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Australiana
Newrybar, Byron Bay Hinterland, NSW

Anyone who has seen Olivia Newton John in the "Physical" clip knows that to wear a shiny purple spandex bodysuit, you have to have a measure of confidence and not one milligram of cellulite.

Feeling somewhat institutionalised after Gwinganna, I thought I'd try out Olivia's retreat in the bucolic Byron Bay hinterland. As I arrived at Gaia it soon became apparent that this was a totally different experience.

I was ushered into an immediately comforting lounge area full of overstuffed greige sofas, silk curtains, lanterns, books, and an extensive DVD collection. Check in took place in my own time over a plate of delicious sliced fruit and herbal tisane. This was Kukuru House, a semi-Balinese style communal space for relaxing, eating and meeting.

The rooms themselves are in timber buildings which bear more than a passing resemblance to school transportables of the 1980’s. The Layana rooms are no bigger than a standard hotel room inside and similar in layout, but are decorated in woodland colours and furnished with wool throws, an abundance of cushions, pillows, candles, and fresh flowers. Bathrooms have large sandstone basins and come with lots of fluffy white towels, full size bottles of Gaia Spa’s organic bath products and a small oil burner with lemon myrtle oil, all thoughtful and luxurious touches. After the utilitarian quarters of Gwinganna, the rooms at Gaia felt like little cocoons. Small cocoons, though, so those travelling with a friend rather than a partner would be better with two separate rooms or the two bedroom Acala suites up the hill.

A gentle gong sounds at 7.20am announcing a short trek uphill through pretty grounds to the yoga pavilion. Our yoga instructor was Danielle Davis, a willowy woman who looked around late 30’s but must have been close to 50 from her commentary. She was so exceptional that I bought her DVD, thinking in a fit of misguided enthusiasm that I would actually have the motivation to do yoga at home. I think it’s still in the bottom of my suitcase so my eagles and cobras and camels remain unpractised but I will open it soon. I will.

Eating at Gaia was an experience. Todd Cameron’s food is absolutely delicious – I had a breakfast of buckwheat pancakes with yoghurt, strawberries and maple syrup, and a fabulous dinner of chargrilled prawn and banana chilli salad followed by roasted ocean trout with braised fennel and beetroot. Dessert was gula melaka, a traditional Malaysian dish of sago with coconut milk and palm sugar caramel. How could something so good for you be so delicious? I am sure it’s a trick.
Individual tables are set for dinner, so you can dine by yourself or with your partner or group. Whilst I was there, a five day women’s retreat was in progress so the other guests consisted largely of women in their 40’s and 50’s who all dined together. Apparently there is a communal table if you like but it wasn’t set whilst I was there and the three single women there, including me, sat awkwardly on small tables of our own and ate quickly, not really knowing whether it was appropriate to invite each other to sit together or not. It felt quite stilted after the communal dinners at Gwinganna which soon relaxed into quite rowdy affairs.
There is no television in the room, so small portable DVD players are given to guests. A quick perusal of the excellent DVD selection nonetheless demonstrated some lapses in judgement – Chocolat, and The Hangover, for example….

The spa at Gaia is a major drawcard. It is a day spa so open to the general public and appears very busy. To be honest, I thought it was a bit lacking in ambience, with basic rooms and busy decoration. A bit of Balinese statuary and tie-dyed cotton sheets do not a spa experience make. I was a bit alarmed by the personnel list, which showed that my therapists would be called Asher, Ophir, Isolde, Amba, Elvina, Solomon, or Oto. However, my fears that their only qualification was inventive parents were soon allayed as they were all very good, and I had a particularly informative and effective reflexology session.

Although yet to hear my body talk, I left Gaia refreshed, happy and very, very willing to return. Of the two, I would say that if I was serious about getting healthy in a fast and focussed way, I would do a five day minimum at Gwinganna. But for a long weekend to spoil my mother, bond with a girlfriend  or just feel better, eat better, and chill out, Gaia is the place.