Couples retreat? Ok then…
I once stepped from a steaming sauna into the snow and threw my naked body onto the spiky ground before rushing back into the heat to recover. My Finnish companions promised it would improve my circulation and revitalise my mind and body.
I kept thinking of this experience when I was enjoying a new treatment for mind and body at Gwinganna Health Retreat in the Gold Coast hinterland. The four-hour Signature Spa Ritual is for couples or friends, but I can’t think of anyone other than my husband with whom Iâ€™d be uninhibited enough to spend four hours naked.
The treatment begins with us sipping green and rose tea, after which we soak our feet in hot water with pebbles. Therapists Stephen and Linda explain they are at our service for the four hours and assure us we should not to hesitate to tell them if we need anything. They speak in calm, hushed tones and I am so anxious about whatâ€™s about to happen and so aware of how stressed I feel compared with them, I start to cry. They arenâ€™t fazed by my response and simply wait until I pull myself together.
Weâ€™re then asked to state what we intend to get from the treatment. I say I would like to heal my mind and body, while my husband says he wants to feel deeply relaxed during and after the treatment. We are asked to select a body scrub (tea-tree, bamboo or salt), then a scent of essential oil for massage (citrus, magnolia or rejoice), then the contents for our baths (clay, bubbles or coconut milk) before huge doors are opened to reveal a purpose-built private sanctuary overlooking a billabong shadowed by gums and melaleucas. We stand under a towering ceiling while Stephen performs a smoking ceremony around us, burning white sage, which he says can cleanse the spirit.
The sun-filled room is imposing: 15 metres by 10 metres, painted in deep red and caramel with wooden floors and open wooden beams. It has a raised area that leads onto a narrow balcony. Two leather lounges and tan footstools are set at either end of this area, which overlooks the water. In the middle of the room are two bathtubs filled with steaming brown water, as we had both selected a clay bath. A few metres from them, two massage tables have been set, 15 metres apart.
Stephen and Linda usher us to the baths where we soak for 15 minutes, listening to soothing music. We emerge dripping brown water, ready for our scrub, and the hot water has relaxed us so much I need help walking to the massage table.
We head to either end of the room where the scrub is applied to our backs, then, once we are lying down, to our legs, arms, stomachs and shoulders. Hot towels are used to clean the scrub from our skin and, with our eyes covered by hand towels, our bodies are painted in clay. It feels cool at first and I start to drift off.
Gently, Stephen urges me to sit up on the massage table and itâ€™s when I open my eyes that I first think of Finland and the weird snow/sauna experience. Sitting opposite me, my husband is perched on the edge of the table with his eyes closed, unaware that his body and face have been painted in brown and white clay resembling Aboriginal markings. I look down and see that my body has also been painted with snake-like swirls on my legs and arms. It should be a serious moment, but once we set eyes on each other we both get the giggles.
Our joy doesnâ€™t seem to bother the therapists who lead us to a private steam room and shower hidden behind large doors at the side of the sanctuary. They urge us to alternate between the 45-degree steam room and a cool shower and explain that we will have total privacy. The gentle ringing of gongs will alert us to the next stage. Three gongs signify we have five minutes before they open the doors. The tinkling of bells will tell us we have one minute.
The steam room is nothing short of majestic â€” black-tiled floors with small shiny metallic maroon tiles â€” and itâ€™s so dark I feel like we are hiding from the world. On the table of the change room leading to the shower area (also in black and maroon) is a vase with tall red hibiscus flowers. Itâ€™s perfect.
In the shower we rub the clay from our skin and, after a couple of turns in the steam room followed by the shower, our skin feels amazingly soft. It sounds corny, but we feel clean from the inside and our hair and skin are gleaming on the outside. At the sound of the gong, we don our soft white gowns and wait. We calculate that weâ€™re halfway through our four-hour treatment but are not the least bit bored or impatient for the next thing.
Stephen and Linda lead us back to the raised platform where we recline on the rich leather sofas and are served afternoon tea: honeydew melon juice in a tall flute glass, eggplant wraps and a fig and nut slice. Itâ€™s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous moment as we sip and nibble while raucous black cockatoos play over the billabong and the sun begins to set.
We are too relaxed to talk and for the first time in a long time I eat so slowly I allow myself to really taste the food. It helps that I know the food is organic, a major selling point for Gwinganna.
After 15 minutes we head back to our tables for 90 minutes of massage. Because the room is so big, I am aware that my husband is metres from me but manage to feel like I am the only one being indulged. Later, he tells me I didnâ€™t disturb him at all. The music has changed from soulful Aboriginal-style to jazz. It suits my mood because, after the food and the rest on the lounge, I now feel invigorated.
The massage includes reflexology, hot stone treatment, Hawaiian-style lomi lomi massage with strong, rhythmic strokes, and Chinese chi massage on the stomach, which at times is unbearable. Stephen later explains the chi massage will balance the flow of chi, or life force, through my body.
At times, he drapes me in light cloth that almost tickles as he draws it across my body. I smell the magnolia oil I had chosen at the beginning and feel pleased with that decision. It is sweet. Stephen stops for a while to play the didgeridoo, at times bringing the music very close to my body. Itâ€™s quite powerful.
Stephen places hot stones along my spine and leaves me to relax. About five minutes later heâ€™s back and so is Linda, the therapist who has been with my husband, and together they do a four-hand massage, which is incredibly indulgent and soothing. For a minute I wonder what my husband thought of that, but feel so relaxed even wondering seems too much effort.
Once the massage is over, itâ€™s dark outside and we are led back to the entrance area where we share green tea with Stephen and Linda. We thank them for a powerful treatment and they seem satisfied with our level of relaxation. They tell us we might feel the effects for a few days afterwards and that we could even feel unsettled in the next couple of days.
I canâ€™t recall walking back to our room but remember the knock at the door when a waiter delivers dinner so we can eat separately from the other guests. Originally, I had thought it a bit excessive when we were urged to stay away from the group after our treatment. But now I am grateful. After such a private, indulgent, cleansing treatment, the effort of making small talk with anyone would be too much. We eat slow-roasted lamb and vegetables and within 10 minutes we are both asleep.
The following day, we both feel light in mind and body. Dealing with impatient travellers at the airport back home seems easier. Over the next week, we feel calmer and more settled with each other and our children. But is it worth $550 a person? For four hours of total bliss and a week of calmer thinking and who knows what other long-term effects, maybe it is.
The Gwinganna Signature Ritual costs $550 per person and needs to be pre-booked. A two-night weekend stay at the retreat costs $890 per person, which includes all organic meals, all activities and access to two infinity swimming pools and a gym overlooking the Gold Coast, 16 bushwalks and workshops, and talks with health experts.
The writer was a guest of Gwinganna Health Retreat.