As I sat in front of a roaring log fire alongside 11 strangers, listening to a charming American explain how we could all transform our lives over the next six days, I felt like a character in a best-selling novel.
Certainly as each of us sipped our herbal tea and revealed the reasons why we'd chosen to come to Aro Ha Wellness retreat in Glenorchy, there was great material for a writer to work with.
Some of us were burnt out, professionally and emotionally. Others had ended relationships. One woman was about to have a significant birthday and most of us had allowed bad habits to creep into our lives and wanted to re-set and re-calibrate. All of us wanted to achieve more calm in our busy lives and we were hoping Aro Ha could provide us with the answers.
We'd all invested a great deal to be there. Aro Ha is a luxury retreat and charges accordingly. Despite the fact that I can spend twice the amount travelling to Europe to spend time with the grandchildren, I found it difficult to justify spending money on my own self-improvement. In the end, I reasoned that we'd sold the house just before lockdown and having invested in property, surely I could spend a portion of the proceeds investing in myself. I probably have 20 years left of active living - I want to make the most of them.
Transplanted Americans Damian Chaparro and Chris Madison spent three years creating Aro Ha which is environmentally friendly and almost entirely self-sustaining, with the aim of fostering wellness in their guests. Designed to regenerate the body and mind, Aro Ha's programmes are based on research that suggests we can all transform our physical and emotional health - for the better - through our daily habits.
The six-day, five-night retreat began with us being weighed and measured, ample evidence for me, as if any more were needed, that I needed to make changes to my lifestyle. Our bloods and blood pressure were taken and then it was back to the main lodge for dinner and the fireside chat. All meals are plant based and many of the plants and herbs are grown on the property.
I confess. I've scoffed at vegans in the past but our meals were delicious and filling. Beetroot ravioli with a nut cheese filling, for example. Amazing. Who knew?
The other women - and one man – on the retreat seemed lovely humans. They also seemed normal, which was reassuring. I think I'd assumed everyone would be earnest. Nice but humourless and existing in a higher spiritual realm. But when most of them confessed they hadn't given up caffeine or alcohol as recommended in the week prior to our retreat, and some had enjoyed one last glass of wine at lunch before they began the six-day cleanse, I knew I was among my own kind.
The rooms are comfortable without being sumptuous with separate bedrooms connected by a shower and bathroom. You don't actually spend that much time in your room. With the yoga classes morning and night, the three-hour hikes along the beautiful trails in the immediate vicinity, the spa pool overlooking Lake Wakatipu and the snow-capped mountain ranges and the daily massages, I found myself leaving my room at 6am and not returning til 9pm. I also found myself experiencing and enjoying activities I would never have entertained before the retreat.
"I don't really like yoga," I said to Chris, one of the retreat leaders. He's a handsome, clear-skinned, bright-eyed, gentle young man and a perfect advertisement for the lifestyle the retreat promotes.
Manfully, he didn't ask me why I'd booked in for a yoga retreat if I didn't like yoga. Instead he suggested I think of it as stretching, rather than yoga. And with that shift in mindset, I really enjoyed the stretching we did morning and night.
I enjoyed hiking the trails around the property. I enjoyed the 18 hours of silence we were "invited" to experience. I even enjoyed the spa therapy session run by Fraser, another bright-eyed, handsome, knowledgeable retreat leader. This involved being broiled in the sauna for half an hour, then choosing to submerge yourself in an icy pool for three minutes. The only reason I was able to endure this and indeed, get some satisfaction from it, was being part of the group. Nobody wanted to be the first to throw in the literal and metaphorical towel and thus, we all succeeded.
The sheer beauty of the natural surroundings and the dedication of the staff are what make Aro Ha truly special. It really is a luxury to be able to switch off from the outside world and immerse yourself in an experience designed to offer you an alternative way of thinking and an alternative way of treating your body.
I haven't transformed into a meditating, yoga-practising vegan but that wasn't what Aro Ha promised. We were told we would get the tools to enable us to live healthier, more fulfilling lives and that's what Aro Ha gave us.
The retreat also gave us the desire to do better and be better. How long that lasts is anyone's guess but against all my expectations, I absolutely loved it. I invested in myself and it was worth it.
A six day/five night Revive and Thrive retreat is priced from $5575. Retreats run year round. aro-ha.com
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