It's testament to a place when guests return again and again. But at Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat they're not returning for the gourmet dinners, the beautiful wine or, frankly, the coffee. They're not even returning for the rooms, although there are several truly beautiful suites you might return for. And they're definitely not returning for the sleep-ins, as guests are rustled out of bed before dawn.
As Gwinganna celebrates its 10th anniversary, I ascend the steep driveway that cuts the renowned health retreat off from the real world. Tucked up high behind the Gold Coast on 200 hectares, it's a million miles from the washing, deadlines and school lunches I've left behind. I'm keen to know what makes this place tick; to discover why so many (neighbours and friends included) return here, often annually. Started in 2006 by Tony de Leede, the man behind the Fitness First gym chain, and part owned by Hugh Jackman (endearingly he wears a name tag like everyone else when staying here), Gwinganna is going from strength to strength. Everyone I talk to says you leave Gwinganna a changed person, which can only be a good thing.
In my last few hours before handing myself over to the Gwinganna team I do the unthinkable: scoff down something completely inappropriate like it's my last meal on death row. This is after already downing four shots of coffee earlier that day in the vain hope the caffeine will tide me over for the duration of my stay. Guiltily, I board my flight north, landing on the Gold Coast just as the heavens open.
On arrival, I'm ushered by golf buggy to one of three new meditation suites, designed to help guests practise mindfulness – or the therapeutic art of being present. All three suites overlook a billabong and a couple of wallabies nibble on the grass in the surrounding orchard. In what's claimed to be a world first, Gwinganna had the meditation suites designed to counter what staff say is an alarming rise in guest stress levels.
But there's no time to settle in to this soothing space with its inviting day bed on the deck, and "welcome" written in sand at the entrance. Instead I'm whisked off to Gwinganna's Spa for Abyhang Fusion, a holistic treatment inspired by traditional Ayurvedic principles that includes aromatherapy. As my therapist carries out a fully body massage and places a warm compress on my face, heavy rain falls on the roof and thunder growls across the escarpment. I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be.
After a welcome dinner (you are seated randomly with other guests unless you request otherwise) of delicious organic cuisine, others at my table confess the last things they consumed or did before the gates of Gwinganna swung closed behind them. One woman ate a triple chocolate Cornetto; another self-confessed phone addict sent dozens of text messages before voluntarily handing over her iPhone. We laugh, realising we all have our vices, as we are ushered into the conference room for the program introduction.
Inwardly I sigh when I hear Gwinganna volunteers will gently knock on your door at 5.30am (while it's still dark) for qi gong or bushwalking. Gwinganna program manager Kay explains to the assembled group of about 60 guests why rising early is so important for the circadian rhythm and why it's good to try new things. She concludes however by adding, "But those with small children might need to sleep instead. You should listen to your body." I sit up in my chair. Kay's my new best friend.
At Gwinganna, perhaps one of the more regimented of Australia's leading health retreats, strict adherence to exercise and diet has evolved into a program where there's now more choice – moving away from the boot camps of old. Having said that there is a no caffeine, alcohol (except on the two-night programs), cigarettes, carbohydrates, sugar or dairy policy. And the majority of those I speak to, particularly on the weekend program, make every second count – voluntarily waking before sunrise, taking part in the choice of yin (gentle) and yang (rigorous) exercises, all before morning tea is served on the veranda of The Store. At the tea break guests mingle happily as they munch on Gwinganna's tahini bliss balls – some had already been at Gwinganna a full week; one man a staggering three weeks with another two to go.
Sufficiently pious from all the morning's effort – bush walking, boxing or from taking a creative dance class – the afternoon program flows into Dreamtime, where guests are encouraged to book spa treatments at the superlative spa or simply curl up with a good book and rest. Not surprisingly this is everyone's favourite time of day. I find I don't want to leave my 120 sqm meditation suite, designed by Sydney-based Studio P, which sits at the bottom of the orchard. Bathed in natural light and decked out in a calm, neutral palette, the open-plan suites feature a day bed, deep bath, king size bed, private laundry facilities and inclusions such as a yoga mat, meditation cushion, and iPod loaded with meditation sessions and music.
