Dugald Jellie scrubs up well at a retreat with showbiz good looks and New Age spirituality.
I am lying on my back and being scrubbed in coffee. It's 100 per cent arabica, ground and rubbed on my legs and arms and even behind my ears. Already I've been steamed and feel delightfully frothy. The organic beans, in a paste of black sesame and macadamia nut oils, are smeared all over my skin. I think of myself as a big macchiato.
It's dusk in the lumpy hills beyond Byron Bay and I'm having a body polish. I do not want this moment to end. Brigette, a beauty and remedial therapist from Bavaria, massages me with fine coffee granules that exfoliate my every exposed pore. I only hope, this late in the day, that she does me in decaf.
Gaia Retreat and Spa is the boutique luxury resort where my day's pleasures begin with a morning cup of lemon myrtle tea and end with an hour-long coffee rub-down. I can see myself becoming addicted, wanting two scrubs a day, with a milk bath.
Not an hour after check-in and already I'm barefoot on a Balinese day lounge reading a guide to crystal gems and minerals. I walk in a garden of tropical rhododendrons and theatrical bromeliads. I meet a dog called Gio ("short for Giorgio Armani"), an Italian breed that sniffs truffles, who I later see on the cover of Australian Women's Weekly in the arms of the resort's co-owner, Olivia Newton-John.
Gaia is that sort of place: a tasteful synergy of New Age spirituality, showbiz good looks and five-star pampering. "We're not a boot camp," says general manager Gregg Cave, a former TV soapie star who set up the retreat three years ago with his friend from her days before Grease. "Most guests come here for time out. They come to de-stress and get back in harmony with themselves."
I've come as a lotus-eater to enjoy 24 hours of pleasure-seeking in the name of research. I am to report on a retreat voted favourite South Pacific hotel spa in the 2008 Conde Nast Traveller readers' poll and where Delta (as in Goodrem) writes in the guest book: "I had a magical time at Gaia, a place on Earth you feel free to be you and to connect back to the universe."
But I'm here for reasons also of science. I had looked up the Bureau of Meteorology's website to find the warmest place in NSW in winter. It is Murwillumbah, mentioned on the TV weather report on about 36 of the 90-odd days of winter, with an average daily top of 21.6 degrees. That's about the same temperature I'd set the thermostat to warm up, if I had a thermostat.
I check the atlas, tap key words into Google ("luxury", "spa", "yoga", "no children", "papaya") and decide the place best suited to my layabout needs is 54 kilometres south of Murwillumbah (or about an hour's drive from Gold Coast Airport) is called Gaia (which in Greek mythology refers to "mother earth") and has at least one of its 20 twin-share rooms available.
"Most winter clients come from Melbourne," says manager Leanne Schoen, who greets me with a pot of herbal tea, a daily schedule she calls the "dance card" and inquiries about food allergies and old football injuries. "We find about 70 per cent of guests come alone and it's about 70 per cent women."
Choices of self-gratification seem endless. The day spa, among other balms, has a hot granite stone treatment, sea-salt polish, cocoa and mango butter masque, hot-oil head wrap and Hawaiian kahuna massage. There's meditation or shiatsu. I pass on Qi Gong, not because I don't like it but because I'm not sure exactly what it is (although I do know "qi" is in the Official Scrabble Words Dictionary, which is handy if you're stuck with a "q").
I ponder all my possibilities: from bee pollen and psyllium husks on stewed rhubarb for breakfast to whale watching after lunch or a milk-and-rose-petal bath. I decide on a double serving of sago pudding with coconut cream and palm sugar for dessert that I'll work off later on the tennis court. I think I've found paradise and it has views to Lennox Head.
"It takes 24 hours to truly unwind," Cave says. "Men are the first ones that really need to be switched off. It's after about three days that the full Gaia effect takes hold."
But I feel it by lunch. At the Samoan-style longhouse, eating spelt pasta with garlic, roast walnuts and a spinach pesto, I talk of yoga positions with a sixtysomething Melbourne art gallery owner, a Sydney-based HR manager and husband-and-wife cotton farmers from Moree. We discuss the merits of the eco-chic cabins with no telephones or TV. I am persuaded that stripping down for an organic coffee polish may well change my life.
I spend the afternoon frolicking in the heated saltwater pool. I smell the flowering gardenias, practise my frog kick and listen to currawongs warble.
Then the body polish. I change into a disposable black G-string that surely must look hilarious. I wear a cotton robe into the massage room. I am steamed and scrubbed and rubbed in coffee, from tip to toe, with a warm flannel over my face and thoughts of relaxation so hypnotic that I dribble.
I rinse off, open my eyes. A golden Buddha smiles at me. My skin glistens. Five aromatic candles burn by the door. I think tonight I'll make a wish on a falling star. For more coffee scrubs.
Dugald Jellie travelled courtesy of Tourism NSW.
Gaia Retreat and Spa is at 933 Fernleigh Road, Brooklet, on a hill overlooking Byron Bay. Fly to either Ballina or Gold Coast airports. Virgin Blue flies to the Gold Coast and from Sydney to Ballina (Melbourne passengers change aircraft in Sydney). Jetstar flies to the Gold Coast and Ballina while Tiger Airways flies to the Gold Coast from Melbourne only. Qantas also flies from Sydney to the Gold Coast (Melbourne passengers change aircraft in Sydney).
Gaia offers complimentary airport transfers from both airports at specified times or a limousine pick-up.
Standard packages for three nights (from $1385 twin share), five nights ($2060) and seven nights ($2850) include accommodation, meals, airport transfers from Ballina or Gold Coast, daily yoga, naturopathic assessment and one-day spa session. Phone 6687 1216 or see www.gaiaretreat.com.au.