For some people, holistic holidays represent an enriching way to get some respite from the vagaries of life and I was craving some of that in a place with lots of sun. But I had a dilemma: I would be travelling solo but didn’t actually want to be alone. The answer came in the guise of Skyros Holistic Holidays who many have said was life changing for them.
I knew when I signed up that this unique community style retreat meant spending a week with 62 strangers in the small village of Atsitsa on the sunny Greek island of Skyros. For introverts like myself this was a daunting prospect. Nevertheless, I thought I’d give it a go.
I got there on a warm Sunday evening with a handful others whom I had got to know on the long journey – three coach rides and two ferries – from Athens. As we sauntered with our bags onto the resort a welcoming party cheered us in and handed us some wine. It was a good start.
Atsitsa has a sublime position cascading from a hill top to a small bay taking in a bar, a restaurant, myriad of spaces with pretty flowers, fig trees and even a grape vine, dotted with urns and vases overlooking the sea. It was a lovely eyeful especially enhanced by a glorious sun light, and if I had a backing soundtrack it would have been something like Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World.
Accommodation though was a small bamboo hut, one of 48 that are dotted amid vegetation on the hill top with shared showers some feet away. Sure, it looked sweet and rustic, but the most luxurious thing I can say about it is that it had a power point. I couldn’t help but envy those that were sleeping in the stone villa on the cliff edge, with their en-suites, towels and sensational head-on sea views.
Many of us were women (an assortment of ages) travelling alone, a handful of lone men and two couples – most of us seeking something – perhaps clarity or simply a rest and space to think. Many of the group were regulars and you could tell who were the first-timers as they looked apprehensive, in a lost rabbit way, wondering how the week would evolve.
On the first morning we gathered in the Magic Circle – a low stone-walled circle. The founder Dina Glouberman, was there – an esteemed psychotherapist. She wanted us to be present in the moment and relaxed enough to connect with each other.
She guided us through various visualisations and we chose different partners for each. We then eventually formed groups of eight which was to be our œkos “family” whom we would meet with every day for a 20-minute exchange of thoughts, feelings, emotions and sometimes complaints. Initially I found this to be a huge stretch as I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with people I hardly knew. Soon the gatherings felt safe, so I abandoned my superficial gripes like how I felt about the hut, for something more meaningful.
There was “housework”. We were encouraged to volunteer time clearing up after meal times, go fruit picking or cutting veggies. The latter was sold to us as the activity where most romances have sprouted after having made eye contact across the cutting table.
It’s clever stuff that nudged you into community ensuring no-one slipped through the social net – unless you wanted to slip.
And why would you when there was so much fun to be had? There were several classes with incredible teachers on offer – all specialists in their field: trapeze, windsurfing, writing, yoga, improv, singing, photography and art. Dina’s class, New Beginnings, based on her motto “You Are What You Imagine”, had the highest attendance.
I secretly wanted to do trapeze, but just couldn’t see myself contorting my body on a swing and perhaps facing ridicule. So, during the morning I plumped for the “Beyond Yoga” class with yoga guru Kenneth Ryan whose mystical, restful approach offered deep relaxation and universal insights. In the afternoon it was improvisation with Dave Bourn, a comedy writer for Channel 4, who, somehow, made us feel like professionals. David’s classes were often hilarious and I couldn’t remember a time when I laughed so much.
I also fitted in photography classes with Kel Portman whose images are exhibited widely in the UK and abroad. His “gobbledygook” lessons meant that no-clue novices like me got a shot at clicking something creative into being.
By Tuesday there was a rhythm. Breakfast was followed by “demos” – the community meeting. Announcements were made, news shared, extra activities suggested (like a sing-a-long or trip into town) or offered by the teachers like impromptu bongo classes or yoga on the beach, and all sprinkled with comedy from the “compere” Mike. It was wonderful to start each day with a shared giggle.
Between my classes there was a wholesome lunch and free time, and after a couple of days of activity-packed community life, early rising, and late night in town or by the bar, I was exhausted so took to snoozing under the blue-hued sky for an hour or so in one of the hammocks. Sometimes I sunbathed on the rocks or at the oddly named Dead’s Goat Beach – a pebbled patch of bay reached by a secret path. Or I simply read a book sitting on a comfy chair with a superb vantage point that looked out to sea. Dinner was at 8pm.
My hut was opposite the Magic Circle where the trapeze tuition took place several times a day in preparation for the cabaret planned for the penultimate night. As I was watching them develop, I began to feel a rising sense of trapeze envy.
But the universe works in strange ways. One evening there was a high-octane auction to raise money for Grecian causes – we raised 4000 euros. On offer were language lessons, hypnotherapy sessions, souvenirs, offers of hospitality and even a 10-minute Monty Python style argument. My contribution was three half-hour reiki sessions. When the trapeze teacher, Deborah Sanderson, an aerialist who incidentally has performed in circuses from Bosnia to the Caribbean, auctioned an hour and a half private lesson at her base in Leeds, my hand instinctively flew up and I won the bid.
The cabaret-cum-variety show was tremendous fun and nearly everyone contributed something. There were beautiful harmonies by the singing group (curated by singer/songwriter Abbie Lathe), comedy sketches, pieces of writing inspired by attendees of the writing class given by novelist Amanda Smyth of Black Rock fame (the book she penned), poetry and of course, trapeze. It was truly uplifting to see how much could be achieved in just a few days.
I spent the last night with a handful of others on the beach in silent reverie watching the sun go down. As the sun set, the bright yellow ball was ringed with orange hues that gave out pinkish grey shades over the horizon turning the rocks and the voyeurs into mere silhouettes. It was the perfect setting for contemplation.
I found myself reflecting on a most unusual week that gave rise to some sometimes uncomfortable emotions, insights but overall an uplifting experience. It dawned on me that Dina was right – we are what we imagine and resolved to imagine things that serve up a happier life.
When I left my hut the next morning I noticed a group of pebbles that had quotes by Sufi master Rumi written on them on the low wall on its right side. Had they been there all the time? Or had my focus, until that moment, been too narrow to notice them?
Need to know:
A week at Atsitsa costs from £545. The price includes hut style accommodation (shared in busy weeks, but upgrades to the stone building and single rooms are available), three meals a day, all courses and activities. Flights and transfers extra.
Note: Classes and teachers change each week.