Active relaxation is the way to go, writes India Essuah.
When you're used to being busy, the idea of escaping to a peaceful island in the South Pacific is an enticing one. But the reality of complete relaxation can be hard for those used to feeling as if they constantly "should" be doing something productive. Active relaxation is the answer dreamt up by the team at Wellness Retreats NZ, who run twice-yearly adventure holidays to Niue.
The four-day escapes seem to attract the likes of business owners, real estate agents, or people in the midst of changing careers: high achievers all too aware of their need to relax, but who find it rather hard to sit still.
As it turns out, it's hard to check your emails when you're diving into crystal-clear water and difficult to twiddle your thumbs when they're reaching out to the pod of dolphins playing beside you. Snorkelling, hiking and swimming are all on the agenda (as are said dolphins and even whales, if you're lucky) and the time away from day-to-day stress is also spent picking up new wellness tips, yoga poses and exercises to take back home. It also felt like high time I learned more about the coral atoll that's one of our smallest, closest neighbours.
After just a few hours in the air, we arrive at Niue's tiny airport in Alofi, pick up our bags off the concrete floor and mill about in the heat with the chickens, taking in the lush surroundings. These only become more tropical and impressive during the short drive to the lovely Scenic Matavai Resort — the island feels worlds away from the freezing weather we've left behind.
Generally our days start early with an hour-long fitness session on the deck, overlooking the impossibly blue ocean. The pastel sunrises help to distract from the fact you're in the middle of a pretty serious workout, lead by award-winning trainer Paddy Flavell. He somehow manages to come up with multiple sessions to suit the range of fitness levels and the small space available. A tray of fruit smoothies appear afterwards, downed by those who aren't taking part in the bonus round of squats and crunches that Paddy adds on for whoever wants to push themselves a bit harder. Things move quickly here, we have a few moments to freshen up before heading to breakfast, which is fine, as it's a daily highlight after you've worked up an appetite.
You're free to pass up a session for a sleep in, but — as I found out on the final day — it's likely you'll be woken by the resident roosters anyway and your eggs won't taste nearly as good.
If you're visiting Niue, you can bring in any food you like, except honey. Shipments can be irregular and the tendency is for Niuean locals to grow their own fresh food and apparently it can be a race to get hold of the extra produce that ends up at the local market. The retreat includes most meals, with the organisers having crafted a menu that's as nutritionally balanced as possible and served in a buffet style. This means each person can eat exactly what they feel like, or incorporate the tips on how to eat for your body type, as helpfully explained by the retreat's nutritionist Kaytee Boyd.
For breakfast there are sweet and savoury options each day and dinners are an abundance of fresh salads and seafood, plus a wholesome but indulgent dessert. Apparently the idea of taking coffee away from breakfast was mulled, but it is likely to come as a relief to know that the retreat's approach to wellness doesn't involve deprivation — you're free to enjoy caffeine and cocktails, or wine with dinner.
Less flexible, however, is the retreat's "digital detox" which is enforced by the lack of reception across the island (or fairly expensive internet options at the hotel). It gave us a chance to break our social-media habit, using the hour of daily Wi-Fi to check in with loved ones was more of a priority than mindlessly refreshing Instagram.
Whether you're so attached to your usual choice of drink after one of Kaytee's wellness sessions is another question. Her enthusiastic yet gentle and inclusive approach to nutrition saw many of us rethinking our daily habits during her three fast-paced sessions, which included plenty of time for questions and case studies from the clinic she runs day-to-day.
The afternoons were for adventures. These included guided tours of the island, which takes a couple of hours to drive around, depending on how careful you are about dodging the roads' many, many potholes. Our witty guide, Pina, was a delight, full of jokes, a love for the island and a plethora of information you could get only from a local. She points out the part of the island most affected by 2004's cyclone Heta, tidbits about each of the villages that house the 1600 residents, and the congregation times of various churches.
Two minor dramas occur during this excursion. Firstly, we find our road blocked by a fallen tree. Like kids on school camp, everyone's quite excited by the find and after we convince the group's more ambitious members that no, we won't be able to move it, we snap a group photo and reroute. Pina stops at a nearby house and asks them to let the police know about the blockage and off we head to our spot, with yet another magnificent view and a couple of beautiful, friendly dogs. Drama strikes again, as someone's vegetarian, gluten-free sandwich gets snapped up by the hungry pup and the guides carefully ward off the dogs as we eat (and patiently ask me to stop cooing at them).
At our next stop, as we walk down a track to Matapa Chasm to snorkel, Pina points out bush tucker, which we snack on, as well as noni fruit (which looks other-worldly and smells of blue cheese). As well as growing in the wild, noni is farmed organically, juiced and exported.
We spend an hour or so snorkelling in the deep, high-walled chasm, the sea water swirling as fresh water runs in, and tiny bright fish darting about. We then head off to walk across a reef at low tide (reef shoes are a must, wherever you swim) and are surprised with a beautiful cave.
The guides were keen to get us back in time for yoga but we sneak in another swim and unsuccessfully try to capture the caves' magnificence in photos. As we head back to the van we encounter a couple of tourists — something that doesn't happen often, meaning we tend to have the wonders to ourselves.
Daily yoga taught by teacher and Wellness Retreats founder Mel Carroll provides a chance to stretch out any soreness from the fitness sessions or snorkelling. (The heavenly massage included in the retreat is also perfect for this). The view from our mats was incredible and the gentle classes made for a peaceful moment to take in the fact we're literally in paradise. With the sun shining and a sea that feels like a bath, it's hard to believe we're so close to wintry Auckland. As we finish the session, Mel asks us to think of something we're grateful for, which is all too easy.