Luxury wellness retreat in Franz Josef is just the recipe for a reset, reboot and readjustment, writes Andrew Stone
Paddy Flavell, a great bear of a man, tweaks my posture. Bum out, he instructs, relax the shoulders. There are 12 of us in Paddy's early morning workout. Logs crackling in a riverstone fireplace at Rainforest Retreat, a Franz Josef resort, add heat to the room.
Before Covid brought this Westland village to its knees, our makeshift gym was party central for backpackers. High-spirited 20-somethings danced on the pool table and downed shots. Our restrained crew is more focused on squats.
With the tourism flow reduced to a trickle, this has become an ideal retreat destination. I join a group hosted by retreat director Melissa Carroll, owner of Wellness Retreats NZ and our yoga teacher. For six days Rainforest Retreat is our base for an amazing escape.
Women filled all the places on the first retreat. Ours mixes it up - three couples, two sisters and five singles. There are 30, 40, 50 and 60-somethings. Some have niggles, some have excess baggage. We're looking for resets, reboots and readjustments. Mel's formula includes exceptional food, massage, yoga classes, Paddy's workouts, and health and diet workshops led by integrative nutritionist Kaytee Boyd - food for the soul.
Little touches add to my welcome. Handwritten messages are left in my room. "It is not about being good at something. It is about being good to yourself," reads one. Faced with turmoil wrought by Covid, Melissa's company and the bush-encircled Franz Josef resort have formed a partnership to create a "wellbeing meets adventure" retreat. It is a special recipe.
Nature lends a breathtaking stage for the outdoor calendar. We ride quad bikes through muddy bush tracks and freezing river channels, kayak and fish on a deep dark lake, walk in a Jurassic forest, take a dramatic helicopter flight to the frozen heights of Fox Glacier and see Aoraki Mt Cook reflected on the still early morning surface of Lake Matheson.
Some of us must be a bit frazzled after the predawn start in Auckland for the long
trip south. We have gathered for our first meet and greet and a tasty lunch of warming pumpkin and coconut soup with slabs of homemade bread.
There is a question for Mel about booze. "We don't encourage it," she tactfully
replies, "but we don't judge either." Cue sighs of relief. It hasn't escaped our notice that Monsoon, Rainforest Retreat's restaurant and bar, has a memorable collection of gins. Later that afternoon, our first "soft yoga" session knocks the kinks out of the system. Forty minutes of stretches, rolls, twists and bends. As darkness settles on glacier country, we dine on fish stew and whitebait fritters. Welcome to the West Coast.
We walk through town towards our first thrill of the trip - a two-hour quad bike blast over the stony Waiho River bed. Before mounting the 450cc machines, we get a quick lesson in managing them. There is a circle of tyres to navigate, before a few circuits of a short twisty track. Everyone passes the test.
Our guide runs through a few protocols and hand signals for the trail, especially for the blokes who might fancy nudging the throttle. No wheelies, Olivia cautions. No fancy slides either. And she laughingly threatens us with the tow of shame if we get stuck in any of the freezing river channels. She knows the riverbed. Two years ago, when an immense flood swept away the town bridge, her dad ferried cars across the raging Waiho on a giant
excavator. On the day of our ride, the river, which is fed by the Franz Josef glacier, is well behaved. Follow me, Olivia waves and we're off.
The track first passes through native forest. It is chilly in the bush and the bikes bump and skid along the muddy route. We charge along a stopbank before plunging into the river bed. Olivia corrals us for a class photo. Towards the Alps, we can finally see a bit of the glacier. It is a blue tongue of ice, tumbling down a steep valley beneath a cloak of cloud.
Later Paddy leads a fitness session. We do planks, steps and squats. I get an early pass to see Sadhana for an hour of massage. She finds knots and tight tissue. I'm not surprised.
With an hour to kill l shoot up a track behind Franz Josef. The Callery Gorge path is an easy walk, through bush and past the town's water supply. Pest traps have been laid at the edge of the path, and birds signal their presence. A cool glacier wind washes downhill. In a brief time, the place has grown on me.
But the village and its 300 ratepayers have an uncertain future. The town sits on the Alpine Fault. A shudder could seal its fate. Then there's the Waiho, fed by the mood of the mountains. The river broke its banks in 2019 and smashed the sewage system in
2016. We head 10km south to Lake Mapourika, where the town could go if someone
paid the $1 billion bill. No takers so far. No surprise there.
The lake looks deep and brown as we putter over its still surface in a comfy launch. Dale, our guide and skipper explains it was a kettle lake, created when a huge lump of ice broke off from a retreating glacier and got buried. We spend a couple of fruitless hours casting for trout and gazing in awe at the towering kahikatea forest.
The trees, once cut to make butter boxes, are Jurassic-era relics. Pollen and leaf fossils from the trees have been found in 160 million-year-old rocks, which suggest flying dinosaurs ate kahikatea berries. We leave this special place for a nutrition class with Kaytee. She suggests those wanting to shed a few kilos narrow their eating window to eight or 10 hours a day. I sense her advice strikes a chord.
Seven of us squeeze into a Squirrel helicopter and fly south. The machine skims above the forest canopy then climbs steadily towards the snow. Mt Tasman towers above us as we put down on the neve of Fox Glacier. The immense Aoraki soars into the sky a few kilometres away. We have time for photos, to breathe the alpine air and to briefly soak in the splendour of the majestic ice river as it starts its journey to the sea.
After lunch, we encounter nature of a different kind at the West Coast Wildlife Centre. Working in partnership with the Department of Conservation, the centre breeds rowi kiwi. Rowi numbers have come back from the brink after a costly intervention to protect juvenile birds from stoats and rats. Tracking technology indicates the species is over the hump and the bird's future in the Ōkārito Forest near Franz Josef appears secure. Before we go we see another rare creature - the tuatara. Two perky critters have the run of an enclosure that mimics a forest floor. They are alert and present in the cool setting, an environment that suits the reptile because rising temperatures from climate change imperil their future.
Our dinner, devised by Mel, caps a great day. It starts with North Indian chicken curry with cauliflower rice and ends with honey and coconut creme brulee - all gluten and dairy-free.
We board Paddy's bus in predawn darkness for the drive south to Lake Matheson. A kettle lake created when Fox Glacier retreated around 14,000 years ago, the forest-encircled lake surface casts magical reflections of snow-capped Aoraki and Tasman, about 20km away. From a lookout called View of Views, the Main Divide could almost be in the water.
The cafe at the start of the lake track does great breakfasts and punchy coffee. The manager tells me that before Covid, when thousands stopped for selfies by the lake, he had 40 staff. He's down to five. "We're just hanging on," he says.
Back at Rainforest Retreat, Davo, one of five blokes in the group, and l head off on bikes. We head up to the glacier car park for one last glimpse of the ice river. The immense solid mass is shrinking fast after warmer years, partly because it is so steep. The last time l was here, nearly 20 years ago, l walked up and touched the ice. You can't do that now.
Mel sets a relaxed timetable for departure day. Half of the group attend the final yoga and fitness sessions, which help clear the cobwebs from our final evening dinner. Kaytee's last class deals with hormones and she draws wry looks from the blokes with her advice on keeping their prostates in good working order.
Gathered in the room, which has been our collective home, we reflect on the week. We have done the mahi, and our bodies and minds are nourished. We are kind of ready to go, though there is a wistful sense in the air. We feel fulfilled, but a little heavy-hearted to farewell such a special place and a nice bunch of Kiwis.
CHECKLIST: FRANZ JOSEF
Wellness Retreats' Retreat to the Rainforest runs again in October and November: See wellnessretreatsnz.co.nz for more information.
Accommodation at Rainforest is available year-round. rainforest.nz