A grateful and glowing Stephanie Holmes gets the monkey mind off her back at a luxury women-only spa and wellness retreat in Bali.
It's only day three of our seven-day stay, and my friend Emma has already reached peak luxury.
"I can't do it. Ninety minutes is just too long," she says, with a pained expression on her face. "Why can't my spa treatment be only an hour so I have more time to lie by the pool and read my book?"
There's an easy solution to this First World problem because easy solutions are what luxury wellness retreats are all about. Emma can read in the shade by the Instagram-ready infinity pool while Wati, our ever-smiling Balinese spa therapist, gives her a 90-minute pedicure and reflexology treatment. Luxury means your options are endless.
It's testament to the excellence of Escape Haven, a women-only active spa retreat in Bali's beautiful beachside town of Canggu, that the most stressful decision each day is which treatment we want. Don't scoff — the menu lists more than 15 different options, and with only seven days to play with, it's almost impossible to choose which to fit in.
Escape Haven, founded in 2008 by New Zealander Janine Hall, was last year named the Best Luxury Wellness Retreat at the World Luxury Hotel awards and is this year in contention for three more awards. It is also the No1 retreat in Bali on TripAdvisor and has had more than 5000 women through its picture-perfect doors since its launch.
Everything has been carefully thought out and executed, from the big-picture planning of each guest's weekly schedule to the tiniest details, like the artfully-arranged frangipanis left daily on our beds.
Running back-to-back throughout the year, retreats welcome up to 15 women each week. Guests choose between four different packages: Refresh (yoga), Renew (fitness), Revive (surf) or Ayurvedic (healing), and the week is carefully planned out from there.
Whatever package is chosen, guests still enjoy daily yoga classes, spa treatments, and meditation, and receive meals, butler service, airport transfers and late check-outs. The idea is to give women a break from their everyday lives, and a chance to reconnect with their true selves — something that often gets lost in the busyness of keeping on top of work, family, relationships, health ... otherwise known as life.
Sitting in a circle, relaxed and activewear-adorned after our first group yoga class, it's not long before the tears start to flow. Our retreat leaders Renee, Lucy, Mel and Sandra, an Aussie, a Brit, a Kiwi and a German, have told us all about "their journeys" to get to where they are today — professionally, physically, spiritually and mentally. There are stories of high-stress careers, bad relationships and severe health problems, which eventually lead to personal revelations that lifestyles needed to change. All four are radiant with the glow that can only come from healthy eating, plenty of fresh air and exercise, and the inner peace the retreat guests are hoping to replicate.
With nothing but encouragement and support in the air, we take it in turns to share the reasons we have booked a week at Escape Haven. Starting as strangers, 15 women quickly become friends, talking openly about career changes, loss, grief, depression, stress. Mothers talk about how they give so much to their families they have nothing left for themselves; women on the cusp of 40 reveal their fears about this next chapter in their lives; burned-out professionals ask for help to rediscover what brings them joy away from work. We all agree on one thing — we just need a break from real life.
Sharing our stories is like a huge exhalation — a sense of calm is already starting to spread throughout the group as we gather round a perfectly dressed dining table for a healthy, hearty, wholefoods meal. It seems, for some women, the first hurdle in reconnecting with life has already been conquered — just acknowledging they need some time out and having the support from the group to not feel guilty for that.
The mood continues to change over the next few days as we are cocooned in our bubble of luxury. You can see women getting brighter and mentally lighter as the days roll by and we have nothing to worry about. Need a drink? Someone will get it for you. Want to change your chosen spa treatment? No problem, it's already taken care of. Heading into town to do some shopping? Easy, there's a driver on standby. Want to do absolutely nothing? Totally fine, find a spot on a sun lounger and relax for as long as you like.
The tropical warmth and tranquillity of our surroundings no doubt helps — the retreat is nestled in the Balinese jungle and the sounds of birdsong, cicadas, and calls from local Hindu temples fill the incense-scented air. Spa treatments — when not taken by the pool — are in peaceful, circular wooden huts, open to the elements save for bamboo blinds and sheer billowing curtains; yoga is in the garden or in the open-sided shala, a pavilion hidden in the jungle. We're immersed in nature, such a stark and welcome contrast to our everyday, office-based lives.
Despite being surrounded by perfect luxury, for me the relaxation is slow to come. My brain won't switch off; I spend my spa treatments mentally running through to-do lists, then get frustrated for not being fully in the moment.
This is what Buddhists and yogis call "the monkey mind", the niggling thoughts that won't go away, the self-criticisms bringing barriers to relaxation and inner peace. It seems I've brought all my monkeys on holiday with me, and they've invited all their friends for one massive monkey party. Unlike some of the other women, who, by day three, seem to be floating on air, I'm getting more and more frustrated at not being able to relax.
