A natural high
Chris Madison stands naked but for his designer underpants in front of the first group of guests at his $30 million Aro Ha hiking and health retreat in New Zealand's South Island.
He's standing on a rock in the sun having stripped off to throw himself into the ice-blue (and cold) water of the Rees River mid hike.
Let me now say that Chris Madison is tanned and buff, a mix between a young Robert Redford and an older Brad Pitt, but he hasn't always been this way. The intense blue eyes were not always so clear and his girth more fat than flat.
Years of high-adrenalin living founding and managing a $2 billion hedge-fund company took their toll and saw him check into celebrity favoured The Ashram retreat in California not once, not twice but 12 times.
It is where he met his Aro Ha business partner Damian Chaparro, a former software consultant turned yogi who brings the yin to Madison's yang.
Damian is also tanned and buff, so is hiking guide and yoga teacher Sam and his band of merry hiking men: bootcamp Baz, Irishman Moses River (yes, that's his real name) and Ryan.
You have to be fit to survive Aro Ha - and if you're not, you will be by the time you check out.
Aro Ha sits lakeside in the remote alpine wilderness of Glenorchy, 45 minutes from Queenstown. Rumours around town about Aro Ha are rife as the retreat prepares to open.
"Twelve hundred calories a day tops, not a calorie more," says one local. "They'll search your bags for contraband too."
The first is correct, give or take a calorie, but what the local doesn't know is the food is grown on the property, paleo vegan and so nutrient-dense that one calorie of it will sustain you far longer than one empty calorie of processed chemicals.
The latter? Not a sniffer dog in sight.
Madison doesn't do anything by halves, he is all in or all out. A rock climber, paraglider and extreme skier, risk is his middle name.
When Chapparo suggested the idea of a health retreat, Madison handed over $30 million and said let's find a place to build it.
The place they found is three lots on Wyuna Preserve, where nature has etched mountains that thrust skyward from the lake.
Two islands sit between Aro Ha and the other side of the lake, home to enchanted forests and clear spring rivers.
"This is about sharing the feeling of good physical, mental and spiritual health and all that goes with it," says Madison.
Wilderness goes with it, as far as the eye can see. There are no other non-Aro Ha buildings to be seen from any vantage point on the property.
The entire retreat is run on hydro and solar power, the buildings designed sustainably and built from larch wood and local stone.
Even the local Maori elders declared the property to have been built on a powerful meridian.
Nature is what heals here and there is plenty of it.
A typical day at Aro Ha starts at 5.30am when guests are woken and head to the Aro Ha Room, a shrine to yogi design with high ceilings, timber walls and floors and a landscape window that brings the outside in.
An hour-long yoga class is followed by breakfast in the day lodge with more of that view.
Come 7.30 guests are mingling in the dry room to kit themselves up for the day's hike. This is no stroll in the park; foot hot-spots must be strapped and rain gear donned if clouds appear.
Aro Ha hikes are anything from 10 to 17 kilometres and none of them are flat. All are done in three to four hours.
Some involve a boat ride across the lake, others a kayak around the island; some include suspension bridges and rivers where you fill your water bottle.
They are, however, all stunning - except for day four, when they may as well have thrown me on to a treadmill and put the incline up every 10 minutes for three hours, then thrown buckets of water at my head to resemble rain and then put an industrial fan in front of me for wind. But let's move on.
By 12.30 the group is back at the lodge for lunch followed by 90 minutes of free time, then different classes each day, from horticulture to cooking, circuit and pilates.
A massage a day sounds decadent when booking your retreat but it's not a luxury, it's a necessity.
Restorative yoga is at 6pm, with dinner at 7pm then time in the sauna, spa, ice plunge pool or mingling in the lounge.
Somewhere along the line the body and mind relax and the emotions come pouring out. It may be the fatigue from walking, the yoga, the daily massage, the mindfulness sheets placed on your bed each night with an Aro Ha gift, the journal sessions or the incredible food that fuels the body.
But it does take time to get to this point. On day one I threw up into a field when I was coming off caffeine.
When I discovered the next morning while drinking the smoothie at my breakfast place setting that there was no cutlery (and hence no solids) I realised this was going to be a bumpy ride.
Thankfully,Debbie and Rani, the leaders of the kitchen, know what they are doing and no other meal came completely pureed. Rather, it came delicately plated with colours and care in a style befitting a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Not once was I hungry, not once.
Aro Ha is a unique concept in the wellness industry. It brings New Zealand's wild landscape into the mix. There is no day spa, no pampering beauty treatments. If your idea of a retreat is to get your nails done, this place is not for you.
Groups are small. The property can sleep 32, but the intention is to keep groups around 12 guests, 16 at a maximum.
Details are important here, from the designer glass Aro Ha water bottles given to each guest to the Vaude wet weather gear available in the dry room, the massage flip-flops in the sauna and spa area, the Sans toiletries bag with goodies in the room and the mandarin- scented hand towels in the shuttle.
All you have to do is show up and leave your street or dinner clothes at home. You won't be needing them.
But what really makes Aro Ha is the kindness and compassion of the staff. They all have their own story to tell, from leading Shaman retreats in Peru to yoga retreats in India.
They know how to motivate and when to listen and they effortlessly blend spirit, soul and adventure.
Come day seven we are impromptu dancing to Xavier Rudd's Follow the Sun at 7am - and doing it of our own free will, not a martini glass to be found. They call that the Aro Ha High.
The writer was a guest of Aro Ha and Air New Zealand.
FIVE MORE HEALTH RETREATS
JACK AND OLIVE RETREATS A bespoke health retreat company that offers custom-made retreats in Queenstown, Coromandel, Auckland and Bay of Islands. Average $3500 a person for seven days. See jackandoliveretreats.com.
NEW TIME HEALTH RETREAT Retreats from seven to 28 days at a private venue on the Northland. Meals are vegetarian and costs upon application. See nzhealthretreat.com.
PUJJIS WELLNESS RETREAT Pujjis offers a detox and fasting or a nourishing retreat in Nelson in New Zealand's South Island. Run by yogi Arvind Pujji, the retreat offers bodywork massage, a sauna and spa. From $1200 for a three-day retreat. See pujjis.co.nz.
SOLACE WELLNESS RETREAT Thirty hectares of lush countryside in Whitford, East Auckland with luxury timber lodgings, sauna, swim spa, tennis court and country and coastal views. The retreat offers organic cuisine, massage and daily activities.
The two-night Weekend Rejuvenation retreat, with all-inclusive spa cuisine meals and customised activities, is from $1575 plus GST a person, twin-share. The four-night, five-day retreat is from $2500 plus GST, twin share, with all spa cuisine organic meals, massage and daily activities including yoga, fitness and lifestyle workshops. See solacewellnessretreat.com.
SHUNYATA RETREAT Shunyata is in a private home in Diamond Harbour near Christchurch in the South Island. The retreat offers a day spa with body treatments, daily activities and organic local produce with a pescatarian menu. Accommodation is in one of three rooms with a view.
From $800 a person for two nights including sauna and massage, all meals and one counselling session. See journeyessence.com.
WHERE Aro Ha Retreat, Glenorchy, South Island, New Zealand, 45 minutes' drive from Queenstown.
GETTING THERE Air New Zealand flies to Queenstown. See airnewzealand.com.
HOW MUCH Aro Ha offers a seven-day, six-night Delve Deep retreat from $6250 a person, and a four-night, five-day Invigorate and Enrich retreat from $4550 a person.
MORE INFORMATION aro-ha.com.