I know this is a bold statement, but I have to say nobody does nature and the outdoors better than the Kiwis. I have travelled to over 50 different countries, and every time I go to New Zealand the natural beauty always blows me away with its glacial lakes, snow-capped mountains, green pastures full of sheep and forests that feel like they are from a different time.
All this less than a three-hour flight from Sydney after landing at Queenstown airport, it’s a 45-minute drive to the northern end of Lake Wakatipu and the Wyuna preserve. This is where you find Aro Hā wellness retreat; the 21-acre, Zen-inspired luxury lodge I was to call home for the next week. Aro Hā is kind of the new kid on the block, having only been open since January 2014, but has already won several awards and seems to be raising the bar for health and wellness resorts.
Built of stone, wood and glass, Aro Hā maintains a minimal carbon footprint producing 80 per cent of its own electricity. It has its own solar and hydro systems, a septic system that uses worms and New Zealand’s first renewable heating system. It is permaculture based and practices organic farming. Sustainability is a high priority, which is one of the reasons Aro Hā was three years in the making.
The retreat’s philosophy is less about pampering (no facials or mani/pedis here), and more about connecting you with nature, physical activity, nutritious food, and mindfulness. I was a little concerned about how challenging this week was going to be. The yoga and fitness classes didn’t worry me too much, but I had heard there was a lot of hiking, and none of it was flat. I don’t own hiking boots and don’t do more than the quick jaunt around town for errands. I also have plantar fasciitis in one foot so I was nervous on the first day out. I didn’t need to be. It’s true, most hikes were between 10-17 kilometres, and some were steep, but our guides Adam, Bruce, and Sam would spread out and there would be a natural formation of three groups. You were challenged, but if it became too much you could hang in the last group and you never felt like you were slowing anyone down. Similarly, if you were feeling energetic you could charge ahead in front.
On our steepest hike up an old miners road called “Bonnie Jean” Sam, our guide and yoga instructor, entertained us with his ability to do a handstand pretty much anywhere. After enough encouragement, we got him to pop himself upside down on top of the wooden sign next to the miners hut while we savoured a healthy snack and looked out over the lake 800 metres below.
After hiking each day we would return to the lodge for a well-deserved lunch. Rani (a soft-spoken Brazilian) and Toni (a sweet kiwi girl) are the incredibly talented kitchen team that dish out the most nutritious and moreish food I have ever tasted. This wasn’t just my opinion – the entire group felt the same, including one of the other guests who owns several successful restaurants in Australia. There wasn’t one meal the entire week that I didn’t love. The diet is vegan (with the exception of a bit of honey and bee pollen), raw, and paleo light: no meat, no dairy, no caffeine, no refined sugars, no alcohol and no gluten. You’re probably wondering what in the world could possibly be left to eat? I don’t know how they do it, but Rani and Toni ferment, dehydrate, pulverise and sprout everything else and somehow turn it into gourmet food. One of my favourite meals was the spring rolls made with freshly picked flowers and garden greens rolled with cucumber, avocado, cabbage and basil laced with chipotle, wasabi, and ginger – they were delicious and so nutrient dense they kept me fuelled until dinner – actually, I never felt hungry the entire week. I also had a massive amount of energy despite each day being full of more exercise than I had ever done, and not being able to rely on caffeine. I found myself wide awake at the end of the busy day and had to force myself to go to sleep as I knew Sam would be waking us up with the chiming of the bells at 6:00am.
Waking up early when the temperatures were as low as four degrees wasn’t always easy. Bundling up for morning yoga and walking into the warm Aro Hā room, even if you were feeling a bit grumpy about leaving your cosy bed, your mood changed as soon as you looked out of the huge picture window over the lake. Every sun salutation seemed to bring streams of golden light through the clouds and onto the snowy mountaintops; the baby lambs were enjoying the new day and it was sometimes difficult to concentrate on the poses because of the breathtaking beauty. And then there’s Beckett, Aro Hā’s labrador. You had to smile when you saw him with his face in the window, sitting patiently, tail wagging, waiting to greet you on your way to breakfast.
Besides physical activity, Aro Hā also focuses on emotional and mental wellbeing. I was lucky enough to be there the week mindfulness expert Charlotte Thaarup-Owen was conducting a workshop. Originally from Denmark and now living in New South Wales, Charlotte has been leading mindfulness retreats for over 20 years. She has amassed an incredible amount of knowledge during this time and her workshop was very insightful. Anyone caught up in today’s fast-paced life where autopilot and multitasking have become the norm would benefit from the skills we learned. Charlotte gave us techniques to calm the negative mind chatter and also showed us how to let go of things from the past that were holding us back.
Towards the end of the day sometime between restorative yoga and dinner, you are treated to a deep tissue massage with one of the very talented massage therapists in the Obsidian Spa. Being pummeled and kneaded every afternoon definitely kept sore muscles at bay. The Spa is also where you will find a Finnish sauna (again, a beautiful view), an infrared sauna, and on the outdoor deck overlooking the lake a hot tub and cold plunge. Trust me, do the cold plunge. Once you catch your breath you feel fantastic, and it gets easier every time you do it.
Aro Hā specialises in adventures in wellbeing. I arrived there on a tank near empty, and after a week, I strengthened my body, nourished my soul and cleared my head. I was challenged at times during my stay but was rewarded with a sense of achievement. The real challenge, however, was going to start when I got home.
On top of the world | Kelly Allen