Living at Mana Retreat

Sharing is Caring!

For the last month, I’ve been working in trade for my accommodation at a little piece of paradise in New Zealand: It’s called Mana Retreat. I’ve just left (ready for my next adventure), and I’m already working out how and when I will come back.

This post was originally published in 2010; it has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
I cannot speak to the current volunteer program and how it operates; I am told that it has changed quite a bit.

Living at Mana retreat centre in New Zealand for free as part of their volunteer work exchange program was one of my all-time best travel experiences! Here's what it's like. #NewZealand #Coromandel #ManaRetreat #volunteering #workexchange #freeaccommodation #TheProfessionalHobo #NoraDunn
Share the love by pinning this post!

It all started in Thailand, two years ago. While enjoying the companionship of some new friends from Canada, the age-old questions used by backpackers the world over came out: “So where’ve you been? What’s your favourite place in the world?” And so on…

I’ve heard this question answered time and time again, and most of the time the answers are quickly forgotten. But for some reason this time it stuck.

“Mana Retreat, in New Zealand,” came the immediate – and enthusiastic – response. He knew that I love to work in trade for accommodation around the world, which is what his visit to Mana entailed. “The work is awesome, the people rock, and the food…” his eyes glassed over, and it appeared that words couldn’t describe how good the food was. I seem to remember a little ribbon of drool running down his chin as he said something about gaining weight while he was there.

The few from Mana Retreat centre over the ocean inlet on the Coromandel peninsula in New Zealand

As soon as I fell in love with New Zealand and decided to kick off my solo travel adventures here, Mana Retreat Centre popped back into my consciousness. A quick internet search revealed that Mana is a mind-body-spiritual retreat on the Coromandel peninsula on the North Island of New Zealand. And – glory be – they have a work-exchange program.

I sent in an application and started a lively email conversation with the head coordinator of the WWOOFing program. Mana uses “WWOOF” (Worldwide Work on Organic Farms) as their main way of attracting the work-exchangers who make up a large portion of the retreat’s staff. Soon enough I was booked in to arrive just after Easter, and assuming the four-day mutual trial period went well, I’d stay for at least a month.

Since then it has been magic. The area is gorgeous, the property is spectacular, the people are beautiful, the work is fun, and the food….dribble dribble

Mana Retreat Centre: The Property

Nora Dunn standing in front of Mana Retreat Centre

Mana Retreat is set on a gorgeous piece of hilly land (about 15 minutes south of the town of Coromandel), overlooking the ocean and at the foot of (and encompassing) the sacred Maori Mount Pukewhakataratara.

Yes, Pukewhakataratara. (Before you wonder how on earth it’s pronounced, it goes something like pook-eh-fa-ka-ta-ra-ta-ra. Except the “oo” in pook is pounounced like the “oo” in cook or book.)

Now say it five times, fast – and you’ll get the hang of it!

There are walking tracks through the bush that go up the mountain, down the valley, around waterfalls and swimming holes, and through groves of 400 year-old trees. Built almost seamlessly into the land are bush lodges and huts for guests, meditation platforms, hammocks, natural benches, organic gardens (which provide much of the cuisine enjoyed by the group), a teepee, a sweat lodge, a bush bath, a sauna…the list goes on. This is in addition to the main building, which has an octagonal room (with bay windows on five sides) for conferences/retreats/ classes/group functions, a large kitchen and dining room, a few rooms for guests, an office, and a library.

A sepia image of the walking trails in New Zealand on the Coromandel peninsula
walking tracks
The Octagon room at Mana Retreat, with a killer view
The Octagon
Mana Retreat Centre dining room
The Dining Room

The Sanctuary

“Dinner is at six-thirty,” said Val, who was giving me a brief orientation on my arrival. “If you want to go for a walk before dinner, I suggest going up to the sanctuary. The Goddess path is the quickest way,” she said, while illustrating the route on a small map. “If you’re there for six o’clock, you can hear the bells, which are magical”.

The Goddess Way, a path to the top of the mountain behind Mana Centre
The Goddess Path

Feeling both overwhelmed and enchanted, I took her advice and headed up the trail. The route was steep, but I was rewarded at every turn with a little goddess statue or an equally beautiful view of the sub-tropical rainforest overlooking the ocean.

A goddess statue on the path through the woods
statues along the way

Twenty sweaty minutes later I came upon a clearing, and discovered my destination: the Tara Sanctuary. It sits just below the peak of Mt. Pukewhakataratara, and overlooks the rest of the property, with the ocean beyond.

