It's Australasia's largest health retreat, with the biggest spa in the Southern Hemisphere. It counts celebrities among its regulars, including Hugh Jackman, who was so impressed that he's now a part-owner. And last year, it was awarded "World's Best Eco Spa".
Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat, located in Australia's Gold Coast Hinterland, is the kind of place that's spoken about with a hushed reverence usually reserved for spiritual experiences.
So, given its accolades, you can understand why I expected to be whisked away to my room on arrival, perhaps with a glass of bubbly in hand.
Instead, luggage spills out across the porch. The only drink on offer is herbal tea. Around me, dozens of women wearing name tags fill out forms.
My anxiety activates. I'm confused. Is there a conference on?
"Everyone arrives between 2pm and 4pm," explains Tracy Willis, Gwinganna's public relations manager, greeting me. "It's not unlike a cruise ship. We all depart together."
This is the standard start to Gwinganna's three-day Wellness Weekend, a short retreat designed for the time-poor. Not surprisingly, it attracts a lot of mums. I'm not a parent, but I do fit into the target demographic; I tend to prioritise work over my own well-being.
"When was the last time you woke up with a sense of joy that carried you through the day?" asks programme manager Kay at orientation. "That feeling is why Gwinganna exists."
I can't remember the last time I woke up with anything other than an intense desire for more sleep, but I'm sceptical. Gwinganna claims that everything it does is science and evidence-based. Yet, I'm still not sure how tarot card readings (one of the spa services offered) meets that description.
Kay goes on to explain that everything from the organic food to the schedule has been intentionally designed for optimal well-being. Mornings are dedicated to yin (restorative) and yang (higher intensity) activities, while afternoons are devoted to recovery. It's then that guests can bathe in one of the outdoor soaker tubs, wander through the expansive gardens, or go to the spa. There are also daily seminars.
Then, Kay lays down the rules. The good news: everything is optional. Caffeine will be available until 11:30am and a glass of wine will be served at dinner. The bad news: phones are off-limits and water isn't served with meals; it's allegedly bad for digestion.
I head to my assigned table and dig into my mung dahl with coconut quinoa. On my left is an executive assistant from Melbourne. ("Burnout", she says, a singular word to explain her presence.) On my right is a family from Brisbane with no intention of doing the "programme"—they're just here for the spa.
I, however, decide to go all in. By 8am the next morning, I've already done qigong and yoga. Then, after choking back my allocated shot of apple cider vinegar (to aid digestion) and eating breakfast (a poached egg with beans and sauerkraut), I head to stretch class.
"A little bit of discomfort leads to change," the instructor says.
Did he mean to say that a little bit of discomfort leads to pain? I wonder.
The building we're in has a spin studio, gym, sauna and infinity pool, but once housed the former property owner's helicopters. He's also responsible for many of the other buildings, including a cricket stand from the Gabba in Brisbane, and the Tweed Heads' General Store, now used as the Natural Therapies Centre.
The overall effect is that of a historic homesteaders' village meets Christian summer camp. But instead of Bibles in the gift shop, I find Brene Brown books alongside Gwinganna's cookbook. There are no rosaries, but there are mala beads hanging beside crystal water bottles that "vitalise" water to "improve energy balance". (There are crystal dog bowls for sale, too.)
I don't have too much time to wonder about the efficacy of crystals, because it's time for my spa appointments. I arrive at a sprawling circular complex that looks like a space station designed by women.
Since the 20-page spa menu gave me decision fatigue (options include colonic hydrotherapy and horse meditation), I settled on an "intuitive massage" (which includes myofascial cupping), followed by marma point relaxation therapy (an Ayurvedic energy healing practice). After my body is marinated in oil and tenderised for hours, it's finally time to return to earth.
The next morning, I don't wake up feeling joyful per se. But I do wake up feeling well-rested for the first time in months. With a bit more spring in my step, I decide to climb Mount Gwinganna. At the top, the dense bush—home to wallabies, koalas, echidnas and 100 species of birds—spreads out below me, the white sands of the Gold Coast visible beyond.
Well-being may be about more than the results of randomised double-blind studies. We've all got our addictions: phones, sugar, caffeine, alcohol. Gwinganna's programming is about taking the time to take stock, and about empowering people to create change in their lives. And, if for some people the path to wellness involves drinking water from a $150 bottle laden with crystals? That's their journey. It doesn't have to be mine.
CHECKLIST: GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand and Jetstar fly direct from Auckland to the Gold Coast.
Gwinganna's two-night Wellness Weekend retreats are all-inclusive of meals and programming, with rates starting at A$1175. For those who want to delve deeper, specialised retreats are also available, including October's "organic living" getaway. Over three days, Gwinganna's former chef and resident organic gardener Shelley Pryor will show guests how to grow and use their own medicinal herbs and cook with them. gwinganna.com/stay/organic-living
Check border and state restrictions before travel.