Nurture, Nourish and Thrive in New Zealand’s North Island
Te Atawhai Domain House, in the town of Te Aroha (Waikato region of New Zealand's North Island)
There are only a handful of travel experiences that I consider pivotal, moments in time and places of crucial importance that have irreversibly impacted my life. One such experience is the four-day wholeness retreat that I embarked on at Te Atawhai. The significance of this adventure snuck up on me as gently as the quaint town of Te Aroha (in the region of Waikato, in New Zealand’s North Island) where the retreat took place. The effects were not fully realised until it was over.....
Backtrack to an email I received in August 2016 from CEO of Stretton Fashion Group, Annah Stretton , who I knew well from my ‘ragtrade’ days. Telling me about a “new venture” that she had set up with two others, a wholeness retreat centre called Te Atawhai, she wondered if I was interested in checking it out....
With Atawhai (pronounced aa-Taa-F-AY) meaning ‘caring’ in Maori, their website didn’t so much scream as whisper ‘peace’, ‘tranquility’ and a ‘communion with nature’; exactly what I needed after a stressful year and fast and furious holiday season! Cost wise, it was a no-brainer: flights to New Zealand were costing less than to Perth, the rate of exchange was in our favour, and the retreat cost for four days (all inclusive) was surprisingly reasonable. Harnessing three other great women to accompany me - Maryanne (my daughter in law), Pia (cousin from Oregon) and Kate (friend and practitioner at Willesee Health Care) - we booked our flights and set off to New Zealand in late January in desperate search of our equilibrium.
Filled with excitement and anticipation when we landed in Auckland around lunchtime, grabbed a car from Thrifty, and pointed our noses south towards Rotorua, our intended destination for two nights prior to the retreat. Driving amidst picture perfect scenery, we stopped after a couple of hours for a break and nosh at Matamata (of ‘Lord of the Rings’ fame) before continuing on for another 67.3 kilometres to the odoriferous city of Rotorua. Acquiring a five-bedroom house via Airbnb for the duration of our stay, we relaxed and played tourist: visiting the live Maori village of Te Puia, enjoying a memorable meal at Atticus Finch on ‘Eat Streat’, meandering around neighboring Taupo one afternoon, and began the process of unwinding.
Te Atawhai's Guest House, on the outskirts of Te Aroha town.
Feeling rested on the third day, we left Rotorua and proceeded to Hamilton. An easy hour’s drive away, we dropped the car off at Thrifty and were collected by Te Atawhai’s brimming-with-vitality co-founder Rebecca Skilton. Her welcome could not have been warmer. Piling ourselves and our luggage inside her spacious and pristine van, we were transported to Te Atawhai’s gracious, light-filled Guest House located in the midst of idyllic rural landscape and just outside the town of Te Aroha. Like kids at a candy shop, we explored the home’s layout and charming bespoke rooms. I bagged the ‘Pool House’, an endearing studio-dwelling that was separate from the main house and right next to the pristine salt water pool.
From left to right, Franck Stucki, Rebecca Skilton, Kate Willesee, Victoria Ugarte (me), Maryanne Ugarte, Pia Ghezzi and Sherryll Gordon
Before too long, Rebecca was bundling us once again into her van and drove us to Te Atawhai’s headquarters for our ‘Meet-and-Greet-the-Crew’ and dinner. TA HQ turned out to be a charming heritage listed cottage located just on the edge of the main town of Te Aroha and nestled at the foothills of Mount Te Aroha. Called Domain House, this former teahouse which dated back to the start of the last century was to be the hub of our daily activities, including all meals.
