Thursday, January 31, 2008

Shaanti Holistic Health Retreat

I’m back in Bukavu for the moment, but I left wisps of my soul sitting under the palms at Shaanti gazing out over the Indian Ocean. I’m writing this piece enthusiastically recommending Shaanti, and the Kenyan coast in general, firstly because Shaanti is truly a haven for burnt-out workers (those of us working in the non-profit as well as the for-profit sectors) like myself, but also because I want to do whatever I can to rebuild the image of Kenya that is taking such a battering at the moment.

Beach-side entrance to Shaanti

What has stayed with me is the utter peace and tranquility that one finds at Shaanti. Resting on a quiet area of a long white-sand beach fringed with palms (from the ocean you barely see the outline of low, creamy thatched-roof buildings tucked behind the trees), you are far from any road and during my entire stay I never heard or saw a car. The only sound is the wind rustling the palms or rushing through the ironwoods by the shore and the gentle roar of the ocean as it crashes over the reef many meters from the beach.

View of Shaanti from the beach

Heaven for me is freedom from mobile phones, other peoples’ radios, the sound of generators, piped music… you will find none of this at Shaanti. Friendly staff greet you quietly in the morning with your tea or fresh squeezed juice arriving on your private terrace at just the hour you requested; guests murmur while savouring every bite of the delicious food; Dayananda the yoga instructor gently encourages you to “breathe deeply, exhale completely” while you fall into a meditative trance cradled in the softly buffeting ocean air. Wild life in the Shaanti gardens includes monkeys, the occasional baboon, ibis, and the remarkable silvery-cheeked hornbill (which I identified using my Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa!)

Room with a terrace (at 6 am!)

Male Silvery-cheeked Hornbill

Small, and family owned, the management of Shaanti treats visitors like friends. Tasreen, the general manager, finds time for a quick word with each guest during the day to see how they are and if anything is needed. The day I was due to leave turned out to be the day that demonstrations erupted in Nairobi and Mombasa. Tasreen came to my table where I was enjoying the divine breakfast of fresh fruits and light pancakes made with coconut milk, to let me know that she could not let me leave when the situation was so uncertain. She arranged for my Mombasa to Nairobi flight to be re-booked, and when there was no flight available for two more days, she said that I would not be charged for the extra nights. I had tears in my eyes when thanking her – the feeling of being taken care of and cared about touched me deeply.

Early morning yoga class

Dayananda, patient and friendly yoga instructor with over ten years teaching experience

Shaanti is especially popular with women traveling alone and needing a place where they can retreat from all the usual discomforts and annoyances of being a single woman in a (still) male-dominated world. We spend so much of our time being concerned for others, taking care of others, paying attention to the details of our work and our working and home environments that we forget what it is like to have others take care of us. At Shaanti I felt relaxed and cared for under the all-female management team; there is no bar, although you’re welcome to order a glass of wine with your meal, and this also ensures a quiet and relaxed atmosphere. There are massage therapists offering a variety of treatments, including reflexology, aromatherapy, and even facials using fresh fruits!

Secluded treatment rooms

The ocean is refreshing and protected by the reef, and there is also a good-sized pool under shady trees where I swam laps and watched the monkeys scampering across overhead branches. I always had the pool to myself, and indeed often had the “tree-house” to myself where I lounged with a book on the comfy sofa, every few minutes resting my eyes on the delicious blue-green ocean hues and wondering how I could possibly bring myself to leave.

The shady pool

Cozy sofas in the tree house

But leave I did, and for anyone concerned about traveling in Kenya I would like to assure you that everyone you come into contact with is also concerned for your comfort and safety. My taxi driver took care to ensure that we left the hotel in plenty of time before dark, and that we drove through a quiet part of Mombasa to reach the airport. Kenya Airways provided us with a free drink and snack at the airport when our flight was delayed a couple of hours, and arriving late in Nairobi with no connecting flight until morning, the airline also provided me with free hotel accommodation at a five-star hotel near the airport, including breakfast and transport to and from the hotel. Can I say anything more about what a wonderful holiday destination Kenya is? There is still so much that I haven’t seen and that I plan to see in the future: a safari to one of the famous parks (the Masai Mara, Tsavo East & West, Aberdare, Shimba Hills, Marsabit, to name a few!) and most certainly a vacation on the car-free historic Swahili island of Lamu.

Here are a few more photos from Shaanti. I'm sure you'll understand why several guests return regularly and why I also intend to return!

View from my room

Watching the traffic…

View from the yoga mat…

View from the tree house…

Local architecture (Buddha on the Beach seafood restaurant at Shaanti)

My favourite windows…

The tree house

Oyster bar!

For more information about Shaanti take a look at their web site:

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Visit Kenya!

Fabulous never-ending palm-fringed white sand beaches, the bluest of oceans, scrumptious sea-food, friendly and efficient hotel staff: just a few reasons to visit Kenya! And that's just the coast...there are the famous safaris too! The animals are lonely without you; you are missing experiences of a life time by not coming. My wonderful stay at the Shaanti Holistic Health Retreat ( more details and photos to follow!) was extended by a few welcome days, courtesy of the Nairobi and Mombasa demonstrators. Kenya is safe for tourists - no visitors were ever in any difficulties or dangers during the recent problems. Kenyans welcome tourists and many rely on tourists for their livelihoods. Tourists who cancel their trips are missing out on all that Kenya has to offer - it is their loss! I was treated so well by everybody during my recent stay - especially the hotel management and staff and Kenya Airways - that I sincerely hope that the tourists will soon return to this wonderful country. Do not let political problems distract you - they do not affect the visitors. But your absence does affect the lives of many!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Last Post for 2007

To rejeuvenate body and soul come here to Shaanti! I was going to write a lot more about how fabulous it is here, but events have taken over. Post-election violence has affected cities and towns across Kenya, due to allegations of vote-rigging and heavy disappointment at the apparent re-election of Kibaki. The main contender, Raila Odinga, is believed by many to be the true winner of the election. Here on the beach (my room is just yards from the Indian Ocean) we are only marginally touched by events, with a few guests unable to leave when planned, and others unable to arrive. For more details of the news the BBC and CNN websites carry full reports.

We are having a sea-food feast here this evening, all the guests together, but it will be a muted event. Many Kenyans will not be celebrating; too many have been killed; too many affected by the violence, burning and looting that has been taking place. Kenya has so much going for it: a beautiful country with a thriving tourist industry and much to offer, increasing commercial agriculture, increasing industry, a large number of well-educated people, and a strong desire for peace.

Wishing you all peace for 2008.