Nestled at the end of Currumbin Valley, just north of the NSW border, Eden Health Retreat feels like a well-kept secret cocooned from the rest of the world, a place to talk about in gushing whispers to trusted friends.
Driving in under a canopy of poinciana trees and past immaculate lawns is like arriving at an exclusive country club. Or a rehab clinic, I think, as the automatic gate closes behind me and I remember that ahead lies a week with no Wi-Fi, mobile reception, alcohol or coffee.
Or summer camp, I think again, because I'm checking in that Sunday with 23 other guests, mostly women, from all over Australia. Quite a few are Eden regulars; one Sydney couple has stayed "countless times". The rest are newbies like me. At our first "stretch and let go" class that afternoon we all smile nervously at each other and wonder who our new friends will be.
My "cabin" for the week, a Valley View Deluxe room remodelled last year by Brisbane design group Collectivus, is all peace and neutral tones. Sliding glass doors open to a private balcony facing the rainforest. The deep bath in the enormous en suite has the same view – and a jar of Epsom salts, replenished daily. There's no TV of course, but there is a stereo and a stack of CDs for soothing music.
The name isn't biblical, by the way. Originally home to the Yugambeh people, the land at the mountain end of Currumbin Valley was cleared in the 1860s by a Henry Eden who called his new dairy farm the Garden of Eden. In 1985 the dairy farm next door became Camp Eden, a personal development bootcamp based on "est" training, a precursor to the US-based Landmark Forum personal development courses popular in the 1990s. For 10 years it was all bunk beds, Pritikin meals and group-therapy sessions between weight-loss activities.
Then its attitude relaxed and it became the considerably more comfortable Eden Health Retreat. Now owned by Sydney businessman/philanthropist Robert Christie (remarkably, Eden has had only two owners in 34 years), it has 28 luxurious cabin-rooms, an airy dining room/lounge overlooking a dam and a state-of-the-art gym , steam room, sauna and spa treatment rooms – all set on 160 hectares of mostly native forest.
New manager Chris Van Hoof, who has worked at Eden for nine years, is also ushering in a few changes, developing partnerships with wellness teachers to offer themed events such as Pilates forums and men's weeks.
Eden may no longer have an over-arching belief system, but it does have an ethos, says Van Hoof. "It's about meeting people where they're at, showing them a few ways to be healthier and asking them to see how that feels, just for a week, so they can make their own decisions. It's a pretty simple formula really: eat well, move, rest, nurture. We just create a safe space for that to happen."
We certainly do eat well. Eden's chefs serve up gorgeous, nutritious creations at every meal, all organic, seasonal and unprocessed, much of the produce sourced from Eden's own garden. Even the morning and afternoon snacks – the maple-roasted nuts, "red velvet" beetroot protein balls, single-serve pumpkin soups – are a treat. And the drinking water comes from a mountain spring, triple-filtered to make it "bio-available".
All of which gives us plenty of energy for a week that is basically a wellness sampler covering everything from acupuncture to Zumba. There are boxing classes, gym circuits, Pilates classes and nutrition talks. There's a tennis court and a heated outdoor swimming pool. There are guided bushwalks, forest trails to explore on your own and a grassy path called the Quiet Way which we're encouraged to walk barefoot. Then there are the spa treatments; the kahuna massage I have on Monday afternoon is so good, so profoundly healing it's possibly the best massage I've had anywhere in the world, ever.
But everything is optional. Most mornings I skip the 6.15am qigong or yoga class to do some stretches in my room, walk the meditative labyrinth or just lie in bed, listening to the birds. There's time for after-lunch naps and before-dinner baths. One afternoon I spread a picnic blanket on the grass under a tree to read a book and listen to the nearby bamboo grove creaking like the rigging of a tall ship in the wind.
