The lucrative wellness tourism sector is surpassing plain-old tourism in leaps and bounds with an annual global growth of 6.5 percent. That’s growing more than twice as fast as tourism overall (3.2 percent) and is forecast to escalate even faster through 2022 to be worth $919 billion.

It’s a misconception that such travellers comprise a small, elite, rich group of people who, motivated by better wellbeing, choose destination spas or meditation retreats. The nonprofit Global Wellness Institute’s 2018 ‘Global Wellness Tourism Economy’ report indicates a significant rise in mainstream travellers seeking wellness experiences for both leisure and on business trips. It lists the top 20 wellness tourism destinations and gives Australia a look in at number 14, but no sign of New Zealand. How can that be with our spectacular peaks, crystal clear lakes, endless coastline, secluded islands and untouched native forest?

A quick Google of ‘wellness retreats NZ’ reveals an event company dedicated to taking New Zealanders offshore for their unique wellness experience. Now, far be it from me to turn down a few days of ‘Bali Bliss’ or a healthy ‘Adventure in Niue’, but surely there’s some serious wellbeing closer to home? Tourism New Zealand promotes a handful of relax-and-recharge options where the pampering is delivered Kiwi style. The one that jumped out at me promised a thoughtful approach to wellness through food so I headed to Nelson to find out more…

Split Apple Retreat is nestled on the doorstep of the breathtaking Abel Tasman National Park and overlooks two stunning golden beaches, one of which is home to the famous 120-million-year-old Split Apple Rock. A sense of calm surrounded me as I entered this luxurious yet understated Japanese-style lodge with its original antiques and soothing works of art. But it is the conversations with the gentle, caring people that make up the Split Apple team that will ultimately stay with me. This is much more than the average spa. The focus is on health, rejuvenation and peace, three goals that many of us push further and further down the list while we do what we have to do to get it all done.

Partners Anne Pen Lee and Lee Nelson combine their talents to provide an intimate package that is uniquely devised for every individual. Drawing on local experts for yoga, massage, reiki, reflexology, acupuncture and apipuncture (bee-venom therapy) they offer a wealth of therapies. The treatment list is extensive, delivered in a soothing, blissfully calm environment where each session is designed to suit the individual needs of the vistor, but it is their approach to wellness and the powerful properties of food within this equation that make Split Apple Retreat unique.

Pen is a trained chef who learned the art of food at award-winning Hopgood’s & Co Restaurant in Nelson and has huge skill when it comes to combining Eastern and Western flavour profiles. Lee is a qualified physician who has done years of research into the medicinal benefits of food. Together they present a thoughtful menu that actively promotes health and includes a great deal of deliciousness. You need have no fear of boring or bland on the Split Apple menu. Pen offers cooking classes to ensure that the benefits gained at the retreat can be long-lasting. As my class began, I asked her when she first started to think about food with a wellness focus. Her words were almost a whisper as she described the shock of Lee’s diagnosis with prostate cancer and the anxiety of watching him work his way through a range of aggressive treatments and complementary therapies. Then there was the pain of seeing other patients struggle alongside him and knowing that, on any given day, some may not walk back through the door again. Lee’s consequent research into foods that help promote wellness and longevity, and Pen’s determination to feed him back down the road to recovery, paid off. The logical outcome was to share their knowledge with others.

I confess I’m firmly in the ‘I can’t ever switch off enough to be able to meditate’ camp, so I was not thrilled to find that these sessions were part of my schedule. I could have happily dawdled over breakfast but Lee was keen to get me moving swiftly down my path to true transcendental enlightenment so off I went, taking my keen sense of scepticism with me. It was a relief to discover that I wasn’t expected to chant, hum or sit in uncomfortable positions. Instead, I lounged comfortably on a plush leather recliner with a blanket and headphones. I was told to close my eyes, listen to the sounds of the waves, and try to remain ‘in the moment’. The lights were dimmed and I was left to my own devices.

My first thought was what a great lurk it was to put someone in a room with a soundtrack and a blanket and call it meditation. My second thought was to stop thinking and listen to the waves, followed by a quick count of the emails I’d seen that morning (and still needed to reply to), and back to the waves. Am I there yet? AM I IN THE MOMENT? Or did I just fall asleep? Surely meditation shouldn’t be this hard? Interestingly, after more discussion with Dr Lee, in my second session I had a breakthrough. All this time I’ve been trying to switch off when in fact, I needed to switch IN! I can happily report that my normal day now begins with 20 minutes of tuning in to my thoughts until they magically disappear and I am able to just BE in that blissful moment. This has been life-changing, thank you Dr Lee.