How to reignite the spark in your relationship by going on a romantic couples' retreat — alone
In March 2020, when lockdown first came into effect, psychologists predicted that there would be two types of relationships: Those that would be strengthened by quarantine and those that wouldn't survive it.
My relationship sits firmly in the former category but that doesn't mean that suddenly spending 24/7 together has been seamless. Habits that were once endearing are now exasperating. Nit-picking could best be described as a competitive sport in our household; one that no one has any hopes of winning.
On a head-clearing drive a few weeks ago, the solution came to me — we needed to get away for a couple of days. Away from each other, that is.
Science backs the idea that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Countless studies have demonstrated that solitude leads to increased empathy, a better sense of self and an improved ability to work through complex problems, including processing emotions. The result of dedicated alone time is stronger relationships with our friends, family and partners.
I proposed the idea to my partner, Keilie, who all but pushed me out the door; a response I'm still not sure whether to be pleased with or offended by.
A week later, I'm turning down an inconspicuous gravel road in Mackenzie Country, headed towards the Mount Cook Lakeside Retreat. One of the few accommodation options located directly on the shores of Lake Pukaki, it's best known as a couple's luxury getaway but I figure if it's good enough for a honeymoon, then it's good enough for a "me-moon".
I'm greeted by co-owner Luke Paardekooper, who gives me a tour of the Ashley Mackenzie Villa. He points awkwardly to where I can find the tennis rackets ("Although I guess you probably won't be using them," he says) and my welcome bottle of bubbly ("You can always take it home?" he suggests).
Since the retreat is all-inclusive, all that's left is for the chef to arrive with my three-course dinner. While I wait, I call Keilie and tell her about my digs, which include a private gym, sauna, hot tub and massage room.
"Just don't forget to come home," she says, her voice edged with worry.
After we hang up, I open the fridge and stare at the bottle of brut.
Keilie lives for bubbly but this is not the time to be selfless. I pop the cork.
The next morning, sunshine spills through the villa's windows, revealing what my night-time arrival obscured. I understand immediately what Luke's partner, Kaye Paardekooper, means when she says the building "wraps around" you. Leadlight windows frame the mountains in a way that contemporary floor-to-ceiling panes never could, while neutral tones throughout allow the lake's aquamarine hue to take centre-stage.
Heading out on one of the property's trails, I wander through a woodland of wilding conifers, littered with erratic rocks left some 20,000 years ago by glacial outwash. Emerging near the retreat's observatory, I find a petanque court, its balls begging to be tossed. Further along, two adirondack chairs preside over the tennis court.
It's starting to feel like a lonely place for a party of one, when my massage therapist arrives.
"You're here by yourself?" she sighs, her exhale filled with longing.
By the time she leaves, I'm once again feeling so smug about my solo status that I decide to soak in the lakeside spa. Sure, tennis might be off the agenda — but watching the sun set from the privacy of my own hot tub? That's one activity couples don't have a monopoly on.
As the day's last rays settle into a dusky plum, I gaze out over Lake Pukaki, the peak of Aoraki beyond. I've heard tourists say that Mackenzie Country looks like my home province of Alberta. It's a comparison that's categorically correct but it's also lazy. The snow-capped peaks don't belong to a Canadian scene — this is one that's all New Zealand.
I'm still feeling pretty pleased with myself until I attempt to replace the spa's cover. It's an unwieldly thing; the task clearly designed for two. By the time I've got everything back in place, all the good work the masseuse did has gone to waste.
That night, I meet Kaye and Luke for dinner in the Moraine Lodge, the retreat's main building. Kaye tells me that last month she had her own solo staycation in the Ashley Mackenzie Villa.
"I was just so exhausted after lockdown," she says.
I don't bother to ask what she means; the fatigue of months of uncertainty ties us all. While lockdown was an invaluable opportunity to rediscover our families, now is the time to rediscover ourselves.
When I get home, Keilie is waiting. The villa wrapped itself around me in her absence but I'm ready for her embrace. She promises me a game of tennis and I present her with a souvenir from my stay — one half-empty bottle of bubbly, saved just for her.
Designed for post-lockdown recuperation, Mount Cook Lakeside Retreat's new Wellness Retreat packages include accommodation in a villa with private hot tub, all-inclusive meals and a bottle of sparkling wine. In addition to a massage and yoga lesson, guests have access to all the retreat's facilities, including the new shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) trail.
Until September 30, packages start at $1995 for couples. Single wellness stays start at $1800.