Te Wahi Ora, Piha Beach: The benefits of relaxing at a women-only retreat
OPINION: Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your health and wellbeing is nothing at all.
That's exactly what I did, at a small retreat opposite Piha Beach.
Founded by Bev Holt and the late Wynsome Diprose in 1991, Te Wahi Ora offers women a place of respite.
Former youth workers, the pair provide workshops to help women deal with whatever is holding them back and help them move forward.
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Over time, however, Holt, who is a trained counsellor, found that most women simply needed a hiatus from lives so relentlessly demanding they had little, if any, time to care for themselves.
"Most women come because they want time to do their own thing - they usually know what they need to be restored, to recover, to feel better, to regain their sense of direction," she says.
These days, women of all ages and backgrounds come to the retreat, which is a charitable trust, to recuperate, redetermine their path in life or simply relax. Provided with three wholesome meals a day, they are free to do as much or as little as they choose. There are spiritual counselling sessions and massages on offer, but many opt simply to hang out in the cosy rooms and chalets, chat with other guests and take cobweb-clearing walks along the wild west coast beach.
For me, Piha has always been a place that helps put things into perspective. The unpredictable rips that threaten to pull you way out of your depth; the thick native bush that makes you feel a million miles from anywhere; the stories - legendary or otherwise - of people who have disappeared without a trace.
Holt says many women think the place has a special energy and I'm convinced I feel it as Christine, who helps run the retreat, shows me to my room on the upper level of the main house: a large, light-filled space overlooking the stormswept-beach. The decor is simple - there's a single bed, a couple of chairs and a long table used for lunches in winter - but I have everything I need. Warmed by the fire downstairs, with a gas heater for backup, it's so cosy I feel instantly at home
With just an hour until dinner, I go for a gentle jog along the beach, stopping every few minutes or so to take pictures of the setting sun breaking through the last of the storm clouds and turning the gold-flecked black sand into a fuzzy reflection of the pink and orange-streaked sky.
I'd run through the water so my feet are numb by the time I return to the house, where three other guests - a group of three friends - are relaxing with glasses of wine by the fire. I readily accept their invitation to join them and we laugh, joke and discuss our days until Christine renders us temporarily speechless with her home-cooked meal. We help ourselves, and each other, to the big bowl of Moroccan chicken, roasted root vegetables and greens from the garden, all returning for seconds and in some cases thirds. Dessert, a chocolate date brownie, does a quick disappearing act.
A glass or two of wine later and we're ready for bed, clearly in need of extra rest or solitude.
I sleep deeper and longer than I have in a long time, waking to a room bathed in sunlight (I'd forgotten to shut the curtains after stargazing the previous night). A breakfast of stewed apples and yoghurt has been delivered to my room and I savour it as I watch the early morning surfers brave the waves.
Usually unwilling to sit still on holiday, I find myself strangely reluctant to move at all and lay cocoon-like under the covers as I finally make a decent dent in my book.
At 10:30am, Inga arrives to give me a Hawaiian-style lomi lomi massage and I am kneaded into a state of relaxation that borders on comatose.
Over a lunch of baked eggplant and tomatoes, we discuss why it is that a woman should feel so much more hurt by a partner lying to her about his infidelity than his alcoholism. Broken trust of a very personal kind, it transpires, has been a pertinent issue for us all at some stage.
The last time I tried to walk from Piha to Anawhata, a couple of beaches north, I ended up trapped between two rocks above raging surf. This time, I check a real map before setting out and, instead of attempting to skirt the headlands like before, take the steeper but safer route up to gravel Anawhata Road and then the bush track down to the beach itself.
The winter sun has strength enough to make me break out in a sweat as I climb, the views of ruggedly beautiful Piha and Whites beaches providing convenient excuses for rest stops. The track down to the beach is a bit of an obstacle course - the gradient, mud and protruding tree roots conspire to uproot me - but it's worth it to have the wide, windswept beach entirely to myself.
Crossing the dunes, I realise that I don't: an elderly man is frolicking nude in the waves. Crossing a small stream to the northern part of the beach, I am alone again and utterly at peace. I feel I finally have the time and space to properly contemplate the things I'm forever putting off until tomorrow.
Back at the house, the evening routine is a comfort: drinks, dinner, conversation and a luxuriously long sleep. Perfectly simple and simply perfect. Much like the retreat itself. This is therapy enough for me (for the time being at least).