Holiday with a difference

A detox. Together. Seven days. I broached the subject gently. Would my man be into something so healthy? Would it even be a good idea? Would it make us or break us?

We all know detoxing can bring out the worst in a person - but also, hopefully, the good.

The seed was sewn. My partner Jim, however, was sceptical. "Couldn't we just do it ourselves, at home?"

It's at a luxury retreat in Queensland, I add with a smile, failing to mention the no coffee, no red meat, no alcohol, oh, and the 5.30am starts.

Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat, situated in the hills behind Burleigh Heads, offers weekly escapes designed to "soothe your soul and inspire you towards healthy living".

They recommend preparing for the seven-day detox before you arrive. To start cutting back on your vices so as not to shock your body when you go cold turkey.

We, however, have a quiet fear that we will be forced to live on lettuce leaves and mung beans and spend the weeks beforehand indulging to our hearts' content.

It's Christmas, New Year, summer... From dawn to dusk, seriously, each day is filled with socialising, eating, drinking and more eating.

"I think it's a good idea we go," he says one night in bed. "We can't go on like this."

On our way

"Where are you?" I text gazing around DutyFree at Auckland airport. Has he given me the slip already? Snuck off to the bar for one last drink?

"In the Adidas store," comes the out-of-character reply.

"I'm thinking about these shorts. But do you think they're a bit..."

"Bright," I laugh at the neon stripes down the side. We settle on a less conspicuous, less clingy, black pair and a shirt that breathes. Loving his enthusiasm for our new healthy lifestyle. I head straight to the Stella McCartney rail. It's only fair I get to shop too.

No turning back

As the intimidatingly large gates to Gwinganna slide slowly back we look at each other... Here goes, we laugh. The car creeps up the steep drive way, weaving its way through towering gum trees that create a cool dappled light. Set in 200ha of bush and rainforest, the resort buildings spread out to maximise the sense of space. The minute we put our feet on the ground the warm Queensland sunshine wraps itself in a welcome embrace around us and we breathe in the clean, eucalyptus-filled air. Queensland's Gwinganna Retreat is a re-energising experience for the body and soul.

Tension I wasn't even aware of starts to ease from my shoulders.

We are greeted like long lost friends by staff and shown to our luxurious quarters, before joining the 60 other guests who will be taking part in this week of detoxing. It's a wonderfully eclectic group: women of various ages and stages travelling on their own and treating themselves to some "me time", mothers and daughters connecting, the family group of mum, her 24-year-old son and delightful 80-year-old mother (who turns out be the most flexible of the entire group when it comes to yoga), a bevy of businessmen, and a 50-something guy from Northland.

"I've never done anything like this before. I'm certainly out of my comfort zone," he says summing up how most of us feel. "But I guess that's what this is all about."

Breaking bread

Well, actually it's gluten-free corn bread, served with organic eggs, mushrooms and silverbeet from the garden. This is breakfast on day one and already we have been woken at 5.30am, watched the sun rise over the distant ocean as we are taken through the flowing movements of a qi gong session, and been on an energetic walk up the steep surrounding hills. Others in the group have returned from a more gentle walk through the forest or aqua jogging in the pool. Everyone is ravenous. The restaurant sits at the heart of the retreat, and it's here we gather three times a day for an abundance of delicious, colourful and oh-so-healthy food, prepared by head chef Hermann Schafellner. As we are on a detox the focus is on fresh-from-the-garden herbs and vegetables, juicy fruit, seafood and tasty vegetarian dishes. Think prawn and mango salad with lemon-myrtle dressing, grilled reef fish on tamarind vegetables, quinoa sushi, Vietnamese eggplant salad ... Dessert this week, however, is fresh herbal and fruit teas which are surprisingly satisfying.

Decisions, decisions

There are very few decisions to be made at Gwinganna. The biggest calls you have to make are: should I have the fish or the Moroccan bean stew for dinner? Should I have a stone massage or a facial at the spa today? Should I lie by the pool or take a nap back in the room? Should I do yoga or tribal dancing?

At the heart of it all is the yin (gentle) or the yang (active), and we are all encouraged to listen to our bodies - and our internal voices - to see what we really need.

For those needing a bit more yin in their lives options include stretch, pilates, yoga, dance, body alignment. For those who want to pick up the pace, the yang options on offer include joining the challenging walks before breakfast, or taking part in spin, boxing and TRX classes. Each day, Jim and discuss if we're in a yin or a yang vibe - and will either go in opposite directions or join together. My heart soars with joy as we team up as partners for yoga. We giggle at being "yoga lovers" as we push, pull and support each other into various stretches. "You're slipping away from me," he sings as we hold hands and lean away from each other. "Don't let me go," I joke back. Another morning, we fly past each other as we let loose our inhibitions in the energetic group tribal dancing class.

We come together only at the end, exhilarated from the physical and emotional journey the teacher has led us on.

Confession. I can count the number of times I visited my gym last year on one hand. The thought of pounding on a treadmill or being forced to do another push up just filled me with dread. Then came the guilt, for not going. As for Jim, a back operation has meant that, frustratingly, any physical workout he has done in the past has been cut short by shooting pains.