One of the unexpected joys is sharing the Eden experience with new friends. There's something about everyone staying all week that creates a sense of camaraderie – and emotional safety. "We tried shorter stays," says Barry Hogg, who has worked at Eden since it opened, "but when people are coming and going it's hard to create harmony and connection. It lacked the cohesion of people starting together and finishing together which is, in my opinion, the X-factor of Eden – the bond that happens within the group. Some people make lifelong friendships here."
Then there are the adventure activities, another of Eden's signature offerings, designed to take us safely out of our comfort zones – with the support of our comrades. First there's the flying fox. The Giant Swing ups the ante with a thrilling free-fall from the upper branches of some tall pine trees before cables catch you and swing you high over everyone's heads as they cheer you on.
I find my edge on Friday morning atop the "power pole". Climbing the seven-metre telegraph pole while clipped to safety lines, isn't so bad. It's the standing up on a tiny platform no bigger than two sheets of A4 paper at the top, with nothing to hold on to, that gets my heart thumping. Eden's personal trainer, Kane, belaying me from ground level, far below, sends up words of encouragement. Breathe, he says. Then comes the "leap of faith" – to a fixed trapeze a couple of metres away. It's terrifying and transforming. When I make it, on my second try, I can't help thinking, once the elation subsides: what else can I do that I didn't think I could?
Twice that week we venture "off campus". One sunny morning we paddle sea kayaks and swim in the surf at Currumbin Beach, resisting the temptation to check our phones. Another day we ride bikes to Currumbin Valley Harvest, a biodynamic farm and cafe where we manage to ignore the barista and his shiny espresso machine. Both times, returning to Eden is like going home.
We're free to leave any time, of course. Cougal Falls in Springbrook National Park, spared by the September bushfires that tore through neighbouring Lamington National Park, is a five-minute walk up the road. The award-winning Currumbin Ecovillage with its Pasture & Co cafe, organic grocery store and Saturday farmers markets is a short drive in the other direction.
After dinner every night, a calming activity readies us for sleep: a guided meditation, a glow-worm walk by torchlight, a sound-healing session with singing bowls. On our last night it's a campfire, where we sit on logs gazing at the flames while Simon, one of Eden's teachers, plays guitar.
Looking around at the faces lit by firelight, I mentally snap a few pictures to help me remember this night, this week, these people. Did we really meet only five days ago? Tonight we're all friends, laughing together and singing songs under the stars and a nearly full moon.
A kind of happiness I haven't felt in a while rushes at me, making me want to smile and cry at the same time. This is it, I think. I've found my Eden.
FIVE MORE HEALTH RESORTS
GAIA RETREAT & SPA
Founded by Olivia Newton-John and three friends in 2005 in the Byron Bay hinterland, Gaia offers two- to seven-night stays and has a day spa. See gaiaretreat.com.au
Mindfulness is at the core of Samadhi, an architect-designed property in Victoria's Mount Macedon mineral springs region with themed retreats. See samadhiretreat.com.au
GWINGANNA LIFESTYLE RETREAT
Situated in the Tallebudgera Valley in the Gold Coast hinterland, Gwinganna is ecotourism-certified and claims to offer more options than other Australian retreats. See gwinganna.com
KANGAROO ISLAND HEALTH RETREAT
KIHR is a holistic nature-based bootcamp offering one program: Dynamic Detox and is situated on the north coast of South Australia's Kangaroo Island. See kihealthretreat.com
ELYSIA WELLNESS RETREAT
Formerly Golden Door health retreat, Elysia in the Hunter Valley has contemporary suites and offers personalised two- to seven-night programs. See elysiaretreat.com.au
Eden Health Retreat is 30 minutes from Gold Coast airport. Virgin, Qantas and Jetstar all fly direct to the Gold Coast from Sydney and Melbourne.
Eden's six-night packages run from Sunday to Saturday and start at $3050 a person twin-share ($3350 for a single room) including gourmet organic meals, $400 of spa treatments, daily wellness, fitness and adventure activities and transfers from Gold Coast airport. See edenhealthretreat.com.au
Louise Southerden was a guest of Eden Health Retreat.