It quite literally took my breath away.

Tara Sanctuary, at Mana Retreat Center
Tara Sanctuary, at the base of the mountain
Overlooking the Sanctuary, which overlooks the ocean on the North Island of New Zealand
the Sanctuary, overlooking the ocean

Tara Sanctuary itself is a non-denominational (or multi-denominational, depending on how you look at it) space that encourages contemplation, inspiration, and peace. The signs saying “silence” are almost unnecessary, as the feeling of awe transcends any need to speak. Should you choose to play music or sing inside the sanctuary (which is accepted, if not encouraged), the acoustics will send you into a trance. It’s almost unreal.

A candle on a table in front of a window inside the sanctuary

This is why Val suggested hanging around for the bells to chime; the bell tower is just beside the sanctuary, and the ten minute orchestra of bells reverberates off every wall in other-worldly ways.

Work Exchange at Mana

Okay, Nora. Back to reality, before you think I’ve lost my marbles and am going to start chanting “Hare Krishna” or something (which I won’t). It’s just a gorgeous place with an incredibly peaceful harmonious energy – what can I say?!

So, on to the work at hand, because staying – and eating (we’ll get to that in a minute) – at Mana Retreat isn’t free.

As far as WWOOFing gigs go, the work requirements at Mana are at the upper end of what’s generally expected of those who work in trade for their accommodation. You work approximately six hours per day, five days per week. With breaks and lunch, the six hour day looks more like seven hours, and the days off are irregular, depending on when various groups are staying at Mana and how many staff are needed.

Despite the long hours, the work is relaxed and enjoyable.

Nora Dunn in the kitchen doing work exchange at Mana Retreat Centre
working in the kitchen

The jobs at hand involve working in the kitchen (preparing, serving, and cleaning up after groups as large as 60 people including staff), housekeeping, or gardening. My favourite job was, of course, working in the kitchen. Speaking of which…

The Food

Mana Retreat is a drug-free, alcohol-free, and vegetarian property. Although the first count isn’t a problem for most people, the second and third counts of no alcohol and no meat/seafood is a challenge for others, who when I described the place prior to coming, wondered what I was thinking.

And although I’m a self-confessed omnivore, the food here was so bloody good that I didn’t miss the meat.

No really!

Not a meal went by when I didn’t help myself to seconds (and sometimes thirds) of creative salads (deriving ingredients from the garden), yummy curries, soups, roast veggies, stews, and other concoctions that one of my fellow WWOOFers from Germany referred to as “hip gold”!

Breakfast is homemade muesli (and when I say muesli, I mean muesli!) and organic homemade yoghurt with fresh fruit, congee (rice porridge), and a selection of organic wholegrain breads. Lunch is the main meal and involves multiple salads and some lovely curry of sorts. And dinner is soup, more salads, and a dessert that truly is “hip gold”. (Especially after seconds).

the garden at Mana
the garden, where a lot of our food came from

An organic coffee and tea station kept me enjoying hot beverages all day, and I was usually still full from the last meal by the time I sat down to the next. I never succeeded in my self-challenge to make it through a whole day without taking second servings of something.

Hip gold…

The People

“Hip gold” is one of many interesting terms that came from endless conversation with people from so many different backgrounds. WWOOFers from all over the world congregate at Mana, adding greatly to the experience. During my stay, there was representation from Germany (four people, in fact), England (there’s a huge UK presence in New Zealand in general), Hawaii, France, Canada (that’s me!), and – of course – New Zealand.

With English being a second language for many of the WWOOFers, dinner-table conversation can be very interesting, with many inadvertent plays on words. Often, English-speakers are asked to define odd words that are used in the context of conversation; a task sometimes tougher than it seems. It took us a while to define “kinky” (without being explicit) so our French companion could understand!

Overall, Mana attracts people who love nature, travel the world, work in trade for accommodation, and are open to their own brand of spirituality and growth. Each morning at 8am, staffers who wish congregate in the library to hold hands and listen to the sanctuary’s bells tolling for 10 minutes. They then draw inspirational cards that provide a focus for the day and something to contemplate. Spirituality doesn’t have to be somber and serious either – we enjoyed many laughs in even the most reverent of situations.

So it is with an open heart and stronger sense of self that I bid adieu to Mana. But I believe that it’s only for now, as I – like so many of Mana’s WWOOFers do – plan to come back soon.

Sharing is Caring!

