A progressive retreat

by Sharon Kolkka

I started my journey in the fitness industry in 1980, barefoot and teaching ballistic stretching – I’m not sure what was worse, the movements we taught or the fluorescent g-strings that we wore! A couple of years later I entered the business side of fitness as a very hands-on facility manager, teaching classes, writing programs and selling memberships, a role I continued for ten years. Along the way I found that by training my own staff it was easier to maintain the high standards of service that I wanted members to enjoy. This skill evolved into conference presentations for Network and health talks to corporate groups, and escalated further into touring national and international workshops for instructors. This was a great time of my career and the enormous exposure I received presented many opportunities.

As it came into focus in the early 1990s, personal training seemed a natural progression for me. In turn, my personal training business introduced me to the health retreat business where I contracted my training services to guests who requested a trainer during their week’s stay. I was amazed by the different perspective on health that I witnessed – the more I became involved the more I wanted to become involved.

After two years, I became the program director, a role in which I managed and developed all aspects of the guests’ retreat experience, from hospitality and nutrition to health and education. For the next six years I oversaw the activities, indoor and outdoor classes, educational workshops, nutrition and meals, staff recruitment and guest feedback, and perceptions at the retreat.

Two years ago I became general manager at Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat, a new project and one that offered me the opportunity to work with owner Tony De Leede of Fitness First fame. The challenge was laid down to build and develop Australia’s most innovative health retreat – and so the fun began!

Today, I sit writing this on top of a mountain in Tallebudgera, Queensland – the view from my office window is of the ocean. Gwinganna, meaning ‘lookout’, was the name given to this place by the Kombumerri clan of Aboriginal people. So aptly named, the ocean and valley views are expansive, encompassing five hundred acres of diverse nature. Rainforest blends with ancient trees and sixteen bush walks snake their way through incredible Australian bush, some gentle and some to challenge even the fittest hiker. Picture a village nestled into the plateau complete with dining room, accommodation for up to sixty people, a relaxation pool and lap pool, spin studio, exercise studio, two-storey gymnasium featuring the most up-to-date equipment, two tennis courts, a massive, open mind body pavilion and a spa for massage and treatments. The facilities are amazing, and the buildings fit perfectly together with recycled timbers warming up the architect’s designs, and nature inspiring the colours.

Gwinganna is a perfect place to gain complete perspective on health and wellbeing. Our cuisine is certified organic and perfectly balanced under the watchful eye of our nutritionist Libby Ellis, whose PhD in bio chemistry ensures that our guests receive their ultimate nutritional requirements.

But the most inspiring aspect of a stay at Gwinganna is the service. We currently have about forty staff, each one highly qualified and passionate about their contribution to the retreat experience.

They revel in the opportunity that they have to control elements of the environment to influence optimal wellbeing in every guest. This is what we do together every day, the reward coming at the end of every program with guests visibly in awe of what they have achieved in such a short time. They leave feeling full of energy, in control and armed with useable information on how to make adjustments to improve the quality of their life.

My experience in the fitness industry gave me a broad foundation on which to build further knowledge. At Gwinganna we take the health focus so much deeper, exploring beyond the physical attributes of health. For some stays, for example, we use liver function tests and adrenal saliva tests to establish where our guest’s benchmarks are prior to arrival. Our educational seminars then teach the relevance of results and how to improve human function.

A typical day starts with Qi gong at sunrise, a walk, hike or run before breakfast, activities which vary daily up until morning tea, a seminar and then stretch before lunch. After lunch is dreamtime, time to rest, have a swim, massage, read, stroll, meditate, yoga, take a nature walk with our environmentalist or simply nap.

In a world of ‘busy’, Gwinganna is the benchmark for escape, a place that immediately captures people’s desire to live a healthier life.

I feel blessed to have been given the opportunities that have led me to this place in my career, and I would encourage anyone currently in the fitness industry who really wants to make a difference to explore the career opportunities of working in health retreats. Gwinganna operates a very successful work experience program, the details of which are available under the careers section of our web site, www.gwinganna.com. Alternatively, do yourself and your health a favour and escape to this beautiful mountain to be our guest.


Sharon Kolkka
Sharon is a lifestyle specialist with eight years experience working in the health retreat industry and over 25 years experience in the fitness industry. She has presented across Australia, New Zealand, UK, Europe and Asia and is the recipient of many awards, author of countless
articles and advisor on all aspects of health and wellbeing. Her roles have included program director for a leading health retreat, spa manager, personal trainer and health club manager. Sharon is now the General Manager of Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat in Queensland.

 NETWORK MAGAZINE • SPRING 2006 • PP10-11