Bali smells like hot, wet earth and frangipani. At intersections, on footpaths, outside shops: small half-boxes made of banana leaves are filled with pink and red rose petals and thin green spirals of pandan leaf.The Balinese Hindus make these offerings daily, gestures of blessing and gratitude. Almost the windy season, the blue above is speckled with soaring giants hovering at astonishing heights, as children practise for the upcoming kite-flying festival. Reaching for the skies, being grateful and astonished: this would be the tone of my week at Escape Haven, Seminyak, a surf, yoga and luxury spa retreat for women.
First, full disclosure. I’ve said some very mean things about yoga in the past. I have mocked, sneered, used the word ‘kook’. When my friend Tammy heard I was off for a week of yoga she said, “I just can’t see it, no offence.” None taken. I have never been a Sporty Spice. Booky Spice, maybe – certainly an unusual candidate for a Chick Fit experience. A relatively new phenomenon, Chick Fit holidays answer the call of those bored with lying around like an entitled grub with a dicky liver. Catering for absolute sports nuts through to women who just want to come back feeling better than when they left, they’re also about female self-discovery, empowerment and camarad-erie. It occurred to me I might have to talk to people.
Seminyak is home to the island’s high-end boutiques and restaurants and its streets are busy. However, squeezing down a long, skinny driveway, past the traditional temple frontage, you enter a world of serenity and calm. There’s something magical about the fact that, just a hop, skip and jump away from Bali’s best shopping, is this quiet oasis. Coconut trees and date palms shade a swimming pool, pebbled paths sprinkled with marigold heads lead, Gretel-without-Hansel style, to facilities beautifully put together with the help of Republic’s Peter Reid, the perfect mix of communal and private spaces.
The women aren’t what I’m expecting. Ranging in age from late 20s to 50s – not a kook in sight – from all over the world, they are accomplished, clever, successful and here for very different reasons: some are healing from traumatic life events, others are simply the restless sort with too much energy for all-day sun-lounging, some are burnt-out: worriers, caregivers, hard workers.
Chief Happiness Officer Era, who worked for the Queen of Bahrain for three years before coming here, says, “Whatever it is, we’ll think of a way to make it happen.” Prescient staff (‘I wish there was something to read,’ I thought and lo, a pile of books appeared) are here to spoil you, proffering cool flannels for hot foreheads, fresh coconuts to drink after exercise, a wee present and affirmation left on our pillows every night at turn-down.
USE WHAT YOU HAVE, DO WHAT YOU CAN
Using what she had, starting from a terrible place, Escape Haven founder Janine Hall is the force behind a chain of life-enhancing retreats popping up like gluten-free muffins on the map of the
world: Byron Bay, Bali, Noosa, Portugal, Morocco and Sri Lanka. Hall’s road to the blissful beach life started seven years ago, working in fashion marketing and really needing a break. Heading to the Ubud hills of Bali, indulging in yoga, ayurveda spa therapy and healthy foods, the ‘monkey chatter’ in her mind fell away. “Over breakfast after a yoga session one morning I realised I was happy – it was a harsh wake-up call, as I hadn’t been happy for a long time.”
Wondering, ‘how can I create a living around this?’ her first venture in Brazil failed and she lost everything. It was hard to get back on that horse but she did, and since then more than 2000 women have experienced an Escape Haven. And Hall has witnessed some amazing transformations. “You’re stepping into the new life you want to create, leaving the past behind to leap into the future. It’s a ‘what next’ moment, on the cusp of change.” For her, it’s all about growing and reinventing, meeting a need for women to bond and play, conquer psychological challenges and overcome fear.
I’ve always been terrified of deep water. Surf instructor Parcival Tiemessen (Percy) turns up bright and early, throwing shaka signs and sin kang kangs (no worries) about.
“I’m unteachable,” I say. “That’s just something inside you,” says Tiemessen. It is. As confidence increases so does co-ordination and my fears float off, probably because I’m having so much fun.
A week of beach-hopping means we see the best Bali has to offer: terraced rice paddies, black volcanic sands. Driving back, singing along to Capital Cities’ Safe and Sound with a pair of California girls, muscles aching, it’s impossible to keep the smile off my face.
