2016 has turned out to be a strong year for new hotels. With the likes of Tri, the Fort Bazaar, and Thotalagala opening up, sustainable luxury is so hot right now. The newest hot spot, Santani, wowed our leech-proof socks off during a foray into Kandy's untouched inlands.
You'll discover uninterrupted views, private chalets, possibly some of the best food on the island, and a journey that takes way too long.
Santani is serious about their retreat tag. Their practices are sustainable too, with a dependence on locally-sourced ingredients, some staff from the neighbouring villages, and reclaimed wood for construction. You're looking at a period of deep relaxation featuring ayurvedic spa rituals, strict no smoking areas, yoga sessions, meditation space, and more.
It's a highly customizable experience too. You can choose from a variety of packages (from 7 days to almost a month), depending on what your motive is - relaxation, mindfulness, fitness, even weight loss, and they will curate an entire experience for you, with particular meals, activities, and service.
We opted for a deep ayurvedic massage in the sleek sunken spa, which was spectacular. With both local and Keralan therapists and an open view of the hills, your experience is inexplicably serene and one with nature (both in terms of ambience and ingredients used).
An ayurvedic doctor will assess you first, and assign you particular oils and treatments. After your massage is done, you can always hop into the spa or sauna to re-enervate yourself, or snuggle up in your robe with some herbal tea and jaggery and watch over the hills.
The hotel's aesthetic is very carefully designed, opening up to individual chalets perched on the hill overlooking the valley, and a shared dining space created out of reclaimed wood, it's reminiscent of a hillside village. You'll have plenty of privacy, open space, and room to explore.
The infinity pool - beautiful but chilly - looks over the hills and mist wafting below. I couldn't help but wish it was heated. There is a thermal pool within the spa but it wasn't functioning during our stay, which was a pity.
Our room felt like a luxury cave. Walled in on three sides, with the fourth a vast view of the sprawling hills before us, we woke up feeling like adventurers looking out of a mountainside.
Once inside, of course you have all your usual comforts and amenities, but it's difficult to pull away from the balcony.
The hotel property is absolutely vast. You can take electric tuk tuks around, or enjoy brisk walks in the cool hillside air. It stretches from the country road all the way down to the river at the base of the valley. You'll notice little plots being cultivated too. Apparently the hotel plans to be 80% self-sufficient within the next year or two.
You can get a session with the in-house naturalist Nirmal, and amble down to the river, taking in sights of the amazing avifauna, agriculture, and even track sambar and wild boar.
The river is beautiful, and safe for good swimmers. It's a gorgeous spot for some slow meditation, or even yoga or a paddle.
As though the setting wasn't enough, the dining is phenomenal. It's difficult to shy away from superlatives when describing it, but Chef Wajira (formerly of Tea Trails) whips up elegantly curated meals that beat Colombo's best. Keep in mind that if you opt for a wellness package, he will create individualised meals for you based on recommendations from the ayurvedic doctor post-consultation.
We didn't opt for that, so we ended up with a decadent spread for each meal. Despite this, everything was prepared with minimal oil and no additives - our food was fresh, inventive, and delicious.
We tried both a continental breakfast and local spread after brisk morning hikes.
We followed this with with a lovely 3 part lunch featuring a seafood ensemble nestled on quinoa and local vegetables, slathered in curry sauce (a creamy, spicy reduction of your usual curry - brilliant!). I will persevere to attempt this meal many, many times in my own kitchen with equal enthusiasm if not execution.
As if this wasn't enough, a 7 course meal awaited us.
With tender sous vide lamb drizzled in red wine jus, garden vegetables, and sauce, our main was perfection. The soft meat melted away in my mouth, and the sauce complemented both the meat and the little smatterings of greens.
Our dessert was amazing each time too. Dinner showcased a mélange of all things strawberry - fresh ones, macarons, meringues, compotes, and more. It was a lovely juxtaposition between the uniform flavour's tart and sweet manifestations. Slurp.
My favourite, however, was our lunchtime panna cotta and honeycomb confection with wild berry compote. It was simple, fresh, and luscious.
There's a real cohesive excellence at play here. The staff, absolutely efficient and exceedingly, genuinely warm, anticipated every need and pampered us terribly. From my brilliant masseuse Binitha, to the serene yoga teacher Jill, to our host of smiley waiters, we couldn't be more welcome.
They also shuttled us everywhere in the tuk tuk, helped us plan our days, and plied us with tea, food (and even a sneaky glass of wine or two).
This has been a rather long review - but Santani's got a lot to offer. We strongly recommend a stay of over two nights, because the road there ranges from the trafficky Kandy route to a windy hill country road. Plus, you can't quite let go and immerse yourself in wellness or mindfulness overnight.
Best case scenario? Take a week there, stretch your consciousness and limbs, eat well, play in the river, and breathe deep.