Here's what to expect at a health spa

I've slathered myself in mud and floated in the Dead Sea, spent 3 weeks at an Ayurvedic retreat in Sri Lanka, wandered confused among the roccoco halls of Budapest thermal baths, and taken Evian "rainshowers' at luxury day spas but I was recently invited somewhere a bit closer to home.

Gwinganna in Australia's Gold Coast hinterland, bills itself as "a lifetyle retreat," a promoting deeper and more permanent change than the old school 'health spa.'

I was surprised in fact, at how strong the "learning" element of it was. While it's lovely and quite luxe, the emphasis is less on facials and massages (although I had an excellent one of each - I reckon the facial was the best I've ever had!) and more on teaching takeaways to help you live a better, healthier and more balanced life.

I participated in a program they offer called "Sleep, stress and sugar." (What a perfect time for it, hey?)

Generally, I read a lot and despite being not at my ummm... optimum weight, I have a strong interest in health so was surprised at how much I learned in the daily talks.

One very fundamental change I've bought back with me is the importance of sleep (to just about every facet of our lives, from weight to memory!) and how to adopt good sleep habits. I no longer think of sleep as something that 'happens' but something I actively prepare and plan for.

I was also inspired to look afresh at my diet, into which a few not-so-good things have insidiously crept and the importance of flexibilty and strength (back to yoga and weights for me) especially as we age.

Of course, not all retreats are the same, but here are a few things I've learned from my experiences:


  • If you're shy and not a 'group' person, it can be hard going for the first day or so. There are lots of group classes and you'll usually be seated for meals at communal tables, however, with everyone sharing common goals, it's easy to talk to people and there's usually plenty of opportunity to spend time alone.

  • You'll definitely have to go without alcohol while there and most probably without tea or coffee, so prepare yourself.

  • While health retreats can seem expensive, if you break it down to accommodation+ all meals+ classes, it's actually pretty good value. Besides, it's an investment in your future health.

  • Don't overpack! You'll be living in workout gear so forget stylish and just make sure it's comfortable! That includes shoes that are good for walking. Also a hat, swimmers, a sunscreen and a jumper or hoodie.

  • Be open to new experiences. Try to let go of cynicism or embaressment about how you might look doing something (hard for me at a recent dance class at Gwinganna I must admit, but very liberating!) And don't compare yourself to others, do what feels good for you and listen to your body.

  • Be prepared to digitally detox. Retreats can be remote and so may not get decent wifi or may have a policy that disallows or discourages the use of digital devices.

  • Be prepared to have your days filled (even if that includes 'rest time'.) There's usually a full program (which you can opt out of when you want) but it's usually so varied and interesting that it doesn't feel 'busy.'

  • Bring books. Real books.

  • Expect to be surprised by the food, both the quality and amount. I certainly was at my vegan ayurvedic retreat (I incidentally lost 6kg) and at Gwinganna where the food looked like highly calorific offerings from a top restaurant, but was soooo tasty. I've also found that I eat more at retreats as there is usually morning and afternoon tea.

  • Factor in paying for at least one non-included treatment, it's worth the indulgence.

  • Write stuff down. You're likely to have a lot of 'ah ha' moments, and you imagine you'll remember them, but I have learned from experience that it's unlikely!

  • Look for a place that suits your needs. Some retreat have a more spiritual focus, others are more practical based. Read reviews and ask around.

Most of all, take the opportunity to learn, reset or refresh your knowledge.

Wishing you good health in 2021.