Life Europe

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Island Spirit: My Greek yoga retreat

Katie Byrne discovers an exclusive Greek yoga retreat tucked away on a private island off the coast of Evia

Published 27/07/2014 | 02:30

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Silver Island comprises 60 acres of olive groves and cypress trees rising out of the sea
The classes take place in the great outdoors
The classes take place in the great outdoors

My journey from Dublin to Silver Island was something of an expedition. There was the flight to Athens, an overnight in the Greek capital and a three-and-a-bit-hour bus journey with en-route ferry crossing to Oreoi.

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And I still wasn't there yet. There was another short water crossing to come but first a pleasant abide in the sleepy harbour town, where men play cards, dogs doze in the shade and the only sound is the whurr of a fan and the gentle lapping water.

Transfer to the island is generally by water taxi organised by Silver Island. As I was arriving a little later than the rest of the group, Corne (more of which anon) picked me up in a 1970s James Bond-esque speedboat.

He had spotted a shoal of dolphins on his way out to collect me but we weren't so lucky on the way back. Instead, he pointed out the enticingly lush green island in the distance. I'll spare you the post-retreat hippy-dippy clichés about it being about the journey, and not the destination, but when I first glimpsed Silver Island – 60 acres of olive groves and cypress trees rising out of the sea – I realised the jigs and reels of getting there were more than worth it.

The island is alive. Cicadas hum, chickens squawk and lizards flick by your feet. Butterflies flutter by before alighting on a techicolour spread of wild flowers. They even have resident seals. It is so heart-stoppingly beautiful that it simply wouldn't be right if you could be transported here in a matter of mere hours.

Corne's wife Lissa met us at the island's ad-hoc harbour. I could hear her laugh before I could make out her features. Lissa, as I would discover, laughs a lot. If she's not laughing it's because she's mid-anecdote, regaling her guests with her deliciously wicked sense of humour. Her attitude is instantly disarming and it's a refreshing change from the Om Shanti Om approach of some retreat owners.

Corne is the yang to her yin. Reserved and sweet natured, he is the perfect foil to her spirit of playfulness.

It's not every travel review that provides a character analysis of the management, but places like this are different. It's an intimate experience – they only take 10 guests at a time – so the hosts are an essential element. You are a guest in their home and, crucially, you are adopting their lifestyle and sharing in their vision.

And the Silver Island vision is a unique one. Water is recycled (for watering the gardens) so guests are encouraged to be mindful of conservation. With water taxes imminent, I was glad to get a test run of sorts. (A word to the wise: turn the water off when lathering.) The island is completely off the grid so water is heated by the sun and dinky little solar lamps are provided for walking to and from the main house after nightfall while a generator is used for electricity. This means there's no Wifi.

The menu is vegetarian, but rest assured, the food is Ottolenghi good. The couple take turns in the kitchen while guests enjoy the spoils of an endearing game of culinary one-upmanship. They also produce their own olive oil and much of the salad leaves and herbs are island-grown too. Breakfast tends to be granola, fresh fruit and Greek yoghurt, while lunch and dinner are extraordinarily flavoursome showcases of locally sourced, seasonal vegetables and lesser heard of grains and pulses. There's a plentiful supply of dried fruits and nuts for snacking.

You won't miss meat, although you might miss refined sugar. I realised my body was going through a sugar detox when I found myself chain-eating a half-packet of Halls Soothers discovered at the end of my handbag on day two. And I realised the benefits of a sugar detox when the whites of my eyes were significantly brighter by day six.

While refined sugar is off the menu, there is nothing regimental about the Silver Island programme. It feels more like a chilled-out holiday with your mates than a holier-than-thou health retreat. Everything is easy and breezy and plans change according to the weather and general group consensus.

"Today we'll be doing a posture called 'suntan-asana'," joked our yoga teacher, Rebecca Halls.

Rebecca is also a dancer, choreographer and hula hoop artist. Her morning classes began with a meditation before segueing into a dynamic Vinyasa practice. Her afternoon classes sometimes included hula hooping and music.

My fondest memory of Silver Island was the morning we spent stretching in the sun as Prince's Parade album blasted from the speakers.

The rest of the time is for exploration. Though Silver Island hosts as many classes and meals as other retreats, it feels as though you have so much more free time. Perhaps this is because you are sequestered on an island; perhaps it's because the groups are so small. Either way, the options are endless.

The island, full of winding paths and hidden coves, begs to be explored. You can book in for a massage with the resident teacher as most of them offer holistic modalities alongside yoga. You can visit the cliff-edge meditation platform or trek to the lighthouse. There are a couple of beaches to go snorkelling, and they also provide kayaks. While no activities are compulsory, it's generally agreed that a sun-rise kayak is a must-do.

If the weather doesn't comply, there's a well-stocked art cupboard to indulge your creative side. Lissa is an artist and I spent much of my free time watching her at work. As the former creative producer of Bestival (UK festival), her imagination is unbridled, while growing up on a farm in South Africa has taught her a natural affinity with the outdoors.

You would go on a retreat with this woman just to discover how to make things beautiful on a budget of next-to-nothing. She has exquisite taste and her style is all about bringing the outdoors in. I was shocked to discover Silver Island was created on a micro-budget, considering the décor looks like it was assembled using an old-money trust fund.

The island has been in Lissa's family for 50-odd years and was once a chi-chi resort run by her grandparents. She and her sisters inherited it in recent years, but it was only through the generosity of their friends who travelled to the island to help restore the property, that the dream was realised. Once you get to know Lissa and Corne you'll understand why there is such goodwill extended towards them.

A fellow guest told me the retreat tends to attract eccentric, creative types. This was certainly the case during my visit. Everyone was upbeat and good humoured. Conversation flowed and it was only punctuated by laughter. Excellent company, excellent food, excellent tutorship. Silver Island hits all the marks while Mother Nature looks after the rest.

Need to Know

Retreats run from April to October. Teachers change every week, though some stay for two weeks. Check the retreat calendar online for details.

Rates start from £1,100 (€1,392) per week. This includes six nights full board (three meals per day), two yoga classes per day, natural biodegradable toiletries and return transfers to the harbour at Oreoi.

Silver Island can arrange for a taxi to collect you from the airport if you wish. This costs €100+ depending on season. Flights not included.

Katie travelled to Athens with Aer Lingus; aerlingus.com. silverislandyoga.com

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