by Sarah Baxter, The Telegraph, September 16, 2019
Lying back beneath the tree, I gazed through the branches to the unblemished blue sky beyond. Sunshine dappled my skin, leaves drifted down on a hot frangipani-tinged breeze, birds nattered, the Indian Ocean pounded nearby… and Millie yelled at us to “Keep on crunching!”
Relaxing in the shade of some exotic bloom? Not a chance. Under that tree I was sweat-soaked, breath-grasping, muscle-pummelled, sweat-soaked (did I mention that?) – but totally on trend: I was one of the increasing number of travellers choosing to take a “healthy holiday”.
The global wellness industry is now worth around $4.2 trillion (£3.5 trillion), and growing at an annual rate more than twice that of tourism overall. More and more of us are paying to spend our annual leave bettering – or battering – ourselves.
I like keeping fit. But I’m not fanatical. I’m not a practised yogi, dedicated meditator or extreme-sports devotee who wants to spend a whole week doing any one of those things.
However, what appealed about this particular small-group trip, with Fifth Element Escapes, was its promise of a travel and wellness pick ’n’ mix: there would be fitness training, yoga and meditation, yes, but also surf lessons, safaris and local culture. Oh, and luxury too.
Indeed, I felt a little bit VIP as soon as I landed in Colombo: in the arrivals lounge, we were whisked from the sticky confines of overnight economy on to a private floatplane to buzz south over exotic knuckles of green, splash down on a lagoon and transfer to our new home, down a dirt road near Tangalle, for the next week.
The gates swung open and swallowed us into a version of Sri Lanka ripped from a fashion magazine. Amid the peacocks and palm trees sat a smart, sprawling villa, all high ceilings, four-posters, colonial chic and more space than it knew how to fill.
Its expansive, expensive-looking rooms seeped out into gaping verandas, koi carp ponds and a 100ft infinity pool; this spilt into well-tended gardens, which ran right down to the sea. The welcome tour, complete with fresh coconuts, was almost a workout in itself.
Even staying in the fanciest of villas doesn’t protect against rude awakenings: first from the unexpected holler of a nearby mosque, then from Millie, the lithe and fiendish personal trainer who was there to put us through our paces on a daily basis, from circuits on the patio to training on the beach.
The first morning was especially tough, with our jet-lagged bodies, fresh-plucked from cooler UK weather, suddenly being asked to leap, thrust and lunge in 30C (86F) heat. I was dripping after the warm up. Then followed a high-intensity burst of frog-jumping, crab-walking, burpee-ing and other evils that I’ve since tried to blank out.
“You need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable!” was a Millie favourite. As were squats. And planks. And “suicide sprints”. From the corner of my sweat-filled eye, I saw one of the villa staff bearing cold water, towels and a look of bemusement – people pay to do this?
I survived. Just. And was gratified to learn that my fellow travellers/victims – a couple, two friends and a handful of solos, all ranging from late-20s to 40s – had found it equally tough. I peeled myself off the grass and plunged into the pool, where sculling through cool water flecked with fallen bougainvillea petals helped to restore a sense of perfume-ad gloss, even if my face did match the hot-pink flowers.
While Millie was overseeing the fitness sessions, Gemma Cousins was our host and yogi. A pro-dancer and yoga instructor, Gemma co-founded Fifth Element Escapes in 2017 with her partner, Buddy Wheatley, an adventure leader and bodyguard, formerly in the British Special Forces.
“Buddy has worked for billionaires, and gets to stay in some amazing places,” Gemma told me, as we bobbed in the pool. “We had the idea that if we got a group together, normal people could stay in these same places, and have a quality experience that mixes the physical, cultural, intellectual and emotional in one trip.”
Yes, emotional… I’ve always been wary of yoga – in part because I’m supple as a pane of glass, in part because of its, er, piffle potential. So I was surprised to find the daily practice, which varied from energetic flow to near-comatose nidra, was one of my highlights.
