New South Wales: Zen and the art of hanging 10

On visiting a women-only surf and yoga retreat, Elisabeth Easther found everyone on the same wave length.

Everything about Escape Haven is sumptuous and, in no time, you'll have forgotten stress ever existed.
Everything about Escape Haven is sumptuous and, in no time, you'll have forgotten stress ever existed.

A few days before leaving for Escape Haven, near Byron Bay, I was at the tail end of a cold, cycling home in a squally spring gale, the rain lashing my cheeks and stinging my eyes. I was unable to imagine ever being warm or dry again.

Fast-forward three days - throw in a three-hour plane ride to the Gold Coast and a 45-minute drive to Byron Bay - and paradise was handed to me on a plate.

Escape Haven is an opulent boutique retreat for women, devoted to yoga, surfing and organic living, tucked into the foothills of Broken Head Nature Reserve. The sister resort to Escape Haven Bali, it's been running a scant six months, and it's clearly going to become an institution of tranquillity.

These retreats (with more in the pipeline) are the brainchild of Kiwi Janine Hall, a barefoot entrepreneur who created them with the intention of helping guests escape from everyday stresses.

Twenty minutes' drive from Byron Bay and two minutes' walk through bush to the beach, everything about Escape Haven is sumptuous and, in no time, you'll have forgotten stress ever existed.

There are no signs to indicate the property is anything but a lavish private home, although the life-size statue of a Balinese deity gave us a clue. Then Janine glided out to greet us, bronzed, glowing and full of life, and we knew we'd arrived.

Food is a big part of Escape Haven life and head chef, yoga instructor and all round kitchen whiz, Mell is a great asset to the resort. Indeed, every dish she whipped up was spectacular. Happily, too, Mell wasn't precious about sharing her secrets and a cooking class is on the itinerary for guests who wish to know more.

Talking of people and food, you take potluck with group holidays, anything can happen, a fact the brochure points out diplomatically.

"As Escape Haven is a group trip, you will be exposed to all the pleasures and maybe some of the frustrations of travelling in a group ... patience with your fellow guests is sometimes required for the benefit of everyone's travel experience."

No worries. The group I struck, staff and guests, became firm friends, no trouble at all. We all had stories, some sad, some funny, and we had enough in common to make time spent together a treat, including episodes when we laughed so much our stomachs ached.

Every day there was yoga - giggling optional but unavoidable - and I loved doing it outside. The bush in Australia is cacophonic: turkeys strutted cockily by, kookaburras laughed, the rise and squall of Japanese cicadas, there were so many tweets and shrieks, screeches and scratches, it was like staying in zoological gardens, overlaid with the sound of breaking waves for good measure.

During one class, I was absorbed in a complicated balancing pose, my focus for stillness a large blotch on a tree trunk. I was doing quite well - until it moved. My focus for stillness was a butterfly the size of a saucer.

With so much going on, surfing, for me, iced this fabulous cake. On our first morning, after breakfast, Jayme, from Byron Bay Surf School, collected us. All we needed was togs because he had surfboards, wetsuits, towels and sunscreen.

On the beach, we were schooled on the sand before being unleashed in the surf, and it was epic - actually it was two foot high and glassy but it worked for me. The tide was right, the wind just so, the sun shone and we were surfing, just like that.

We had four lessons and by the last day we were carving it up.

In the interests of fair and balanced reporting, there were hardships. One afternoon, I had free time between surfing and massage and was forced to choose between stand-up paddleboarding, which I've always wanted to try, and surfing out the front of our house. Because I wanted to work on popping up on to my feet, to make the most of the next lesson, surfing won.

Another difficulty was feeling bereft at the end of each breakfast, everything tasted so good. And the bewilderment of trying to decide how to use additional free time - should I go cycling on the spectacular beach, walk the coastal paths, swim in the sea, read by the pool, swim laps, have another surf? Or look for whales? Did I mention that every day I saw whales?

It'd be easy to be cynical or scoff at the unbleached organic lives lived at Escape Haven, but a couple of moments in the presence of Janine, Mell and the rest of the gang and you too will glow like a 200 watt ecobulb.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Gold Coast Airport.

Escape plan: For one week of non-stop loveliness, Escape Haven packages include Revive (focus on surf) and Refresh (focus on yoga). Numbers are limited to eight and you can do as much or as little as you like.

Elisabeth Easther travelled as a guest of Escape Haven.

- NZ Herald

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