Gwinganna, a lifestyle retreat tucked away in the Gold Coast hinterland of Australia, had been on my radar for a very long time. It was about 6 or 7 years ago while living in Sydney that my best friend Liv went along and came back raving about her life-changing experience. I lived vicariously through her stories and the lessons she had learnt (stuff about sleep and stress and sugar etc). I felt enlightened based on what I had learnt secondhand. For whatever reason though, I never found the time to visit before moving to the US in 2012.
So back in August, when Gwinganna invited me to come and stay, I made getting there a priority.
Opening in 2006, Gwinganna (meaning “lookout”) is a wellness destination designed to “soothe your soul and inspire you to live a healthier life”. I was on the back of a 6 week trip - a big, fast, crazy rip around the States, from Melb-LA-SF-NY-LA-and then into Brisbane-Byron - when the invitation came through, so the timing could not have been more perfect. A couple of days to slow down and reset.
Driving up the long (and very steep) driveway into Gwinganna, you are surrounded by outrageously beautiful Australian bushland. A nature playground. It is this setting, high on a mountain-top in the Tallebudgera Valley on the Gold Coast, that makes Gwinganna so instantly calming.
Gwinganna offers a diverse range of wellness programs and packages. I was part of the Gwinganna wellness weekend experience. Not as full on as one of the week-long detox programs, this retreat still allows for coffee and tea to be served until 11am each morning, and also for 100ml of organic wine to be served with dinner each night. The boundaries around what you can bring to retreat remain the same though: you must leave your cigarettes, drugs, food, alcohol and any caffeinated drinks behind. A visit to Gwinganna is a “commitment to stay on retreat”, and they urge you to respect this philosophy, giving the Gwinganna team an opportunity to help re-evaluate lifestyle habits that do not serve you in terms of wellness, energy and calmness.
The gwinganna wellness weekend consists of early morning wake-up calls, sunrise Qigong (an ancient Chinese holistic system of coordinated body posture and movement, breathing and meditation, not dissimilar to tai chi), lots of delicious herbal teas, plentiful organic wholefoods, nature hikes, workout classes, pool time, massage and other spa treatments, seminars on wellness topics, and early nights.
Unlike Aro Hā (the New Zealand health retreat just outside Queenstown that I attended last year) - groups here are on the larger side. Where Aro Hā can only accommodate a maximum of 14 guests at any one time, Gwinganna can accommodate up to 60. While I initially found this larger group size to be a little overwhelming, it seemed to work well. It was so interesting to learn for what reasons people were there. While some it seems are there to seek help getting through difficult personal times, others are there for health reasons and to lose weight, while many are corporate types desperately trying to slow down and find balance in their busy lives. I loved meeting a bevy of interesting people at the communal dining tables each day - a super-sweet mother and daughter combo from Sydney, two girl friends (young mums who had left their kids and husbands behind) who make an effort to get away together for some downtime a couple of times a year, a lovely man from the Northern Rivers who was seeking respite after a stressful year opening a new caravan park, and so on. Everyone is there for their own reasons, and on their own journey.
For me, I was excited to use the weekend to regroup and reset. Spending so much time on the road, I find it important sometimes to consciously slow down - catch up on sleep, be in nature, and be more mindful about nutrition and digestion. I found the food at Gwinganna to be one of the highlights of my stay. Fresh, local, organic, refined sugar-free whole food - most of which comes straight out of the on-site garden and orchard. With a daily changing menu, you are treated to wholesome and nutritious dishes at every meal time. The menu is designed to ensure you receive the required nourishment for optimal energy and vitality, while also helping to support and improve digestion and liver detoxification, reduce inflamation, improve gut bacteria and balance blood sugar levels. Mindful eating is encouraged. An interesting lesson was around chewing. We were each given a brazil nut in one of the wellness seminars, and told to eat it - slowly and mindfully - counting the number of chews. I was done after about 30 chews. A woman next to me chewed her nut over 90 times! I couldn’t believe it! I thought I had done well. Sadly not, my mere 30 chews was considered quite deplorable! It was a good reminder of how we should slow down and be more mindful and aware of what we are eating. The session also covered the importance of digestion, and the impact it has on your health and wellbeing. I found the information in these sessions to be welcome reminders of habits I know about and love to apply, but sometimes let slip when spending so much time on the road without any set routine.