No longer. After a week of gentle stretches, hill climbs, body alignment and the high level of education on how our bodies work, Jim is now moving and grooving. Exercises he thought were beyond his capability a month earlier are now possible. And I have decided to give myself a break - mentally and physically. That's not to say I'm not going to exercise at all. I'm just going exercise in a kinder way. A way that nurtures the spirit and the body. The gym membership is being canned and - thanks in part to the inspiring 80-year-old grandmother, yoga is now top of the list.

Digging deep

The therapist is holding my wrists and telling me it "appears you have been under a bit of stress of late". I melt. This is exactly the reason, I'm lying on the bed in front of her and why I've chosen this treatment, Rockupuncture, from the fabulously long and diverse Gwinganna spa menu. It is designed for people suffering from stress and adrenal exhaustion and combines Japanese-style acupuncture with a hot stone massage designed to "realign your energy through the meridians". Eighty minutes later and I am totally zonked - the relaxing, sweeping strokes of the therapist have lulled me into a state of deep bliss. Back in the spa reception, Jim is doing his best Hugh Hefner impersonation as he lazes in his robe waiting for his session which will integrate deep tissue massage with reflexology, breathing and balancing techniques, and polarity energy healing. This is how we spend most of our afternoons throughout the week. It's called Dreamtime and is an opportunity to maximise the expert therapists available.

There are also counsellors, naturopaths and nutritional therapists on hand to help you on your journey.

Life lessons

It's not all about physical exercise and massages at Gwinganna. We are also encouraged to stretch our minds. Each day, after morning tea, guests are invited to a series of seminars. Each speaker radiates vitality, energy and glows with impossibly good health. As the classes unfold, it's obviously more than something in the water - although I am drinking litres of it each day. The subjects range from the importance of movement to the power of sleep. For those who are deskbound, we are reminded that we should get up and move every 20-30 minutes and take up to 10,000 steps a day. Ideally, we should work out five times a week, including a minimum of three 30-minute sessions of pilates, yoga or functional weights.

We are taught how to breathe - properly, deeply, slowly. How living a stress-laden life puts pressure on our adrenals. We are encouraged to "eat food, not too much, mostly plants" by the effervescent nurse and naturopath Shannon McNeill. We discuss how sugar, not fat, is the main reason for heart disease and obesity and are shown how easy it can be to have a healthy, alkaline (as opposed to acid) based diet. Jim's passion is to cook and he is quietly delighted that a lot of what is recommended he already actions in our kitchen at home. But there's always room for inspiration and new ideas, and we both write notes furiously.

The respected Dr Karen Coates tells how we can reduce the risk of major disease regardless of our family history, bombards us with staggering facts about how the majority of us are not being fully nourished by modern diets. She shows us how to to ensure we get maximum nutritional value from our food, and the importance of understanding and taming our stress hormones.

Gwinganna's general manager, the passionate and joyous Sharon Kolkka, has the room's attention from the minute she starts her talk about the power of thought - be it destructive, productive or pure. She explains the biggest stress we face in the Western world today is psychological. "What the mind perceives, the body believes" she challenges and points out the detrimental physical affects. This is serious motivation to truly look at how we're living our lives. We leave armed with strategies on how to lead a more balanced life, explore our individual emotional challenges and understand and change that never-ending internal dialogue.

The talking horse

Not really. Although I did have visions of Mr Ed telling me how to put my life in order when we enrolled for Equine Therapy with the amazing Sue Spence. Originally from New Zealand, Sue has had more than 25 years working in health, education and life coaching. When she's not holding clinics at Gwinganna, she and her ponies are helping everyone from disabled children to trouble youth, to high-flying executives. She asks Jim and I to liken ourselves to one of the personality descriptions she has of her four horses. I go for Larry whose traits include being a mediator, who dislikes confrontation and can get defensive if pushed. Jim is more like Yogi - a horse with a mischievous personality who likes joking around. Once in the ring, alone with the horse, we are both astonished at how it reacts to our body language. Sue uses the exercise to show us how others see us and how our personal energy and body language can affect a situation. By the end of our session we are both able to get the horse to walk, trot, canter, stop and turn with the simplest body movement. No halter, no rope. Sue has given us incredible insights into how we both operate as individuals, socially, in the workplace and in our relationship, plus she has given us helpful tools to take away with us.

It's only just begun

Detoxing at Gwinganna is an impressive seven-day journey and doing it as a couple proves a revelation. At the start of the week, we are a little grumpy with each other. To be expected we are told, as our bodies say goodbye to those not-so-good habits. By the end of the week, we are whispering late into the night sharing thoughts, dreams, ideas. Without the distraction of work, chores and phones, we find a space - mentally and physically - that we've never reached before as couple.

It is being in a caring and stress-free environment, where you can truly let go. Where those defence systems you build up to survive the daily machinations of the real world now just seem ridiculous. Is this what life would be if you took out all of that cortisol-inducing stress?

The sweet challenge now is: how to maintain this sense of calm balance when we get home. The joy of this detox being a shared experience is we can work on it together, support each other and remind the other to at least take time to b-r-e-a-t-h-e.

•Amanda and Jim were guests of Gwinganna Health Retreat.

•Sharron Kolkka, Gwinganna's general manager, will be at the Hilton Auckland on March 14 to present a seminar on "Your Mind, Your Body". To find out more go

•Turn to page 14 where Gwinganna's head chef Hermann Schafellner shares the philosophy behind the retreat's food and three of his favourite recipes.