Welcoming us at the top of Domain House’s front steps was pocket-rocket trainer and Te Atawhai co-founder Sherryll Gordon. Inviting us to make ourselves comfortable in the spacious, unpretentious and cheerful lounge area, Sherryll graciously and eloquently explained to us the basis of Te Atawhai’s wellness philosophy: A modern day sanctuary created to reconnect the mind, body and spirit into one magnificent whole, Te Atawhai’s wholeness journey more than simply exposes their guests to a different way of living. They educate them on everything that they need to know in order to embrace permanent changes in the management of their mind, body and lives. Thankfully, we had been forewarned on the no-perfume/ no make-up/ no alcohol/ no caffeine/ no sugar ethos and had begun our detox a few days prior, which saved us from unpleasant symptoms during our stay: tiredness, headaches and nausea.
One of Chef Erika's organic-whole-foods-only creations.
A crucial part of the four-day retreat is the education on food. Previously associating the whole-organic-foods-only movement with tree hugging hippies, Chef Erika Motoie shattered all my ill-conceived prejudices. Not only where our meals at Te Atawhai exquisitely presented, they were delicious and brimming with goodness. Indeed, Erika explained to us the importance of giving thanks before every meal and taking our time when eating, preferably at the table. That way, we fully savour the smells, tastes, textures, nutrients and energy of our food.
Navigating the terrain of Mount Te Aroha.
Movement is another integral part of the retreat and there was plenty of it. Starting with stretches with Sherryll every morning, the main activity of each day involved a trek in the region’s glorious mountains. There is no better way to be present or discover the weaknesses and strengths of one’s own body and character than to climb a mountain. Best approached with humility, caution, respect, and cooperation, the teamwork and camaraderie within our small group seemed to grow in proportion to the challenge. Every one of the treks presented us with a different kind of beauty and set of trials: the scenic trek to Wairere Falls, the steep climb to Buck Rock in the spectacular Waiorongomai Valley, and conquering the ‘Mountain of Love’ itself, the magnificent Mount Te Aroha. Reaching the summit, we felt on top of the world.
An enviably fit and sprightly hiking guide by the name of Frank Stucki accompanied us on all our treks and had the backs of anyone who lagged behind (me, most of the time!). After a particularly intense hike of 17 kilometres (which I’d completed 30 minutes behind the rest of the group), Frank not only stayed with me every step of the way but he delivered me safely to the Mineral Spa and patiently waited with me until the rest of the group arrived. Once they appeared, he headed straight to the gym to engage in further leg work. I have never felt so humbled in all my life. Frank is 78 years old.
Fiona working her magic on Pia's tired muscles.
Hours of mountain climbing go hand in hand with achy muscles and swollen joints. Thank goodness for the deep tissue massage that we received at the magic hands of therapist Fiona in the rooms at Healthfit Te Aroha, a gym that Sherryll manages . A soak in the silky waters off the hot soda geyser at Te Aroha’s Mineral Spas afterwards completed our ritual and brought more healing to our tired bodies, despite our exhilarated spirits.
Maryanne getting up close and personal with our special four-legged friends at the RDA
Last but not least was the equine assisted learning with coach Devon at Te Aroha Riding for the Disabled . Under Devon’s watchful eye, our interaction with two very special horses enabled us to learn how our energy and behaviour impacts others. With a proven track record for l owering blood pressure and heart rate, alleviating stress, and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression , Devon - who has a severely disabled brother and was born with mild cerebral palsy herself - regularly sees significant breakthroughs as a result of equine therapy with the disabled children that she has worked with.
From a place of ignorant enthusiasm at the start of our Te Atawhaiwholeness journey, I’ve since become a raving advocate. So have my other retreat buddies. Flying in the face of ‘Botox and Bling’ pamper retreats, where boutique ‘packages’ and buffets are the order of the day. Nothing wrong with that, if that is what you’re after. Te Atawhai’s approach is far more organic, bespoke and inclusive. Not only did I witness a gradual unfolding in all of my three retreat companions, I noticed profound changes in my own health, psyche and outlook on life too (And just in case you were wondering, YES, I DID LOSE WEIGHT!). With Te Atawhai challenging any ‘quick fix’ approach to fitness and nutrition, the changes that I made on our wholeness journey have since become part of my day-to-day routine. It’s all about choice, isn’t it? I’m so thankful that I made this one.