Rejuvenation in the Enchanted Forest: Harmony Spa at Gokarna Resort

Features Issue 22 Aug, 2010
Text by Sujal Jane Dunipace / Photo: ECS Media

Imagine gazing out at a lush  forest canopy of century-old  trees, being caressed by fresh breezes and inhaling delicate  scents of rose and sandalwood, while having your weary muscles massaged in firm yet sensitive strokes.  Imagine a week of daily massages, body wraps, swimming, saunas, yoga, meditation, and a cleansing yet delicious diet in rooms with lovely Nepali and Indian antiques, soft music and the natural sounds of humming cicadas and frogs, among the ancient leafy giants of Gokarna forest. These are real possibilities at the new Harmony Spa.

The Spa was part of the original vision of the Gokarna Resort before it opened in 1999, but was put on hold when tourism took a tumble.  The concept was revived last summer, when new Le Meridien Resort Manager Samira Warda came on board. (Le Meridien is an international five-star hotel chain, which Gokarna Resort is part of; thus the complex  is also called Le Meridien, Kathmandu.) Having worked at top spas in Thailand and Kerala, India (where Ayurvedic treatments originated), Samira has seen to every aspect of Harmony’s development, from the design of the rooms to training the massage therapists, to developing the Spa’s unique oils and soaps.  Under Samira’s guidance, the Spa invites guests to “soothe your senses”, in a “total wellness experience”.  Every detail seems designed to offer peace and rejuvenation of both body and mind.

The Spa and Resort is an unexpectedly short (25 minute) drive from the heart of Kathmandu, past Boudhanath and Jorpati, but it seems in a different world.  The road winds up through tall stands of pine and intensely green, dense forest, already relieving the lungs from the grit of Kathmandu air.  When I passed through the entrance to Le Meridien, the resort’s hotel, I was first struck by what appeared to be a giant Malla palace, all red brick and tiered roofs. No, wait, isn’t that an iron girder? This impressive piece of architecture is the new section of Le Meridien under construction.

The themes of preserving and using natural surroundings and combining the best of south Asian and European traditions continue through virtually every aspect of the Harmony Spa and Gokarna Resort. Entering the door to the Spa, one passes under the awesome branches of two giant rubber trees, each with a base of at least five meters. The magnificent citadel of a tree on the left is a bit of a botanical celebrity, as it was featured in the film “Little Buddha” (much of the movie was shot in the Gokarna forest). Inside, the front room welcomes visitors with the delicious scents of the aromatherapy / Ayurvedic oils and soaps developed exclusively for the Spa (which are more appealing to European senses than the somewhat pungent purely traditional Ayurvedic ingredients).  The room is furnished primarily with antiques from Kerala, including wooden chairs with striking geometric carvings and two tables made from Kerala doors, massive wooden pieces with a series of brass studs set throughout. (The original purpose of these? For local elephants to scratch their hides!) Passing through the dressing rooms (gender differentiated by lovely Nepali carvings of a woman’s and a man’s head) and by the saunas, Jacuzzi, and massage rooms, the atmosphere remains relaxed and elegant, with cool colors, comfortable amenities and accents like Roman temple columns and vases of gently twisting branches. The European theme really takes over when one enters the swimming pool area, a huge modern glass atrium with bright primary colors. Amazingly, there is a bar in the pool itself, where guests sip carrot juice or imported beers according to their preference while perched on the submerged tiled barstools. There is also a small café near the edge of the pool, which serves a specific Spa menu of pan-Asian and European light meals and snacks.  (I sampled an imaginative smoked salmon cannelloni and a delicious chicken breast with mild curry sauce. Although they can count calorie intake exactly from the menu listings, it seems unlikely that dieters would feel deprived here!) Upstairs are the beauty parlor, more massage rooms, and the gym.  (More about them later.)

Samira says,  “The treatments at Harmony Spa are based on aroma, touch, vision, sound, taste, and ambience.” Treatments include specific soothing or energizing music and subtle herbal teas, and sometimes a footbath, as well as the special techniques, ingredients, and tranquil settings used for each.

The Harmony Spa offers a wide variety of massages, from a 30-minute reflexology session for feet or hands (Rs 1300) to 45-minute Swedish body massages (Rs 1700), to the full body ninety minute “Marma” traditional Ayurveda massage (Rs 2500), “stimulating the 107 vital body pressure points”. Other possibilities include a Golfer’s massage and ‘Adam and Eve’ massages for couples. The Spa will even teach couples to massage each other – a gift of ongoing relaxation and sensual connection. (See accompanying article for a detailed description of a Harmony Spa massage.)  Guests can choose indoor or outdoor massages.

