Nestled in the back garden of Clearwater Bay among a forlorn stretch of flower orchards, you’ll find the gleaming gates of the Hong Kong Golf and Tennis Academy, opening up to 820,000 sq. ft. of training grounds dedicated to two of the world’s most prestigious sports schools: the Jack Nicklaus Academy of Golf and Barcelona’s Bruguera Tennis Academy, both the first of their kind in Hong Kong.
It was not my first time visiting the Golf & Tennis Academy, having toured the grounds once before during the official grand opening. Offering the legendary teaching techniques of the greatest golfer of all time, as well as the most revered tennis coach in recent memory, the HKGTA is understandably rather strict with visitors, with patronage exclusively reserved for those truly passionate about the two sports. Admission rates to training programmes apparently start at HK$190,000 for two years’ access.
But for those who do toil under the expert tutelage here, there’s a just reward for your efforts: you get to spend time in the gorgeous, lightly Moroccan-inspired club facilities on site, stay overnight at one of the academy’s 84 swish apartments or villas, and last but not least, you get to make the most of Bali’s foremost eco-conscious wellness retreat, Fivelements, at its only international outpost here in Hong Kong.
Recently I was fortunate to be able to stay overnight and check out the offerings at both the academy and Fivelements, now open to reservations for non-academy-patrons as long as you’re part of the Friends of Fivelements privilege programme: a pre-paid package that gives you discounts and weekday access to the spa, and entitles you to 60 minutes at the hitting stations at Jack Nicklaus Academy of Golf for the day of your visit.
The retreat itself is a secluded corner of the academy grounds, where colourful traditional Balinese doors open into a fountained forecourt. To the left is Sakti Dining Room, which serves beautiful plant-based cuisine designed and cooked by a French executive chef, and where I once had the most beautifully unctuous tempeh, as well as delicious homemade kombucha. Walking into the spa lobby, the space is awash with inviting bamboo touches and art panelling — all flown in from Bali.
Upstairs, the retreat spreads across just two floors with 12 treatment suites that boast to be some of the most spacious in Hong Kong — they have to be, to make room for the giant natural stone baths that were also plucked from Balinese artisan studios.
A laboratory-like kitchen, sectioned off by glass, allows visitors to see the therapists at work, mixing masques and blending oils with fresh ingredients for their clients. There’s also the Sacred Art Space, a yoga, meditation and martial arts studio that help visitors round out a weekend retreat or day visit with some practice before their treatments.
My stay was in a stylish and well-lit one-bedroom apartment in the Academy block, with a king-sized bed, rain shower and massive balcony. Every detail oozed comfortable, sunny Californian style, and instead of the usual sanitised feeling of a hotel, this felt like we were living in a luxe American home in the suburbs. But little did we know, the Royal Sleeping Suites located within the Fivelements building take the pampering factor above and beyond with four poster beds, private bathtubs and access to your private treatment room; if given the choice, I might have to sway towards the spa suites instead.
After a quiet American-style breakfast at the semi al fresco Cafeteria, I was chauffeured over to Fivelements by golf cart to try out the first Watsu treatment pool in Hong Kong. Popular in Balinese spas, Watsu is a type of aquatic bodywork with roots in Zen shiatsu, where the therapist cradles you as you float in chest-deep water, stretching, swirling and massaging you as a unique technique of instilling deep relaxation. Many who opt for Watsu even praise its role in giving you deep-rooted emotional release, attributed to being curled and feeling safe in body-temperature water, evoking the primal attachment to being back in your mother’s womb. I was intrigued to try it.
After changing into my bathing suit, my therapist led me to the water healing room, a slightly warmer room where I slid into a circular pool, a little larger than a whirlpool hot tub. Despite the water temperature being kept at 40 degrees, it still felt a bit lukewarm in the Hong Kong winter, and my exposed shoulders were beginning to feel an awkward chill.
After popping in ear plugs, two foam floaties were strapped to my thighs, and I was instructed to relax under my therapist’s gentle cradling of my neck. With my eyes closed, she slowly swayed me in circles like a steady dance. I listened to the water swish as her speed slowly picked up — I was beginning to feel like a heavy, wet towel, and in my heightened awareness, the strangeness of another human’s touch suddenly felt all the more alien to me. A regular oil massage felt almost aloof compared to this strange closeness, being caringly embraced by someone — a stranger, to boot — for such a long time.
What I struggled with the most was relaxing into the water without worrying about drowning, but once I took deep breaths and gave trust to allow my therapist to do her thing, it was easier to let go; I enjoyed having my spine and limbs twisted and stretched like strands of mozzarella in the water, and I felt the familiar muscular release during the massage portions of the treatment.
Being swayed around in warm water while in the fetal position is one of the strangest experiences I’ve had in my lifetime, but something about it — in the midst of hearing nothing but rhythmic water sounds (there was supposed to be gentle music playing underwater, but I didn’t notice much of it) and feeling as if you’re suspended in nothing — indeed ignites a deeply soothing rush of emotion. If you believe in more woo-woo philosophies of healing, I have a suspicion it’s to do with accepting all the weirdness of the situation and letting go of all your worries and pressures from your daily life in one go. What spiritual people call ‘surrender.’ Much like spending time floating in a sensory deprivation pod, it’s more of a mind-clearing and stress-relieving session to achieve calmness, rather than for physical, muscular relief. I would personally still prefer a traditional deep tissue massage over this, though.
Back outside after the treatment, I felt warm, heavy and at ease, like I just had all my anxieties wrung out. While visitors are usually brought to the Royal Tea Lounge for a post-spa treat, I was scheduled in for a golf remedial class with Billy Martin, the academy director at the Jack Nicklaus Academy of Golf. As a pure beginner, I was taught to redistribute the normally imbalanced weight on my feet, how to properly grip a club, and how to manipulate every angle of a ‘perfect’ swing using instant camera feedback. With my mind and muscles too chilled out after my treatment, the frustration of the game instantly brought back some furrowed brows and the stress came sneaking back again — it would have been better if I could do it the other way around next time.
But, to be able to spend a quiet afternoon at the hitting stations, peering over a hilly landscape of verdant trees beyond the green, I was taken far away from Hong Kong — to North America, with the almost coniferous-looking trees; and to Bali, thanks to Fivelements’ lush surroundings. If a getaway from the city hustle is all you’re looking for, why jump on a plane if you can find it all in this remarkable corner of the city?