I chose to go to Gwinganna based on one sentence in a travel magazine. Something about an organic wellness retreat outside of Brisbane. I'd already decided to go to Australia but was looking for an experience that could get me safely out into nature, as well as help me recover from the long flight. The fact that Gwinganna is co-owned by Hugh Jackman was a bonus, a kind of slight reassurance that it is probably pretty good.
Driving up and into the spa (on the left side of the road) gave me some pause. (In Australia, they use the word retreat instead of spa.) This did not look like any spa I'd been to in America. It actually looked like an old Hawaiian village on top of a very steep mountain that also felt like the summer camp my kids have gone to in Maine. Rutted dirt and gravel roads. Wild landscaping. And women walking around whom I later came to call jungle fairies. Beautiful, magical, and wild. Wallabies grazed like rabbits on the grass. Kookaburras laughed like merry, merry kings of the bush.
Also different for me: There would be a group that would go through the "journey" together. We started on the same day and would end on the same day. At first there was that awkward hanging-out-with-strangers feeling that I knew would ease, but couldn't see quite how.
I quickly realized I was the only American, and came to really treasure getting to know "real" Australians in such a personal way. Real Australians...they are just like us! Only different! Hard to put a pin on it, but even though they come in all shapes and sizes, it really felt like there was more of a commitment to real health. The spas I'd been to in the States feel more like people come to them to improve their appearance primarily, and only tentatively venture into more emotional and spiritual realms. This place felt truly integrated in a way that felt safe--safe because everyone was part of it. And best in class, too. What on the surface looked like summer camp was underneath truly excellent and first-rate. And by the end of it, I'd kissed more than 10 of them and pummeled one of the goers' butt. Can you imagine that happening in America?
The day started with a 5:30 knock on the door and 6:00 Qi Gong on the grass overlooking a beautiful valley. Imagine doing Qi Gong as the sun rises over Surfers' Paradise while black cockatoos fly overhead! Bush walks starting at 6:30 got us out into the bush. On the first day, I went on the challenging walk and quickly realized that I was slower than everyone else. I thought I knew hills, living on the little mountain I do. I will never complain about those hills again! But the magical thing was that there was one other person who was as slow as me, and the story he told me as we huffed and puffed up those hills will never leave me. It was almost as if the universe had arranged my whole trip for that one walk.
All the hard activities were scheduled in the morning, and then by 11:00 teatime, the Dreamtime began: rest, reflection, spa treatments! I tried all sorts of new fitness activities: BOSU, Body Play (where I overcame my decades-long embarrassment over my love of modern dance), my first spinning class! The massage highlight was called Spirit of Sound: The masseuse was also a percussionist, so to loud, rhythmic music she played my body like a drum. It was one of the most sensual, different, and pleasurable experiences that I've had in a spa.
And the food--at first I was taken aback. No salt or sugar or visible fat in anything. Americans would never put up with this, I thought. It was the healthiest food I've ever eaten on a consistent basis for two days. And a funny thing happened: It started to taste perfect. I lost all sense of cravings or starving-ness between meals. I felt deeply satisfied and clean. Also, as a cook, I realized that this food was very complicated to make and wouldn't be easy to do on my own. It was delicious! Flavorful! All-organic and good. Not at all the kind of food that would get good reviews, even in Brooklyn or Berkley. Can you imagine food that is awesome and even too healthy for those places?
And that gets to the root of what I think is the difference between Americans and Australians. Americans are much more cynical, judgmental, and focused on appearance and what others think. Australians have an openness, a positivity, and a lack of judgment; they find a place of health that is just much more authentic and positive. Much more fun! Although I could be completely wrong on this, since I've only been here a week now.
Of course, Gwinganna, as they all assured me, isn't like the rest of Australia. It is the best of Australia in many ways. Before I went up there, I was telling some of the people at my previous hotel where I was heading. One said it was the difference between "chalk and cheese." The other said it had changed her life. I wondered how my life could be changed in just two days. Now I know.
On a final note: I found out when I got there that I didn't have to give up coffee after all. They do allow it in the morning, until 11:30. But guess what? I like my new freedom from addiction! I love not worrying about where my next cup is coming from. Coffee, could this be the end of our long love affair???????????????????
For more from Maria Rodale, go to www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com