Sen Wellness Sanctuary, nestled beside a turtle nesting site on Sri Lanka’s stunning south coastline, is the sister sanctuary of Sen Wellness London, the brainchild of renowned Osteopath Sam Kankanamge. The Ayurvedic retreat has been featured in the Guardian and Conde Nast’s 2018 Spa Guide and is a favourite among wellness travellers seeking quiet respite from the world. CompareRetreats.com editor Rebecca Cairns checked in to the resort for three days of yoga, meditation and massages to experience the benefits of Ayurvedic therapies for herself…
Sen Wellness Sanctuary is situated on Sri Lanka’s southern coastline, near the towns of Netolpitiya and Tangalle. It’s tucked away from the world between Rekawa Lagoon and Rekawa Beach: the beach is a turtle nesting site and because of its isolated location, completely empty. It’s a beautiful beach with incredible waves, but because of the ocean currents, there’s no swimming allowed.
We visited the resort at the tail end of high season, just before the monsoon season began. The weather was generally good but very hot and humid.
The resort is very remote, and because of the road conditions, even small journeys take a lot of time. Galle Fort is around two hours drive, and the airport is four hours: the resort is happy to arrange transfers, which cost around US$100 each way.
Sen Wellness Sanctuary is built sympathetically to the natural beauty of its location. Designed by Brazilian-American architect Adriana Arbex, the resort uses circular shapes to create open, flowing spaces. The main building, separated from the main road by an impressive gate, opens into a circular courtyard and pond, with the treatments rooms to one side and the reception, dining area and communal reading space to the other. The thatched roof cabanas are accessed via an elevated walkway through the mangrove forest. The yoga shala is on the first floor, overlooking the trees (and often the monkeys who reside in the forest) and fully stocked with mats, blocks, straps and bolsters.
The reception is staffed from 8am-5pm, and the staff are all very friendly and accommodating although at times it felt as if there was no one overseeing the retreat. There is limited wifi access – one hour at breakfast, and one hour at dinner – which adds to the feeling of being cut off from the world. There’s no air con which means it can get quite warm and stuffy at times, but there are fans in the communal areas you can ask to be turned on. The resort doesn’t currently have a swimming pool, and it should be noted that you cannot swim at the beach or in the lagoon.
The resort sleeps 16 people in eight cabanas: beautiful circular eco-houses, stilted and designed to enhance natural airflow. I stayed in an upper floor room, which had a king-size four-poster bed with mosquito net, and open-air en-suite bathroom. The bathroom was lovely and the shower, which exposed the sky above it, was beautiful. The bedroom itself, while beautifully furnished with dark-wood wardrobes, cabinets and bed, was quite dark – to keep the monkeys and bugs out, I had to keep the window shutters and bamboo blinds down. The balcony offers views of the treetops. The resort and accommodation make you feel incredibly close to nature, which can be very relaxing or unnerving, depending on your feelings towards creepy crawlies.
I had two fans in the room but requested a third because I found it very warm in the evenings, though the mornings were cooler. The accommodation was very comfortable and quiet, which made winding down in the evenings easy. There were a couple of power cuts while I was there, but luckily they didn’t last too long.
The menu is predominantly Sri Lankan vegetarian cuisine, with the occasional fish dish. The menu is based on Ayurvedic principles and uses no sugar, salt or preservatives. Meals are served family-style at a communal table: breakfast at 8.30am, lunch at 1 pm, and dinner at 7 pm. Meals changed daily, and there was a good variety of dishes.
Breakfast always included a coconut water, roti (Sri Lankan bread) or rice, and dishes like dahl, coconut sambal, coconut pancakes, or soups. Lunch was usually a Sri Lankan curry selection, and my favourite of the three meals – dishes we were served included roast bitter gourd salad, vegetable or fish curries, lentil dahl, and plantain chips, all served with rice or roti. Dinner always included a green vegetable soup, roti or rice, and vegetable dish.
I found the food very simple, but it was filling and you were able to eat as much as you like. The diet at Sen Wellness Sanctuary felt healthy and was a wellness experience in itself: anyone looking to lose weight or detox would find positive results here. If you are someone who likes to know exactly what goes into your food or is fussy about food, this is not the place for you – we were never told what dishes were, and it was difficult to find out the ingredients.
Sen Wellness Sanctuary offers three, four, five, seven, 10 and 14-night retreat experiences, in addition to signature one-off retreats. I visited the Sanctuary for three-nights. All retreats include accommodation, three daily meals, and three daily ‘treatments’, decided upon after your initial consultation with the Ayurvedic doctor.
My retreat goal was to alleviate fatigue; I additionally asked the doctors about possible eczema treatments. They said that they had a seven-day therapy for eczema, but for the short time I was staying, they could try medication. They prescribed me a natural blood cleaning remedy, or ‘medication’, which was taken during breakfast and dinner for three days. The six pills and two liquid shots weren’t pleasant but weren’t difficult to take either.
The schedule for the retreat was left very open and flexible. Each morning began with yoga at sunrise – usually a 90-minute Vinyasa Flow class – followed by breakfast. Treatments lasted for 10-30 minutes and could be scheduled during the morning or afternoon. I requested mine to be in the morning so I would have afternoons for excursions. In the evening, there was a yoga session which rotated between Pranayama Yoga, meditation practice, or a meditation and gong bath session with a local Buddhist Monk.
05:30 Wake up call and tea
06:00 Sunrise yoga
09:00-13:00 Treatments/free time
14:00-17:00 Treatments/free time
17:00 Pranayama Yoga/Monk Meditation and Gong Bath
My treatments daily treatments for the three days included a four-hand full body massage; head, neck or foot massages; and Valuka Sweda, which uses heated sandbags to alleviate joint pain. All of the therapists were very friendly and I loved the massages.
I find meditation particularly difficult, but really enjoyed the Pranayama breathwork session, and the gong bath led by the monk. The open-air shala on the first floor was a beautiful setting for yoga practice, though there were a lot of bugs and ants which could be distracting while trying to relax.
The retreat offered a lot of activities, though only on certain days. The silent temple visit and cooking class were both scheduled for after my departure, so I instead opted to explore the lagoon on a boat ride. I also went to Galle for the afternoon on one day, though this was one of the excursions which incur additional costs (other options include whale watching, a safari trip to Yala National Park or Udawalawe National Park). The resort also offered a fully-stocked library and selection of books, which is good for those looking to read and relax on their holiday.
At the end of the three days, I had incredibly lost one kilo (probably in no small way due to the diet), and I felt thoroughly relaxed from all the massages. While my skin generally felt a lot more moisturised from the oil used in the treatments, my eczema had not improved noticeably, though the doctors had both said that the seven-day therapy was more effective in treating it when we started. My yoga and meditation techniques had both improved, and I felt I had made progress with the gong bath sessions. I felt less stressed, more awake and healthier.
Sen Wellness Sanctuary is perfect for hardcore ayurvedic fans or digital detoxing. For those looking for a lot of alone time and introspection, you couldn’t ask for a better place: be prepared to spend a lot of time with yourself. This resort is the opposite of the over-stimulation and frantic pace of modern life, and it can take a few days to get into the flow of things, so for travellers coming from afar, it is suggested to stay for at least a week, although many guests were there for two. Weight loss and detoxification seem to be a natural side effect of the prescribed lifestyle at Sen, so it’s additionally a great place for those looking to kick-start a diet and lose a few pounds.