Luxury wellness retreats are under the spotlight thanks to the latest Nicole Kidman TV show, Nine Perfect Strangers, filmed on the real-life stunning health getaway, Soma, in the Byron Bay hinterland.
There’s a fair amount of drama involved – to be expected, as otherwise it would be boring TV – as guests at the fictional Tranquillum House delve into kooky wellness tactics involving microdosing hallucinogens and the like.
Annette Demosthenous with Jack, an equine therapy horse at Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat in Tallebudgera Valley. Credit:Paul Harris
While the show exaggerates the perceptions of retreat stays, at its core is a very real insight into why people head to these sanctuaries.
It’s not always the realm of rich hippies or yoga devotees, instead these pristine locations act as a reset button for people who need it for very real reasons: grief, a broken heart, anxiety, addiction or just plain tiredness.
It was horses that first taught Annette Demosthenous how to say no – a breakthrough moment that changed everything for her.
The 53-year-old careers school adviser and mother from Logan, Brisbane, was overloaded, frazzled and experiencing “classic burnout” when she booked a week’s stay at a Gwinganna, a sprawling wellness retreat atop the Tallebudgera Valley in the Gold Coast last year.
On her first day, she did a 90-minute equine therapy session. She was initially terrified around the animals – but as she slowly got closer at her own pace, she discovered she was learning about setting boundaries.
“What I learnt was I needed to say no, or I needed to move back and then move forward again. It was about really tuning in and being aware of what was going on. It literally changed my life. That one session was like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t say no’. It was that simple.
“And once I started saying no, the fear left. It sounds a bit screwy, but that’s what it felt like.”
The stay also had another, deeper impact for her – bringing up unresolved grief about her father who died a few years earlier, which she talked about with practitioners.
“This place gives you the space to be able to look at it safely,” she says.
When her mother died almost two months ago, Annette didn’t hesitate to book in another stay at the retreat in August.
“I knew this was where I needed to come to be gentle [to myself] and nurture and nourish,” she says.
For Matt Sofo, attending a three-day retreat was the start of his healing process against severe anxiety.
Seven-night stays at Gwinganna start at the $3960 mark, with equine therapy starting from $180. She says her family have been totally supportive of her visits, despite the expense.
“My daughter was like, ‘Go Mum, you’re just giving out to everybody, stop and take some time out for yourself.’
“And I think that’s the thing – you give yourself permission to take time and invest in yourself, because it really is an investment.
“You learn so much about yourself – that’s where the power lies. In the end, I walk away from the retreat, but I take me with me.”
Not just a holiday
Wellness expert Dr Marc Cohen says the key difference between a wellness retreat and a holiday is the intention.
“With a holiday, you just go away and relax,” he says. “With a wellness retreat you’re actually going for the positive intention of improving your health and wellbeing, and often personal transformation,” he says.
For music producer Matt Sofo, 35, a stay at Gaia Retreat and Spa in Byron Bay not only tackled his severe anxiety but also influenced a move from Melbourne to Byron itself.
In 2019, the intensity of his job and regular travel had led to daily panic attacks and he needed to get to a “calm, healing space”.
He was at Gaia for just three days – after struggling to even get on the plane to Byron, so bad was his anxiety – but it had a huge impact. “It was really the beginning of my healing journey,” he says.
“It helps you realise that you can function again – you can give your body a break from all that anxiety and cortisol and stress from the normal world. Carrying on yoga, or eating well or meditating [when you leave] can be a reminder of how you felt through those three days.”
Matt stayed at Gaia, which starts at $1950 for two nights, another two times before he moved to Byron Bay at the end of last year.
“For me, it changed everything. It is a little bit expensive, but it’s the kind of thing you’ve got to go in guilt-free and just give it to yourself. Now I realise there is no real cost on your health.”
Carly Van Der Meer booked a masterclass weekend at Soma after launching her business and going without a break for three years.
Carly Van Der Meer, 30, who stayed at Soma in February, agrees a wellness retreat stay can be a transformative investment.
She started her own business, a bespoke hair salon in Sydney’s Surry Hills, at 27 and hadn’t had a break since. She was exhausted and desperate for time off, but also wanted it to be productive and booked a $2500 “Becoming Visionary” masterclass weekend, which included business-orientated sessions by one of Soma’s co-owners, tech entrepreneur Peter Ostick.
“It was the perfect introduction because it wasn’t full woo-woo,” says Carly.
“I remember joking before I went that I’d come back with a purple tie-dye T-shirt. But what appealed to me was the balance between the spiritual and logical,” she says.
“You have all the elements of meditation and yoga and really healthy food, but you’re also getting taught business skills by a guy who has owned a huge tech company who’s wearing a Rolex.”
She says she learnt to meditate, which she continues daily and keeps her focused and calm, and stress levels down.
Soma Retreat, Byron Bay.
“The whole experience has benefitted my relationship with myself, my friendships and my business because I invested in me and my future,” she says.
DIY retreats in lockdown
Accessibility to retreats may be an issue, both financially and due to pandemic restrictions, but Dr Cohen says it’s possible to transform your home into your own sanctuary at a time when self-care is a priority. “People are being forced to retreat into their own homes, so they are very mindful of what can they do to stay healthy,” he says.
He says you can do things like declutter, add plants or an air purifier, get a fire pit or a hammock, or make an area at home where you can do yoga, meditation or just relax.
There’s also things like online sessions: Soma has just introduced an online meditation and mindfulness course for $349, aimed at tackling stress in the current times.
“It’s super simple,” says Dr Cohen. “All the things you can do in a retreat, you can do in your home. It’s never been more important to consider your house as a health retreat.”
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