Relaxation, rejuvenation, pampering and play… now that’s a holiday. Georgia Rickard joins a luxury, womens-only surf and yoga retreat in beautiful Byron Bay

Bonds. Bottle-os. Budgie smugglers. There are many aspects of being ‘strayan that this journalist wholeheartedly supports (yes, budgie smugglers – there, I said it), but surfing isn’t one of them.

Neither is the bronzed and buff archetype – I’m all arms and legs, a body type best suited to reading, according to my mother – but I’m here all the same; standing at the shoreside in Byron Bay and squinting through the humid rain, while a chipper, cute-as-a-button instructor named Karine demonstrates how to stand up on a board with one lithe, fluid movement and a giant, happy-with-herself grin.

Surfing wasn’t born in Australia – that title goes to Hawaii – but from 1915 onwards a surf culture flourished. (Most nations didn’t adopt the sport until much later; only California and Hawaii are considered to have surfing heritage at least comparable to ours.) According to Surfing Australia, quoting a report by Sweeney Research, there are around two-and-a-half million recreational surfers in this country.

Even if you’ve never tried the sport, it’s hard to avoid having owned at least one Quiksilver cossie, knowing who Layne is, or being familiar with the sight of nippers crashing a Sunday morning beach. It seems that making at least one serious attempt at mastering this sport is a basic requirement of being Australian… gangly handicap or not. So here I am.

“In surfing, you need to go against what you’ve always been taught,” says Karine, pushing her white blonde hair off her face as she looks earnestly around at the group. Two of the six women here, who are aged from 28 to 52, have never tried this sport, although the other four of us – this grommet included – have a childhood lesson or two under their belt. “Instead of clinging on to the board, you need to let go and trust the wave. Instead of leaning away from the board, which is the natural instinct, you need to lean forward and trust the wave.”

The obvious analogy here would be a comparison to life.

“It is a lot like life,” she says, chirpily. “And just like life, getting outside your comfort zone is where all the rewards are!”

Tired arms, gourmet lunch

This, alas, is true – my arm muscles can attest to that, but today, at least, I will find solace in the fact that post-lesson, the comfort zone will beckon in the form of a gourmet chef-prepared lunch, a deep-tissue massage and, probably, a lazy afternoon nap. It’s par for the course on this retreat, a womens-only luxury wellness camp with a focus on great food, yoga and excellent spa treatments… as well as the occasional – or not so occasional – dump in the waves.

“Paddle!” screeches Karine, as the wave gathers speed. Hands on the rails (surfer speak for side edges of the board), one foot in front, and I’m wobbling my way to a standing position… almost. The front of the board dips, the wave crashes over and, after a second or two tumbling around in the foamy white, I’m surfacing, with a manic grin on my face and hair to match.

“That was better!” Karine says and you can almost believe her.

The idea of mixing surfing with indulgence was conceptualised by founder Janine Hall, who worked a high-pressure role as global marketing manager for Selfridges until she took a year off to travel after a relationship break-up. Whilst on sabbatical she fell in love with surfing and, after an unsuccessful attempt to return to the corporate world, found herself moving to Bali where she set up the kind of retreat she’d always wanted to attend herself.

Fast forward a few years and Janine has now brought Escape Haven Retreats to Byron Bay, the town loved as much for its mix of alternative and mainstream culture as its long, white beaches, lush green hinterland and perfect, rolling waves.

Going solo

“I think more women are taking these solo ‘mini breaks’ because they realise the benefit of taking time out to focus on their wellbeing and reconnecting with themselves and others, and what makes them happy,” she says. “Byron was the obvious location choice.”

Since opening earlier this year, the retreat has seen a steady swell in numbers, with the guest referral rate already at around one third of all visits. Interestingly, she says, approximately 70 per cent of all women come away on their own.

“We’ve giving ourselves permission to invest in ourselves,” she explains. “The fastest growing segment of surfers is women in their 30s and 40s, which I think is a direct result of women discovering how empowering it is to learn something new; to conquer their fear.”

As long as we conquer it in style, that is. Our home for these seven days is owned by Tim Freedman who, if this property is anything to go by, has done very well for himself out of his music career with The Whitlams. Surrounded by rainforest on the doorstep of Tallows Beach, the villa is a veritable oasis, full of natural timber and glass. One gets the distinct feeling that the architect’s brief included the words ‘co-exist with nature’ and, if the soundtrack of twittering birds can be taken as testament, the project has been a success. The villa is not so much a house as a series of spacious, shuttered rooms connected by raised timber boardwalks, with bathrooms quite literally big enough to cartwheel through.

Notes on my pillow

Each night, candles are lit, beds turned down and a small gift with an artfully handwritten note is left on the pillow. “Life is a canvas – throw all the paint at it you can”, reads the card on the first night, alongside a tiny silver candle.

