Mention the phrase "forest bathing" to anyone and you'll invariably hear someone enthuse about their favourite spa or bath hidden in the bush. However, while I'm all for soaking it in, that's not, by definition, forest bathing.
Confused yet? Let me explain.
"Forest bathing" is the act of replenishing one's mental health by going for a nature walk. We can thank the Japanese for the term, which was coined it in the early '80s as an antidote to fast-paced urban lifestyles. Since then, a growing body of research has demonstrated the profound positive effects of shinrin-yoku on our mental and physical health.
According to a 2019 systemic review published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, forest bathing may improve immunity, as well as alleviate anxiety and depression. In studies that compared people who walked in nature versus urban settings, those who did the nature walk had lower activity in their prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that's responsible for worry was much quieter. Likewise, walking in the woods has also been proven to decrease high blood pressure and pulse rates.
Yet, Kiwis continue to spend about 70 per cent of their time indoors, with one in four experiencing anxiety at some point in their lifetimes.
Whirinaki Forest Footsteps aims to change that. One of New Zealand's newest tour operators, its forest bathing experience takes walkers deep into the Whirinaki Forest, one of the world's last prehistoric rainforests, with towering totara, kahikatea and rimu trees that are estimated to be up to 1000 years old.
"They're the chiefs of the forest," says our tour guide, Himiona Nuku. Over the next 12 kilometres, he points out things I wouldn't have noticed—or understood—without his guidance. Springing up like a tiny forest of evergreens, the forest is home to the tallest species of moss in the world. Whio (blue ducks) whistle from the rushing river below our path, while shining cuckoos warn us of forthcoming rain.
At one point, Nuku hands me a piece of raw pikopiko to sample. The ferns are well-known as symbols for new growth, but they were traditionally used by Māori as medicine for mental health. It's a reminder that the forest's capacity to heal has been known for centuries.
And now, we're gaining a better understanding of how exactly it does it. Trees release essential oils, called phytoncides, to protect themselves. As we go for a tramp, we breathe in these airborne oils, which are believed to boost moods and immune systems, and may even help to fight cancer. That's why forest bathing is about more than just taking a walk in the woods—it's about visiting our natural environments with understanding and intentionality.
This is what guides the work of owners Nadine and Karl Toe Toe. Whirinaki Forest Footsteps is only their latest initiative — the couple also runs Kohutapu Lodge, on the edges of Lake Aniwhenua. As socially conscious accommodation providers, since 2013 they've distributed more than 30,000 hāngi meals to those in need and donated $30,000 to the local marae — contributions that landed them a New Zealand Tourism award for community engagement in 2019. They hope that in the future, Whirinaki Forest Footsteps can be used as an avenue to support and help at-risk youth.
"For us, it's not just a walk in the forest," says Nadine. "People look at going into nature as a photo opportunity for Instagram, but it's about the spiritual and health benefits you can get from it."
Nadine's effervescent energy sweeps us along on our tour of their other new venture; a five-bedroom house overlooking the lake that's been thoughtfully designed for groups with rolling barn doors, polished concrete floors and a massive macrocarpa table carved by Karl.
At first, I'm concerned a house this size for two people will feel cavernous. Instead, it envelopes my partner and me in its warmth. I'm so busy watching birds land on the water outside that it's a full hour before I realise there's no Wi-Fi (another point of intentionality).
Later that night, Nadine stops by with a massive dessert platter, which, like the house, seems intended for a family of 20. ("Food is how we show love and gratitude. It's a big part of Māori culture," she explains.)
"Do you feel tired after your walk? Or energised?" she asks.
I'm stumped by her question. I feel neither. It takes me a few moments before I can identify the foreign sensation settling in my limbs. Then, I realise what I'm feeling.
This, I remember, is what it feels like to be relaxed. Bring on the phytoncides.
