Stunning surroundings, an invigorating health program, a suite to die for and amazing food are just what the doctor ordered, writes Michael Gebick.
Doctor's orders, I am standing in my birthday suit wearing a blend of warm almond and sesame oils that is now just starting to work its way into my eyes. I am waking with the birds and performing sun salutations – same doctor – sitting cross-legged to practice pranayamic breathing. I'm striving for perfection in my extended side angle pose, filling my body with wholesomeness and biodynamic goodness all in the name of health and wellbeing, and it's working. I feel energised, glowing, taut yet also relaxed. I feel like a new man.
I'm just back from Como Shambhala Estate, and life has not been the same since. Spread out across the lip of the Ayung River Valley, about 10 kilometres from Ubud in Bali's green hinterland, Como Shambhala is a silken, holistic health resort, one of the world's finest, according to the arbiters of such places, a "Retreat for Change" by its own definition.
Just being here feels good. From the minimalist, vanilla-toned reception, terraced lawns step down across a privileged haven set with reflecting ponds and pavilions and an elevated restaurant where people are dining at polished tables. Around the curvaceous swimming pool are places to sit and sigh, shaded by white umbrellas. Greenery abounds. Pink lotus flowers unfold from teetering stems. Mottled goldfish make wavy mirror images of the frangipanis that overhang their ponds. The sound of splashing water mingles with bird noises and the electric hum of cicadas. A staff member glides by in a swishing sarong, favouring me with a smile that suggests my mere passing has brought her inestimable happiness.
However it's mother nature who provides the real magic. The setting is miraculous. From the guest villas, which are arranged along the lip of the gorge, the hillside plunges into the cleavage of the Ayung Valley. Apart from the stacked planes of terraced rice fields on the far side of the valley there is no sign of human habitation anywhere, just a moist green rainforest of big trees and creepers all around.
From here a path furred with moss zigzags down the hillside, past a massage pavilion swathed in white and The Source, a sacred spring used by the Balinese at festival times. Closer to the river is a series of ponds half hidden in the all-enveloping greenery with lounges beside them, secret hideaways just for two.
In a previous incarnation, Como Shambhala was a five-villa affair known as Begawan Giri, much favoured by glitterati who would book the whole place out for weeks at a time and party with friends.
You can still come here and just flop, enjoy sensational food, gorgeous surroundings, massages and spa treatments from morning till night, but that's not what Como Shambhala is all about. Along with most of the other guests I'm here for a better me, a body/mind/soul makeover with a personal program, which can be anything from three to eight nights.
Becoming better, fitter, more godlike does not come by chance. The program schedule is rigorous, with little time for tomfoolery. On the second day of my visit, I must breakfast before heading out on a walk through the estate at 7:30, followed by a pranayama breathing and meditation class at 9am. At 10.30 there's an aqua therapy class, then lunch followed by an Art of Living lecture at 1pm, core connection class in the Pilates studio at 2.15, a one-hour massage at 3.30, and then I'm free. There's no skiving off either, no skulking over a Tropic Aid juice (mango, young coconut water, papaya, orange and lime) when I'm supposed to be working on my Comfortable Moonbird Pose.
To ensure that I keep to the straight and narrow I have a personal assistant, Dewa Ayu, who rolls up in a golf buggy a few minutes before each appointment and chauffeurs me to my destination, and it might be my imagination, but does she not wait, and watch as I dutifully enter? After class she's there again, iced towel in hand, but she's a treasure, scurrying down to my room to take in my semi-dry bathers when it starts to rain.
I've signed up for stress management, one of six program on offer. Fifteen minutes after I check in I'm scheduled for a consultation with Dr Dwarak, an ayurvedic doctor. He takes my pulse and tells me I'm fire, one the three taxonomies used in ayurvedic medicine. Restless, he tells me, wheels constantly in motion. An over-excited cranium that often spins off into purposeless anxiety. "Is there something wrong with your shoulder?" he asks. "And how about your lower back?" He's uncomfortably on the money, and he knows all this from five seconds with my pulse? In between regular stints at Como Shambhala, Dr Dwarak runs an institute in southern India that teaches the original form of yoga, one all but eclipsed in the fashionable rush to Bikram and hot yoga.
He outlines some stress-reducing strategies, prescribes a garlic tonic against cholesterol, advises me to drink ginger tea – fresh ginger only – and an almond and sesame oil rub, to be applied once a week for dry skin.
The regimen also involves food, and Como Shambhala takes health spa cuisine to rare heights. Light, inventive and exciting, the food served in its two restaurants looks like it was prepared by a food stylist for a magazine cover shot. It also takes the taste buds out for a tango. This is not food as penance. There's espresso coffee, sweet treats, wine if you want it, and this is part of the ethos. Throughout the treatments, the therapies and the food runs the idea that these are concepts to be applied within the real world. Putting guests on a monk's diet is not likely to have lasting effects outside the sanctum.
If I have one regret, it's that my program doesn't allow me to spend as much time enjoying my suite as I would like. For those whose tastes run to individual and eclectic, the accommodation at Como Shambhala is unmatched, even among Bali's top drawer resorts.
Each suite is different. My Tirta Ening has a waterfall within the walled domain of my private garden. Not a gushing, noisy delinquent to invade my sleep but a silvery sprite that trickles down a ferny rock face and splashes into a pond large enough for swimming. The novelty of my own waterfall charms me, but there is much else to enjoy in my small green kingdom. Off to one side is a bale with white cushions and bamboo blinds on three sides, a Japanese style bath carved from an enormous rock with a bamboo spout and a Jacuzzi. All mine.
Guest rooms are a synthesis of Balinese tradition and bespoke deluxe. A Persian rug sits on the dark timber floor, a filmy mosquito net wraps the bed in a tulip bud. Antique painted timber doors open to the garden and there's a big verandah jutting into raw forest. Outside the front door is a 20-metre infinity pool which is shared with the villa opposite. On a terrace above, a pavilion with day beds and books hovers above a moat filled with carp.
This does not come cheap. The three-night stress management program costs $1974, the seven-night rejuvenation package will set you back $5285, but both include all meals, a couple of massages, wellness consultation and all daily activities plus airport transfers. A 7-night program at a top holistic health retreat in Australia will cost less than $4000, although with fewer frills, and nothing like the celestial accommodation and setting of Como Shambhala, nor food of this calibre.
It's a cocktail that appeals to a very specific clientele, with solo women aged between 30 and 60 in the majority. Many are regulars, taking time out from busy careers in the corporate stratosphere, to be enthusiastically transformed in the space of a few days from battle-weary warrior to alfalfa femmes. Some are yoga adepts but more are just trying not to fall over.
Which is pretty much what I'm doing as I stand in the shower, slippery from the oil douche that Dr Dwarak has prescribed. Although if I was doing it strictly according to his instructions, I'd be standing outside, oiled up and naked in the mountain pose and letting the warm sun work its magic, but that is an order from the doctor that won't be happening.
Our rating 5
Tripadvisor Traveller Rating 5
Travel time from Ngurah Rai International Airport to Como Shambhala is 90 minutes. Ubud is about a 10-minute drive.
The daily rate starts from US$800 for two. The rate includes two meals per day, an airport transfer, a chauffeured Ubud tour and a choice of massages, facials and wellness consultations plus participation in the estate's daily schedule of activities.
The writer stayed as a guest of Como Shambhala Estate