Queenstown: Sweat, pain and good food

By Rebecca Barry Hill

A yoga retreat in Queenstown with laughs and wine, suits Rebecca Barry Hill just fine.

With a daily average of three hours of physical activity, a Jack and Olive Retreat is challenging but rewarding. Photo / Claire Robbie
With a daily average of three hours of physical activity, a Jack and Olive Retreat is challenging but rewarding. Photo / Claire Robbie

We may not look like a bunch of yogis as we sample Queenstown's finest pinot noirs. But we deserve a reward.

Our group of nine has sweated through challenging Power Vinyasa classes, spent long, intense minutes in the deep stretches of Yin, worked our butts off boot-camp-style on dewy Queenstown gardens, mountain-biked through stunning scenery from Arrowtown to Gibbston Valley, and groaned in bittersweet pain at massaging our fatigued muscles with foam rollers and lacrosse balls. And it's only day three.

This afternoon's luxury wine tasting, part of the new Jack and Olive Retreats' Queenstown Adventure Escape, feels like nirvana.

I'd always wanted to go on a yoga retreat, but had wondered just how beneficial it would be to cut out life's pleasures - sugar, fat, alcohol - only to thud back to earth, desperate for a vino and a plate of cheese. Though I'd joined the Jack and Olive Retreat for virtuous reasons, I wasn't prepared to forgo the region's culinary delights.

Neither were retreat founders Claire Robbie and Luke Sniewski, whose love for good quality local food and a laugh appealed just as much as their expertise.

Still, with a daily average of three hours of physical activity, I had a few questions. Like, how would I cope with a gruelling upper-body work-out, followed by the adrenalin buzz of jet boating, an afternoon of kayaking through rapids and caves, and a restorative class? (Day five). Would they make us jump off a mountain? And after all that yoga, would I release a bunch of stored emotions and weep uncontrollably? I'd been told that could happen on a retreat.

"Only you know if this is too much for your body or if you're just being a pussy," says Robbie as we open into half moon pose, gazing out towards the sun rising over Lake Wakatipu.

A former TV3 reporter who moved to LA, went through a traumatic divorce and transformed her life by becoming a yoga teacher, Robbie started Jack and Olive Retreats with her American partner Sniewski, a star of the US health and wellness scene.

Their relaxed approach makes them great travelling companions and their advice is anything but prescriptive, the idea being that it's easier to assimilate new habits into daily life if they're introduced in moderation.

Sure, we could have wine if we wanted but we'd need to be up by 6.30. And dessert was on the menu, but we were encouraged to eat until we were 80 per cent full. That was challenging, particularly during an incredible degustation with matching wines at Rees Hotel, the retreat's base.

Dinner conversation wasn't always geared to wellbeing, and there was plenty of time during the week to wander around Queenstown or chill out. But there were many illuminating chats about nutrition, yoga's emotional impact and Sniewski's belief that strengthening the often-neglected glutes and back is the best thing you can do at the gym.

"The body adapts to anything you throw at it," says the trainer as we crab-crawl and monkey-jump our way through a punishing but quick routine.

A skinny teenager, Sniewski spent years working out how to bulk up to play American football, and has committed to lifelong learning in the health field.

By day seven, I'd walked the picturesque route around the lake several times, hiked to the summit of Te Tapanui mountain and done more exercise than I ever thought possible. Thanks to the encouraging environment, I'd even gone paragliding with a fellow yogi.

But the biggest surprise was winding up in happy tears after the last yoga class. I've no idea where they came from. But I've yet to come down off the endorphins.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Jetstar and Air New Zealand fly daily from Auckland to Queenstown.

The next retreats: Queenstown Snow + Yoga, August 5-10; Fiji's Hidden Paradise Escape, November 1-8. Jack and Olive also offers customised retreats.

The author recommends: Wear yoga clothing.

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