Get the Inside Scoop
Receive a FREE 2-week e-course on Financially Sustainable Travel 
Featured Image

38 thoughts on “Living at Mana Retreat”

  1. Mana Retreat sounds so awsome! And the Tara Sanctuary sounds and looks so peaceful. I have never been to New Zealand before but now i want to. Who knows maybe I’ll make it one day. You never know:) Thanks for the pix

  2. @Kirsty – Mana is a little piece of paradise. It was tricky not to sound evangelistic about it when I wrote this article! And it’s also just a small part of what makes NZ amazing….get out here if you can!

    @Andy – The hours really weren’t that hard to handle, especially for most WWOOFers, who aren’t juggling a location independent career as well. And because absolutely all expenses were covered, you really only need to enough money for the occasional trip into town (for toiletries or whatever) and the next flight out. For travellers looking to stretch their budget and have an awesome experience in the meantime, Mana rocks.

  3. Although I’m currently living, working and blogging from the French Riviera, I’m hoping my next destination will be down under–either Australia or New Zealand. I’m definitely going to be keeping an eye on your blog for some inspiration–I’m already dying to work at Mana!

  4. @Mike – And I want to go BACK!

    @Christine – What are you doing (for work) in France and where? I’ll be there this summer…looking forward to it! And certainly – do head for Mana (and so many other places in NZ too!) …the application for work-exchange is on their website.

  5. Hey! I’m working at an Irish pub in Nice, France. If you’re going to be in the French Riviera, let me know 🙂 I’ll definitely keep Mana in mind if I can tear myself away from the good life in Europe! Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  6. Where do I sign up???? This sounds so inviting! I will be praying that such an opportunity will open up for me to visit The Mana Retreat someday. Thank you for sharing this wonderful post!

  7. @Mary – Check out Mana’s website, under the “Work Exchange” heading. You’ll find out everything you need to know there! Good luck….maybe we’ll meet there someday!

  8. Great post!

    Was the internet LIP-friendly @ Mana? How well were you able to integrate your LIP business, given the work schedule? Curious! 🙂

  9. @Nette – The internet wasn’t bad…the only WiFi connection is in the main building, and the best reception is near the office/in the library. When there are guests, we have to be sensitive to working around them (and in some cases the groups ask for no cell phones or computers to be used by their participants, which means staff members need to be ultra-discreet).

    As for working on my LIP business in addition to Mana’s volunteer/work schedule, I have to admit it was a bit of a push. It sometimes came at the cost of my going for longer walks, socializing, sleeping(!), or enjoying the property to its fullest extent.

    Most of the time though, I made it work, and was happy to have a balance. I’m the sort of person who can “work” on my computer for hours on end if given the chance, and the working schedule at Mana forced me to prioritize and concentrate my work a little more. And with 2 days off each week, I was usually able to get everything done.

  10. I’m planning to travell around nz, working for accomodation like you do. Thinking you might be able to answer my question about visa; Is it necessary to have a working visa (working holiday visa?) if I’m only volunteering? Which kind have you used?

  11. @Martina – It depends on the country you’re visiting, and the country you’re from. It’s important to take a peek at the regulations for each country…if you’re under 30 years old, you can pretty easily attain working holiday visas for many countries. I think in NZ you technically need to have working rights, but many people volunteer there anyway….

  12. I read your article on transitionsabroad. Thank you so much for sharing. I am currently planning my working holiday for 2011 and would love to do some WWOOFing. How selective is the Mana Retreat in choosing their WWOOFers? It looks like a spectacular place and I imagine that they receive many requests to volunteer there. My schedule is really flexible right now. I mainly have goals that I want to accomplish in New Zealand rather than a timeline and I would love to incorporate an opportunity like this.

  13. @Michelle – Mana is pretty selective of their WWOOFers, due in part to the fact that many WWOOFers stay a while, and there are only so many spots available. But send through and application, and see what happens! Good luck…and maybe I’ll see you in NZ in 2011….you never know!

  14. Out of all the places that i’ve ever traveled…. i fell in love with NZ….. to the point that i’m migrating……the place i call home now 🙂

  15. I fell in love with NZ years ago and I happen to believe it is Paradise on earth…if such a thing can exist….
    I will check out this Mana retreat…sounds like a place worth checking out….I’ll bring my own roast beef…loll

  16. I loved reading your blog! Thank you so much for sharing your experience! I just recently Applied to work at the Mana retreat, and found out that I can go in September, and that can’t come soon enough! 🙂 Anyway, The biggest question I have is when buying my ticket Should I plan on buying a one way ticket? I’m from Utah, and I just looked at the prices to fly out there…. whoa! Its a lot of money, but I know it will be worth it! Do you have any ideas to earn some extra cash because of course i’m going to want spending money too 🙂

    • Hi Brittney,
      Awesome! You’ll love it. (At least I hope you will). 🙂
      As for arriving in New Zealand, you will most certainly need an onward ticket – they won’t even let you on the plane to NZ without one!
      (Here’s the deal:

      As for earning money, you’ll need a work visa (if you want to earn money with a physical job as opposed to online). If you’re under 30 though, you can probably get a 1-year working holiday visa:

      Have fun!

