At the end of a winding road atop a sun-drenched hill, surrounded by some of the country’s oldest vineyards, Elysia Wellness Retreat offers a refreshing alternative to the indulgence and excess of a typical Hunter Valley getaway.
In a dimly lit theatre, a group of strangers stare fixed on the speaker at the front of the room. Audrey McGibbon, an occupational phycologist is delivering a talk on living through uncertainty. Seems fitting given we’re currently on the slow crawl out of a pandemic. Audrey cites a study conducted over a 60-year period where researches compared the average speed at which people walk down the street. A long way from the gentle, arm-in-arm strolls of 1970s, today, pedestrians walk up to twenty times faster, particularly in big cities.
Audrey suggests it’s because life has become one gargantuan, forever accelerating hurry. Everything is urgent and there’s always something more to do. “We are exposed to more information – through our phones, computers and advertising – in one single day than our grandparent’s grandparents were in an entire lifetime,” she tells the now wide-mouthed, sunken-eyed room.
“Now, more than ever, we need to slow down before we burn out,” she continues. “So it’s a good thing you’re in the right place to do it.”
Slow your pace at Elysia Wellness Retreat
That ‘right place’ is Elysia Wellness Retreat in the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales. The all-inclusive resort offers an immersive escape from the day-to-day. Though surrounded by some of the country’s oldest vineyards, wine is one thing you wont fine on the menu. Instead, nutritious whole-food meals made with ingredients from the kitchen garden and specially formulated herbal teas give guests a break from the usual indulgences of a weekend in wine country.
Along with the rejuvenating spa treatments, restorative yoga classes and uninterrupted downtime, a stay at Elysia means hitting the reset button on your mind, body and soul.
You never realise how fast the cogs have been turning until you pull the plug from its socket and let everything slowly ease to a halt. I had been running on fumes leftover from excess caffeine, fast-approaching deadlines and a genuine passion for my work that had begun to overstep the boundaries I tried to establish when I started working from home. I wasn’t the only one.
In the dining hall during meals, between exercise classes and on long walks around the neighbouring property, I met other guests who had also been burning the candle at both ends. Relationship breakdowns, terminally ill children and stress-induced panic attacks were among the reasons people had booked their stay.
But wellness retreats aren’t just for those teetering on the edge of burnout or those suffering from some flavour of emotional breakdown. A gentleman is his 60s had been spending a week at The Golden Door – a retreat on the Gold Coast run by the same team who now look after Elysia – every year since it opened back in 1993. He says it’s vital to pause, switch off and give your body a break from life’s indulgences. Those indulgences, I later found out, weren’t only related to food.
What to expect at Elysia
The strict, no… strongly encouraged regimen at Elysia involves detoxing from all the things that keep us sprinting on the hamster wheel. No coffee, no refined sugar, no red meat or overly fatty foods. Strictly no alcohol, although I suspect this rule is broken by guests who simply can’t pass up a cheeky wine on the deck at sunset.
Then there’s the digital detox. The use of phones is discouraged in public spaces – I locked mine in the safe to avoid temptation. There’s not a laptop in sight, and most people remove their smart watches and stop meticulously tracking their steps. A small library in the guest lounge provides old school entertainment, but most guests eventually embrace the art of doing nothing.
You can tell which guests are already a few days into their stay. They wander contentedly around the gardens or lay in the sun, comfortable doing nothing at all, while others who have just arrived fidget, looking for something to do with their hands in moments when they would normally reach for their phone.
Activities, classes and spa time
As someone who wears the word “busy” as a badge of honour, the idea of spending an entire long weekend doing nothing made me more than a little bit anxious. Lucky for me, it’s not all quiet meditation and self reflection at Elysia Wellness Retreat – though there is plenty of time for that if that’s your thing. A daily program of classes, activities and guest talks provide wellness seekers with something to do every hour on the hour if they so choose.
I scan the schedule, handed out on palm cards at lunch time the day before. ‘Deep water running’ immediately grabbed my attention and turned out to be an hour of treading water, trying not to gulp up the chlorine between giggles. Bobbing around on pool noodles with 20-odd adults to the sound of Technotronic’s ‘Pump up the Jam’ was not how I expected to spend my Saturday morning. But it was a definite highlight.
Other activities were less experimental but just as enjoyable. Spin, boxing, tennis and free weights made their way into my schedule along with a few less intense endeavours – the pre-breakfast joint juicing session was the perfect way to stretch out my tired muscles and prepare me for another day of activities. The best part about the Elysia program is that everything is optional – you can do as much or as little as you like. By the end of my stay, I realised that getting the most out of my time here didn’t mean doing every single activity on offer. It meant listening to my body each morning and doing whatever I wanted – whether that be sweating it out with a gym circuit or melting away in the bubbling hot tub.
Then of course, there are the spa treatments. Elysia Spa is a well-known Hunter Valley oasis, offering a wide range of treatments from relaxing massages to invigorating body scrubs. The facials are also excellent and the deluxe pedicure is a nice little addition to your spa experience.
Food so yummy it tastes naughty but isn’t
The questionnaire you fill out prior to your arrival lists every variety of dietary preference you can imagine, so everyone is well catered for. I challenged myself to go fully vegan for the weekend, having been doing it half-heartedly for several months. The options are plentiful at breakfast. House-made granola, muesli and oats topped with various yoghurts and trays upon trays of fresh fruit are just the first course. A warm breakfast always follows – scrambled eggs (tofu for me), the occasional slice of toast and grilled veggies fill our hungry tummies.
Come lunchtime, bountiful salads with big chunks of pumpkin and fresh herbs leave you feeling full but not sluggish. And dinner is always just as flavoursome. The Sri Lankan curry was my favourite, a recipe which one of the trainers tells me is featured in the retreat’s very own cook book available in the boutique.
The only thing I felt I missed out on was a rich chocolate cake made with sweet potato. Instead, I tucked into a poached pear with whipped coconut cream and freeze-dried berries (which I told myself was probably just as good).
On my final morning at Elysia, I wake early, clearheaded after a restful sleep (which I’m sure has something to do with the clean, wholesome food and much-needed break from caffeine). I don my robe and begin the gradual, spiralling accent up Meditation Hill. From a clearing among the vineyards below, I can see a handful of hot air balloons fire up their burners. One after the other, they lift off the ground and ascend silently into a peach-coloured sky.
I share this peaceful moment with a kangaroo just a few metres away. He lifts his head slightly, following my gaze toward the rising sun, then slumps back down and returns to his slumber as if he’s seen this miraculous event a million times before. Lucky you, Skip.
Looking for a more indulgent food and wine-focused Hunter Valley escape? Have a read of this: Not your typical Hunter Valley weekend getaway
The writer was hosted by Elysia Wellness Retreat. Lead image: © Sarah Azka