Another bedtime comes with prettily-scented lip balm and the words “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined”. It might have seemed contrived, if everything else here – the in-house chef, the other guests, the excellent food – weren’t so genuinely… nice.

Everything except for the yoga. “I hate this pose,” I say tetchily during one session, wobbling on the spot with a burning calf muscle. Teacher Nikki, a long limbed, golden skinned, wisp of a thing, smiles in that calm way all yoga teachers do. “Is that getting you anywhere?” she asks.

Well, no.

“Does complaining, or hating, ever get you anywhere?”

Point taken. Still, if you persist with the lessons – they’re optional, so you don’t have to – it’s a safe bet you’ll eventually be won over. Each class is conducted outside on the property’s wooden deck surrounded by skinny palms, lush ferns and fat columns of sunlight, and though some parts are challenging, the after-effects, which begin to kick in mid-head massage at the end of class, are wonderful. There’s something truly special about having a good stretch. Or maybe that’s merely the effect of taking a proper break.

The howling release

Forty-three-year-old Bron Starling from Temora, NSW, knows first-hand the impact of these retreats, having previously attended the Bali counterpart before booking this trip. “I howled like a baby one day [at that first retreat],” she admits. “I just needed the release. We’d had a bit of a horror year leading up to it, so when I got there and relaxed, it all came out.”

The experience of mastering a new skill was an added bonus, she adds. “The whole ‘me’ thing, not being a wife or mum but just me, being on a surfboard… that’s really empowering. It’s that whole, ‘look what I can do when I’m away from my life’ kind of thing. And it’s just so good to know that you don’t have to be some lithe, gorgeous, bikini clad surfie chick [to learn how to surf], you can be a regular old mother and be good at this.” She is silent for a moment.

“Actually,” she adds, “the surfing is why I came back [to this retreat].”

Thirty-one-year-old Ange Young, who is based in London, agrees. “The combination of yoga and surfing gets your brain to think differently to normal,” she muses. “I think it calms it.” A consultant in global data management, Ange was looking specifically to “get as far away from my corporate life as possible. And I think I’ve done pretty well!”

But it’s not about having a really meaningful experience, points out 43-year-old Jen Lewis. Also hailing from Temora, Jen came here with Bron with the express purpose of enjoying herself. “I’m not escaping anything,” she shrugs. “I just wanted a great holiday, and here it is!”

Even a certain grudging journalist manages to surprise herself on this trip. I’d like to say it was because of the massages, or the cooking class, or even just all the eating (chef Mell’s cooking is excellent), but the true highlight of the trip is definitely in the water.

Surfing is challenging, there’s no denying that, but getting into the water with a bunch of similarly minded (and similarly coordinated) women does a lot to ease the pressure. Once you’ve managed to stand up, there are endless challenges to embrace. It’s at times exhilarating and otherwise frustrating but no matter what, it’s utterly absorbing. And so, when a particularly big wave comes rolling in on our last day, and Karine screams, “go, go, go!” I don’t stop to think about it.

I paddle till my arms are aching, wobble my way into a standing position, and while my six-strong surfing posse cheers and hollers, I ride that crystal clear steamroller all the way to shore.

The details

WhoEscape Haven Retreats run for seven days. A maximum of eight women can attend at any time, with ages ranging from 25 to 55. Surfing, yoga, a cooking workshop and two full-body massages are included, along with all breakfasts, lunches and snacks. Three dinners are included, three dinners are at your leisure. Prices start from $2895 per person.

Getting there: Major airlines service both Ballina airport (less than an hour’s drive from Byron) and Coolangatta airport (roughly a 90-minute drive from Byron). We used Xcede shuttle service, which costs $16 from Ballina and $35.10 from Gold Coast (one-way).

Staying there: Rooms have all the right luxuries – daybeds, Egyptian cotton sheets, huge bathrooms, nightly turndown and daily room service. Sharing in either a twin or triple room is encouraged, although one private suite is available.

Eating there: The food here is centred around wellness, but don’t expect to shed kilos – it’s hard to say no to seconds. Expect dishes like zucchini and parmesan soup, with lashings of EVOO and basil; grainy sourdough French toast served with maple syrup, stewed pears and dolloped ricotta; and chocolatey, coconut-filled balls made from dried fruit, with ‘nothing bad’ in them.

Playing there: Free time is built into the schedule and all activities are optional, so there is time to wander the town of Byron Bay. Paddleboards are also provided for use in free time, and there’s an infinity pool. Tallows Beach is a 30-second walk down a private track. Be warned, however, after surfing you may well be more interested in naps than doing much.

Need to know: Alcohol is not provided, but if you think a retreat just isn’t worth it without the wine, fret not – you can BYO. (And Mell will happily drive you to a bottle shop.)

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