I’m blessed to have landed myself in the travel industry and I have it pretty good. So the idea of doing “something for myself” sounds a little preposterous. But the whispers of luxury and inner peace surrounding Aro Ha seemed to have chased me from the pages of Conde Nast to my news feed on Instagram all year. Despite rumours of raw vegan food in tiny portions, intense hiking and early mornings, I gave in and booked a flight to New Zealand.
Stepping out of Queenstown airport, a kitted out Mercedes van arrives to pick us up. An hour’s drive, near the sleepy town of Glenorchy lies Aro Ha in all it’s paired back splendour. Bags disappear and we're ushered to the lounge. One of the warmer furnished spaces at Aro Ha, it has a library stocked with current wellness literature, a fireplace and countless, plush lounges with jaw dropping views.
Chowing down on a huge welcome platter of raw delights, I think this is going to be a cinch. I opt in for a weigh and measure and my heart sinks. I was heavier than I thought. It shouldn’t have been a surprise because the only way my jeans get on these days is if I’m lying on the bed doing the caterpillar. But it was a blow to the ego and a tear trickled down my cheek. It was the kick I needed to fully commit to the Aro Ha program.
Founders Chris Madison and Damien Chaparro created Aro Ha as a next-level wellness retreat. Damien, a former IT consultant turned yogi, runs many of the retreats himself. His positivity is infectious and he radiates authenticity. We chat about the retreat and he seems to be able connect with everyone in the group. He’s proficient on the iPad and has a Spotify list (which I now follow). My fears of a separation between the yogi's and the inexeperienced (me) are put at ease.
Wellington based architect Tennent Brown designed self-sustainable Aro-Ha to be one with the land. Timber facades have worn over time and the interior resembles that of a chic, Scandinavian lakeside cabin. My room is huge with a sitting space looking to Lake Wakatipu, a sumptuous bed and a writing desk. My bathroom is shared, in this case with an adjoining room occupied by a friend of mine. Connecting us is a kitchenette stocked with the signature Aro Ha teas; detox, ginger and peppermint tea bags are refilled daily and they’re what keeps most of us going throughout the five-day retreat.
There are nine guests in my group, all women except one and it feels like the perfect size. Aro Ha doesn’t usually host more than sixteen guests at a time despite being able to hold more than twenty-five, allowing them to focus on the individual. Each member in my group has their own motivation for being at Aro Ha and there’s an unspoken code of respect and trust. There’s no competition between us and we all feel compelled to motivate one another. It’s this support that pushes me through the hard times.
The days went something like this:
6:30am – A staff member gently chimes cymbals outside the cabins for our wake up call. In case you continue to snooze; a very loud announcement comes through our room control panel fifteen minutes later. Okay, I’m up.
7:00am- Morning yoga. Held in the heart of Aro Ha, the yoga room, instructors (either in-house or outside teachers) get the body warm and gently ease the brain in to a present state of mind. The early mornings seem cruel, but by the end it feels like the most positive way possible to start your day.
8:00am – Breakfast. A cup of house made coconut yoghurt, seeds, activated nuts and berries are devoured in a few bites. It’s amazing and I’m full. “Raw vegan food is great” I think to myself, quite chuffed that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.
9:00am – We’re off to hike the Routeburn Track with our bottles of water, raw snacks and hand radios packed away in ergonomic backpacks. It’s a constant incline for most of the 12kms and I was dead last. But it was here, all on my lonesome, I could put in to practice the meditation techniques we had been learning. Counting out loud to clear my thoughts, my mind quickly wanders off to pressing matters of emails and deadlines. It’s hard to get back on track of thinking about nothing but when I do, I start to truly appreciate where I am.
1:00pm – Lunch. I’m famished and the chickpea patties and salad hit the spot. I want more but the meals are portioned to ensure guests’ receive the right balance of nutrients and calories. So I turn to my endless supply of tea.
2:30pm – Massage. The Aro Ha spa facility is absolute heaven and guests get a massage every day. It’s a welcome luxury and they focus on your ailments with healing hands.
4:00pm – Fitness class. Using TRX equipment and body weight to target core smaller muscles, we get a sweat on with one of the instructors. It’s fun and not too intense.
5:30pm – Cooking class. The expert wholefoods chefs at Aro Ha spend a great deal of time cooking each meal. Raw vegan food is hard to make and we get an insight into the meticulous processes that are behind creating what appear to be simple dishes. Dehydrators and pickling is key to producing meals bursting with flavour, whilst creating textures to substitute satisfying foods like bread and pasta. We get to sample our creations and I’m grateful because my stomach is churning.
7:00pm – Restorative evening yoga. This ends up being my favourite part of the day. Sometimes we dance, other times we stretch. There’s a lot of sitting and breathing and it’s then that the emotions start to flood out. Anger that I’ve been holding onto, stress that’s weighed me down and fear seem to disappear as I focus solely on being present in the moment. It’s a wonderful shift in thinking and I start to see the rewards of being at Aro Ha.
8:00pm – Dinner. A plate of rocket comes out with a hummus like dip and a cup of room temperature parsnip soup. I wolf it down and look around for main course. Nothing else is coming and I whimper in despair. I have some more tea.
9:00pm – There’s a movie playing in the lounge but I sneak off to the spa. I warm up for 20 minutes in the sauna and then jump in to the ice bath. It’s freezing and I flap around like a baby seal learning to swim, desperately trying to get out. More zen is the hot spa with views over the lake. I chill out here for some time before finishing in another cold bath. You always finish on cold I’m told by the staff, for muscle recovery.
10pm – Bed time. I’m hungry, exhausted and sipping on yet another tea. Each night notes are left on our bed to encourage new thoughts for the next day. Mindfulness is on the agenda; genuinely listening to others and understanding a point of view without interjecting. It seems simple but in practice it’s not.
Spare time, of which there is little, is spent reading in the lounge, walking the grounds and writing in our Aro Ha diaries. There are times, such as on a day of juice fasting or when we were practicing silence that I felt like screaming “I NEED CHOCOLATE”. I was irritable from the withdrawal of sugar, but once those cravings passed things felt immeasurably easier.
On the last day I do another weigh in and measure. I’ve dropped 2kg’s and 13cm around my body. I’m stoked as losing weight was my initial reason for visiting Aro Ha. But now, on check out, it doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve fallen in love with the sweeping grounds of Aro Ha and the peace it offers. I’ve become accustomed to the community comfort of my group and staff. I’ve started on a journey of inner peace of sorts and I’m fearful of leaving Aro Ha's womb of safety. We all exchange emails in the hope of keeping in touch.
Not a few days later, my Gmail dings. It’s one of ladies from my group and I beam with happiness. It came through at the exact minute I was tossing up which Cadbury to buy in the supermarket (it was 2 blocks for $4, you know?). I decided I didn’t need it and shuffled away.
A month later I’ve not had a drop of alcohol or coffee and I doubt I ever will again. I’m walking in the morning and in the evening. I’ve even downloaded the app, ‘Smiling Minds’ for some on-the-go meditation. Most importantly I’ve learned to slow down, listen and let go of the small stuff. And I think the people who have to live and work with me will thank Aro Ha for that.
FEEL: Minimalist wilderness retreat.
ROOM PICK: Any - all views face the lake.
WIFI: Yes, in the rooms only. Not active in the communal rooms as there's a no phone policy around the grounds.
RATES: Retreats start at $4550 NZD for a 5 day course.
IN ROOM: King bed, writing desk, diary, water bottle, carry bag, shampoo, body wash, towels, teas, kettle.
I visited courtesy of Aro Ha.