Bali: Goddess for a week
Let's be honest: Yoga retreats are a breeding ground for cliched stereotypes. Dreadlocked hippies who don't believe in contraception. Tanned, topless men who practice yoga on a sheepskin rug. Flaky my-body-is-my-temple types who devour green smoothies and snort quinoa.
But not the yoga retreat I went to. Oh no.
I am confident the nine women on the Goddess Retreat in Bali's Seminyak could single-handedly solve every world problem, scientific mystery and daily fashion disaster.
I arrive at the luxurious villas in the heart of Bali's exclusive bar scene and shopping precinct, to meet our bubbly Irish host Michelle and the group.
There is a striking blonde, Christine, who is a peacekeeper for the United Nations and is working in Sudan (she needed a bit of "me" time, fair enough). Padmini is a highly successful hedgefund manager from Singapore who has been working "ridiculous hours".
And Aussie Matilda is in fashion having spent the past three years in New York working for a well- established fashion house.
Everyone has come alone. And everyone wants zen.
The retreat, anticipating such desires, oozes relaxation and peace. Every room has a luxurious four-poster bed covered in frangipani flowers. Nothing has been overlooked. There is even an eye-mask, earplugs and cookies on the bedside table for midnight snacks.
The private villa where I'm staying is painted white, with matching furniture. It has a private pool, a self-contained kitchen and a large pillow-covered day bed that is covered in dappled sunlight from the surrounding tropical palms. I could get used to this.
Down a small pebbled driveway is the shared dining area, larger pool and yoga rooms where the group will spend the majority of its time. In typical Balinese style, we eat and drink in the open dining room under a glass chandelier. The decor is fresh and beachy.
But this is not just a yoga retreat to completely zen out. We're in Bali to learn how to surf. To hang 10 with the boys. To cruise the waves like Taj Burrow. (Or at least that's what I had imagined.)
The first day of surfing is more like a war zone: Bodies flying in all directions as the group tries to ride the small, but relentless Bali waves.
After an incredibly healthy breakfast at 6.30am, we're driven to the beach, and minutes later we're sitting on the sand watching the Rip Curl School of Surf instructor jumping about, trying to teach us how to stand on the boards: "OK, it's this, see!"
But as any beginner surfer knows, learning how to ride the waves can only come from riding the waves.
A team of surf instructors stand in the water as we, armed with giant surf boards, wearing oversized boardshorts and matching blue rash vests, take on the waves. Melinda, our surf instructor, or "life coach" as some of the girls call her, instructs from the shore. "You go, girl! Eyes up!"
This will be repeated for another five days. Eventually we will all be standing and getting on to our waves. For now, we are just learning how to not fall off.
Taj Burrow is a god, I think as I scramble onto my board for the 30th time.
Hours later, after a yoga session and a swim in the warm pool, we're already chatting like we are a group of old school girls.
Dinner is served by the in-house cooks around a huge wooden table with elaborate settings and small blue Balinese umbrellas.
It's a gourmet feast fit for a Balinese god. Or goddess. (From this day forward, we are addressed as "the goddesses". We could get used to this, the group jokes.)
Tonight, succulent prawns with Balinese salsa are served with mouth-watering satay sauce. The conversations flow as freely as the iced tea (alcohol is allowed, but we're all buoyed from our surfing adventures and opt for an alcohol-free night).
By 9pm most of us are yawning. We have a week of surfing, yoga, eating and spa treatments ahead of us. It's time to turn in.
The variety of spa treatments is as dizzying as the surfing: hot stone massages (definitely a highlight); facials; manicures and pedicures; aloe vera for the sun-sore after days in the humid Balinese heat. The goddess package includes a minimum five hours of treatment.
Every day, some of us are whisked off to another spa treatment. "Ahhhhhh," Padmini sighs as she makes her way back from a hair spa treatment.
To make you truly feel like royalty, the in-house masseuse comes to you in your villa or their on-site cabana. As one massage ends, you can dive in the pool to freshen up, or go and lie in the Cabana Bar. Life's tough.
But back at the beach the waves are getting stronger, and three days into the surfing, a day off is organised, called the "bliss day".
About five of us choose the bike riding option in the northern Balinese region of Ubud. In hindsight, choosing the most physically demanding option when we were already exhausted from the surfing and yoga probably wasn't the wisest idea, but the views and the scenery are spectacular. We ride with a cycling company, weaving in and out of the beautiful Balinese streets that are lined with tropical trees, then lush rice paddies and giant street decorations from recent the Balinese festivities. The air is warm and sweet as we make our way up and down the mountainous roads. It's Tour De Bali.
Then, on day five, it happens. We start to look like surfers. The first time Matilda stands up, we scream and clap like a bunch of hysterical cheer leaders. "The waves are like a hungry pack of wolves, and we're the lambs," Matilda says, laughing, as she heads back for the next wave. Christine is next, handling the wave with true diplomacy and style. "That was fun!" she says. I give it a go, and miraculously I'm on my feet, standing on the board as the wave surges behind me. It's truly liberating.
Owner and creative director of the retreat, Chelsea Ross agrees.
"Something wonderful happens when women surf," she says.
"We grow more confident in ourselves, we find new places in our soul, we see the big picture of our lives and our place in it. Surfing is more than a sport for women, it is a state of mind and way of being."
The smaller number of women on the retreat is deliberate, she says.
"Keeping space at the retreats limited means Surf Goddess Retreats can focus on providing a luxurious experience."
And luxurious it is. On my last afternoon, as the group relaxes by the pool (the conversation has just moved from diplomacy in Africa to French haute couture gowns), Sylvia, a staff member, walks past to fill up the "magical cookie jars" in our rooms. She will also place inspiration quote cards on our beds and fill up our fruit bowls. The card, we will later find out says: "I am at peace." Indeed, we are.
The writer was a guest of Surf Goddess Retreats.
GETTING THERE Garuda flies from Sydney to Denpasar direct and offers an onboard immigration officer which helps avoid long customs lines in the terminal. See garuda-indonesia.com.
Jetstar also flies from Sydney to Denpasar. See jetstar.com.
SURFING & STAYING THERE Seven-day Surf Goddess Retreats offer shared accommodation or a private villa with a pool. The price includes most meals, yoga, surfing and transfers. Shared room packages from A$2816.98 (NZ$3056.90). Single from A$3381.50. Private pool villa packages from A$3381.50.
MORE INFORMATION surfgoddessretreats.com
Sydney Morning Herald