Escape Haven activities are structured, not in a Hi-de-Hi way (if you’d rather, you can do them later or not at all), but so that a morning session with personal trainer Jay Malifa, humping sand bags up and down Seminyak beach, is followed by an hour-and-a-half pedicure, foot and leg massage that leaves you glazed and dribbling. Offering more than 30 treatments including hot stones, reflexology, facials and body scrubs, while guests might skip some of the sports, the spa runs at 100% attendance.
And then: hello yoga my old friend… yoga leader Yuni teaches me the ways of the bendy and I absolutely love it. Yes, I was wrong, but I’m so enlightened now, I’ve forgiven myself.
“Happiness is more meaningful shared with others,” says Yuni, and the best thing (and to begin with, misanthropic me really doesn’t like this) is sitting down to the fantastic sugar- and dairy-free meals as a group and just talking. I struggle to remember the last time I had dinner without 57 emails and texts, yet by silent accord we’ve all abandoned our devices. Sharing moments of laughter and sadness, despite wildly different cultural backgrounds, we are remarkably similar.
Escape Haven’s women-only recipe avoids male competitive behaviour (bless them) and couple garbage. By day two everyone has stopped wearing makeup, or caring if they suck at something. We are so far out of our respective comfort zones, we’ve created a new, more daring zone, where the answer to “Would you like to...” is always “Yes!”
THERE IS SOMETHING GOOD IN EVERY DAY
The food is a marvel. With the philosophy ‘keep it clean’, meals are organic and flavoursome, free of additives and preservatives. Seasonal Balinese cuisine mixed with mostly vegetarian, it’s a shock to my meat-loving, junk food system. Vege curries, tofu, homemade granola, a spectacularly delicious dessert of pandan pancakes filled with coconut and palm sugar – combined with a lack of alcohol (you can have a wine if you want but it seems a waste of a good detox) and lots of exercise, I feel vibrant, fizzing with energy.
Not all meals are in-house; some nights guests have the option of a table at one of Seminyak’s chichi-est restaurants, like Bambu, where you dine under a pagoda built over a koi pond. Feeding the soul, a spiritual healer offers sessions to fix what might be broken inside, encouraging participants to let go of past hurts, leaving them shaky, hollowed-out and deeply moved.
FEMINISM AND FRIENDSHIP
There is something fabulously feminist about Escape Haven’s lady paradise.
“The vast span of influence wielded by women in their communities is well documented,” says Hall. “If she invests in herself, gets her life force back, all the better for everyone she loves and cares for.”
The retreat closes with a gratitude ceremony where we each make a traditional offering (folding those banana leaves is hellishly tricky) and share our Kodak moments. Seven days ago, none of us knew each other. Now, we’ve exchanged addresses and plans for the future – some women have even changed their flights in order to travel on together a little longer.
This week at Escape Haven, an exercise-shy writer found a passion for yoga, a company director bathed her broken heart in the ocean as a full moon rose overhead, and a Shanghai economist surfed with a Sydney entrepreneur. Happy and relaxed, I have lost weight, hung out with some awesome women and discovered I’m just a little bit awesome too.
First thing I do when I get home? Sign up for a yoga class. Tammy laughs so much she falls off her chair.
WHAT THE LOCALS KNOW
- Bali has been famous for fabulous ever since Charlie Chaplin came here to party with Noël Coward in the 1920s. These days Kuta beach is full of Aussies called Macca wearing terrifying budgie smugglers, so Seminyak, on the coast to the west of the capital, is the place to go. A magnet for creative people, many of the world’s best designers are based here and the stores are filled with bargains. Bring your credit card and be prepared to max it.
- The Seminyak bar and restaurant scene has gone stratospheric. Parties at the iconic Ku De Ta are the stuff of legend: highlights including the Underwater Wonderland Bikini Party and White Party. The 12-course tasting menu featuring coral trout ceviche, foie gras and Jimbaran seafood stew at the upstairs restaurant, Mejekawi, is heaven. Can’t be doing with dress codes? The place to be seen in your bikini is Potato Head, with its swim-up bar.
- Bali is a raw foodie paradise, home to a fantastic variety of guilt-, sugar- and dairy-free fare, the best being found at Divine Earth, where the raw desserts will have you drooling.
- Traffic in Bali goes completely nuts from 5pm, as tourists seek a sunset view. Get to La Plancha in Seminyak early, and watch surfing films while sitting in oversized beanbags until it’s ‘Ahhhh’ time.
Words by Lisa Scott