Guest Written: Annabelle Smith
I’ve always dreamt of going on a health retreat. I love the idea of a luxurious camp for people who care about their health. But to be honest, I always thought of retreats, as something for middle aged burnt out business people, tired parents or mum’s, dad’s and grandparents who could treat themselves. I guess that’s because under normal circumstances, people in their late twenties would opt for pizza on the Amalfi Coast or a cocktail in Mykonos over a caffeine, alcohol and phone free week in the hinterland.
Well, with international borders closed, time off from any responsibilities, and a strategic trip to QLD to avoid Melbourne lockdown, the timing was perfect. I booked myself into the 5 night Optimum Wellbeing retreat less than a week out, and eagerly counted down the days til I entered the golden gates of Gwinganna.
I didn’t do too much research on the whole Gwinganna program (unlike my usual meticulous holiday planning), because I wanted to embrace the unknown and leave room for some surprises. I knew a few people who had been before, and they all told me I was in for an absolute treat. Arriving with anxious, but excited energy, I made it up the hill and into the oasis that is, Gwinganna.
I was greeted with warmness and love, and with my first cup of tea, the incredible experience began. I didn’t want to forget a thing from my week, so I made it a priority to journal daily. The first afternoon was all about orientation. I had a consultation to finalise my treatment plan, got settled into my stunning room, then met the rest of the retreat participants at the first seminar.
Gwinganna is built on 500 acres of precious land in the depths of Tallebudgera Valley. We learnt about Gwinganna’s purpose and their deep respect for the traditional custodians of the land, then were congratulated for making the decision to be there, showing up for ourselves during a challenging time. The week was about getting back to our core. Switching off from the distractions of the outside world, but also learning about the science of health and wellness, with an emphasis on stress resilience, sleep and nutrition. We had signed up for a full reset of our microbiome- with only the best organic, gluten free and dairy free meals to be fed, and the removal of caffeine and alcohol.
The standard was truly set on night one with the most delicious piece of barramundi, crusted with macadamias and herbs and a side of roast veggies (recipe below). An early night to bed, with no TV, no phone and just the sound of kookaburras in far away trees. It was the first night in a very long time that I didn’t touch my phone before bed.
The next morning, we met at the tea station at 6am for a lemon, ginger and turmeric tea, then headed to the hill for our first session of Qi Gong. Qi Gong is a type of movement meditation (like Tai Chi) that focuses on the breath. We started every morning this way, and progressively learnt more of the practice. By the end we were flowing in movement and chanting our gratitude. Next, there was a yin or yang option for exercise- usually an easy or a challenging walk, but sometimes a stay at home option of gentle yoga. We were never told activities in advance, as a focus of the Gwinganna program was to encourage staying in the present moment, and not planning things in the future. Making decisions based on what your body truly needs at that moment.
The whole structure of the days on retreat were created based on how humans evolved to live. We rise with the sun and move in the morning, we eat and then keep moving. We stop for lunch and then spend the afternoon resting and restoring energy, before going to bed a few hours after our last meal, and after the sun has set.
Breakfast was my favourite meal of the day. From chia pudding to pumpkin granola, poached eggs and mushroom crepes- everything was delicious. We always had 2 serves at every meal. plus morning and afternoon tea, and we were encouraged to eat at every opportunity. This was to promote stable blood sugar levels, and reset our metabolism. I must mention, I’ve never seen an orange so orange or vegetables so tasty. I guess that’s the power of organic and home grown.
I could honestly relay every detail, but I'll get a move on…
After breakfast, we had a group stretch session that enhanced digestion, then were told of the next options for movement- another yin or yang. Yin options included pilates, Nia (a dance practice), and an informative walk through Shelley’s organic gardens and orchards. Yang options ranged from spin class to resistance training, and deep water running. On the last full day we even had the opportunity to take a 90min tribal dancing lesson from Stephen, which was just an incredibly special experience.
At 11am each day, we headed up to the Wellbeing Centre for morning tea and a seminar. Each seminar focused on a different facet of health and wellbeing, and each presenter was incredibly captivating. The knowledge and passion they all exuded made you believe every word they spoke. I thought I had a pretty decent understanding on all the topics presented, but it was one of those experiences where someone says something in a different way and it just hits home and you have those lightbulb moments. I had a lot of lightbulb moments!
Next on the agenda was lunch! Every day you share a table with different people. There were around 30 guests on my retreat and every person had a story to tell. I met some incredible people. By coincidence, there was a couple who were the closest to my age who happened to be best friends with my cousin! There were mega successful business women, ladies who had travelled the world and made huge differences in under-priviledged communities, mums and dads, retired couples who were returning for their third or fourth time, and corporate men who were escaping the rat race of business. By the end of the week, everyone kind of found their people. These were some of my people… Judy- who had the most beautiful aura (think Elizabeth James off The Parent Trap), had 3 grown sons, and ran seminars for entrepreneurs in wild places like Antarctica. Barb- who was an absolute hoot, had stories for days, saved hundreds of children from poverty in Africa and sold islands to people in the Whitsundays. Kate- who was a busy Mum of three, embracing the challenges of life and living her best life chasing fun and fulfilment. Suzie- who coincidentally also grew up diving in the AIS program (a generation before me), left her job in the corporate world to start her own business helping females take charge of their careers and exuded a self- confidence I aspire to have. More amazing humans- Chris, Renee, Meg & Jack, Susannah, Alyssa.. the list goes on.
By 1.30pm, everyone disappeared to rest for the afternoon. Free to roam the gardens, relax in your balcony bath with a book or sunbathe by the infinity pools, it was a time for quiet. This was also the time where you had scheduled spa treatments and wellness appointments. The range of treatments on offer was extensive, and my goal for the week was to try some things out of my comfort zone. Gwinganna mixes East and Western medicine, and also offers emotional wellbeing consultations, even equine therapy! You have a massage and a facial (using the most amazing Vanessa Megan Skincare) included in your package, as well as a Wellness voucher, but I also chose a Himalayan Salt Scrub and Polish, an intuitive massage and a Gwinganna specialty- the Aloha Lomi Lomi ritual. Every treatment was just divine. The spa is built with high ceilings around a circular forest, and has over 30 treatment rooms, a crystal steam room and infrared saunas. Every treatment I had was extremely thoughtful, and the staff were so kind and gentle to your individual needs.
“Begin your treatment with an intention ceremony and a card reading to identify what your soul needs most from this spiritual journey. Using a variety of massage techniques, your senses are touched by the many aspects of healing in this ritual inspired by the wisdom of the Ancient Hawaiian Kahunas. This ritual harmonises heart and mind, opens you to experience the magic of spirit (Uhane) and allows presence (Pono) to flow, align and unite all parts of your authentic self. A beautiful treatment for those in transition or grief or who simply wish to experience deep healing and powerful bodywork.”
It was a deeply personal experience and one that will carry with me forever.
Dinner time was a time to debrief with your table mates and chat about the day's activities and learnings, whilst enjoying the most delicious meals. Every night I fell asleep around 8.30pm, with no distractions keeping me awake. It was a blissful way to rest at night.
A group of us walked the Sunset track on our final night, and shared gratitude for going on this journey together. It was a phenomenal week and my experience at Gwinganna was more that I’d hoped for. The whole retreat was perfectly created, I felt nurtured, loved and included, and left with a burning desire to continue on this path of wellness. I will forever be grateful that at my age I was able to learn from, and be inspired from some of the best practitioners in their field, but also proud that I have an appreciation for my health and wellbeing, before it’s too late.
Gwinganna will always be a part of my story, and I can’t wait to return one day in the future.
Til next time,