Maruia River Retreat: It's health and wellness - but not as you know it

Maruia River Retreat
If the words "wellness retreat" conjure scary images, this place will settle all your fears. Photo credit: Maruia River Retreat/ Josh Griggs & Emily Raftery.

The words "wellness retreat" typically conjure idyllic images of sun-soaked huts in far-flung locations like Bali and Sri Lanka - but those sorts of visions are now nothing more than a fantasy for New Zealanders. 

With the borders closed and international holidays off the cards due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kiwis are now forced to go inward and look around Aotearoa for places to escape - and there's no doubt we all need a little rest and relaxation more now than ever.  

Luckily, not long before lockdown, the South Island's newest and possibly most chic wellness retreat opened a mere two-hour drive outside of Nelson or three hours from Christchurch. 

Maruia River Retreat has only seven private villas on a 500-acre nature estate and comes fully stocked with a sauna, hot tub, yoga studio and masseuse - basically everything you need to turn your post-lockdown body from a ramshackle hut into a temple. 

But the words "wellness retreat" can also come with a lot of negative connotations. Telling my colleagues I was off to a relaxing yoga-filled escape had them questioning if I would be up at 4am to meditate, if I would be allowed to speak at all, or - even worse - if I would be giving up coffee and booze for the foreseeable future. 

Instead, at Maruia, it's wellness - but not as you know it. Everything is politely offered with no obligations, so you can do as much or as little as you like.

Upon arrival, a daily yoga schedule is written on a blackboard, with no expectations of attendance. Even better, the earliest class is about 9am, rather than a bleary dawn wakeup. A guided walk through the bush is also offered, again, only if you feel like it.

If you'd rather spend the entire stay sitting out in the retreat's hot tub or sauna turning into a shrivelled prune, you're more than welcome. You're pretty much left to your own devices - although not literally, as cell reception only makes it into the retreat's main building. Relaxation and switching off is the name of the game. 

In the interests of investigative journalism, we did it all - including my partner who initially faced twice-daily yoga classes with the enthusiasm of a man headed towards a guillotine. "Will I have to keep up with everyone like at a dance class?" he nervously questioned. "I was really bad at jump jam."

Fortunately our instructor and owner of the retreat Cristina was more than used to teaching compete beginners and with only about four people in each class at any one time, newbies are catered to easily.  

The guided walk through the native beech bush surrounding the retreat was an absolute highlight, especially followed by a blissful massage and a long soak in the hot tub looking up at the stars. 

But in a massive surprise, the biggest highlight of all was the food. Fears of a raw vegan menu and more quinoa than you can shake a stick at were abated within the first five minutes of arriving. The retreat's chef makes use of the plentiful outdoor herb and vegetable garden and almost everything else is locally sourced. There is meat, cheese and barista-quality coffee. There's even a well-stocked BAR - just to completely shatter any latent 'wellness-esque' fears. There aren't many yoga retreats offering local pinot noir of this quality. 

We left the retreat wined, dined and about a hundred times more zen than we could have dreamed going in. 

This was back in February, when the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to creep into the national consciousness. On our return home to Auckland, reading early stories of isolated incidents with the virus, we joked about how if we all needed to go into isolation, we'd do so down at Maruia. 

Now, it seems, we need another stint at Maruia to recover from lockdown. 

You can find out more about the Maruia River Retreat on its website. 

Sarah and her partner stayed as guests at Maruia for this article.