Cabarita Ocean Retreat, Casuarina review: Living well in denial

Read our writer's views on this property below

Simon Webster leaves coffee and fry-ups behind and gives his body over to a luxury health retreat.

I am having a "man facial". I don't know what "woman facials" are like, but having someone rub innumerable oils and lotions into your face, interspersed with the application of hot towels and head and shoulder massages, with a backing track of humpback whales playing pan pipes, is, much to my surprise, actually quite wonderful.

"You're glowing," says my fellow guest, Eva, at dinner. Usually that would make me worry about my blood pressure, and I would pour myself another red wine to numb the pain of my imminent demise. But I believe on this occasion it may be a sign of well-being. Perhaps there's something to this health retreat lark after all.

I am staying at the Cabarita Ocean Retreat on the NSW far north coast.

It is apparently five-star accommodation, which surprises me, as there's no cable television, you can't get pizza sent to your room and the wine list is non-existent.

Fry-ups are off the menu, but the food doesn't disappoint.

Not only is there no alcohol on the premises, but no coffee, sugar, dairy, gluten or preservatives. Ordinarily, that would indicate the kitchen manager has locked himself in the pantry with the cooking sherry and no one has ordered any provisions. But in this case it's deliberate. It turns out that staying at a health retreat involves a certain commitment to being healthy.

Forty per cent of guests here are men, says the retreat's co-founder, Brook Ramage. That's a high figure for the health retreat industry, he says. And he should know: before helping set up Cabarita, which opened last year, he was a long-time general manager of the Golden Door, and involved in the establishment of Camp Eden, rival health retreats just up the road in the Gold Coast hinterland.

Another Gold Coast hinterland luxury resort, Gwinganna, has recently started running men-only retreats in a bid to tap into the "stressed male executive" market. But Ramage reckons Cabarita has a trump card that men find irresistible: the beach, right on the doorstep. Maybe it's a primitive form of an exfoliation treatment, but it seems men just can't resist getting sand in their budgie smugglers.

"We've got surfboards, boogie boards and fishing rods," Ramage says, his eyes lighting up like a boy explaining what toys he got for Christmas.

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The retreat also has a tennis court, swimming pool, gym and volleyball court to while away the free afternoons, should anyone have any energy left after the organised activities of the action-packed mornings, which quite frankly is hard to imagine.

The list of activities on my first morning looks like this:

6am: Wake-up call
6.30am: Tai chi
7am: Morning beach walk
8am: Breakfast
9am: Stretch - gym
9.30am: Bike ride and paddle boarding
12pm: Yoga
1pm: Lunch

The prospect of doing more exercise in seven hours than I have managed in seven years weighs heavily on my supposedly tranquil mind as I blow up the beach ball and throw the fisherman's basket over my head (come on, know your tai chi moves). But the morning ends up being surprisingly pleasurable.

Admittedly there was a bit of huffing and puffing. And when you ramp it up by taking a wrong turn off the oceanside bike track and find yourself cycling down the Tweed Coast Road towards Pottsville, well, it certainly does helps you build up an appetite.

As I meander along beside the four lanes of traffic the thought occurs to me that there are cafes in Pottsville that will serve me what my labours merit: sausage, egg, beans and a flat white. However, I resist the temptation, largely because I haven't got my wallet on me.

Fry-ups may be off the menu, but the food at the Cabarita Ocean Retreat doesn't disappoint. Health retreat food in sitcoms usually involves a waiter removing a cloche to reveal an enormous plate containing a single pea and a baby carrot. But here the dishes are substantial, fresh and delicious.

Made from mostly organic, mostly local ingredients, the meals are of the wholefood, Japanese-inspired variety. Anyone fearing a tofu-fest needn't worry: there's beef and chicken and sustainably caught fish, and no one leaves the table hungry.

Of course, going to a resort where the staff consistently deny you chocolate and beer - no matter how hard you beg - isn't most people's idea of a holiday. But for some it is a yearly ritual.

All my fellow guests (two couples) are health retreat veterans who have been indulging in regular weeks of self-denial since retreats first came on the scene in Australia in the 1980s.

They include Eva, a 62-year-old Melburnian psychologist, who says she is impressed with Cabarita because it's comfortable, not too regimented and doesn't indulge in the new-age workshopping that is popular in other hideaways. "All those laypeople asking intimate questions ..." she laments.

Then there's Morry, a 60-year-old company director from Melbourne, who has been to 26 retreats in 26 years. "It's like a grease and oil change," he says. "I lose two or three kilos and I leave feeling fantastic, vibrant and a lot healthier."

Morry acknowledges that good habits gradually fall by the wayside back in the real world. Ramage says the idea is to show guests an ideal. "The goal is the perfect week for health and fitness," he says.

The retreat offers programs of two to seven nights. A stay of at least five nights is recommended, as you need that long to get over the hump of withdrawal that kicks in on days two and three.

Abstaining from coffee and alcohol in the days preceding your visit is advised, to ease the transition. It was advice that I ignored and, sure enough, by the time I check out after my two-night stay I have a dull but undeniable headache. I confess: it's nothing that a trip to a Pottsville cafe can't fix.

Trip notes

Getting there

Cabarita Ocean Retreat, 768 Casuarina Way, Casuarina, NSW. The retreat is a 25-minute drive from Gold Coast Airport, and an hour from Ballina-Byron Gateway Airport.

Staying there

A two- or three-night package starts at $468 a person a day. A five-night program starts at $2338 a person. A seven-night program starts at $2922 a person.

More information

cabaritaoceanretreat.com.au.