Seeking body work, wattle seeds and Wollomi pines at Gaia Retreat & Spa in the Byron Bay hinterland
With Gaia, you never lose that sense of returning to the fold. It’s like swapping medieval armour for a muslin baby wrap.
This was Excess All Areas’ third visit. Last time, 2015, we were there to celebrate the retreat’s 10th anniversary and the completion of the three elegant Komala Villas with private plunge pools, commissioned art, and spacious beach-chic living quarters (bringing the tally of the accommodation portfolio to 22 lux “shacks”). Since then, lush foliage has enveloped the newbies and added a green-hued cloak of privacy.
Gaia owes its ambience to melodious birdsong – truly, there is warbling! – starry skies, food that’s as fresh as its gets, much of it from the kitchen garden, pitstops like the Samira Yoga Lookout which capitalises on the fact that Gaia sits on one of the highest points in the shire, and the intoxicating fragrances of nature.
There are walking tracks, hills to climb, a gym, a tennis court. Guests decide what the experience will be – detox, weight loss, pampering, a mother and daughter catch-up, hours doing nothing by the pool, a drive to Newrybar, Bangalow, Byron Bay or Mullumbimby if you go stir crazy.
Day beds and meditation decks take full advantage of sunrises and sunsets and the golden afternoon light that descends in painterly fashion.
A hail storm last October saw skylights broken in a number of rooms, roofs and cars damaged and plants shredded. Newly-planted frangipanis are already unfurling baby leaves.
A personalised card is handed out each day noting the weather forecast, any booked treatments in the much-awarded spa, and the day’s optional activities, which this time round include fitness classes, yoga, qi gong, and sound meditation. Or go all Hollywood and spend the day by the pool.
The Gaia Spa is a shrine to self, offering dozens of specialist healers and therapists. Signature treatments include the $520 Gaia Goddess (or Gaia Man), an epic four-and-a-half-hour pampering involving a body polish with organic raw sugar and a hydrating masque of pink clay with top-to-toe muslin wrap, scalp massage and facial. There’s chakra rebalancing, milk and rose petal baths, pilates, shiatsu massage, and fabulous facials, some using Gaia’s own Retreatment line of body products.
But Gaia is more retreat than luxury resort – its raison d’etre more wellness than over-the-top pampering or big nights out. The menus are prescribed (just say yes!) but every dish is Nutrition Central. Dan Trewartha is the head chef. Bridget Murray does the lunch honours this time round, designing a quinoa salad with roasted cauliflower, eggplant, beetroot, cucumber, carrot and tahini dressing. Dinner is courtesy of Mali Hsin-yin: an entree of stuffed tomato with roasted vegetables, preserved lemon, and pine nuts with pea and kale puree; a main of gluten-free pasta, green prawns, asparagus, broccolini, garlic, chilli lemon and parsley; and, yes, even dessert – lemon polenta cake with maple coconut yoghurt. There’s organic or biodynamic wine with dinner if old habits die hard.
Point of difference? The myriad bowls of seeds guaranteed to transform your muesli or stewed fruit in the morning – bee pollen, linseed, hemp seeds, wattle seed, you name it. And yes, the walnuts are activated, the tofu silken, and the yuzu is talking back at you.
The heartbeat of this retreat is the colourful and cosy Kukura House, with its cathedral ceilings and Samoan longhouse architecture. Curl up on one of the lounges, hide away in the casbah-like alcove, watch the birds from the deep verandah, fossick in the gift store, or peruse the library of books and DVDs while sipping the house lemon grass, hibiscus and rose water iced tea.
Olivia Newton John, one of the retreat’s four owners (with Gregg Cave, Ruth Kalnin and Warwick Evans), was in town with husband John Easterling prepping for an interview with 60 Minutes, campaigning for better access to medical marijuana. The breast cancer ONJ was diagnosed with in 1992 metastasised in May this year to her sacrum. A Wellness Walk and Research Run to benefit the Olivia Newton-John Wellness and Research Centre (ONJ Centre) in Melbourne which the singer opened in 2014, takes place Sunday, September 17.
The 10ha grounds, which include an orchard and herb and vegetable gardens, are as well-tended as the guests. Some 4000 trees have been planted over the past decade. Newton-John’s fingerprints are all over Gaia. Follow the Wollomi Track and find two plaques, one dedicated to her mother – which reads:
In loving memory of
With her guidance we found this beautiful paradise – Gaia
Thank you Mother Earth
Behind it is a metre-tall Wollomi pine, the tree with the astounding Lazarus-like history of being brought back from the edge of extinction. And giving credit where credit is due is the 2006 plaque that honours the gardener who sowed the seeds, also with a vigilant Wollomi pine:
In loving memory of John Cottle
Who has helped create the beauty that surrounds us
Gaia Retreat & Spa, 933 Fernleigh Road, Brooklet, Northern NSW; +61 (02) 6687 1216. Cost, 2 Night Revive Package, from $1,145 (low season) in a Layana Room.
Photos Susan Skelly & Supplied