Sophie Trigger finds that the towels are fluffy but the approach - albeit wholly beneficial - is anything but, while staying at Arete for its Women in Leadership Retreat.
A leadership coach and former Defence Force Flight commander has put her 30-year-career into building New Zealand's first carbon-neutral and off-grid retreat, and helping her clients find joy.
Arete Retreat is tucked away in the Tararua Forrest Park just outside Levin, around 100km from Wellington. It took its first group in late 2020.
Balancing a rustic simplicity with the indulgences of home, Arete comforts its guests with soft towels and lovingly-prepared food, while keeping them humble with solar power and non-flushing toilets.
Its creator and "experiential architect" Sally Duxfield says she treats the clients that visit much the same – with empathy and warmth, but a drive to bring out the best in them.
This is not a place to come and do yoga and humming for five days, she says.
"I'm not fluffy - what I love is to inspire and drive the action and then hold them accountable," Duxfield said.
"When I'm facilitating, I'm actually really strong about the outcomes, everyone goes out with a strong action plan."
After several decades in the Defence Force and having worked as a leadership consultant with corporate clients, the idea for a retreat began because Duxfield realised she needed something off-grid.
Although she ran survival and resilience training in the wilderness, this didn't suit a lot of her corporate clients, who also needed a place where they could plan.
"So I looked and looked, and your options were Bali, Fiji possibly, but there was nothing in New Zealand that was completely carbon neutral and nothing where there were no electrical plugs.
"Everybody could plug in, they could plug in their hair straighteners, plug in their phones."
"They might not be on Wi-Fi but they're still playing candy crush, they're still engaging their brain in gaming, or taking photos – they're not present."
She found her answer in part of a pine forest that had been smashed by a storm, near the Makahika outdoor education centre she owned.
Sitting among the tall pine trees she realised she had found the place.
"We own the whole valley bowl here and it always feels like a hand to me – it feels like you're sitting in this hand, surrounded by forest."
"It feels like it's a place to sit and put yourself back together again."
To help her clients do that, Duxfield offered her expertise in neuroscience and leadership, helping high-powered professionals take control of their day.
It was crucial they learnt to manage the distractions of Wi-Fi and social media, which she said were key drivers behind a stressed and fatigued generation.
"They're saying in the neuroscience world that today's biggest crisis is that we have a very primal brain, and this technology we haven't quite caught up with," she said.
"We're using it all, but our anxiety is increasing."
Driven by her own Defence Force experience, Duxfield had been motivated to explore why some people were able to cope better with trauma and stress. She began exploring how our neuroscience affects our day-to-day lives.
Of particular concern for Duxfield is the constant stimulation from social media, which floods the brain with the addictive drug dopamine, and makes it harder to switch off, sleep and recover.
Having worked with high-performance athletes such as the All Blacks and the Silver Ferns as well as corporates, Duxfield teaches a four-quadrant model that allows clients to categorise and prioritise tasks.
Clients absorb these lessons with the backdrop of graceful but simplistic facilities - Duxfield said it was important that Arete was not excessive.
"I admire people that have wealth but I hate the excessiveness and arrogance that comes with it," she said.
"I didn't want [Arete] to be flashy or showy – I wanted to have an elegance to it, with lovely sheets and beautiful pillows … but you still have to walk outside with an umbrella if it's raining to go the bathroom.
"And to have to sprinkle coco-peat and sawdust on your kaka and mimi is very humbling."
"There are millions of people for whom that's their reality and they don't even have a $1300 bamboo loo to do it in – they have a hole in the ground or a gutter."
As part of her passion for sustainability and giving back, Duxfield envisages a legacy programme that would see her offer a discount to clients and companies who give a proportion of their retreat budget to a food bank or community group.
"And that wealth starts getting dispersed down to where it's most needed," she said.
Named for the Greek word Arete – meaning the excellence or goodness of a person - Sally's retreat was not a resort, she said. She would hold her clients accountable.
"I don't have a board of directors telling me I need to be polite. I challenge people, but I also care deeply.
"I shed a lot of tears with clients because I can feel their pain, but it doesn't mean I'm not going to hold them accountable.
"I just want people to be joyful … that whatever it is they are, they find joy in it."
Just as important to Duxfield is that Arete feels like family.
"The point of difference is that Sally owns this place and Sally is here, and is mother and father … so that when you leave you feel like you're part of something.
"And when you come back it's like you are children coming home."
For more information on Arete, go to arete.nz
For more things to see and do in the region, go to manawatunz.co.nz
Check traffic light settings and Ministry of Health advice before travel at covid19.govt.nz