Ask about Shillim to anyone in Mumbai, and you will mostly be greeted by quizzical looks. Did you mean ‘Shillong’, would be the usual response. Tucked away in the Western Ghats, this rather unknown little mountain village is where the Hilton’s new spa retreat is located. The relatively obscure location that it resides in could as well turn out to be one of the best things about the Hilton Shillim Estate Retreat and Spa.

Head for the hills

If you have ever lived in the madness that is Mumbai, sooner or later you will start relating to the familiar need to “get away from it all”. As much as the city thrives on the relentless energy of its people, there will come a time when you will need to find some peace and quiet, if only to remember what peace and quiet actually feels like. And this is where Shillim enters the picture.

As I slipped into the Fortuner waiting at the airport to take me to Shillim, the windows rolled up and Mumbai was drowned out. With a bottle of chilled water and a cold towel for my face, I was all set to head for the hills.

A three-hour drive from Mumbai – if you leave before peak hour traffic begins – Shillim is a little town past the commercialised chikki capital that is Lonavla, on the route from Mumbai to Pune. The scenic drive takes you through the Sahayadri Mountains, where the landscape changes with every season. As we drive through, the mountains are a dry brown with specks of green, but I am told the area around Shillim springs to life during the monsoons. An easier option is to take a helicopter ride that will get you there in just 25 minutes – if your wallet can handle it!

The Hilton’s retreat at Shillim occupies 320 acres and is part of the Shillim Institute and Resort that is 2,500 acres large. The institute is an attempt to conserve the ecologically sensitive area that is nestled among the Sahayadri hills. In fact, the entire retreat is built to be environmental-friendly and an addition to the Shillim Institute that gives guests a chance to appreciate nature.

Luxury au naturel

Walking in to Hilton Shillim, the first thing that strikes me is the completely wild and natural state of the foliage. Not for them, the well-manicured lawns and perfectly trimmed flowerbeds around exotic shrubs – here, it seemed to be really about getting back to nature, and yet it is not unkempt.

The vegetation is left untouched and the natural flora and fauna is undisturbed, giving the place a very earthy feel. I am told that while planning the resort, instructions were given that no trees were to be cut or displaced and the architects, instead, ensured that more trees were planted. The grey stone and wood buildings seem to fit right into the ambience, and the well-chosen subtle colours and materials give the place an uncluttered and laid-back feel.

I’m shown in to a spacious villa, like most other guests checking in would be. The villa for two comes with its very own private pool. The glass walls covered by sheer white curtains make you feel like you’re about ten steps away from being in the lap of nature.

The biggest draw for the Hilton Shillim would be the well-equipped spa on offer and spread over 70 acres; it’s sure to impress. The resort has, in fact, a dedicated spa zone with consulting areas, treatment rooms, relaxation rooms and a pool spread over the entire zone. I went in for a special Swedish massage, recommended by the spa’s doctor, who picked it from over 70 types of massages on offer here. An interesting option on the spa menu was personalised Yoga classes. You could choose between beginner level class, a sun salutation series or even a 90-minute pranayama session and you could also have the class in the privacy of your own villa. Definitely a great option if you hate missing your exercise routine while on holiday.

Wangshi, my masseuse, seemed to have magical hands as she kneaded away all the stress of a three-hour drive and an early morning flight. A scented eye-pillow, soft music and dim lighting made sure that I was fully relaxed and as I drifted off into that blissful state of rest, one thought crossed my mind – “I could get used to this!”

Stay for the food

If, like me, you associate a spa retreat with all things healthy and diet-conscious, the food at the Hilton Shillim will come as a pleasant surprise. Everything from the ‘health shots’ – a blend of fruit and vegetable juices – to the food at their all-day dining restaurant is gourmet.

My first taste of the food was at a special Lebanese themed lunch organised by the chef at the Green Table. From the fresh salad of rocket leaves with a vinegar dressing to the baba ghanoush and the delicious hummus to the floury white pita bread that melted in my mouth – the meal was awesome. And for the first time, I finished every single vegetable on my plate; my mother would certainly have been proud. The skewered chicken kebab was grilled to perfection and the accompanying garlic dip seasoned just right.

I doubted anything could top a lunch like that, but I was in for a surprise at dinner. I blame the fresh mountain air for giving me a rather ‘healthy’ appetite. From the roasted tomato soup with a hint of basil and garnished with fried mozzarella to the Black Angus fillet that was extremely tender and seasoned with pepper, the food was flawless. The glazed baby carrots and the herbs that seasoned the gin, coconut water and kaffir lime cocktail – all came from the resort’s own herb garden, and the freshness was deliciously conspicuous.

I tried to skip dessert after that satiating meal, but the sight of the dark chocolate mousse garnished with air-dried fruits, macadamia nuts and chocolate sand won me over – it was love at first taste.

Even breakfast the next day – which is usually a predictable affair – had some tasty treats up its sleeve. On the general manager’s recommendation I tried a savoury crepe stuffed with cheese and parma ham, and boy was I glad I took his advice! Add to this the strawberry Danish and some fresh apple juice and I was pretty sure I was going to leave Shillim a lot heavier than when I arrived.

The little things

Luxury at the Hilton Shillim is in the little things - like the personal butler who comes with every villa or the little buggy that he will ferry you around in. Imagine not having to walk more than a few hundred metres to get anywhere – it was nothing short of being treated like royalty. While only 33 villas have opened at present, about 66 more are in the pipeline and there resort has plans to expand the spa zone and the lifestyle zone. In collaboration with the institute, villa guests will have the chance to go trekking, learn horse riding, take a pottery class or even go check out the Lake Pavna nearby. For those looking to chill out, there is soon going to be a well-stocked wine lounge, a library and even a tea bar with its own in-house blends.

If you’re used to the fun vibe of seaside resorts, this hillside getaway might be not your first choice for a getaway. But with its strategic location just hours from Mumbai and its relatively easy accessibility, it’s sure to become one of the better getaway options.

The complete quiet and deep stillness at Shillim can work both ways – you’ll either love the infinite silence or you’ll miss the hustle and bustle that pervades every city. Another reason for that could be the complete lack of signal on your phone! No blinking lights and no incessant pings ensured that I could finally get back to a way of life that had a lot less technology and a lot more peace.

Walking around the property just before leaving, listening to the expansion plans and the new facilities that were coming up, and taking in the fresh mountain air, I couldn’t help but wonder how heading back to the insanity of a city would feel like after this haven of peace.

elizabeth.mathew@thehindu. co. in

(This article was published on February 18, 2013)
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