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Bootcamp or blissed out - two of New Zealand's best wellness retreats

The literal translation of Aro Hā is “in the presence of divine breath”, and upon arriving at the retreat’s location in the Southern Alps, about a 40-minute drive from Queenstown on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, it certainly seems as though the retreat is divinely blessed. It might very well be the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life – a series of modernist timber buildings nestled into the pastoral hillside, within a cauldron of majestic snow-dusted mountains rising from the lake.

Aro Hā is the brainchild of Chris Madison and Damian Chaparro, who met at Californian health hotspot The Ashram. At the time, Madison was a stressed-out hedge fund manager and repeat guest; Chaparro, a former software consultant turned retreat leader. When the pair conceived a retreat that would marry adventure, fitness, alternative health and self-development, they wanted to create not only a purpose-built centre that would meld with the natural environment, but that would also serve as a model of sustainable building practices.

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Designed by Tennent and Brown Architects, the NZ$30 million retreat incorporates permaculture and Passive House building philosophies to conserve energy and increase efficiency. Water is sourced from a nearby glacial spring, power is generated from solar panels and hydro systems on the property, and it is the site of New Zealand’s first renewable distributed heating system. The design was winner of the 2016 New Zealand Architecture Award for commercial architecture.

This engagement with nature is at the heart of the Aro Hā experience. Their ‘wellness adventures’ bring groups of up to 18 together for five to seven days. Each day follows a structured pattern: yoga, breakfast, hiking for three or four hours (generally up one of the aforementioned mountains), lunch, recovery time – either a nap or contrast hydrotherapy in the sleek Obsidian Spa – a massage, a strength training or pilates class, a cooking demonstration or talk, before more yoga and dinner.

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There are no choices of activities or foods (although all activities are considered optional), and there is no set timetable – one activity flows into another, with announcements being channelled through intercoms in guest rooms. This serves to remove pressure to make the right choices or get anywhere on time, instead allowing guests to yield to the experience.

Couple this with a ban on digital devices in common areas, and the result is a Zen-like peace. This is the intention, of course – as Chaparro says, allowing people to take a pause from their life, do things that are good for them, and providing the space to reassess how they live day to day, perhaps taking back to the ‘real world’ some new information or practices to try.

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I’m not going to lie – Aro Hā is not for the faint-hearted. The retreats are designed to be physically challenging, and with a focus on detoxification and weight loss, the menu is raw vegetarian and calorie controlled (though you can opt for larger portions if you’re not looking to drop any kilos). There’s no sugar, no dairy, no caffeine, and no alcohol – water and herbal teas only to drink – and even for a relatively fit person, the activity levels can be tough.

We were also warned early on about the detox ‘J-curve’ – the polite way of saying you will feel worse before you feel better as the retreat wears on. Personally, having not heeded the advice to give up coffee and alcohol for a week prior to arrival, I found it to be more of a ‘W-curve’. An intense headache brought on by caffeine withdrawal marred day two, and day four’s hike – an hour and twenty minutes straight up – was an unmitigated struggle, like pushing a car out of petrol up a hill.

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It might seem extreme, but for many, literally retreating from stressful, busy lives, it is just the tonic required to reset. One of my fellow guests, a divorce lawyer, said he had timed the break from his conflict-ridden work to give him the physical and mental boost to be able to tackle the busy period leading up to the end of the year.

And even among a few low points, there are many positives. Meals are a delicious cornucopia of flavours and textures, with 33 per cent of the food grown on-site, some in the greenhouse adjoining the kitchen. Everything about the retreat is sexy – organic black on natural design, the money-can’t-buy glow of the staff, the black minivans that ferry the group to and from hikes, even the music playing in the massage rooms … no twee dolphin music here. For those not so interested in spirituality, it’s kept lightweight – some mindfulness practices before eating and during hikes, some optional journalling exercises, no full-on meditation, and only a touch of blindfolded dancing and sageburning. And the proof is in the (chia) pudding: by day five, I had not only lost a kilo and a half (about average among the women, the men were posting much more impressive four-kilo losses), but felt light, energetic and joyful – and not just at the prospect of a coffee at the airport.

A la carte: Split Apple Retreat

At the other end of the spectrum, at Split Apple Retreat, about an hour from Nelson at the top of the South Island, wellness programs are entirely bespoke, customised to guest preferences.

A luxury lodge built into the cliffside, Split Apple Retreat has only three guestrooms, all looking out to the turquoise waters of Tasman Bay, surrounding the Abel Tasman National Park. Opened in 2009 by husband and wife duo Lee and Pen Nelson, the exclusive retreat feels very much like a private home, but with a focus on relaxation as a path to optimal health.

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Designed by a Japanese architect, the building was constructed using traditional Japanese building methods and the best natural timbers, stone and granite sourced from Australia, Switzerland and Mexico. The elegant, spare aesthetic was inspired by the Nelsons’ extensive collection of Asian art and antiquities, on display in the retreat. Among them are 250-year-old Chinese and Japanese ink paintings, a collection of ornate antique snuff bottles, gathered from around the world by Lee’s mother, and an androgynous Buddha statue from the third century.

Suites are large, each with two private decks and a fragrant garden, creating a multi-sensory experience.

Guests can choose from a three-day wellness taster program, or a more extensive one-week stay. For longer packages, Lee, formerly a medical doctor, encourages guests to bring blood test results, so he can design an individualised program taking into consideration aspects such as inflammatory markers in the body and how sugar is metabolised.

Split Apple Retreat View on the Terrace

At Split Apple, the focus is squarely on pampering and indulgence – whether that is through treatments such as massage, reiki or craniosacral therapy in the inhouse spa, with the lovely spa manager Emma or a visiting practitioner; steaming in the far infrared sauna or soaking in the pool and Japanese-style onsen hot tub; or enjoying a glass of wine on the deck in quiet contemplation of the ocean views.

The retreat’s vantage point also makes it easy to access coastal hikes in the nearby national park, via a water taxi transfer from the beach a short walk down the hill from Split Apple. Other activities such as kayaking, helicopter tours, private yoga sessions, horseriding, fishing or winery tours can also be organised, depending on guests’ appetite for adventure.

Daily meditation is encouraged, but probably not as you know it. Settling into a recliner in the eight-seat meditation theatre, wearing headphones, brainentrainment technology helps you drop into a deep meditative state rapidly, making it easy for untrained meditators to achieve the benefits. The state it delivers feels like sleep, though Lee assures me it is a step above, characterised by theta brain waves. Whatever it is, I feel completely refreshed after 20 minutes.

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As at Aro Ha, nutrition forms a key plank of the wellness experience. Chef Pen, hailing from Thailand and trained in New Zealand, can most often be found in the kitchen, preparing what they call ‘thoughtful food’. Again, meals are customised to the guests’ preferences or health issues – whether that is to reduce inflammation, modify cholesterol or blood pressure, or boost the immune system. Many of the fruits and vegetables used are grown on-site, seafood is sourced locally, and all meals are gluten-free, dairy-free and without simple sugars.

Dinner each night is a five-course tasting menu, inspired by the produce available on the day. Asian and western culinary traditions fuse in dishes such as a carrot and orange soup, black rice sushi and sashimi, beef tataki, blue-eyed cod with spinach and a white wine sauce, adzuki bean ‘pasta’ with prawns, and a green tea tart with coconut ice cream.

At various points in my brief stay, I see a rainbow arching down into the bay, a pod of dolphins frolicking, and a full moon shining across the water, creating a veritable stairway to heaven. A tiny pocket of paradise indeed.

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