Aro Ha retreat. Picture / Supplied.

Where to Visit: Aro Ha

With its beautiful setting, plunge pools and marvellous food, you may think you're on holiday at Aro Ha

When Mad Men’s Don Draper hit rock bottom it was renowned wellness retreat Esalen in California’s Big Sur that put him back together again. Finding peace with himself in beautiful surroundings gave him back his creative mojo and the confidence to go on to great things. For anyone wanting to experience a similar metamorphosis right here in New Zealand, we have Aro Ha.

“We do get people in need,” acknowledges Paula Ryan, the Queenstown resort’s down-to-earth manager (not the fashion doyenne). “Being in nature heals. By the time they come back from the first hike you can see they’re already thinking ‘actually it’s all going to be okay’.”

That first hike takes place soon after check-in. An “easy walk around the grounds” (read: climb a mountain) alongside a weigh-in and wellness consultation act as a slightly jarring reminder that Aro Ha is not your average five-star holiday destination.

The retreat is the brainchild of American yoga teacher Damian Chapparo. Damian, who studied permaculture at Esalen, was working at the Ashram retreat centre just out of LA and running his own pop-up retreats when he had lunch with regular guest Chris Madison.

Chris, a hedge fund manager from Boston, had visited Ashram “eight or nine times” and was clearly inspired by Damian’s vision; when Damian shared his dream to gather a number of investors and build his own fully sustainable place for transformative wellbeing experiences, Chris offered to fund the whole thing. Under Chris’ guidance and tutelage, Aro Ha has cut no corners.

Aro Ha retreat. Picture / Supplied.

It is is unspeakably picturesque. That lake, those snow-capped glaciers, those fields of wafting tussock. And the commitment the retreat has to the land it inhabits is extraordinary. This year, Aro Ha will generate 94 per cent of its own energy, and that figure is expected to reach 120 per cent next year.

It’s home to a veritable smorgasboard of sustainable practices and cutting-edge technologies that see them almost off the grid; they boast the largest district heating scheme in the country.

Though the retreat is American-owned, it’s far from a big hotel chain, and the sense of family and familiarity is one of its most positive attributes. Guests are encouraged to make themselves at home, pull up a cashmere blanket by the fireplace, take a tour of the vegetable plots or hang out in the kitchen.

Days here are active and the local environ-ment dictates the schedule. Early morning yoga sessions focus on hip stretches and are a warm-up for the hiking to come. For those who haven’t hiked before, and even those who have, it’s intense but incredibly rewarding, in the vista and the stories shared among guests, aided by the guides.

Bursts of mindful walking are encouraged to allow more introspective time, a welcome respite for those escaping the hustle and bustle of a hectic life. By afternoon your body is crying out for the daily massage. Relief is also found in the sauna-with-a-view and the all-weather outdoor hot and cold plunge pools.

The food at Aro Ha is exceptional. They follow a restricted calorie plan but there’s no sense of deprivation, every morsel is delicious. Think shredded green apple and fennel with hot spirulina almond milk and homegrown cranberries and raspberries for breakfast. They grow 33 per cent of their produce and this figure increases each season.

Chef Rani and his sous chef, Toni, excitedly show guests through the fruits of their labour in the kitchen; excess spoils are pickled, dehydrated, ground, or — worst case scenario — sent to a state-of-the-art composting system.

On the days hiking isn’t possible, guests practise intermittent fasting; the promise of physical relief is overtaken by dismay at the thought of missing out on the most delicious food. Pots of spicy home-made ayurvedic tea and delicious gazpacho “juice” keep the grumblings at bay until dinner when meals recommence.

Aro Ha is incredibly challenging in many ways. For some it may be the physical activity, for others it may be switching off from a chaotic life. But package it all up in sublime beauty, add Egyptian cotton sheets and Tom Dixon fittings, throw in some of the best food you’ll eat and it all becomes so much easier.

The final reminder that this is not a typical holiday comes on your last morning when you’re woken at the crack of dawn for a final weigh-in. Aro Ha won a Conde Nast Traveller award for best active weight loss 2015. For the record, I lost 2.7kg and left feeling so good I could probably write a successful Coca-Cola ad.

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New Zealand Herald

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