New Zealand luxury retreat: Finding zen at Aro Ha Wellness Retreat

The wake-up call is surprisingly charming, given it's not yet 6am and we're at the Aro Ha Wellness Retreat on a picturesque hillside in New Zealand's Southern Alps. Our yoga teacher is banging a Tibetan singing bowl outside our rooms, summoning us to the first restorative session of the day. We have 10 minutes to walk down, past the spa and the main lodge, to the handsome wooden yoga studio, with its sweeping view of Lake Wakatipu.

Should we have missed the delicate chimes of the Buddhist awakening, an incongruous Big Brother voice comes over the in-room intercom a few minutes later: "Come on, everyone. It's that time. I'll see you there in five minutes."

Lesson one is about Aro Ha. All the activities - the yoga, pilates, mountain walks, food preparation and meals - are compulsory. Or as the soft-voiced Damian Chaparro, Aro Ha's co-founder, prefers to call it, "non-optional". To get the maximum out of the intensive detox experience, we'll be "actively encouraged to take part in everything". Part of the Aro Ha philosophy, he explains, is to remove choice, since the act of choosing adds to the stress of our daily routine.

There are some other interesting house rules, too. No alcohol. No coffee. No gluten. No refined sugar. No mobile phones. No constantly checking the internet. No unnecessary outside distractions. 

For most guests - here for a five- or seven-day retreat at roughly $925 a day - what they are paying for is a physical, mental and spiritual break from normality. 

Many are high-flying corporate types - hardly surprising, given the other co-founder, American Chris Madison, is a mega-wealthy, retired hedge fund trader who booked himself in for a similar detox session at LA's The Ashram. It was there he met Chaparro, one of the wellness instructors.

In 2010, the two discussed setting up their own version of The Ashram in the southern hemisphere. New Zealand was the obvious choice, and Chaparro was sent to find a breathtakingly beautiful site close to an international airport. He searched first in the North Island, but stopped looking when he found this exquisite 2½-hectare  piece of the Southern Alps just a 45-minute lakeside drive from Queenstown.

Aro Ha (the name apparently translates as "in the presence of divine breath") opened in 2014, and takes a maximum of 16 guests at any one retreat (though the 20 individual suites can be hired by one group). In that short time, it has won two wellness retreat awards.

The design, by Wellington architect Hugh Tennent, is refreshingly simple and unadorned ("Zen-inspired luxury" according to the marketing): built of stone, wood and glass to blend into the landscape. Fittingly, the entire project is an eco jewel, with solar and its own mini-hydro plant providing 94 per cent of its electricity; a septic system that uses worms; and a commitment to organic farming and market gardening.

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After our hour-long yoga session (which as a non-yoga goer I thoroughly enjoyed) we all retire (in our sweaty workout gear, that's part of the Aro Ha philosophy, too) to have breakfast at the communal table in the main lodge.

Of all the Aro Ha rules, I dreaded the dietary ones ("mindful eating") the most. No cooking. No meat. No fish. No eggs. 

Or as the website puts it: "We eat a rainbow of vegetarian cuisine. Paleo-friendly, gluten-free, diary-free and enzymatically active, we feed the body a diet rich in trace minerals, vitamins and phytonutrients". Oh yummy.

To my astonishment, the cuisine - prepared by talented Brazilian chef Rani Silva - turns out to be a personal highlight of Aro Ha: visually spectacular and stunningly tasty. Breakfast, for example, is chia pudding, jellified coconut milk, ginger, cinnamon, raw honey, boysenberries and a poached pear sauce.

And after a brisk trek around the property led by guide Adam Chalmers (real guests who are doing a full retreat would do a more serious walk such as the Mt Judah Track, a four-hour, 16-kilometre  mountain hike), we find ourselves in the kitchen where Silva demonstrates how to make a delicious uncooked first course of spiralised courgette, capsicum tapenade, carrot hummus and a pine nut, flax seed and sesame oil dressing (the porcini mushroom soup with a dollop of almond "cheese" comes as an unexpected extra).

Be warned: portions are tasty, nutritious, but small. Most paying guests don't mind. They agree to the voluntary weigh-in at the beginning of their retreat and are happy to come away noticeably thinner.

After lunch, it's off to the spa for an hour-long massage, sauna, cold plunge pool and hot tub. What does the evening offer? Pilates? A harder yoga session? Another mouth-watering vegan dinner?

"I'm no guru," Chaparro tells us over a herbal tea. He was a software developer for four years in California working unhealthy 10-hour days before he quit to become a yoga and wellness instructor at The Ashram.

An Aro Ha retreat, he says, is about giving guests "a space away from normal life... that brings you back to your inner self, a taste of a different way of living".

With food this good, I was almost converted. But then someone mentioned Queenstown has one of the world's great burger bars.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

newzealand.comaro-ha.com

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand flies daily from all main Australian cities to Queenstown. See airnewzealand.com.au.

STAYING THERE

Aro Ha Wellness Retreat, 33 Station Valley Road, Wyuna, Glenorchy, phone (+64) 3-943 8547; see aro-ha.com

The writer was a guest of Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand.

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