There are also Body Wraps, Body Rubs, and Facials to deeply cleanse, moisturize, purify, exfoliate, and/or relax the skin. Samira kindly insisted I try a facial, the first one of my life. “We use all pure, natural ingredients, no chemicals,” she assured me. (The mouth- watering list of ingredients for the various treatments includes honey, milk, pumpkin, orange, aloe vera, turmeric, apple, oatmeal, mint, coffee, and rice, as well as natural aromatic oils.)

Roma, the facial artist, massaged my face gently with a mysterious series of substances with scents of roses and then bananas, then a sandy feeling one…I smiled as my face relaxed. Roma said softly, “Don’t smile, it will make wrinkles here and here.” She touched the corners of my mouth and eyes. That made me laugh. I tried to look serious, but it got really difficult when she covered my face in cucumbers. They are very cool and soothing, but the scope for comedic imagination was overwhelming!

Completing the spectrum of services available at the Spa, for more specific health concerns, an Ayurvedic doctor is available for consultation and treatment, and the Spa has a beauty salon with a variety of beauty treatments. Currently waxing, nail care, and hairstyling, with experts from L’Oreal overseeing the operations, are available.

The treatments can be combined in packages of one day to a week for specific purposes, including ‘rejuvenation’, ‘cleansing’, and ‘weight loss’; and the Spa has therapists who  work with guests or members to develop their own programs according to individual needs.

The Spa has the aforementioned lovely swimming pool, with a smaller pool for children.  It also boasts Jacuzzis and saunas, separated by gender, and has a gym and fitness center that overlooks the green seas of the golf course and forest. The gym, with its calm dance studio atmosphere (one wall is covered with mirrors set with a ballet style bar) is currently used for meditation and yoga classes, but fitness equipment is being gradually imported and a meditation and yoga pavilion is being constructed outdoors.

Overnight Spa guests stay in rooms or suites in Le Meridien’s cottages, which feature beautiful local arts and crafts, natural and local materials, and the comforts of a five star hotel.  (Le Meridien Kathmandu is not yet rated, but appears through this observer’s untrained eyes to meet the five star standards.) They can choose to eat at the Spa’s café or at the nearby hundred and forty-yea- old Hunter’s Lodge, once used by the kings of Nepal and their guests.

The Spa Boutique offers the essential oils used for their massages and soaps based on the same plant extracts for sale in the foyer. A detailed description of the properties of each of the scents is available. For instance, geranium is described as “sustaining, relaxing, and restoring…(It) balances sebum and is therefore suitable for all skin types.” The soaps are natural glycerin. CDs of the music played during massages can be purchased, and the Spa also offers an elegant boxed incense set with a Buddha sculpted from incense and incense sticks.

The Harmony Spa offers yearlong memberships for individuals (Rs 45,000) or families (Rs 70, 000 per year) which include use of the facilities and various coupons and/or discounts on treatments, boutique items, stays at Le Meridien, and golf at the Resort.  Or you can take the long view and sign up for a twelve-year membership for Rs 2,50,000. Fortunately, this one is transferable!  That is, if you leave Kathmandu before the membership expires (or you expire before the membership does…), your membership can be given or sold to someone else. While not inexpensive, these rates are within the range of the other luxury health clubs in town.  And, as Gorkhana Director Suman Sachdev explains, the resort and spa are open to anyone who pays the fees, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, or caste.

There is a special daily use guest rate of Rs 1000  (500 or 750 for children below 12 or aged 12 to 18 respectively) through the month of September.  After that the rates go up to Rs 1500 for adults; 800 and 1000 for young people.

Even though it is only a little beyond its first month in operation, the Harmony Spa is already attracting a robust international business. Samira has envisioned the elements of the Spa and Resort coming together to make this oasis – and Kathmandu - one of the new  “spa destinations” becoming popular throughout the world. Barring any new tourism disasters, it seems likely that she will get her wish.

In the front room of Harmony Spa, there is a guest comment book, which is full of glowing compliments, mostly about the delights of the treatments they received and the ambience of the place.  One reads simply, “Now I am very happy.” What more need be said?