The ambience helped. On the villa’s upper floor was a large, wood-floored space, open on all sides to the breeze, the birdsong and the sight and sound of the ocean; this was our yoga shala, where we practised most evenings. But it was also down to Gemma, who somehow struck a balance of physical toughness and spiritual depth that didn’t provoke my inner cynic.
Maybe it was the tropical heat or the burning sage – “it gets rid of negative energy” – but I found myself going with it. During one meditation, I visualised myself twirling happily on the sand in a flash of sunlight; on a couple of occasions I became teary – though on opening my eyes afterwards I saw, through the candlelight, several of the others had too.
Each evening, after yoga, with night fallen and the stars out, it was time for dinner in the outdoor pavilion. This was another highlight, always something fresh and flavour-packed: perhaps a feast of Sri Lankan curries, spicy sambal, fresh seafood, mango salads, fluffy rice and also wine and chocolate brownies – we were healthy but not puritanical.
One day chef Cha shared some culinary secrets in the villa’s smart kitchen. Key was the diversity and freshness of his herbs and spices, some grown on site: he had a pungent stock-cupboard of fenugreek, curry powder and pandan leaves, chilli, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric and sour tamarind fruit.
“I’ve been cooking professionally for 11 years,” Cha told us, “but the best cooking is still done by my Mum in her tiny kitchen.”
It was all good nourishing fuel for our exertions, which also saw us head to nearby Hiriketiya, a horseshoe-shaped cove with both left reef and beach breaks – ideal for surfing beginners. The waves, and the laid-back cafés fronting them, were busy, but we squeezed on to the sand, where instructor Sanji gave us a quick lesson under the palm trees. Then it was out into the perfect surf. And perfect it was: tidy, warm turquoise waves rolling in one after another after another. Just a shame I couldn’t catch any of them.
I paddled, I pushed up… and I failed. On repeat. At best I managed to stand for a second or two, before flopping into the sea. On our last day, we returned to Hiriketiya. The waves weren’t quite so good, and my improvement was minimal. But as I lay prone, waiting for another wave I couldn’t ride, a turtle popped up just by my board and finned below me for a while. I’d call that a successful session.
That turtle wasn’t the only wildlife we encountered. One morning we were up before dawn to visit Yala, the sea-hugging swathe of dry forest, brackish lagoons, hill-size boulders and rich-orange earth that’s now the country’s most-visited national park. Not only did we see black-faced monkeys, wild buffalo with their egret groupies, sambar and spotted deer, crocodile nostrils and a family of picnicking elephants, we saw a lot of other Jeeps.
Recent attempts to limit vehicle numbers seem to have failed. We spent an hour in a leopard jam; by the time we hit the front of the queue, the big cat had – unsurprisingly – had enough and slunk off.
However, far better was a dawn visit to Kalametiya Lagoon, a low-key bird sanctuary no more than a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride from our villa’s door. By 6am, we were aboard a simple pontoon, being poled across the peaceful waters while soft-spoken guide Chamila gave us sweet bananas and pointed out great gatherings of great egrets, black-headed ibis, darting pipits and purple herons. A golden-backed woodpecker knock-knocked on a tree while whistling ducks flew overhead; there were few other people.
Soon the sun rose, mood-lighting the reed beds, the waterlilies and the lone fisherman hauling his net. We beached our boat and scrambled barefoot up an elephantine hump of granite for a better view. On its summit, I sat silently for a while, palms on the warm rock, listening to the babble of the ocean and the birds. There was no leopard, no burning sage, no hint of a burpee. But I felt a surge of wellness none the less.
How to do it
Fifth Element Escapes offers luxury yoga, fitness, adventure and well-being escapes to destinations including Sri Lanka, Bali and Thailand, as well as bespoke trips. An eight-day Sri Lanka Escape costs from around £2,390 including accommodation, food, drink and activities, excluding flights (0203 608 0075; fifthelementescapes.com). Sri Lankan Airlines flies London to Colombo daily; returns cost from around £550 (0208 538 2000; srilankan.com).