As I arrive at Gaia, the legendary wellness retreat set in Byron Bay's rolling green hinterland, the air is heavy with frangipani and gardenias and it's whisper quiet. Women (and the odd man or two) wearing yoga gear or batik robes are curled up like cats reading books, sipping on herbal teas or staring vacantly over the faraway hills. To enter Gaia's main hub, Kukura House, a stylish Samoan-style longhouse with a cantilevered ceiling draped in silk tapestries, you pass through ornately carved wooden gates, water gurgling in huge stone vessels. It feels more like arriving at a luxurious retreat in Asia, rather than having flown a mere hour to get here.
It's been just on 10 years since Gaia (meaning spirit of mother earth) opened its doors after co-owner Olivia Newton-John and general manager and director Gregg Cave came upon the 10-hectare site poised on the highest point in the shire. It was once Aboriginal women's country, and from its loftiest point, offers 360-degree views over the ocean and Nightcap Ranges. Plank chairs are strategically placed around the manicured grounds for sunset viewing, while cabanas with day beds look out over rolling farmland, instantly encouraging shoulders to drop and the heart rate to slow. A walking trail takes you around the perimeter of the land, through Wollemi trees, lush rainforest and an organic orchard, huge butterflies flitting from tree to tree. There's also a yoga house, tennis court, fitness centre and sun- dappled pool surrounded by sun loungers and lush foliage, including a tree draped in a sparkling candelabra. Rainbow lorikeets streak across the sky.
With Newton-John being one of the founders of Planet Ark and a vocal supporter of the environment, Gaia has embraced an environmentally conscious attitude from the outset. Her influence is everywhere. There's an organic vegetable garden, orchard, tank water, recycling programme and commitment to giving back what it takes out. Business partner and friend Cave, with his keen eye for detail evident in the eco chic design, says the retreat has evolved over the years and is now clear in what it offers. Cave says the high number of repeat guests (many of whom return annually to detox and refresh) is testimony to Gaia's authenticity.
In spite of its stellar reputation, Gaia is not resting on its laurels. Recently it opened three new Komala Villas offering saltwater infinity plunge pools with views across lush foliage to the distant hills. These seductive one-bedroom suites have their own treatment area, luxurious ensuite bathroom with double shower, split level living and large private deck with daybed cabana to recline by your own pool. The bedroom houses a deep free standing bath, ready for relaxing soaks with bath salts at the ready. You can take all your meals in your villa if that's your inclination, never leaving the comfort of your luxurious nest.
Also new is Gaia's recently released, certified organic skincare range, Retreatment, made locally using Australian native extracts and essences. It's available online and will soon be used in the Gaia Spa following an exacting two-year development process. Plans are meanwhile under way for construction of a high-end two-bedroom retreat on the site's western hill, while Gaia is expanding beyond its hinterland location, opening day spas in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
One of the true pleasures of Gaia is the food and each and every meal is creative and nourishing, changing daily. Breakfast might be just picked peaches, porridge and an asparagus, poached egg and goat's cheese hot dish. Lunch a flavour-packed soba noodle, kale, tofu and smoked trout dish, served with chilled lemon grass tea. Plunger coffee is available so you don't have to go without your caffeine hit and you can order wine with your dinner; the organic Rosnay Freedom Rose was superb. Gaia has never embraced the boot camp philosophy; it's all about choice, meaning no one will be banging on your door to get you up for yoga, meditation or for meals.
Most people don't need their arm twisted to go to the Gaia Spa. Late one afternoon I have a remedial massage with therapist Tim Acklin, and afterwards seriously consider moving nearby so I can continue to experience his life-changing treatments. Fellow guests likewise raved about the spa, which employs some of Australia's best practitioners, delivering treatments with heart.
After the massage, Acklin encouraged me to ditch the shoes and wander barefoot around Gaia, letting my feet touch the earth. It might sound a tad new-agey, but walking across the grass, letting my feet feel the red soil, transported me back to childhood – where some of the best days were those when shoes weren't necessary. As the sun set over the undulating ranges, a lone red kangaroo bounded across the land and I lost all sense of time. Gaia has a wonderful knack of doing that to you.
The writer was a guest of Gaia Retreat and Spa.
A two-night Layana Room package is $1005 a person inclusive of all gourmet meals and snacks, morning yoga, scheduled daily activities, one-hour massage and transfers from Ballina Airport. A two-night all-inclusive retreat in a Komala Villa starts from $3100 single occupancy.