Calm mind and a golden glow: Golden Door Health Retreat Elysia

It’s 6:30am and I’m standing in silence on Meditation Hill, overlooking a patchwork quilt of fields and vineyards. I’m breathing deeply, my arms outstretched on this brisk winter morning, and wishing my fingerless gloves could go the distance over my chilled cuticles. The enthusiastic program manager at Golden Door Health Retreat & Spa Elysia, Jaye Hoelscher, leads us through tai chi moves, which we are told roughly translates to ‘energising of life force’. As we finish, Hoelscher asks us to turn towards the rising sun as it edges slowly over the horizon to illuminate our crisp faces in a golden glow. “Let’s give thanks for all we are grateful for – and this beautiful day,” she says. With only the sounds of trickling water and the morning musings of birds, I think of my children and what I hope to get out of the next three days. My eyes fill with happy tears. It’s a golden start to my three days at this wellness retreat in the Hunter Valley. 
Voted by our readers as Australia’s best in our 2015 Luxury Travel magazine Gold List awards, Golden Door is now celebrating its 10th year. Its villas have been thoughtfully designed in a circular pattern from the main reception, library and dining area, flanking Meditation Hill, which has two pathways to its crest, and representing yin and yang. On my arrival, groups of strangers, some couples and some friends, converge in the communal dining area for the first healthy meal of our stay. Together, over our herbal teas and low-fat, sugar-free, no-red-meat cuisine, we trade stories. One couple from Perth are here for their anniversary, halfway through their first pregnancy and expecting twins. One mum from Melbourne was enjoying a much-needed break, booked in by her husband for almost every spa treatment. Another mother from Sydney was soon to start a new job. Nine gentlemen from an aviation company were here for a group conference. 

The staff tell us people come here for a wide range of reasons – some are grieving for lost loved ones, some recovering from major illness or trauma, some have burned out, some want to escape and disconnect while others want to kick-start a healthier lifestyle. Around the room, ‘return guests’ are distinguished by yellow stickers on their name tags, which we’re encouraged to wear at all times so we can be addressed personally. 

Golden Door also operated on Queensland’s Gold Coast for 21 years, closing last year. Many former guests now make the pilgrimage to NSW to continue their journey. At our evening orientation seminar, Hoelscher, with Golden Door since 2008, tells us, “I meet lots of people who feel guilty for being here, but you deserve to be here, because if we can’t operate at our optimum for ourselves, we can’t operate at our most optimum for those who need us.” Hoelscher, with Golden Door since 2008, tells us, “I meet lots of people who feel guilty for being here, but you deserve to be here, because if we can’t operate at our optimum for ourselves, we can’t operate at our most optimum for those who need us.” 

The promise of “helping you feel like yourself again through balance of the mind, body and spirit” draws collective nods of approval and recognition. The group seems united in wanting to leave Golden Door feeling we are on the way to being better versions of ourselves. 

After a welcome lunch, Hoelscher takes us on a tour of the property. We learn where the gym, fitness studios, indoor pool, spa, steam rooms, laundry and numerous water filters are located. We’re asked to observe the ‘no mobile phone’ policy in common areas and limit device usage to our rooms. 

The first day includes a wellness assessment to discuss goals for the stay. You can have weight, body mass index and hydration levels measured – or if you prefer to focus on mindfulness, you’ll be guided to classes such as yoga, guided meditation and Feldenkrais. Sessions run for 45 minutes to an hour, with a daily program placed on my bed each night at turndown service, which also includes lighting an oil burner in my bathroom. Consequently, a bubble bath seems a fitting way to end the day. 

What I enjoy about my Golden Door stay is being able to set my own pace, joining in activities as I wish. During group hockey and badminton sessions, I opt to enjoy a leisurely soak in the spa bath and steam room. However, I do manage to work up a sweat during the morning walk, in the deep-water running in the pool and in the Zumba class. (There is something liberating about a group of women of all ages shaking their hips to the beat of Proud Mary, laughing our heads – and, hopefully, butts – off.) My mind is treated to tai chi each morning, yoga, a one-on-one meditation, breathing session and stretch classes. 

Wholesome, nutritious food is prepared by affable Scottish chef David Hunter, another veteran of the Queensland property. In his weekly cooking demonstration, he gives us his best MasterChef judge impersonation. “Why ‘huv’ they got to be so serious, it’s only cooking! It’s bullying on TV!” he declares in a thick Scottish brogue. Clearly the Golden Door philosophy and absence of caffeine, alcohol and saturated fats in his diet is having the desired effect. 

Preparing to leave, I ponder how to carry the ‘golden glow’ with me in my daily life beyond the Hunter Valley bubble. The advice we receive is that successful change begins with just “10 per cent tweaks”. We’re encouraged to make small, manageable changes rather than attempt an unsustainable lifestyle overhaul. A few weeks on and I’m happy to say I’ve avoided coffee, I’m drinking more water, I’m paying closer attention to what I feed myself and my children, and I’m remembering the one thing I can control when everything else seems out of control – my breathing.

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