Whirinaki Forest Footsteps is a new guided Māori cultural and wellness experience deep in the Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tāne Conservation Park near Murupara. The easy to moderate walking track is suitable for kids and most fitness levels and takes five hours. It costs $199 for adults and $150 for children, including round-trip transportation from Rotorua and a packed forest-to-fork lunch. whirinakiforestfootsteps.co.nz
Overlooking Lake Aniwhenua, Te Whare Aniwaniwa is Kohutapu's Lodge's brand new five-bedroom, three-bathroom house. With trestle beds for kids and woodfired outdoor bathtubs, it's designed for groups and families to relax, reset and reconnect. Kohutapu Lodge's Stay and Bathe package for groups of 10 to 20 includes two nights' accommodation, a guided walk with Whirinaki Forest Footsteps, and a welcome platter (plus wine) on arrival that would put most hotel's measly cheese boards to shame. Normally $595 per person, it is $399 until October. Cabins are also available, starting at $100 per night. kohutapulodge.co.nz
SOAK IT UP: 7 MORE RETREATS IN THE TREES
In New Zealand, we're fortunate that parkland is never far away, making it easy to work "forest bathing" into our regular routine. But for those looking to fully reap its benefits, a guided experience may help you approach the act mindfully.
From day spas set in the outdoors, to multi-day retreats, we've rounded up some of the best forest-bathing experiences across the country.
Warblers Retreat, Auckland
You don't have to leave Auckland to immerse yourself in a natural environment. Warblers Retreat in Albany is surrounded by lush bush, providing the perfect setting to take a tranquil stroll in the woods. With Warblers Forest Bathing package, you can also forest bathe in the private outdoor bathtub after your walk. A 90-minute session—which includes light refreshments—costs $120.
Sole to Soul, Waitaki
Mental and physical wellbeing was so important to friends Sally Newlands and Juliet Gray that they launched a business devoted to it. Sole to Soul takes walkers into Waitaki's expansive high country near Kurow, including through private land not normally accessible to the public. The tailored experiences can include yoga and meditation, starting at $179 for a half-day experience.
Pupu Rangi Nature Sanctuary, Northland
A half-day outdoors might not feel like quite enough time to soak it all in. If you've got a week to spare, Pupu Rangi Nature Sanctuary's seven-day explorer programme might be the answer. Combining forest bathing and conservation volunteering in one of Northland's kauri forest, you'll deepen your knowledge of floral and fauna, learn basic navigation skills, and spend your nights sleeping in tree tents. Volunteer placements are available from November through April.
WaiOra Wellbeing, Great Barrier Island
A certified nature and forest therapy guide, WaiOra owner Vicky Kyan is your go-to for forest bathing on Great Barrier Island. In addition to hosting forest therapy sessions on Wednesday and Saturdays, she offers private mentoring and training to others who are interested in becoming guides, as well as flower essence remedies.
Terra & Tide, Waiheke Island
An internationally accredited nature and forest therapy guide, wellness coach Gabrielle Young brings more than 25 years of experience to her business on Waiheke Island. Her private forest therapy walks focus on building resilience and wellbeing through connecting with our natural environment. Experiences are available for groups of four and up ($150 to $195 per person dependent on season).
Maruia River Retreat, Tasman
There's arguably no better place to forest bathe than in the Tasman's native bushland. Maruia River Retreat, on the edges of the Victoria Forest Park near Murchison, offers a Forest Bathing and Nature Therapy package. After a guided walk, you'll eat a gourmet lunch, be pampered with a massage or private yoga class, and soak in the retreat's outdoor hot tub. The package is valued at $360 per person, and is available for guests of the lodge.
Mount Cook Retreat, Canterbury
During the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, the team at Mount Cook Retreat spent their time outdoors constructing a dedicated shinrin-yoku path. However, it's not the only activity on the property, which overlooks Lake Pukaki—the retreat also boasts a stargazing observatory, croquet lawn, and even a wintertime outdoor curling rink.