Gwinganna: Australia’s ultimate eco-conscious wellness retreat

I was a fledgling features writer at Cosmopolitan magazine in Sydney when Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat first opened its doors in the Gold Coast hinterland in 2006. I still have a vivid memory of the blissed-out look on my various editors’ faces as they floated back into the office after their obligatory visits, and have been curious to check it out for myself ever since. Last month, I finally had the privilege to review Gwinganna for a forthcoming book, and explore for myself why it’s still one of Australia’s best – and most eco-friendly – wellness centres.

How’s this for a spa? © Sarah Reid

As I pushed the accelerator to the floor, begging my little Mazda to advance up Gwinganna’s impossibly steep driveway, I felt that familiar spike of cortisol surge through my veins. Stress is a familiar presence in my life, and something I’ve never dealt with particularly well. Over a weekend at this retreat-based resort, just 20 minutes from the bright lights of the Gold Coast, I was determined to have a crack at it. Turns out, I wasn’t alone.

“In Gwinganna’s early days, most guests came here looking to detox the body and lose weight,” says our program manager Kay during the first evening’s orientation session. “These days, the focus is more on detoxing the mind – learning to de-stress and be in the present,” she continued, as just about every person in the room nodded in agreement.

The view from Gwinganna’s pool deck – one of them, at least © Sarah Reid

Spread across a forested plateau with spectacular views towards the Pacific Ocean (Gwinganna means ‘lookout’ in the traditional language of the Aboriginal Kombumerri clan), Gwinganna’s wellness programs last anywhere from two to seven days, though you can opt to run several together (if you can afford it). Beginning with a sunrise qi gong class, days typically revolve around super-healthy shared meals, group activities and wellness lectures, with the afternoon ‘dreamtime’ session reserved for spa and wellness appointments, naps, pool lounging, and general chilling out.

After checking into my idyllic villa, which I was delighted to discover had a recycling bin in the bathroom (and, you know, an in-villa steam room), first up on my stress-busting mission was a visit to the on-site wellness centre for an appointment with a naturopath. Having yet to fully explore natural remedies for stress and its realm on implications on my health, my session was a huge eye-opener.

I died a little when I saw my room © Sarah Reid

Between test-driving my personal steam room and trying not to think about looming deadlines, I’d worked up quite an appetite by dinnertime. With personal cigarettes, drugs, food, caffeinated drinks, alcohol and using mobile phones in public all banned at Gwinganna, however, I was a little worried the evening meal wouldn’t be particularly satisfying. But I needn’t have been concerned. Who knew locally grown or sourced, mostly organic, dairy and sugar-free meals could taste so good? OK everyone, but the food at Gwinganna really is fantastic. Dinner is a planned seating affair, which takes the pressure off choosing who to sit with. Though as most guests were visiting on their own, conversation flowed easily among the kind, supportive and overwhelmingly friendly people I met, from new mums to high-powered professionals.

Gwinganna wins the salad awards © Sarah Reid

While the 100ml glass of wine on offer at dinner (half the recommended healthy daily intake) felt a bit cruel on a Friday night, I was pretty happy to learn in the orientation session that it can actually be better for you to enjoy a wee glass of wine with dinner than drink any water at all, which (unlike wine) dilutes your stomach acid, inhibiting digestion. Due to this fact, there was no water offered with meals. I struggled with this a little, but I could definitely get used to it if means I can drink wine every night…

A symphony of cicadas roused me long before I heard the knock on my door to wake me for the first morning’s qi gong class with Kay. This gentle practice is followed by two bushwalking options (resident botanist and social ecologist John leads a fabulously entertaining easier stroll) or a more sedate activity (such as yin yoga) on-site. But there’s no drill sergeant – you can stay in bed if you want to. I was keen to work up a sweat, so I backed up one of the more difficult bushwalks with an intense circuit class before collapsing by the pool before lunch (a beautiful tuna ceviche).

Hanging with the locals © Sarah Reid

While wandering back to my room, I spent a lovely few minutes watching a teeny baby emerge from its mother’s pouch to have a look around before dragging myself away to get ready for my spa appointment. The largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere, Gwinganna’s Sanctuary Spa is spectacularly situated amongst lush palms and towering hardwoods, its treatment rooms connected by a raised circular boardwalk. To top off my indulgent ‘abhyang fusion’ massage, which involved a lot of dreamily-scented oil, I sat in the sumptuous eucalyptus steam room for as long as I could stand.

Swooning into the dining room at dinnertime, I had zero guilt wolfing down all three healthy desserts presented to each diner following the main meal. “I’m never leaving,” sighed a lady at my table after polishing off her mango and sweet potato ice-cream, and suddenly the retirement plan John had shared with us that morning – pitching a tent in the edible garden – didn’t seem so odd.

An edible garden flanks the entrance to Gwinganna’s dining room © Sarah Reid

Fortunately, Gwinganna doesn’t kick you out after breakfast on check-out day. There was more qi gong, bushwalks, exercise classes, a life-changing coconut and lime slice morning tea and a brilliant seminar on nutrition with wellness expert Nick (arguably the world’s youngest-looking 52-year-old man) to take in before our last meal, an utterly superb snapper curry with roasted eggplant and fresh salads.

Staying true to Gwinganna’s low-impact philosophy, I didn’t spot an iota of single-use plastic during my entire visit aside from the Subtle Energies bathroom amenities; I loved these ethically produced goodies, but it would be great to see them transferred to reusable dispensers in future (Gwinganna has trialled this before, but guests weren’t particularly keen on the idea – hopefully travellers’ perceptions will start to change as more eco-conscious hotels start to adopt them). I appreciated that the towels I hung up in my bathroom were not unnecessarily laundered, which many hotels still do despite their claims of environmental responsibility, and a clever retractable screen door on my room meant I didn’t need air conditioning, even during the height of summer.

Why can’t all hotels have these? © Sarah Reid

While the lack of a 4G signal in my room helped (there’s no wi-fi at Gwinganna), I didn’t check my email or my social media accounts, or read the news, for the entire two-and-a-half days. This in itself was actually pretty stressful, but combined with all the clean, healthy food and exercise, and Gwinganna’s beautiful natural setting, it must have had an effect, because I definitely left Gwinganna feeling lighter, brighter, and with less **** to give than usual about the little things in life that stress me out more than they need to. And that feeling lasted all the way until I got to that crazy steep section of the driveway.

Gwinganna’s two-night ‘wellness weekend’ retreats start at $1045, including accommodation, all food and drinks, activities, and a massage. Thanks to Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat for hosting my visit.