With accommodation, there are a number of different options. I was lucky enough to experience one of the new Boorabee Villas and these I can highly recommend. Effectively your own private house, the Boorabee Villas (there are two of them) are tucked away in the mountains and are surrounded by native plants and trees offering ultimate privacy. Contemporary in design, they are light-filled and come with a large deck looking over the hinterland and out to the ocean, as well as your own private plunge pool. Not only that, you also get the use of a golf buggy for the entirety of your stay. It was an incredible treat to wake up here, and more luxury than I could have ever expected.
If budget allows, I would also recommend the Moonarie Villas (perched on the edge of the mountain ridge, with views over the valley and ocean) which also come with use of a buggy. And lastly, the Peel House, a fully-restored heritage cottage which features two ensuite bedrooms, a shared living space, a buggy and breathtaking views out over the gold coast.
The Dreamtime Spa was another major highlight for me. A calming oasis surrounded by palms, this is where you really come to relax and unwind. Inspired by the Aboriginal dreamtime, my 2.5 hour tribal dreaming session began deep in the forrest with a special ceremony to “release the past by setting an intention for welcoming new abundance into all areas of your life”. After the traditional smudging ritual of burning native leaves to clear the air of bad energy, I was taken into a treatment room for a didgeridoo healing, ochre clay dot painting and a customized 80-minute massage drawing from KaHuna, Myotheraphy, hot stones and Chi Nei Tsang elements. My soulful therapist (and founder of the treatment) Stephen explained that the idea is “to light the fire of creativity and energy in each person, to help them reach their full potential”. The journey “delivers a powerful mix of movement, voice and deep stillness”. It was an incredible experience. I was in a total state of bliss (as I was flung around the massage table half naked!). I was sent away with a stone of my choosing to help remind me to carry through with my intention. And another (not so pretty) stone to bury when the time was right - as a symbol of the things in my life that do not serve me. A truly magical experience (but maybe not for everyone. If you are open-minded though, you will surely enjoy the ride).
There are plenty of activities to choose from each morning, and you can choose to do as many or as little as you like. If you would prefer to lie by the pool while everyone else is in a boxing class, you can. If you would prefer to meditate while others are hiking, you can. If you would prefer to read a book in your room, you can. I loved the daily Qigong (while watching the sun rise over the valley), and the boxing classes. Even more so though, I loved the Nia dance class. Another friend of mine Doggy, who had recently been to Gwinganna, had told me that this had been her favourite activity of all and that I should definitely give it a go. She said she felt so invigorated after the class, and so full of energy, that she ran out of the class screaming, arms flailing in the air, and jumped straight into the pool fully-clothed! I was obviously intrigued. A freestyle dance class, Nia is a unique combination of martial arts, dance and healing arts. Some of it is choreographed, other parts are completely freestyle. Our gorgeous teacher, with the most beautiful and generous energy, encouraged everyone to relax to the beat of the music and really embrace the space and energy around us. It was so awesome to see everyone let go. There were all sorts of weird and wonderful moves going on. It was so inspiring, and so much fun. I loved it.
Last of all though, and probably my most favourite part of the whole weekend, was time spent with John Palmer - Gwinganna's resident botanist and social ecologist. I have never met a more knowledgeable and passionate person on all things nature, mother earth and fostering the traditions of our indigenous people. John is like no other. Full of quirks, his morning chat - while escorting us around walking tracks throughout the property - was by far the most entertaining part of my visit. The world needs more characters like John. Also passionate about recycling, John helps inspire guests to adapt new habits to enable us to reduce our impact on the environment. He’s a good egg John, and he helped bring a smile to my face each morning.
It’s the combination of everything above that makes Gwinganna such a special experience. And really, your Gwinganna experience can be whatever you want it to be. For me, it was: downtime, nature, exceptionally good food, hiking, massage, and more nature. Two days was perfect; just the right amount of time. There is something for everyone, and you are guaranteed to leave feeling happier and healthier no matter what the circumstances are that led you there in the first place. The magical energy of that beautiful bushland alone will ensure that is the case.
Check out the Gwinganna website for more details.