    • Good Brittney!

      I just applied for Mana Retreat as well. I haven’t heard back as yet. How long did it take for you to get a response? I am in North Carolina. Look into teaching english abroad 🙂

      @Nora your blog is an inspiration for me! I am truly grateful for all you share and wish peace, love, and happiness in your travels!

      • Hi Tameka,
        I believe Mana Retreat generally has a disproportionately huge number of volunteer applications compared to the positions they have open. Sometimes it also depends on when you want to go. Keep trying!

  17. Hey Nora,
    I just wanted to say: you rock! Finding your blog was a great add to my life! >> I just landed an awesome house & pet sit gig + I’m going to Mana retreat for a month this September! All thanks to you, thanx for the inspiration, keep it up!!!!

    • Hi Elles,
      AWESOME! Please say hello to the Mana crew for me…I miss them all very much, and I think I might need to return soon. Enjoy your house-sitting gig too! Where is it?

  18. Haha will do! They know I got their info from your blog. 🙂
    The house-sit gig is near Manly beach in Sydney – livin’ the life!!

  19. Awesome article! I’ve been looking at going to Mana for a while and I got booked for August-October of 2016. Any advice for someone who has never been apart of a work exchange program/ been to NZ?

    • Hi Aryanna,
      You’ll have an awesome time! Not sure I have any specific words of wisdom – just enjoy! To get to Mana from Auckland, there’s a lovely ferry to Coromandel. Otherwise getting around NZ is best done by bus – it’s cheap and cheerful! Have fun. 🙂

  20. Finding this blog was the best thing that could’ve happened right now. Applying right now!! Do you mind sharing a couple of other places with names of them for work exchange in case mana retreat is still selective and I cannot go.


  21. Hi Nora,
    Your article was so fantastic and that place seems to be the one I’m looking for. Next summer I plan to go to New Zealand with my husband and two sons. We are from Austria and we want to stay for about 8 or 9 month. For 1 or 2 month we are looking for such a ‘travel and work’ – place to save a little money and get to know other people. Do you think it’s also possible to go there togehter with the family?
    Looking forward hearing from you,

    • Hi Anja,
      I’m glad you like what you see! Sounds like you have a fantastic trip planned. You’ll have to check with the folks at Mana as to whether they can accommodate families into the volunteer program. I’m really not sure.
      Happy travel planning!

  22. Hi Nora!

    Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful experiences! I cannot wait to apply and to be part of the community. I wonder if you were able to participate in some courses or workshop at MANA? I would like to take the opportunity to do that while volunteering!!

    • Hi Eleana,
      I’m told that the volunteer program has changed quite a bit since my time there, however when I volunteered, it was possible to participate in some workshops here and there, if the instructor was amenable to “drop ins” and if your volunteer work schedule allowed.
      Also, I participated in a few workshops as a full-paying participant, for which I got time off from volunteering to do.
      Enjoy! I still keep in touch with many of the staff at Mana and I hear they are dong amazing things.

  23. Hi Nora, this is a beautifully written article and greatly influenced my decision to apply and woof at Mana. Unfortunately, as you mention to the most recent commenter, Mana has changed since your time there. I could list all the reasons but that’s not your responsibility to take that on just for writing this post. I’ll summarize that every woofer there during my time left early as we were overworked and understaffed, there is NO sexual harassment policy (at all), but I’m talking specifically for woofers who get harassed by guests. I’m
    not expecting you to take this page down but please at least post my comment so others can read it before they agree to woof here. Cheers, Kay

    • Hi Kay,
      Thank you for letting me – and everybody here – know. I have amended the text at the beginning of this article to alert readers that the program has changed, and of course, I am publishing your comment here.

      I am so sorry that your experience at Mana wasn’t magical. The place has such a fond spot in my memory. I do remember the work being pretty intensive (at the time it was 25 hours/week), but the people and the magical property made the work enjoyable.
      As to sexual harassment by guests….I’m floored. I’m sorry you experienced that.


Leave a Comment