Experience one of Australia’s best spa and wellness destinations

Natalie Bannister takes some time out to realign, recharge and restore with a stay at the immersive Gold Coast hinterland retreat, Gwinganna

Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat spa

My arrival to Gwinganna coincides with a huge band of rain and an unexpected drop in temperature that swings through the Gold Coast in what should be the hottest time of the year. Dark and stormy, it feels like a fitting mood for the week ahead as I — along with a group of 20 or so others — take a deep dive into resetting, recharging, and relaxing.

A private oasis of bushland and rainforest high on its own mountaintop in the Gold Coast Hinterland’s lush Tallebudgera Valley, Gwinganna offers various wellness programs throughout the year, focusing on everything from short break weekends to in-depth seven-night detox packages. I’ve chosen the four-day ‘Triple S’ retreat, specifically designed to target the three s-words that tend to stand in the way of good health: sleep, stress and sugar. The program promises a beautifully isolated environment and a supportive cocoon, with a mix of seminars, workshops, and activities focused on changing your habits by helping you understand how to manage stress, become more resilient, and use your body’s natural rhythms to improve performance and productivity. 

Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat

Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat accomodation

The first morning starts suitably slow with the usual check-in requisites and the first of many (many!) cups of herbal tea before I’m driven by golf buggy to one of the retreat’s premium Meditation Suites, hidden away within Gwinganna’s orchard. Custom-designed to help guests focus on mindfulness, the spacious suite offers me a welcome respite from the outside world with its softly spoken interior, deep freestanding bathtub, and my own private deck with a day bed that offers the perfect perch to take in the serene bush outlook (roaming wallabies included!). Heavenly!

THE RISE AND FALL

You wake before the sun at Gwinganna, ready to bathe body and mind in the sunrise, in tune with what is, ideally, our natural circadian rhythm. We gather at the meeting place and wander, sleepy-eyed, over to a grassy plateau to begin a morning Qi Gong session, led by our wonderful program director, Megan Bardsley, the Emotional Wellbeing Manager and Equine Therapist here at the retreat. 

This ancient Chinese practice is said to cultivate qi, or life force, Megan explains, offering that perfect balance of yin (the restorative energy that allows our body and mind to slow down, rest and relax) and yang (the active, creative, fast-moving energy) that our minds and bodies require. She gracefully takes us through a series of slow, intentional movements, and I am released into the moment, with nothing but the sun on my skin, the breeze on my face, and a peaceful quiet stillness in my mind. It’s a beautiful way to start the day and a practice I have continued at home since, to help anchor and relax my mind and body every morning.

After setting an intention for the day ahead, the energy shifts as we all slowly come back to the present, opening our eyes to a brighter morning, a smile on everyone’s face. 

Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat qi gong

FOREST BATHING

With just under 500 acres of rainforest and bush to explore, Gwinganna offers a multitude of different walks, and the (optional) daily selection is unveiled post-Qi Gong and before breakfast, inviting us to continue the positive morning flow.  

On our first day, the rain is gone, the sun is back out, and half our group swings into full yang mode, heading off with their guide to tackle the infamous Driveway Walk. Its reputation precedes it, given how steep the Gwinganna driveway is (even my car protested on arrival!). I, however, embrace my yin and choose to join a more relaxed route. Over the next two mornings, we stroll hidden bush paths, explore the rainforest, and get up close to the ancient trees that have lived here for centuries. Up and over the property’s flatter terrains to a high outcrop, we stop to rest and drink in the serenity and the views across the valley below and the magnificent Pacific Ocean beyond before returning to the dining room for a well-earned breakfast.

Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat bushwalking

SOUL FOOD

Eating at Gwinganna is a conscious experience, with a food philosophy centred around seasonal, local, organic whole foods. Much of the produce is harvested from the on-site and extensive organic fruit, vegetable and herb gardens, lovingly tended by passionate gardener, Shelley Pryor (herself a former chef at Gwinganna). You’ll often come across Shelley on walks to and from your room during your stay, and she’s always keen to share her infectious smile and insights into herbal remedies, often with taste-testers of a freshly picked bounty of herbs and flowers destined for the Gwinganna kitchen.

Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat food

Menus vary with each program, and for us here on the Triple S retreat, dishes are designed to keep sugar levels balanced, reducing cravings and allowing the gut a well-deserved reset. There’s no caffeine or alcohol allowed on the Triple S program, but the constant offerings of herbal teas throughout the day and evening, all made with specific plant-based blends, help us tackle the dreaded coffee withdrawals and support our body’s elimination processes.

Megan joins us at every meal, gently encouraging us to eat mindfully and, like everything we do during our stay here, slow down and be in the moment. This is also when we find out what’s in store for our day — in another welcome invitation to release and go with the flow, guests only find out the times of their activities or what spa treatments they’re booked in for, at breakfast. So you’re always in for a surprise!

Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat yoga

TIME TO MOVE

After breakfast, it’s straight back into Gwinganna’s balanced approach to movement, and we’re encouraged to listen to our body and what it needs each day. Feeling lethargic or in need of something more gentle? You’ll likely find yourself at the pavilion for the more inwardly focused yin activities of yoga, pilates, dance or breathwork. Energised and ready to burn? Head to the hangar for the more outwardly focused yang activities, designed to increase the heart rate. Or, simply retire to your room to relax or enjoy the swimming pool. The choice is entirely yours.

I intend to make these few days count with a daily reset on the mat. Mornings at Gwinganna provide an outlet to reconnect to my yoga practice and my body and breath, with a different teacher and style of class each day, a perfect mix of dynamic Vinyasa and gentle Hatha and Yin yoga, often set to the soundtrack of the retreat’s resident peacock, Pete, who loves to call out while he lazes in the shade or shows off his brilliant feathers dancing on the lawn by the pavilion’s windows.  

Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat spa

THE ‘S’ WORD

Following morning tea (sugar-free treats, fresh fruit and herbal tea on tap, of course!), it’s time to settle into our seats at the Wellness Centre to begin one of the key seminars that make up the program’s name: Sleep, Sugar and Stress.

Over the four days, we are guided through everything from how to break the domino cycle of waking up tired, reaching for stimulants (caffeine/sugar) to get through the day and then being too wound up to sleep at night to the importance of rest and recovery to balance adrenal overload.

Resident naturopath Shannon McNeill leads us through the ins and outs of sleep and sugar on days one and two, reminding us that how you choose to nourish yourself is the greatest choice you can make every day.

Later, Wellness Advisor Sharon Kolkka — a wealth of knowledge — takes the seminar reigns for the final chapter of our Triple S journey, stress resilience. 

Sharon was the creator of not just the Gwinganna philosophy but also the guest wellness experiences. So we listen with intent as she teaches us about our nervous systems and actionable tips and strategies to build better stress resilience. 

These are invaluable lessons we can take back home with us as we emerge from our peaceful Gwinganna bubble and into reality, where the pace is faster, and the business of life is more intense.

Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat spa

Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat spa

WAIT A MINUTE

Every afternoon at Gwinganna is devoted to embracing one of the fundamental elements of wellbeing: strategic rest. Megan’s guiding grace again encourages us to read or sleep as much as we desire or require in between the program’s treatments. It’s a chance to integrate all we’ve been taught about self-care and put our lessons into action. 

This daily rest period is when the retreat’s wellness practitioners welcome guests into their personalised treatment itinerary, be that a holistic counselling session, equine therapy with the property’s well-trained horses, or indulgent body and beauty experiences in Gwinganna’s incredible spa sanctuary, which is set within the forest with three towering ancient gum trees as the centrepiece. 

The Gwinganna spa was named Global Best Eco Spa at the 2021 World Luxury Spa Awards, and it’s clear as soon as you enter that the accolades do it justice. 

With visits to the spa sanctuary expertly tailored to suit my needs, it quickly becomes my favourite part of the day, floating between the steam room, with a gigantic amethyst crystal at its core, to mind and body treatments. These include the best facial I have ever experienced (the Time Capsule, part of Gwinganna’s partnership with award-winning Australian natural skincare brand Vanessa Megan) and the beautiful Abhyang Fusion — a holistic ritual based on traditional Ayurvedic principles combining hot compresses for the face and feet and an incredible full body aromatherapy massage. It’s nothing short of bliss!

Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat

THAT INNER GLOW

Heading back to my room every evening after dinner, satiated with nourishing food, my body relaxed and pampered from the spa and my mind at ease from nightly meditation sessions, I sink into a deep warm bath and sip herbal tea, reaching for a book instead of a phone, and settle into the best sleep I’ve had in years, with only the sounds of the bush to interrupt the silence.

Gwinganna is a salve to the soul — a rare opportunity to take that elusive ‘me time’ and rest a body and mind weary from work deadlines, family responsibilities and the constant turmoil and burden on the nervous system from navigating these ‘unprecedented times’. I arrive at the retreat without expectation, but I leave with a better appreciation of the vital balance between strength and suppleness and the newfound knowledge of how to manage my own health and happiness (out here in the ‘real’ world!). 

By the time our stay at Gwinganna comes to a close, our group of strangers has become friends who have supported and shared in each other’s journey. We say farewell in the dining room at our final lunch with hugs and happy tears all around. Megan tells me my eyes look so much clearer than the day I arrived and that my skin is glowing. She can see the difference in me in just four magical days that feel like much longer, and truthfully, I feel like I’m glowing on the inside, too. 

 

Words: Natalie Bannister