Initially I was skeptical: I mean seriously how can a room encourage mindfulness? But I find the restful design actually does encourage you to be present. If you're keen, participate in every activity going. However I find the meditation suites had the reverse effect on me, or perhaps I should say the desired effect – making me want to hunker down and enjoy hanging out. I particularly loved the 30-minute sand timer which encourages guests to spend time meditating. The iPods with mindful sessions and music are also helpful. Turning over the black sand timer, I head out to the deck overlooking the billabong. Within 10 minutes of listening to a guided mindfulness session, with the comforting sound of rain on the roof, I had reached the ultimate in meditation: I was fast asleep.
I can easily be pulled out of my meditation suite however for time in Gwinganna's exceptional 33-room Spa Sanctuary where treatment rooms and a fantastic steam room are accessed by timber walkways which look out over a native spa garden and towering eucalypt trees. It's by far the best spa I've experienced in Australia and both the treatments and therapists are world class. My favourites are Rockupuncture, a treatment combing hot stone massage and acupuncture, created for Gwinganna by Keri Krieger, and a Zero Balancing treatment with Andy Kidd. I end up having the treatment with Andy by accident when we call off our private yoga class due to a detox headache that arrives demanding my attention.
It was bound to happen: day three and a migraine letting me know my body was hard at work detoxing from caffeine, sugar and processed foods I mindlessly consume. And it wasn't just me. Nearly everyone on the retreat was experiencing headaches ranging from mild to excruciating. At one point I consider booking a taxi and fleeing to the nearest cafe, but gentle encouragement from the staff, and magnesium tablets helped me push through.
By day four, I couldn't believe how great I felt. The wonderful food, the exercise classes (the restorative yoga and deep water running were my favourites), combined with the attention and enthusiasm of the bright-eyed staff, who are a walking advertisement for Gwinganna. Not to mention I was a now a convert to magnesium. Seriously, it's changed my life.
By day five I was ready to face the world again, feeling calm and on top of the world. I admit I stopped off at a cafe on the way to the airport, but as I sat and savoured every drop of my latte, I realised for me it's all about finding balance in this crazy, fast-paced world. I tell you what though, coffee never tasted so good.
STAYING & GETTING THERE
Two-night stays in a heritage room inclusive of all organic meals, all activities, wellness seminar, airport transfers from Gold Coast Airport and a massage start from $980 per person twin share, or $1510 in a meditation suite.
FIVE OTHER WELLNESS TRAVEL TRENDS
It's the phenomenon sweeping the globe – colouring in for grown-ups. At Billabong Retreat (billabongretreat.com.au), just outside of Sydney, guests are encouraged to choose and colour in mandalas, helping to feel calm and present. Solfood (solnutrition.com.au) also offers mindful colouring at its Byron Bay retreats.
You arrive in a new city, fancy a run but don't know the lay of the land. Westin Hotels (starwoodhotels.com/westin/about/move-well.html) are encouraging runners of all levels to join a Run Concierge at select properties including San Francisco, Florence, Chicago and Sydney, or grab a RunWESTIN map and head out on your own.
CELEBRITY HEALTH EXPERTS
As part of a refreshed Vibe Hotels and Vibe Fit offering, TFE Hotels plans several wellbeing weekends annually (the most recent was with yoga teacher Lola Berry) along with in-room yoga, healthy menu options and running maps (tfehotels.com/brands/vibe-hotels). Westin Hotels and Resorts meanwhile has appointed certified health coach and model Rachael Finch as its wellbeing advocate in the Asia Pacific region (westinwellness.starwoodasiapacific.com), offering health tips, recipes and leading occasional classes.
Specialised programs are now being offered to treat sleep disorders. Kamalaya (kamalaya.com) in Koh Samui offers a sleep enhancement program, Gwinganna (gwinganna.com) offers a four-night sleep, sugar and stress retreat while Soneva Kiri in Thailand offers a Yogic Sleep program (soneva.com/soneva-kiri).
Proponents say oxygen therapy boosts energy levels, alleviates migraines and eases hangovers. Try it for yourself at the W Seminyak's (wretreatbali.com/awayspa) Away Spa, the Remede Spa at the St Regis Aspen (stregisaspen.com), or book a soothing oxygen facial at Elizabeth Arden's Red Door (reddoorspas.com) Spas in New York.
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat.