Swapping togs for logs, Victoria Clark dives into a sylvan wellness retreat in Murchison
It really doesn't matter I'd forgotten to pack swimwear. I still manage to get in a few hours of forest bathing, and, by night, I bathe in the forest. Yes, those are two completely different things – and they're both exceedingly good for the soul.
The river is surprisingly warm on this 32C summer day but, realising I am "swimsuit-less," I leave the glistening and plump-bodied trout to make the most of the crystal-clear mountain-fed river that flows by the Maruia River Retreat, bound for Maruia Falls. In this stretch of river, with its deep and tranquil pools, trout can be seen languidly slow-dancing just below the surface, then suddenly lunging, open-mouthed, to snap up flying insects as they hover down to quench their tiny bug-sized thirsts. This is indeed a fine habitat for fish – unless, of course, avid fly-fishermen are spending a weekend at the retreat.
Nestled on a gentle slope above the river within a 200-hectare private haven, of which 180 hectares are native beech forest, Maruia River Retreat is just that: a retreat, a salve for the soul, a place to re-connect with your partner or a place to clear your mind of life's clutter. The owners of this secluded escape, Cristina and Lasse, and their staff have an uncanny knack of reading their guests' needs and ensuring they're met.
Visually, this magnificent property works a little like a fast-acting headache tablet. I sigh long and loud when I realise my private villa's balcony looks straight into the beech forest canopy where I can see korimako (bellbirds), pīwakawaka (fantails) and tūī singing their heads off.
My Japanese host, Nanae, takes me down a forest path to the stoked hot tub and a glass-fronted sauna, both hidden away beneath the trees and overlooking the river. She tells me my private and leisurely time to hot-soak here in the forest has been booked for 9.15pm. This timing is particularly special for me – but more on that later; for now, I am eager to don my walking shoes and go forest bathing.
Unless it is raining, forest bathing does not involve water. Most of my friends hadn't heard of it, but in Japan it's definitely a thing, known as shinrin-yoku. Shinrin means "forest", and yoku means "bath" and the practice is all about soaking up the forest's atmosphere through our senses. Studies have shown it's psychologically and physiologically beneficial to human health and wellbeing. There's a name for the love of simply being in a forest surrounded by its scents, sights and sounds. It's called biophilia. I realise I'm a biophile from way back.
I spend quite a bit of my weekend practising shinrin-yoku, solo. Unfortunately, I'm not one of the weekend's guests lucky enough to spot wild deer and, even more enviably, the endangered South Island black robin.
On my second afternoon at Maruia, my husband joins me at the end of his workday and Lasse takes us on one of his informative nature walks, imparting all sorts of interesting details about the Maruia region's history, its flora and fauna. The extensive pathways are lush with mossy carpets, gnarly tree roots that provide natural steps to climb, and elfin-sized tree hollows, straight out of a Lord of the Rings movie set. It feels as though a hobbit or even Gandalf stepping out from behind one of the majestic beech tree trunks would be a perfectly normal possibility.
Late in the evening, walking through the forest to the hot tub reminds me of happy childhood summer evenings when, after dinner, my brothers and I would build huts in the native bush reserve that backed on to our family home, only going home after nightfall when our mother called us. Native beech trees tower above the hot tub at Maruia and the bellbirds, oblivious to the hour, are still trilling in the branches overhead at 9.45pm.
Flush-faced from the hot tub soak and a cedar-scented 15 minutes in the chromo-sauna, I don't see a soul as I make my way back along the forest path – most likely because there are just seven of these highly appointed, contemporary villas, which means no more than 14 guests can stay at the retreat at any one time.
It's an undeniably romantic spot, though in the months that followed the stressful and uncertain year that was 2020, many Kiwis have come here on their own to seek 'me time,' away from the uncertain future of their businesses or simply adjusting to challenging events in their lives. Guests come here to unwind, curl up with a book (there's a great library in the lodge), sleep in or sleep all afternoon, if that's what they need. You can book a nurturing massage or a naturopathy consultation, dine on gourmet food prepared by the retreat's own chef, sip beers, wines and gins made in the top-of-the-South – and, of course, forest-bathe and bathe in the forest.
Yoga is a key element of this retreat. Lasse and Cristina are yoga teachers with many years' experience, including running their own yoga teacher training school and online yoga classes. At the retreat, complimentary classes are on offer to guests every day in a dedicated Wellness Centre which also houses a Finnish sauna, massage and spa room. A hydrotherapy pool is being installed in time for winter.
"There is something very profound about yoga," says Lasse. "It connects us with others, and it has coloured our decisions in life – nothing quite as much as the way it coloured our decision to buy Maruia in 2018."
The couple had been searching for a location where they could run yoga classes, promote wellness and healing and host exclusive retreats. The landscapes of Central Otago captivated them, but then Lasse was completely side-tracked by a real estate listing on Trade Me – Maruia River Retreat. To his delight, it had its own airstrip and a hangar for his Falco two-seater aeroplane. The scenery along the two-hour road-trip from Nelson and the three-hour journey from Christchurch is beautiful, but guests can also charter a light aircraft or helicopter to be here in just minutes.
I manage to get to Lasse's yoga class one morning and love it. On the second morning, my husband and I are surprised to find we've slept in past the eight o'clock start time. We don't usually do sleep-ins. Must have been all that therapeutic forest bathing.
DETAILSMaruia River Retreat is located at 2314 Shenandoah Highway, State Highway 65, (32km south of Murchison township). Phone 03 523 9323 or 027 563 3143, email email@example.com or visit maruia.co.nz
IN THE AREA: MARUIA RIVER
Exclusive wellbeing retreats coming up at Maruia River Retreat include a breathwork retreat (March 12-14) and Cristina and Lasse will facilitate Eat, Yoga, Love. (April 15-18). This one involves some delightful forest bathing under the stars.
Come spring, a self-indulgent Food, Health and Happiness retreat (September 16-19), hosted by wellness expert and author Rachel Grunwell, teaches guests how to achieve a healthier, happier and more balanced lifestyle. New retreats, workshops and seminars are frequently worked into the estate's calendar.
While you're there, you can book an exclusive white-water rafting journey, only available to Maruia River Retreat guests. This six-hour adventure provides private access to the Maruia River through the Maruia Gorge and arrives back at the lodge's river frontage. You'll head out fully-equipped with the appropriate clothing and safety gear – and a gourmet lunch pack for a picnic stop. The white-water sections of the river usually reach Grade 3.
Bring your trail-walking shoes, as there are enchanting and extensive nature trails, wonderful for keen birders to hear, see (and photograph) numerous native birds. The Braeburn and Lyell tracks are close by.
The Maruia River, which is world-renowned for its trout fishing, flows by, literally at the bottom of the lodge's garden and many excellent fishing spots are directly in front of the property.
Private chartered flights and scenic aerial tours can be arranged for Maruia River Retreat guests, as the estate has a well-maintained, 480m airstrip and a helicopter landing area.
Less than 10km north by road the Maruia Falls are a magnificent sight. Maruia Springs are in the opposite direction, nestled in the beautiful native forest of the Lewis Pass National Reserve, a 45-minute drive south from the retreat. Here, you can sink into the warmth of natural, mineral-rich hot pools, even when winter has blanketed the surrounds in snow.