It doesn't help that I'm being drastically unsuccessful with my chosen Revive package. Every morning, our professional instructors pick us up, drive us to one of the island's excellent surf beaches, and we get in the water to attempt to ride the waves. There are six of us surfing, and with three loveable instructors we've got attentive, personalised coaching all the way. I've had surf lessons before, and was able to stand up on my board, but this time it's eluding me. Wave after wave, I stumble and tumble into the white wash, while some of the other women — first-timers — are up and riding waves right to the beach.
I contemplate giving up after day two's lesson — my body exhausted, my muscles sore, and my skin red raw from board rash. But that night, the daily inspirational note left on my pillow at turn-down service has pre-empted me. "Pain is temporary," it reads.
"Quitting lasts forever".
"I'm being emotionally blackmailed," I joke to Emma, but really it's the kick I need to keep going.
Day three, though, and my surfing is worse than ever and my self-criticism is at an all-time high.
Later that day, I try an alternative therapy treatment with Ana, a no-nonsense Russian who uses a mix of pressure-point massage, reiki and counselling to give a holistic assessment of the body and mind. It's a confronting experience — she first asks how I'm feeling physically and emotionally, then I stand in front of her in my bikini while she pokes and prods and visually assesses my body.
"I don't like your shoulders," she says, in her unapologetically brusque manner. "Too high." (A blunt yet accurate assessment — I carry all my stress in my shoulders and neck, which often leads to headaches and back pain.)
I lie on the massage table for 90 minutes while she goes about her work. At times she hums along to her Spotify acoustic playlist, other times she mutters a decisive "hah" when she finds a knot that interests her. She takes particular interest in my abdomen, prodding it repeatedly. I feel warmth under her hands and drift in and out of a light sleep, finally escaping the monkeys — for a short while at least.
I'm about to walk out the door when Ana says, "I don't like your digestion. Too slow." She recommends eating more green vegetables and green juices, then says, "You are suppressing your fire. If you push down your fire — your life force — it makes you numb.
You won't feel anything. No joy."
The sceptical part of me thinks she's shooting from the hip, but the rest of me wonders how she knows this is exactly how I've been feeling for the past few days.
Whether it's Ana's magic touch, or just the benefit of time spent in the luxury bubble, I find my joy the very next day. Wednesdays are Indulge and Ignite days, where guests have a break from their regular schedule and get to choose one of 10 off-site activities.
Some head to Bali's famous Sundays Beach Club; others take cooking classes; some choose to have a complete break and spend the day enjoying the luxurious surrounds of the retreat.
Seven of us choose to do a cycling tour through the rice terraces and villages north of Ubud, in the island's central interior. The drive there takes close to two hours and my mind monkeys are back, telling me I'm wasting my time when I could have been lying by the pool reading a book.
They're soon put to rest when Nyoman, our guide from Greenbike, meets us. His energy and constant smile are infectious, and our tour — through local villages, past ancient temples and through lush, green rice paddies — is excellent. We cycle 25km, mostly freewheeling downhill, and there's no stopping me or the smile on my face.
Visiting a local family in one of the village compounds is a lesson in gratitude for the privilege we've been afforded in life. The father, mother and their two children live humbly. Unlike their neighbours, they have no farmland on which to grow rice (it gets handed down through families and neither side has land to inherit) so they make their living selling wooden carvings and handicrafts. Extra cash is earned from the roosters they breed for cockfighting. Two of their prized fighters scratch at the dirt under wicker-basket cages while the hens and their chicks roam freely in and out of the house. The family don't eat elaborate meals, just a scoop of plain white rice taken from a large bowl when they're hungry. The kitchen and bedroom are in the same small room, and there's a modest temple in the back garden. Every Balinese home has one; some more ornate than others depending on caste and wealth. The family give us a warm welcome and endless smiles.
At the end of the tour, the retreat women sit down for a Balinese-style buffet lunch at Greenkubu, a local cafe owned by Greenbike. We all feel a little overwhelmed at what we've seen — the beauty of the countryside, the simplicity of Balinese family life, the happiness they exude even though they own very little.
The day away changes me. The joy found cycling through a new environment, and the renewed appreciation for everything I have in life, spurs me on to a strong, vibrant finish.
My penultimate morning of surfing dawns and, almost as if I've been doing it forever, I suddenly find I can get to my feet on almost every wave. The elation stays with me long after our last lesson ends and as the retreat draws to a close, other guests tell me how much I'm glowing.
At a Canggu craft market, I buy a cheap gold-plated ring in the shape of a wave. I wear it as a reminder of my transformative time in Bali, and how rewarding it is to persevere.
flies direct from Auckland to Bali, with return Economy Class fares from $919.
Six-night, seven-day retreats at Escape Haven Canggu start from US$2195pp. Flights are additional.