Fuerteventura: Retreat yourself
Katie Byrne takes a physical and spiritual journey to the Canary island of Fuerteventura
One takes a big risk when you recommend a holiday destination to a friend. It's not like recommending a window cleaner, or a shampoo. This is their hard-earned cash and precious time off we're talking about.
So when you champion a destination, you have to be in no doubt whatsoever that the person will enjoy it as much as you did.
My friend didn't just recommend Azul Retreats to me; she praised every aspect of it with misty-eyed recollections. So I took her advice and, when I arrived home, I found myself doing the exact same thing. I wasn't just advising people to visit; I was imploring them.
Azul Retreats operate two yoga and Pilates retreats on the Canary island of Fuerteventura (the second largest after Tenerife). There's an eco-friendly villa retreat, Villa Azul, and a yoga lodge on the beach, Lotus Lodge. The week-long, year-round programme in Villa Azul incorporates yoga, Pilates and tai chi; the programme at Lotus Lodge is yoga-centric. Some classes are practised in the studio, some on the beach. Both programmes include guided meditation.
It was the world-famous Fuerteventura surf that initially drew the owners, husband and wife Jamie and Karissa Isaac, to the island. They were living and working in a surf lodge when they hatched the idea to open a holistic retreat that combined their passions for surfing, Pilates and yoga.
In the beginning it was a labour of love. They rounded up a coterie of teachers and holistic therapists, threw open their doors and hoped for the best. It developed into a two-centre enterprise organically. Word-of mouth was, and still is, their main marketing tool.
Like many of those who visit Azul Retreats, I travelled solo. I wanted some alone time and was safe in the knowledge that I would be in the company of like-minded guests.
I plumped for Villa Azul, a hacienda-style property where each of the rooms is inspired by exotic destinations around the world. There's the Bedouin-style Moroccan suite, complete with outdoor roof terrace and kitchenette; Santa Fe, where co-owner Karissa originally hails from; Tibet; California and Little India.
More adventurous types will like the outdoor Sahara tent, scattered with floor cushions, or the wood cabin at the end of the garden, overlooking the pool. Both have access to an outdoor kitchen and an indoor bathroom.
There's also a nearby property – Casa Pedro – and a traditional Canarian finca for those who want their own space.
I stayed in the villa's Canarias apartments, where it was two to each of the two rooms with a shared bathroom and kitchenette. While not as luxurious as the other rooms, it was clean, cosy and functional.
Our group comprised mainly women, ranging from their 20s to their 60s. Guests had travelled from all over the world, but the vast majority were British and Irish. We bonded instantly.
Days kicked off at 8.30am in the purpose-built, indoor/outdoor studio, where we rolled out our mats in between stifled yawns. After an hour-and-a-half class, we sat down to a fortifying vegetarian brunch. This was followed by an afternoon class at 5.30pm, after which we retired to the dining area for dinner, or visited a local restaurant.
There is a midweek rest day to allow your body to rejuvenate and absorb all the benefits, tai chi being the only class on this day.
Azul Retreats is both a place to discover yoga and Pilates, or to deepen your practice. Groups are divided depending on their level, which allows beginners to learn the basics and correct any mistakes, while the more advanced can push themselves that little bit further under the tutorship of world-class teachers. Better still, yogis get to explore many different types of yoga: Hatha, Ashtanga, Vinyasa Flow and Kundalini.
The rest of the time is for kicking back at the pool or exploring the island. The barren, lunar landscape of Fuerteventura captures the imagination. It seems to draw people in, and then draws them back. Many of the people I met there either come back year after year, or had decided to make the move and call Fuerteventura home. The almost year-round sunshine and white-sand beaches probably help.
Azul Retreats have chalked up all manner of activities for in between classes. You can combine your trip with a local surf school, go hiking in the sand dunes or horseriding at the local stables, as I did one afternoon. Finca Julie is run by Dublin couple Julie Allman and Paul Downes. They took the road less travelled and set up the riding school in 2012. While Julie has worked with horses all her life, Paul left behind a job in engineering.
Their stable is made up of Irish sport horses (they found the Spanish ones too "fizzy") and they offer everything from guided walks through the hills of Villaverde to beach gallops.
If you want to take things at a more sedate pace, you can visit the town of Corralejo for seafront fish restaurants and shopping, or take a boat trip to the secluded beaches and crystal clear waters of Lobos Island and El Cotillo.
Most people congregate around the shared living area at night, drinking tea, reading books and chatting. However, there was also the option to go on a star-watching tour with local group Stars by Night. According to NASA, Fuerteventura, along with Hawaii, Chile and New Zealand, is one of the four windows of the universe thanks to its position close to the equator.
When night fell, we travelled in convoy to the north of the island, where we were greeted by a spectacular blanket of stars – and mulled wine and hot chocolate. A qualified astronomer pointed out the different stars, constellations and planets, and attempted to explain dark matter, the Higgs boson and string theory. Needless to say, I can't remember any of it, despite my better attempts.
What I remember almost word for word, though, is the raw-food cookery class I took with the resident chef and Pilates teacher, Jo Dombernowsky, on one of the last evenings. Jo glows from within and is a walking advertisement for her lifestyle, so it was no surprise that almost the entire group wanted to learn about her food philosophy.
The class was staggered between theory and demonstrations. She explained the food groups that raise and deplete energy, and she taught us how to cook some of her favourite desserts: vegan chocolate mousse (eschewing cream and eggs for avocado) and chocolate truffles (using cacao and dates).
Jo, who is also a qualified nutritionist, has created a vegetarian menu for Azul Retreats that would sate even consummate carnivores. It was delicious, imaginative, and inspirational – indeed, she was asked to share her recipes after almost every meal.
All the extra classes at Azul Retreats are priced extremely reasonably, as are the in-house holistic treatments. A one-hour full-body massage is included in the package price, but you can also book in for beauty treatments and complementary therapies. The treatments cost at least half the price of a typical Irish spa, and were just as good, if not better.
It strikes me that the owners of Azul Retreats could be charging much more for their offering. This is their stamp of integrity – they don't want anyone to be prohibited from the experience. And it is very much an experience.
You can't but leave Villa Azul in a more relaxed and focused state of mind. I was just short of giving people the peace sign at the end of the week.
Back at home, I fielded lots of questions, particularly from those of the fairer persuasion. "Was it really strict?" friends asked. The short answer is no. You can spend the day in bed if you feel like it. You can enjoy a glass of vino with your dinner if you're so inclined.
"How much weight did you lose?" was another question. Interestingly, you stop caring at about day three. Your focus shifts to having a healthy, balanced body, rather than a bikini-ready one.
"Do you think I'd like it?" Yes, I would answer emphatically. "I think you owe it to yourself."
They say the best way to move forward is to retreat. If you need some space to gather your thoughts, I can't recommend Azul Retreats enough.