My taxi driver negotiates the hairpin bends as we follow a snaking mountain road out of Kandy, in central Sri Lanka, through tea country and past forests of jackfruit trees. There's no inkling of our destination, no tantalising glimpses of luxury bungalows along the way, which is no accident.
Sri Lanka's first purpose-built wellness resort is deliberately secluded, situated on half a square kilometre of forested former tea plantation, a cool 850 metres above sea level.
Even when you arrive, you won't see it, not at first. Instead, a staff member must lead you from the modest stone reception area to the main pavilion – along an unpaved path made muddy by the wet season rain.
A muddy track at a luxury resort? This too is deliberate, a way to reconnect with nature inspired by camping trips Santani's founders used to take when they were friends at university. They all went on to high-flying business careers, but returned home to create Santani Wellness Resort & Spa, which opened in late 2016.
The main pavilion is the understated centrepiece of the resort, an elegantly simple two-storey structure built of wood and windows on a ridge overlooking the forested valley. Just looking at it is calming.
It's all about "the architecture of silence", director of operations Chamindra Goonewardene says.
"When you're in a city, when you're in Melbourne or New York or London, you're constantly being stimulated. Everything here has been built not to stimulate you.
"That's why the resort has been designed with a minimal footprint, to be unobtrusive, we use very clean lines, try to keep it as symmetrical as possible. You're constantly being invited to gaze into the distance. Even the colour palette is very easy on the eyes. Our intention is to bring you back to your natural peace."
The nature-centric, minimalist ethos continues in the 20 chalets, box-like white cabins on stilts inspired by 16th-century Buddhist meditation caves found all over Sri Lanka.
They certainly feel cave-like with their polished concrete floors and walls and no windows – for privacy as well as to draw your eye straight ahead, through the sliding glass doors and beyond, to the view. Glass panels along the base of each wall let in light and glimpses of the garden.
A king-sized bed draped with a white mosquito net dominates my room. There's no art on the walls, no decoration but a bowl of fresh purple lotus flowers and a simple hand-painted flower motif on the bedhead, a rustic touch.
That first afternoon I walk in, close the door behind me and flop on the bed. Then I feel a gentle breeze. It takes me a minute to realise it's coming from timber louvres at the top of each wall. The natural ventilation means there's no need for airconditioning, but it's also a way to bring the outside in.
Every night I fall asleep listening to crickets, frogs and the wind breathing through the trees. Every morning I wake to birdsong or the drumming of rain on my roof.
It seems odd there are no "do not disturb" door tags, particularly at a resort where guests include honeymooning couples and those on healing "journeys", until Goonewardene explains why.
"Generally we have decent pulse of the guests when they check in," he says. "We get to know when someone needs to be left alone … and emotional intelligence is something we train our staff on. We try to have a support mindset, not just a service mindset."
This extends even to simple situations. One morning I do a guided nature walk, learning about tea and local birds and the 36 peaks of the World Heritage Knuckles range you can see on a clear day – and get caught in drenching rain. Back in my room, no sooner have I wrapped myself in a waffle robe and settled down to watch wisps of mist rising from the valley than there's a knock at the door. It's a waiter delivering the pot of warming ginger tea I hadn't ordered.
Dinner is a low-key event each night, the only dress code "barefoot". There's a meditative vibe, perhaps because there's no alcohol (like Wi-Fi, the wine list is available only on request). Monk-like waiters, also barefoot and dressed in full-length navy-blue sarongs, glide between candle-lit tables, silent except when explaining the dishes.
You could stay at Santani for the food alone. Executive chef Wajira Gamage had a distinguished 40-year career split between the top hotels in France and his native Sri Lanka before starting at Santani and pioneering "healthy fine dining". He also applies Ayurvedic (ancient "science of life") principles in a new way, ensuring every meal contains the six Ayurvedic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, astringent and pungent. Not that you would know, except the meals are so truly nourishing you never feel the need to snack.
The semi-subterranean spa is an award-winning structure in its own right. The treatment rooms and yoga studio are open-air, the steam room and cedarwood sauna have glass walls looking onto a lawn where you might see spotted deer or rabbits, and the saltwater plunge pool is half bath, half hide – it's the best spot on the entire property for birdwatching, Goonewardene says.
For a resort so in touch with nature, it makes sense that Santani is serious about sustainability, even exceeding global standards. "We want to make sure we are constantly ahead of the curve on that – we owe it to the planet," Goonewardene says. As well as being extremely energy efficient, Santani is reforesting the site, working towards being zero-plastic and planning to be fully solar, collect and filter its own rainwater and grow 80-90 per cent of its fresh organic produce by mid-2019.
There are also plans to take the Santani brand offshore, with Ayurvedic resorts planned for South Africa, Mauritius and Portugal.
After just three days of twice daily yoga classes, Ayurvedic meals and treatments, and enlightening chats with the Ayurvedic doctor and yoga teachers, the serenity of Santani seeps into me. I feel renewed, reconnected, refreshed. And the feeling lingers when I return home.
So many wellness resorts promise the moon and don't quite deliver; or they soothe you only while you're there. Santani is the real deal, a genuinely transformative, healing place, for wherever we find ourselves on life's muddy path.
Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of Santani with flights by G Adventures.
SriLankan Airlines flies direct to Colombo from Melbourne and via Singapore from Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth; see srilankan.com
Santani is five hours by car from Colombo. The train from Colombo to Kandy takes three hours plus an hour's taxi ride to the resort. Stay five nights and you get a free airport transfer one-way; stay seven nights and you get a free 30-minute seaplane transfer to Kandy. There is also a helipad near the resort. See santani.lk to arrange transfers.
Rooms at Santani Wellness Resort & Spa start at $US685 a night including all meals. See santani.lk
Global wellness travel company Health and Fitness Travel has a team of specialists in Australia who can arrange seven-day programs at Santani with a detox, weight loss, fitness, yoga or healing focus, from $4490 twin share. Call 1300 551 353 or see healthandfitnesstravel.com.au