Just the other week, I was featured in the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun on sleep retreats. It was weird because I had been planning on running some sleep retreats but hadn’t yet. Stranger still, I hadn’t told anyone about my idea yet, and it was the first article that I have been mentioned in that I am aware of without being interviewed or asked for permission first.
In the article, the first recommended retreat was Golden Door in the Hunter Valley, NSW. From what others had told me about it, it is generally known as a well-being retreat rather than a sleep retreat.
An excellent Sleep Physician that I work with at the Melbourne Sleep Disorders Centre, Dr David Cunnington, did inform me that he often goes up there on weekends to be a guest speaker on sleep difficulties and how to improve them. He asked if I wanted to accompany him one time. I willingly obliged.
We flew up to Newcastle on Friday the 18th of May just after midday, drove an hour from the airport to the Hunter Valley, and settled into our rooms just before 4 pm. It was a charming private villa, with my own balcony with a view, a long couch to relax on, a nice big bathtub to relax in, and my own king bed to sleep in. And that was just the room.
The main building where the reception was consisted of a huge golden door opening up to steps and a waterfall running through the building. A chef was on-site to prepare healthy meals for everyone for breakfast, lunch and dinner (no red meat or processed carbs, no caffeine and no alcohol). Not to mention a day spa offering five pages of treatments, an indoor pool for deep water running or lap swimming, an outdoor pool for relaxing, a steam room and spa, a yoga studio, indoor basketball court, a huge gym, two tennis courts and even a table tennis table.
I wanted to get to it all but remembered that this was a perfect opportunity to switch off, relax, and unwind. So instead of participating in the afternoon activities on Friday, I decided to run myself a hot bath, listen to an audiobook, and rest until dinner time.
Golden door seemed to attract an eclectic mix of people, from stressed executives, burned-out executive assistants, and people needing a career, family or relationship break or change. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, and most obliged with wearing their name tags across the weekend, making it easier to approach and ask people what brought them to Golden Door and what they were hoping to get out of it.
The staff were fantastic too, often mingling with the guests at meal times and participating in as many activities as possible. After dinner, at about 7 pm, those interested went for a leisurely walk and stopped to lie back and stare up at the stars. Living in the heart of Melbourne, this is an opportunity that I don’t often get, and I relished just looking up without feeling like I had to rush off and do something else.
After the walk, we headed back to our private villas, where I continued to try to stay away from bright screens. Instead, I did 10 minutes of meditation, listened to an audiobook while relaxing on the couch, and went off to bed once I felt sleepy.
On Saturday morning, I was awoken by a knock on the door, and a doorbell ringing at 6 am. If you don’t want this, you can put a do not disturb sign on the outside of the door, but it is to help people get up for the 6:30 am tai chi session up on meditation hill. I didn’t want my sleep to be over yet, but I managed to get dressed and strolled up the hill just as the sun rose across the Hunter Valley.
With 360 degree views of the valley, Meditation Hill is probably the most picturesque part of the Golden Door retreat (it’s all pretty nice, though). I’d never done tai chi before, but it wasn’t too bad, especially with the hot air balloons taking off for their flights from the valley below.
Following that, it was straight to the pool for some deep water running. I thought it would be some light aqua aerobics for oldies, but it was much more intense. Then there was breakfast and a 10km hike. Followed by tennis after lunch, and table tennis after that. Way more exercise than I expected to do, but I didn’t regret it. I then headed off to yin yoga, another activity I’d never tried before. I may have fallen asleep a little bit during this, but power naps are healthy for you.
A 50-minute deep tissue massage was next at the Elysium day spa. A bit pricey at $140, but it felt amazing after all of the activity I’d done, especially my calves. These treatments are optional, but quite a few guests seemed to be getting them.
David’s talk on sleep was after dinner. Then it was off to bed again. My second night of sleep was longer but not quite as deep as the first one.
When I compare it to how I slept two nights before the retreat and two nights after it, I can see that a wellness retreat really can improve your sleep on the nights you are there. This is because it gives you so many things that can help you to have a good night’s sleep, including:
- Lots of physical activity during the day but not too late at night
- A vast amount of morning sunlight helps entrain your circadian rhythms and wake you up for the day. This can also help you to fall asleep earlier that night.
- Healthy food.
- No caffeine.
- No alcohol.
- Plenty of activities to relax and unwind.
- More time in nature with beautiful scenery and less time indoors looking at bright screens.
- Opportunities for engaging conversation with friendly and welcoming people that are also wanting to improve their health.
It doesn’t offer clear guidelines or individual recommendations around sleep or how to keep improving it once you go home. For example, a 6 am wake-up call is perfect for some to help them not spend too long in bed. For others, it could cause anticipatory anxiety or lead to them putting too much pressure on themselves to get to sleep early the night before.
Dr Damon Ashworth