I’m walking the descent of the Invincibles trail, in the Rees Valley just outside Glenorchy, looking for stones when I have an epiphany. Tasked with finding a stone that ‘spoke’ to me during a silent portion of our hike I have been on the lookout for something shiny, unique and special when it hits me. What I’m really searching for is comfort in the ordinary.

It’s day two of my five-day stay at Aro Hā wellness retreat and the findings are flying at me thick and fast. It’s not my first stay at the sublimely luxe centre, set overlooking Lake Wakatipu and with possibly the most Instagrammable yoga studio in the world. But I feel like a different person from the one who visited in 2015.

In my late 30s at the time, I was reconciling my mind and body with a cancer diagnosis in my mid-20s. I was strong, fit and focused. A lot has happened in the past eight years; I’ve aged. I’ve parented through a global pandemic and I’ve struggled with both my mind and body through perimenopause. That’s partly my ‘why’. Why I am here, at Aro Hā, and why I find myself seeking out the most ordinary pebble on the trail.

I’m philosophical about ageing (I’ve lost three dear friends to breast cancer, I think we can all agree it’s better than the alternative) but there’s an invisibility that comes with the process that can be hard to reconcile. We’re told our whole lives to stand out, make a difference, be special. Then the next minute, our features are literally fading and no one would pick us out of a rocky path.

This was the existential crisis I went into day two with.

Like me, Aro Hā has matured. Both the incredible vegetable gardens (they grow approximately 30% of the food they serve) and the grounds. I become particularly fixated with the lavender bushes surrounding a mindful ‘labyrinth’ and the kōwhai trees blooming outside the yoga room, attracting an abundance of bees and tūī.

It’s spring time in Queenstown when I visit, and despite the backdrop of snow-capped mountains and brisk morning air, it’s warm enough to throw ourselves into the lake at Bob’s Cove on conclusion of our first glorious hike on day one.

Afterwards, the team break out flasks of freshly brewed tea (made with cacao, cinnamon and chilli) to warm us up as we luxuriate in vitamin D on the rocky foreshore. Aro Hā believes, as I do, that nature holds powerful tools for healing and, as such, despite the retreat’s incredible surroundings, we spend a good portion of the stay out in nature, with a 3-4 hour hike each morning.

Swimming in clear, cold water is possibly my favourite thing to do. But my next favourite is contrast therapy, something the retreat not only offers (they have both Swedish and infrared saunas as well as an outdoor hot tub and cold plunge pool) but they also lead guided sessions around.

Moving silently in a group from sauna to ice bath and back again in guided meditation and breathwork was incredibly profound; it gave me faith in my ability to rise to challenges and the uplifting experiences of working as a group.

Another way Aro Hā has matured is in its food offering. When I visited eight years ago, the retreat had an emphasis on weight loss, with guests weighed on arrival. As the way we think about wellbeing has changed, so too has Aro Hā. Weigh-ins are now on request (and with a small surcharge) and you have the option of small, medium or large meal sizes – an option you can change at any time you like.

I stuck happily to the middle and never felt like I went hungry. The food, all plant-based, is absolutely world-class and delicious. After a delicious dinner of black bean noodles, tempeh and fresh vegetable soup on day two we were presented with the option to go the following day on liquids only, and told it would be a silent day.

Silence in the common areas through that day was a rule, but fasting was an invitation. Strangely, this ended up being my favourite day of the retreat. While I’m a firm believer that the success of any wellbeing retreat is largely dependent on the group that you’re with – and we had an incredible group – there’s something very profound about being forced to look within yourself and sit with your feelings.

We didn’t leave the retreat that day and things started a little later; 6.30am yoga became 8am Tai Chi. The hike became an exercise in grounding, silently walking barefoot through Aro Hā’s divine landscape. After ‘dinner’ (a rich, delicious broth) we met in the yoga room to break the silence over a game called Peace Sticks. It was the most ridiculous amount of fun and an incredible bonding experience after the day’s silence. I’m not sure younger me would’ve enjoyed it as much as I did, so points awarded for being older and less self-conscious.

Another difference I appreciated was the seamless integration of te reo Māori language and customs through retreat leader Fraser Beck. From pre-kai karakia to te reo cues in movement and breath workshops, it was a wonderful reminder that we were actually, proudly, in Aotearoa. Fraser also led us through another of my favourite workshops, a breath session that bordered on psychedelic, so transformative we sat around and giggled nervously afterwards.

I’m a firm believer that a wellness retreat is only as good as the company you’re in, as there’s something so special about sharing your experiences with strangers, and listening to theirs. And I happened to luck into the most incredible group of people.

From the woman who chose to spend her 50th birthday there, with us, to the woman with a lung disease who had planned to walk around the mountain range we were climbing only to appear at the summit as we were eating morning tea; we shared in everyone’s highs and lows together.

Like onions, together we peeled back the layers of our lives, and realised that we were all participants in the same universe together. Maybe it’s partly the sublime landscape, with the architectural structures gently enhancing it rather than taking from it (everything, from the sauna to the dining room to the yoga studio is built around that view), that makes you feel like a mere observer in life, rather than one harbouring weight on their shoulders.

And then maybe it’s the level of care; daily massages with caring masseuses, chefs who come and talk you through each meal so you can see the love that went into it, the retreat leaders who listen and encourage you.

Yes, Aro Hā is ridiculously expensive, but highly worth it for those who can afford it. It’s also a brilliant reminder that two of our best wellbeing practices, nature and breathing, are free – and ours for the taking.

Fact file:

Revive & Thrive wellness retreats at Aro Hā start from $6950 for six days. See: aro-ha.com

The writer was hosted by Aro Hā.