Sometimes getting away from it all can provide a boost to your mind and body, travel editor Winsor Dobbin discovers in the Byron Bay hinterland.
We’ve all felt it at some time or other. That city life is getting on top of us; that everything we do is just too fast and too stressful. That we’ve been eating or drinking too much; that our minds are cluttered, our bodies bloated. We often feel too busy, too attached to our iPhones and iPads, to really get away from it all but we owe ourselves, and our loved ones, the chance to slow down and re-charge our batteries.
Thus I find myself at Gaia, a beautiful retreat in the hills above Byron Bay and Bangalow in northern New South Wales, ready for a few days of rest and relaxation, healthy food and no alcohol – a real challenge for someone who writes about wine.
Gaia is a beautiful, slow-paced rural health resort that is the brainchild of Olivia Newton John and her long-term friend and business partner Gregg Cave. A place to put away the laptop. To stop. And think. Gaia is a place where guests set their own pace – and their own goals – with the help of a team of health professionals.
I know many people find the whole idea of a health retreat far too confronting. They need a glass of savvy blanc at 5pm; and must answer their mobile phone whenever it rings. On my first visit to Gaia I’d expected hell on earth for an alcohol-swilling carnivore. I’d anticipated a boot-camp health experience, compulsory abseiling, being shouted at by sergeant major types. I was ready to eat mung bean soup and tofu salads and to drink warm water infused with flower petals.
Fortunately Gaia is the antithesis of what I, and many people, I suspect, expect from a healthy experience. It manages to turn what could be a nightmare into a pleasure. Guests are offered individually tailored programs, flexible dates (check-in for a couple of days midweek, or for a long weekend) and complete freedom of choice as to which activities they want to do. Fancy doing some early morning yoga, clay sculpting, or consulting a naturopath? Maybe a session with a personal trainer? Fine. Prefer an afternoon snooze on a hammock or day bed. That’s okay, too.
Mobile phones are banned in public areas (no Tweeting over dinner) and laptops discouraged. Maybe read a book, or go for a walk instead.
Most days my options stretched to a stint on one of the day beds dotted around the property, a swim in the heated pool, a game of tennis, or a quiet moment or two on the veranda of Kukura House; a Polynesian-style long house that is the centre of all activity. I passed on the yoga, knowing from my previous experience that I am about as graceful as a baby elephant and that I would be thinking about bacon sandwiches when I was supposed to be thinking about “golden shards of light.” I am no friend of the Downward-Facing Dog.
But after a few days of doing very little other than enjoying a few treatments, my doctor, who had no knowledge of this little excursion, commented that I “looked really well and have lost weight.”
Located in stunning, sub-tropical gardens less than an hour south of Coolangatta Airport (and just a few minutes from Ballina Airport), Gaia is great whether you are recovering from illness, trying to lose a few kilos or just seeking time out.
Your fellow guests might include Delta Goodrem or Richard Wilkins, but are just as likely to be Mr and Mrs Jones from Petersham. There are just 20 suites of varying sizes, with four new Platinum Suites planned to open later this year. The spacious split-level suites will have extensive views and their own private treatment room, living room and outdoor jacuzzi.
The 25-acre property offers a busy day spa centre with 13 treatment rooms, a heated salt water swimming pool, tennis court, hot-tub spa, sauna, steam room, walking tracks and its own organic garden that provides many of the herbs and vegetables for the restaurant.
It’s easy to walk the grounds and not see another soul – or to join a nature walk or a communal table at dinner if you feel like some company.
“Gaia provides guests with a unique and private space to realign themselves physically, spiritually and emotionally,” says general manager Cave. “It’s about the whole Gaia experience – the staff’s exceptional service, nurturing guidance and wisdom along with nourishing organic food.”
Founder and co-owner Olivia Newton-John puts it this way: “Gaia is the ideal place to relax in comfort, enjoy the views and be totally pampered. You are able to choose the activities you want to take part in, maybe morning yoga or afternoon tennis, or just indulge in the spa treatments. For me, Gaia provides a spiritual environment to relax and rejuvenate.”
The treatments were, as you’d expect, exceptional. I enjoyed an exfoliating steam and body polish, as well as a blissful 90-minute massage during which I apparently fell asleep several times (sorry about the snoring!). Massage choices include Swedish, Kahuna, hot rocks, and scalp massage, along with more esoteric options like craniosacral balancing, and reflexology as well as mainstream facials and pedicures.
A 90-minute massage apparently burns as many calories as a 40-minute workout and I realised this was an exercise regime with widespread appeal for middle-aged guys who prefer sitting down in front of the TV to a vigorous workout.
And what about the food? Everything is organic and almost entirely locally produced. Breakfast (with the exception of smoked salmon) and lunch are exclusively vegetarian but evening meals may contain fish or poultry.
Breakfast choices included freshly squeezed fruit and/or vegetable juices, various toasted organic mueslis, organic yoghurt and fresh berries, followed by a dish of the day, maybe a fresh omelette, scrambled eggs or frittata, with smoked salmon and avocado, and wholegrain or gluten-free toast with a range of healthy spreads (thankfully including Vegemite).
At lunch, the vibe was decidedly vegetarian, but I did like the textural corn and courgette fritters, and a delicious vegetable curry with chapattis and fruit chutney. The three-course dinners were varied and tasty, although undoubtedly healthy. Think dishes like Moroccan chicken with apricot and pistachio rice and green beans; or snapper in vegetable broth with Jerusalem artichokes. A stir-fried chicken and cashew dish with an Asian slant was also delightful.
All guests are asked for a list of dislikes/allergies before checking in and the chefs can design individual menus on request, including vegan and vegetarian options. I lasted six days without red meat, or alcohol and was pretty pleased with myself.
Whisper it softly but there is actually a wine list featuring organic and biodynamic wines available to accompany dinner – and guests who want red meat can have it if they request it in advance. But that would rather ruin the point of the exercise, wouldn’t it?
Gaia Retreat and Spa: 933 Fernleigh Road, Brooklet, NSW 2479. Phone (02) 66871216, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.gaiaretreat.com.au. Two-night stays, the minimum, start from $1,145 single and $1,915 double including accommodation, all meals, morning yoga and other scheduled activities as well as a gift pack and a $250 spa voucher. A wide range of packages are available and can be tailored to suit individual requirements.