Perched on a hilltop, the 18-acre Elysia Wellness Retreat enjoys stunning views over the vineyards of Australia’s oldest wine district – the Hunter Valley. Located only two hours from Sydney, the resort pioneered wellness hospitality in Australia when it opened as the Golden Door Health Retreat in 1993.
The property, and its 26-treatment-room spa, was rebranded to Elysia Wellness Retreat when purchased by Minor Hotels in July 2019. Guests stay in one of 74 retreat villas which are also used for spillover accommodation for the adjoining Cypress Lakes golf resort, owned by Minor as well.
COVID-19 restrictions & rules
In Australia, COVID-19 restrictions vary by state. Lockdowns first came into effect in New South Wales on 16 March. By 31 March non-essential businesses closed and holidaying in regional areas was declared a crime, so Elysia – and every other spa in NSW – shut its doors.
The ban on intrastate travel was lifted on 1 June and Sydney-siders were quick to book their escapes. Spas and salons re-opened at the same time, conditional upon completing the government’s COVID-19 Safety Plan – http://lei.sr/Y6V3X – and registering as a Covid Safe Business with requirements covering physical distancing, hygiene and cleaning and obligatory record keeping of guests.
The penalties for non-compliance are steep, with on-the-spot fines of up to AU$55,000 (US$38,960, €32,880 £29,850) and ultimately shutting the business for up to a month.
By all appearances, Elysia’s service offering has not changed post COVID. The menu lists over 50 items ranging from Babor facials and it signature watsu to a collection of complementary therapies like reiki, breathwork and counselling. However, it seems that many of the specialist services are performed by contractors with very limited availability.
Overall, the wellness fundamentals are covered but I was surprised Elysia isn’t offering immune-boosting or mental wellbeing solutions post pandemic. This could be a golden opportunity. Although my therapist says the retreat is already in high demand and the spa is fully booked everyday. People apparently “just want a touch of normal to make themselves feel better” rather than different treatments.
Part of ‘feeling better’ is feeling safe, and Elysia has gone full-out in communicating its initiatives to reassure guests. The company launched its Elysia SureStay programme, which raises hygiene standards and practices from commercial grade to ‘hospital grade’, on 1 July and the website explains the new guest journey in great detail.
There’s no online booking option for day guests and after several unanswered calls Elysia responded to a voicemail I left the next day. I was able to book the one remaining slot for the following week.
One missed opportunity is that they didn’t send consultation or waiver forms in advance. This would have eliminated the time in reception with the considerable physical paperwork.
Arrival at Elysia is impressive. Navigating up the hill through security gates and a mob of kangaroos, you arrive at a huge golden door. I’d expected to sign in via a QR code, but a laminated sign taped to the door instructed me to press the buzzer for service.
The welcome was far from gracious. A tiny figure with a clipboard was curt when I asked if my friend could wait for me in the cafe and reluctantly allowed her to sit in the changing room. That, unfortunately, set the tone of the whole visit. Staff were polite and performed their duties effectively, but there was little effort (or opportunity maybe?) to build rapport.
Design and facility use
The spa had been open three months by the time I visited and the new detailed procedures appeared entrenched – temperature checks, plexiglass shields at reception, sanitising stations, strict single use of pens, spaced-out seating and clear physical distancing signs and markers.
They had also stopped the use of shared facilities such as the steamroom and removed all reading material and product testers.
The protective efforts were visible everywhere and very reassuring. However nothing had been added back, and in its bareness the age of the property was fully exposed. It looked tired and in need of a refresh. The lack of vitality was exacerbated by a lack of lighting and other elements that brighten the ambience, such as music and aroma.
After checking in, a maskless therapist escorted us to the change room, rapidly pointing out various spaces as she set a cracking pace to ensure she was always 1.5m ahead. Although I’d brought a mask with me, there was no request for me to wear it. We were offered herbal tea before being left in the spartan relaxation room.
The only staff member who I felt the opportunity to make a human connection with was my therapist. But she wore a mask which muffled her already soft voice and made her difficult to understand at times.
I chose the 50-minute Classic Facial for AU$120 (US$88, €74, £66) which uses Babor’s Skinovage range. My therapist asked about my skin concerns so she could customise the cleansing base, but there was no consultation as such. Her eight years’ experience was evident through her nurturing touch, however I was keen to know why the products were special and how they would benefit my skin. Communication on this could be strengthened.
The treatment was relaxing, although efficacy was undermined by two facial steamers failing to work and we continued sans-steam.
My skin didn’t feel any better after the treatment, and in fact became more blotchy as the day wore on. I think I’d have felt better about this if I’d been reassured on the benefits.
While the treatment itself met expectations, I feel the overall experience could be greatly improved with more attention to ambience and the ‘guest journey’. After my treatment I was escorted directly to the changing room. No post-treatment relaxation, refreshment or advice. No retail opportunity. No invitation to re-book. A surcharge was applied for contactless payment and poor wifi meant my payment was declined several times.
Sadly, I was disappointed by my experience at Elysia. The treatment menu is solid and service delivery competent, but as a day visitor I didn’t feel cared for. Restrictions have created a weird environment. The spa was fully booked, and yet it looked and felt like a ghost town. Apart from a few guests coming and going from the spa reception, I didn’t see a soul in the rest of the spa or main retreat building. And while the retreat is doing all the right things to be COVID-safe, it didn’t live up to my expectations for guest service or presentation.
I hope that under the ownership of Minor Hotels, the resort can be refreshed and a more service-oriented culture nurtured.