This supremely peaceful and nurturing sanctuary only came about thanks to a spur of the moment decision by founders John and Karina Stewart to take a short cut to the beach. On the way, they stumbled on a monks' cave set into a rocky hillside - as they subsequently discovered it had been home to a succession of Buddhist monks for over 300 years. It was the palpable healing energy of the cave, as much as the natural tropical beauty of the setting, nestled into a hillside on the island of Koh Samui overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, that called to them.
As a former Hindu monk who'd spent 16 years living in an ashram in the Himalayas, American-born John immediately felt the pull of destiny and now, five years later, the couple are realising their dream as "caretakers of the cave".
In that short time, Kamalaya - the name means Lotus Realm with its suggestions of personal growth and spiritual enrichment - has won such accolades as Best Wellness Retreat in the 2008 Spa Asia Crystal awards, acknowledgment as one of the world's 10 best for various programs including Mind-Body-Spirit, Weight Loss and Yoga, and earned Karina recognition as Spa Personality of the Year at the 2009 Asia Spa awards. Perhaps most significantly it has been acknowledged as setting the benchmark for the spa industry with its defining difference being its commitment to a holistic approach to health and wellness. As Karina explains, the fact that the industry, as well as guests, has acknowledged this depth of service as the way to go in the future does indicate Kamalaya's visionary role - "We're happy to inspire that direction in the industry."
Certainly, in very convivial discussions with fellow guests around the communal dinner table - an inspired idea to bring together sole travellers or even, as in our case, couples who enjoy the opportunity to reach out and connect with others - it's Kamalaya's holistic ethos that draws most comment. For most, it's a refreshing change from the conventional approach where a massage, however stimulating or relaxing, is still just a massage and meals, however delicious, are not designed to offer you life-changing nutritional advice to take with you once you leave. In contrast, the five star Kamalaya experience is designed to help you transform your life once you're back in the real world. Their slogan is "Feel Life's Potential" and I, for one, found a sense of empowerment I intend to honour in the years ahead.
Synergy, a rather over used word these days, is nevertheless the only way to describe what Kamalaya offers, as it melds together healing therapies from East and West, nutritious and beautifully presented food, holistic fitness practices, group retreats and individual wellness programs and spacious, yet secluded, accommodation, all blessed by the energy of the monks' cave looking out over coconut palms to the tranquil waters of the Gulf of Thailand.
The treatment menu is a feast in itself with more than 70 therapies and modalities on offer. While the West is well represented with fitball, power walks along the beach, pilates, gym routines, astrology and hypnotherapy, I'm more drawn to the Eastern approaches with their emphasis on revitalising and balancing qi - after all, we are in Thailand and gentle qi rejuvenation along the lines of Tai Chi and Qigong and maybe some pranayama breathing and Yin Yoga is more where I'm at these days. Or so I think! Little do I know when I walk into my Holistic Fitness Evaluation with naturopath Lily Hoang the day after arrival that my "not too strenuous" expectations are about to be completely overturned - and my goals set immeasurably higher.
While I can look back now and see I was fit and strong in my youth, a serious knee injury in recent years has taken its toll (that sporty youth exacted a cost). To cut a long story short, to contemplate strenuous gym sessions, climbing countless steep steps to reach the treatment rooms set high on the hillside (part of the wellness strategy I now realise), performing yoga stretches I thought were only possible in my memory and to cycle twice as far on Day Three as I'd managed on Day One on the exercise bike would have taxed all my powers of credulity. But I did it - and loved it! My personal trainer, the aptly named Sunny, set my bar very high and, sweating a little too profusely, I thank him for the liberating sense of empowerment he has returned to me.
Of course, my tailored seven day Ideal Weight program had its quieter moments too, as befitting a lady of too much leisure over the years. I did get to experience those qi-based therapies of my dreams, most notably stimulating acupuncture, a glorious Oriental Herbal Detoxifying Body Scrub and Wrap, some deeply soothing lymphatic drainage and, a Thai speciality, Chi Nei Tsang or Taoist abdominal massage, where the therapist's probing fingers seem to reach all the way to your backbone! It's recommended for restoring balance to the internal organs by promoting circulation and even for releasing stored tension to promote healing on an emotional level. As my therapist put it echoing the Chinese view, "If your digestion is healthy, you are strong."
I did get to practise Tai Chi Qigong on the beach in an early morning session with the impressive Doctor Song Qinggeng, a graduate of Shanghai's University of Traditional Chinese Medicine and recognised as an expert in anti-ageing treatments. Stretching high to embrace the energy of the universe on a beautiful sunny morning as fishermen go about their work out on the bay embodies the peace at the heart of Kamalaya. And while I would have swapped one of my Far Infrared sauna sessions for a Royal Ayurvedic or Vital Essence Oil Massage (both the stuff of delicious reminiscences at our communal dinner table) my lack of being an Ideal Weight ensured these were not part of my program. That said, if you have the chance to sample an Far Infrared sauna session, take it - there's something very satisfying about sweating out all those calories and even the prospect of enduring 30 minutes at 45C gets easier the more you do it. Get a medical check first though.
It's almost impossible to imagine someone couldn't enjoy their stay at Kamalaya - although I doubt it's the place for anyone addicted to TV and sun, surf and sand. The tidal beach on the SE side of Koh Samui is perhaps the only disappointment, but my husband, for one, enjoyed exploring its changing rhythms.
Kamalaya's energy is more about what happens within. It really does seem to be the goal of all the staff - and there are many, including 25 who have been with the resort since before its opening in November 2005 - that each guest is nurtured and guided towards better health and happiness. In a word, wellness. There's absolutely no sense of a "boot camp" - the guiding hand is firm, but the choice is always yours, whether it be for a glass of wine with dinner, an occasional sleep in or, as several guests enjoyed during our stay, a day out on the bay swimming at secluded beaches and snorkelling in the quiet waters. There are no prerequisites and no pressure.
The kindness, skill and sincerity of Kamalaya's staff is very special, a reflection I have no doubt of the commitment to service that John and Karina Stewart and partner Marc-Antoine Cornaz espouse. And being Thai, it comes with a beaming smile. It's telling that three of our fellow guests, all travelling alone as is often the case, all extended their stays just to absorb more of the healing energy.
Beyond that, a stay at Kamalaya equips you to go back to your daily routines with the realisation that the power to transform your life, in all its aspects because all are interrelated, lies within you. Once you feel that potential, there's no going back.
Margaret Evans was a guest of Kamalaya Koh Samui. Koh Samui is serviced by Bangkok Air and Thai Airways out of Bangkok and Phuket.