not to the detriment of my joie de vivre. And so for the past five years I have spent every spare moment learning about nutrition, supplements, alternative medicine, relaxation, weight-loss plans and and exercise regimes – and every spare penny on travelling the world to try out the latest destination spa.

This blog is for sharing my experiences – the best, the best-avoided and the utter wastes of time. I will do my best to explain the science. Some programmes that work for me might not work for others and vice versa, so there are no guarantees. But, unlike the overwhelming majority of journalists who write in this field, I go out on my own dollar so you can rely on me to give you a warts-and-all review. First stop, the Maldives.

* * * * * *

It’s February, and I’m exhausted and unmotivated. The willpower that would normally see me powering through a kettle-bell or yoga session is packed away with the unwanted Christmas gifts. A red-wine-and-cheese belly from a few wonderful ski weekends adds to my woes.

I decide to look for an authentic Ayurvedic spa experience that will give me new insights to temper my cosmopolitan out-five-nights-a-week lifestyle. A friend mentions that she has heard that the Maldives are a great option as their proximity to Kerala means they have well-trained Ayurveda staff but, unlike Kerala itself, where retreats can be pretty hard-core, the spas are luxurious. Direct flights from London on BA and a manageable five-hour time difference sealed the deal. We chose Four Seasons Resort Landaa Giraavaru, one of the very best, which had recently hired a new doctor.

DAY ONE

I am offered some delicious cold sweet tea for my first consultation. Dr Shylesh greets me warmly before reading out the very prescriptive e-mail I had sent a few days before. In it I had asked for help with my sleeping disorder, stress and poor diet. It also said that I wanted to detox, lose 5kg and improve my fitness and yoga technique.

Dr Shylesh starts to mastermind my seven-day programme. He is particularly concerned about my insomnia. With transatlantic trips and permanent jet lag I’d become reliant on sleeping pills when travelling long-haul. He says I am not to go on a hard-core detox, as seven days is not long enough for a thorough cleansing. I’m disappointed.

I am weighed and measured and sent for my 101 in Ayurveda. I am told that this 5,000-year-old Indian science of life brings balance to our vital energies or doshas. The theory is that there are five elements – ether, air, fire, water and earth – present in our bodies in the form of three doshas: Vata (which is ether and air), Pitta (fire and water) and Kapha (water and earth), and we are all born with some of each type.

I am asked a series of questions to find out my type. It transpires that I am Pitta Vata with Pitta dominant. Dr Shylesh goes through the characteristics (opinionated, volatile, competitive, good communicator, stubborn…) and the diagnosis is pretty spot on.

Next he works out a detox diet that is appropriate to my type and explains the two main techniques are “Oilation” and “Sweating” to bring impurities to the skin’s surface. Kapha types take only three days to detox, Pitta, five, and Vata, seven. As I am a Pitta Vata it will take six days before I am fully flushed out. He warns that I will most likely spend a day in bed feeling exhausted but on day seven I will “be new”.

My diet looks quite a bounty; as a protein evangelist, I am disturbed that 60 per cent of each of my three meals will be carbohydrate. I resolve to raise this issue after day three if things are not going well.

Then it is time to meet Zahir, who is in charge of my fitness programme. We agree to start on one hour of cardio in the morning and take this up to 90 minutes midweek, with alternate gym and outdoor exercise comprised of running, kayaking and paddle boarding. He works me on the exercise mat to gauge my level of fitness. We’re both surprised at my stamina.

Next I meet Raj, my spiritual guide and Yogi Master, who comes from Kerala and has a wicked little smile. Our first session is on a floating pagoda and I feel an inch taller after our first session. I am collected by two therapists for my nightly four-hand Abhyanga massage, which includes a foot-cleaning ritual, chanting, steam room and outdoor shower.

After a light soup, instead of going to bed, I do the unforgivable. I switch on my laptop. I have a work deadline that I want to get out of the way but, as I would later discover, after 11pm you go out of the Vata zone (good for sleeping) and go into the fiery Pitta zone and you effectively lose your sleeping slot. I manage only a few hours’ sleep.

DAY TWO

The day starts with the most awful BlackBerry alarm. I had forgotten to switch it off before I went to bed. I wolf down a hearty portion of creamy oats and apple sauce (I know this is bad; the Mayr clinic taught me to chew each mouthful of food 40 times) and brood about my addiction to technology. I decide to pack it all away.

The day starts with yoga stretches and a few swigs of a bitter cleansing brew, followed by a 40-minute cardio class and serious boot-camp exercises. So this is why I needed that big bowl of porridge. The combination plays havoc with my bowels. Zahir perceives the situation and excuses me from bouncing Bosu ball practice. Mortified, I slink back to the privacy of my beautiful beach villa.

I decide to lunch on the beach and a wonderfully fresh and filling crunchy salad is delivered to my door. Apart from the desire for a glass of wine, I am completely satisfied. The afternoons are my own.

This island feels like it belongs to me and I never feel deprived of anything. The treatments are long and incredibly attentive and, because I am on a pre-paid package, I never feel I am being sold to. Another major difference is that all the staff have worked in Ayurvedic hospitals. The only difference now is that they treat “guests” rather than “patients”, as one of the team quips while I’m being ushered to my 4pm consultation with Kunan, my Ayur master. It’s held in the Ayurveda herb garden (Landaa Giraavaru grows herbs and plants for all its treatments and many of its Ayur dishes).

