It’s hard to put your finger on the exact moment you experience a mind shift when you arrive at Aro Hā, a world-leading new wellness destination in Glenorchy, near Queenstown in New Zealand.
It could be the drive along Lake Wakatipu with its arresting view of snowy peaks and the constantly changing reflections and shades of the water. It’s perhaps as you explore the site-sensitive buildings created with a natural sparseness that’s warm, communal and comforting, punctured with carefully positioned windows providing shocks of environmental magnificence.
If it doesn’t happen before, it definitely will when you push yourself through a sunrise yoga session followed by a four-hour hike, and realise that a plate of raw salad and veges can be the most delicious and satisfying meal on earth.
For me, it was the moment I arrived at the community building, which houses the reception, lounge, dining area and kitchen, and realised everyone was walking around barefoot despite an unseasonably cold wind outside.
The subtle message of this was two-fold: firstly, the bliss of kicking off your shoes shifts body and mind down a gear; secondly, despite an outdoor chill, as your metabolism equalises and your health improves through Aro Hā’s five- or seven-day programme of exercise, therapy and nutritious foods, you will feel more impervious to the elements.
Aro Hā is billed as a retreat that provides “adventures in wellbeing”, a sort of re-boot camp that gives you the chance to experience your body working in optimum health.
“It’s about facilitating people to take things home with them and make subtle lifestyle changes,” explains managing partner Damian Chaparro.
Aro Hā is the brainchild of Chaparro and fellow American Chris Madison, who used to work on Wall Street. The pair met when Madison regularly attended Californian A-list health retreat The Ashram, where Chaparro worked, and which Aro Hā takes its inspiration from.
A few years ago they began discussing the idea of creating the next generation of health retreats and settled on New Zealand as their ideal location, “over an ironic bottle of wine,” laughs Madison. They travelled the full length of the country looking for a destination and were instantly won over by Queenstown’s “ethereal beauty”, clean air and hiking potential.
Far removed from traditional spas with yard-long lists of facials and body wraps, Aro Hā is also dissimilar to health retreats that focus on weight loss. What you’ll find here is an infectious notion of health that is more life-changing and therefore sustainable, though of course weight loss and body morphing are a natural outcome.
“Sometimes people are coming to lose a couple of pounds; it’s difficult to believe that a programme is going to change your mental state, almost to a point of greater clarity … That’s a greater attracter than anything else,” says Chaparro. The beauty benefits are that even after a few days, your skin begins to glow and your body feels pleasingly taut.
One of Aro Hā’s major selling points is that it involves a carefully considered daily programme that participants work through as a group. All retreat guests arrive at the same time and do their classes, hikes and meals together as one, creating a strong bond. Rather than feeling constricting, the schedule removes the need for decision-making and is mentally freeing, while keeping the day rolling to help you to stay on track.
“A lot of people who come here run pretty full-on, hectic lives. The way you see people’s faces here, they’re just gliding through their day,” says Madison.
Though nothing here is predictable – a kayaking trip may suddenly be on the schedule – a typical day at Aro Hā starts with the mellow gong of a bell at 5.30am, followed by a 6am yoga session.
Breakfast adheres to the retreat’s gut-health ethos of vegetarian, vegan and raw food meals that are gluten- and largely dairy-free, high in leafy green vegetables and based on Paleo principles that mimic a Stone Age diet.
A four-hour hike follows breakfast, with the enticement of lunch on return (do not knock the palate pleasures of fermented beetroot or macadamia ricotta until you’ve tried them). Downtime ensues, and guests are often found tucked into the nooks and comfy sofas of the lounge, reading books from the library. The afternoon follows a sequence of classes, from pilates and strength training to cooking and gardening, punctuated with a therapeutic massage.
A yoga class and half-hour meditation bring the day’s activities to a close, followed by dinner, occasional mindfulness sessions and personal use of Aro Hā’s world-class Obsidian Spa facilities. Obsidian is based on the principle of contrast therapy (hot and cold) and includes traditional and infra-red saunas, a cold outdoor plunge pool (I wasn’t brave enough to go full immersion) and warm spa pool overlooking Lake Wanaka and Pigeon Island below.
Despite the predetermined nature of the programme, everything is tailored to individual health and fitness levels, so while you’re expected to participate, you’re not pushed beyond your abilities.
“It’s not any one piece of the puzzle that we’re approaching wellness from,” says Chaparro, “it’s all sorts of angles, dietary, physical, therapeutic, philosophical and the emotional.”
Having reviewed some of the world’s best health retreats, I was impressed with Aro Hā, which extends beyond its flawless aesthetic, otherworldly location and health offerings.
Their sustainability goals and measures, including self-generated power from hydro and solar energy; permaculture gardens that minimise labour and resources through the use of natives and climate-specific planting; rainwater harvesting; and passive building structures that reduce the need for heating, are brave and commendable. The founders’ intentions are genuine, including working in consultation with Maori elder, writer and founder of Aroha Education, Ruth Makuini Tai, to observe protocols and understand the meanings behind their chosen name (aroha means “love” but also has deeper connotations around generosity, leadership, success and life force).
For those in search of greater health, fitness or a mind shift, Aro Hā is a must-visit destination with global appeal. And most importantly, the results should stay with you for life.
Aro Hā’s 5-day Enrich and Invigorate retreat from $4550 per person, 7-day Delve Deep retreat, $6250 per person. aro-ha.com