Anne Gibson experiences a Queensland wellness retreat that teaches healthy living.
Guests at Queensland's Golden Door Retreat Centre are instructed in the ancient art of Tai Che Qigong Shibashi in 18 graceful moves.
Andrea Baker, programme manager, leads the dawn meditation on the top lawn of the centre in a calm, practised style. Few miss this 6.15am wake-up call, one of the most popular sessions on offer at the centre, that lasts only about 20 minutes.
The centre is just more than an hour south of Brisbane, near the Gold Coast, and set in 90ha of native Australian bush.
Its facilities also include a delightful dining room, where Baker notices the full tables and swelling numbers of people in their 20s. She says contrary to what outsiders might think, less than a quarter of guests visit the retreat to treat obesity. Some are seeking help for alcohol and tobacco addictions, while others suffer from stress.
A stress workshop at the beginning of our week at the centre is well attended, proving her observations. And Baker always sleeps over on the first night "in case anyone goes AWOL" - by which she means those with addictions.
The entrance to the resort is an electronically operated gate, accessed only by the staff or with their permission.
Smoking-cessation courses are popular. The Door claims an 80 per cent success rate. Guests can participate in back-to-back programmes from 5.30am to 8.30pm or they can stay in their isolated rooms in the bush and join the larger group for meals.
At the start of their stay each guest picks a person to buddy up with so any absences can be reported to staff, enabling a check-up support system. If guests don't answer their phone, staff visit.
The retreat runs a mandatory detoxification programme. No stimulants are allowed. Staff search the rooms for liquor, cigarettes, chocolate, confectionary or extra food. Guests are told these are contraband and are confiscated till the end of a visit.
The idea is to strictly enforce the Door's policy of wellness and zero intake of coffee, alcohol and meat. Only herbal teas are served.
Headaches are common among guests, who are encouraged to seek assistance with substance withdrawal.
Baker, a mother of three with a heart rate of only 55 beats a minute, taught a diploma of fitness at a further-education institute before her role at the Door.
She says having registered nurses on the property is necessary. She tells of an instance of a runaway guest - his wife had bought him a week's stay at the retreat without telling him about the smoking ban, in the hope he would quit.
Don't visit unless you know what you are in for, she advises.
Baker reads an email from a former guest, Rob, who had suffered a heart attack last November and was in need of a triple heart bypass. He visited the retreat in February. "Thanks to you, [the bypass] is no longer needed," wrote Rob, who is 25kg lighter. His surgeon told him his cardiac disease was in remission. His heart was no longer enlarged and he had learned healthy living and eating at the retreat.
The email stunned Baker, partly because guests are asked to provide their full medical history and Rob kept his a secret until the bombshell email.
Many guests at the Door are returnees. Some are health-camp junkies, rich and not-so-rich people, and all want to extend their lives. They stay at places such as the Mysty Mountain Wilderness Health Retreat for weeks and are keen on going to John of God in Brazil to help with their terminal illnesses.
Baker, formerly a marriage counsellor who later owned a fitness business, has been at the Door for five years where she works closely with David Ball, the physical education manager who has been there for 11 years.
At the end of each week the pair assess guest feedback forms.
"[It's] a chance to grow," Ball tells Baker, because some feedback criticises the centre and names staff they did not like.
But she recalls how one formerly unhealthy guest, upon farewelling her, grabbed her by both shoulders, shook her hard and said sternly: "Andrea, don't let me get that bad again!"
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies regularly to Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
Health Retreat: The Golden Door Health Retreat Queensland is at Willow Vale. Ring 0800 775 779.
Anne Gibson visited Queensland as guest of Golden Door Retreat Centre.