As we walk through the garden I explain that, as a regular at Chiva Som, I am used to kick-starting a detox with nothing but veggie juices and the thinnest miso broth. However painful the inevitable hunger pains and headaches, this regime, coupled with a few colonic treatments, showed major results from the get-go and so it is difficult for me to adjust to a high-carb diet.

I tentatively ask for two days of hardcore panchkarma detox, but Kunan agrees with Dr Shylesh that I can get very good results without the agony of full-on purging. He too says that he is less worried about my weight than my lack of natural sleep, my constipation and the signs of exhaustion and stress etched on my face. He explains we will tackle it all and, yes, weight loss will be a by-product but I need a plan that I can take home with me and starving and colonic machines are not a long-term solution to good health: “So stop being so Pitta and let us heal you.” It makes total sense; I back down.

After our talk I get my nightly two-hour massage; this evening they add a panchkarma eye-cleansing treatment called Tarpana. A fresh dough mask is built on my face and then warm medicated ghee is poured into my open eyes. I am asked to flutter my eyelids.

I can’t see but my eyes feel soothed. The smell of dough and butter gets my Agi (“tummy fire”) all ablaze and after my oily head massage I gulp down my chickpea soup and polenta squares before crawling between the white sheets of my four-poster bed.

DAY THREE

I wake after five hours’ sleep full of energy. I’m not starving and, incredibly, I have already lost over 0.5kg. I dive straight into the warm lagoon. We have moved to a water villa with unobstructed views of the ocean and fewer creepy crawlies. However, my rapidly cleansing blood must be sweetening up because mosquitos swarm over me and I can count 13 bites.

I linger over breakfast on the sun-filled deck and am of half a mind to cancel keep-fit and spend the day reading. But the phone rings. Zahir is waiting for me. We go for a 40-minute run around the island. The last 20 minutes I alternate between sprinting and walking which sends my heart rate through the roof. Then it’s 20 minutes’ kayaking followed by water aerobics. It’s just like being on an active fun holiday. Lunch is a delicious beetroot carpaccio and thick creamy vegetable soup. Then I ease my tired limbs into the soothing lagoon and float for ages under a cloudless sky.

At 4pm I am back at the herb garden with Kunan picking the ingredients for my Elakkizhi massage – a full body treatment using prepared herb poultices that make me sweat profusely. The bespoke herb bundles are made from caster, tamarind, camphor oil, mustard, rock salt, dill seed, fennel, lime and grated coconut, all heated in a pan. I’m ravenous and want to dive in with a spoon. While the bundles are cooling I do sun salutations with Raj. He looks at my feet: “You are Pitta, right?” I ask him how he knows. “You have giant big fire cracks… you have volcano feet.” I look down and he is absolutely right. Deep cracks have formed around the back of my feet. He tells me not to worry. I am a fiery lady and the steam needs to escape from somewhere. “But better you fix it before you go home.”

DAY FOUR

Last night I fell asleep in an instant and slept solidly for seven hours. I have so much energy I spring out of bed. My waist feels toned and my legs seem slimmer, no doubt from the daily yoga. My eyes are bright, my skin is clear. Breakfast is congee – a thick Asian porridge served with sweet tamarind chutney.

I feel like Iron Woman. After my daily 60 minutes on the cardio machines and 30 minutes’ boot-camp workout, I sneak in an extra half-hour cycle around the island, waving to road sweepers and honeymooners as I go.

Then an afternoon on the beach before my first Ayurvedic cookery lesson. The head chef explains the Ayurveda approach to diet is to choose ingredients that suit your dosha type and control portions rather than deny yourself certain things. Another guest complains about all the carbs. He asks us to persevere, explaining that heavier food takes longer to digest and reduces cravings and the desire for large portions. Carbs also support my bespoke sleeping programme – a series of mind-calming treatments, meditation and diet that helps to calm my entire system. And once you understand the ingredients that best suit your dosha type you can eat them prepared any way you like.

After class, there is more yoga and then three hours of treatments. Today I have my usual two boys give me their four-hand deep-tissue massage followed by a steam bath. I can honestly say it’s the best massage I’ve ever had. Tonight they add Nasya, a nasal cleanse during which tiny amounts of medicated ghee are poured into my nose. I spend an unpleasant few hours coughing globs of oil out of my throat. The after-effects made dinner inedible.

DAY FIVE

The yoga session today is incredible. My limbs fold and plait like a dough pretzel into positions that were unthinkable a week before. The yoga positions are chosen to prepare our bodies for specific treatments on our menu cards and, judging from the various hip openers I assume today, I am about to learn Tantra. I have been feeling nervous about it all week.

Kunan explains that we all have a male Shiva and female Shakti within us and the secret of Tantric is to find the balance of the two in all things. When making love one must not be too Shakti and aggressive, yet one must not be too Shiva and passive, which Kunan interprets as lazy. Apparently, it all starts with the nose, then goes into the brain and coils around the spine to the base chakra and ultimately to the Kundalini. I nod as if I understand, blushing. Any questions, he asks? Nope!

I am then led away by two female Tantra therapists into the beautiful ritual rooms…