Along a tiny cove at the foot of farmland on Tasmania's north-west coast, eight chalets and cabins seem to hang off the slopes above a stony beach. There are daybeds sprinkled about, the lawns are as clipped as golf fairways, and a nutritionist is preparing lunch. It's a scene of quiet sophistication, except for the yelps coming from two small ice baths on the grass.
Each bath is filled with water and 15 bags of ice. Climbing into them is like stepping into an Esky. As I crouch in the two-degree water, ice bobs around my chin, and the air has been sucked from my lungs as suddenly as if I've been kicked in the guts.
Piet Blokker stands beside the bath, watching over me, and I recall his words from the previous day: "Statistically, only one person in 18 likes the cold water."
At least I'm in the majority.
Around me are a dozen other people on a Wild Wellness Method retreat – three days of self-care underpinned by cold-water therapy and journalling sessions, with the addition of breathwork, yoga, personal training and massage. They're a compendium of practices pieced together by Wild Wellness Method founder Alice Hansen, and they're the tools that have helped rescue her from her own dark journey with alcohol addiction.
"From 2008 to 2019, I was in rehab 26 times," she says. "I must hold some kind of record. I'd often sit there [in rehab] and think, 'God, I should be in a yoga class; I should be surrounded by vibrant, healthy people rather than traipsing through the past'.
"I could be seen as the worst person to run a retreat like this, but I think the lived experience of going through the loop so many times is important. I got to a point where I thought I would do this because had I found these practices 20 years ago, I could have fast-tracked my own journey to wellness."
The setting for the retreat is The Cove. If nature is the ultimate wellness, this collection of chalets, cabins and glamping tents, which opened in March 2021, is a promising foundation.
The coast at its toes is black, volcanic and moody, and the soil is blood-red and fertile – the Earth's own version of wellness. Each evening, little penguins march ashore, often climbing to the decks of the chalets. Devonport is just five kilometres away, and yet it feels about as distant as Darwin or Broome.
Of all the things ahead of us, it's the cold-water therapy that dominates and disquiets almost all minds. Guests range from a professional mixed martial arts fighter, here to build on his existing routine of ice baths, to yoga instructor Danielle, who arrived insisting that she wouldn't do any of the cold-water-therapy activities.
"Most of the time I avoid cold water," she says. "If it's a pretty hot day in a really beautiful location, then I might psych myself up enough to get in … but only briefly."
Such trepidatious stories echo through the room as the group settles into the first breathing session with Piet. For an hour we do nothing but inhale and exhale (though there's the occasional lapse into sleep), working to the Wim Hof Method's devised patterns of breathing.
It's a precursor to our first cold plunge – breathing to settle our bodies, or simply breathing in courage. But as we head down into the cove, it's clear that even wellness must answer to nature. The sea is choppy and waves assault the rocky shores. Our first brush with cold water is thwarted. I'm not sure whether to be disappointed or delighted.
Other sessions roll out across the three days – a dawn HIIT-style workout, yoga in the afternoon sun, a roster of massage, evening journalling – all interspersed with superb nutritionist-prepared meals that come to be almost the highlight of the weekend.
Through every session, the icy water remains like an undercurrent in our minds. Few wellness retreats have integrated the increasingly popular cold-water therapy into their practices, but at The Cove this weekend, they are everything.
On the second day, chance is taken from the equation, as Piet sets up two ice baths on the lawns overlooking Bass Strait – the 11-degree sea replaced by two-degree pools. It's like an ice age descending.
The session begins again with breathing methods that are designed to prepare out bodies for the pending plunge. Piet is our metronome, controlling the beat of our breath – inhaling, exhaling, holding the air deep in our guts.
As we migrate from the mats to the baths, Danielle steps forward. Having vowed to avoid cold water, she now declares that she wants to be first into the ice bath.
"By the end of the breathing session, Piet had sold the benefits of it so well that I thought, it's now or never," she tells me. "I went first because if I stood around and watched everyone else, I'd psych myself out of it. It was a rip-the-Band-Aid-off approach – get in and get it done."
Like all the sessions, the ice bath is a voluntary exercise, but everyone eventually climbs into the icy water. Reactions are reflex – there are faces as calm as alabaster statues, and other people breathing like steam trains. One person is shivering and in tears, but determinedly resolute.
In the bath, my hands ache deeply, to the bone, but the rest of my body just feels cold as I distract myself with the view. A line of seabirds is strung along a rock outcrop just off the beach, and the horizon is stitched with cargo ships waiting to dock.
Each person is applauded as they step red and stinging from the baths, and there's a shared sense of exhilaration and survival as this most individual of experiences morphs organically into a communal experience – ice-bathing as a team event. Together we gather to warm our bodies with a tai-chi-like movement that Piet calls "horse stance" but which many hear as "horse dance" or, in one case, "whore dance".
There's time around these sessions to sit and savour the scene. From the deck of my chalet, I watch the shift and shape of the tide, as though Tasmania itself is inhaling and exhaling. One couple drives off to the Table Cape Tulip Farm for the afternoon, and a figure moves along the beach – Danielle, continuing to test her new relationship with cold water.
The next morning, the retreat concludes with another cold-water session, this time in the nearby River Forth, at the back of Piet's bush home.
The river is rushing with snowmelt from the peaks around Cradle Mountain, and the water temperature is seven degrees. Flowing over our bodies, it feels every bit as cold as the ice bath. I suck back some deep breaths and sink into the river.
My hands again feel like they're being crushed in a vice, but the rest of my body is adjusting to this new cold life. Two minutes pass, but I remain sitting on the riverbed. Four minutes. I feel the first shivers in my body. It's time to get out.
After three days of chilly immersion, have I found a love for cold water? No. But I've been back into it regularly, plunging into cold seas from beautiful beaches and into an alpine Tasmanian lake as snow fell around me. The retreat has ended, but the journey goes on.
The Cove is on the outskirts of Devonport, where the Spirit of Tasmania docks from Melbourne. Qantas flies twice weekly from Melbourne to Devonport. Virgin Australia and Jetstar fly from Sydney to Launceston, which is a one-hour drive from Devonport. See qantas.com jetstar.com virginaustralia.com
Three-day Wild Wellness Method retreats at The Cove cost between $1495 and $1925, depending on level of accommodation. It also operates a four-day Three Capes Wild Wellness Walk ($3495) in conjunction with the Three Capes Lodge Walk.
Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Wild Wellness Method.
FIVE OTHER TASMANIAN WELLNESS EXPERIENCES
FLOATING SAUNA LAKE DERBY
Simmer in the sauna, then dive into a chilly lake. Rinse and repeat.
THREE CAPES LODGE WOMEN'S YOGA WALK
Hike the Three Capes Track, peppered with meditation, journalling and yoga sessions.
WALDHEIM ALPINE SPA
A day spa with a particular Cradle Mountain spin – massage-table views onto the King Billy pines and snowmelt streams.
New wellness retreats at this over-water Lake St Clair luxury hotel have brought yoga, meditation, breathwork, digestive health workshops and cooking demonstrations to the menu.
NATURE, BE IN IT
Forest bathing among the bush-clad foothills of Kunanyi/Mount Wellington.