It takes time to reach nirvana and the journey from Athens to Skyros by land and sea is a perfect Greek Odyssey. There is a direct flight from Athens, but the longer trip acclimatises the mind and soul. And a bonus too: a school of dolphins welcomed us into Skyros harbour on the ferry from Kymi.
Upon arrival, a cup of tea was in order. “Can you read the label to see if these are breakfast tea or green tea bags?” asked a fellow guest; however, being of a similar age, and without our reading glasses, neither of us could fathom out the small print on the unfamiliar labels. We consulted others in the bar, and collectively held the bags at arm’s length, squinting in vain. Another guest arrived. “I’ve had my eyes lasered”, he declared, and resolved the dilemma in a glimpse.
It’s moments like these when you know you are with your tribe, can have a giggle together and relax.
Not that relaxing is hard to do at Skyros Atsitsa Bay, now celebrating its 41st year of holistic learning holidays in a stunning setting by the sea and surrounded by nature. When Skyros first opened its doors back in 1979, I’m told that Tantric Sex was one of the popular courses, along with primal screaming. Free love with full vocals it would seem!
These days the courses are still all about learning, but a little more conventional perhaps. For the active, yoga, kayaking and abseiling were on offer with experienced instructors. For the cerebral, two separate creative writing courses led by experienced published authors. For the artistic, a painting course; for the musical, a singing course along with ukulele strumming on the beach each morning. And for those wanting a journey of self-discovery, clowning and mindfulness were the natural choices.
My home for the week was in Hutland which is a collection of simple bamboo huts, consisting of two single beds with mosquito nets, a couple of shelves and a mirror. And a torch as the nearest bathroom facilities are an uneven walk away with steps. The showers are a little further and open to the elements. Most huts are shared, although you can request single occupancy. It’s rustic and basic, but to my surprise I soon got used to it. And awakening each morning to the sounds of nature and wildlife made up for the 3am trek to the loo.
Hut life is not for everyone, and for those who feel their bamboo days are behind them, there is accommodation in the main house which also boasts a superb sea-view terrace. If an indoor bathroom is important to you, this is to be recommended. I met a group of delightful ladies who book most rooms in the house together each year and wouldn’t have it any other way.
The first morning the whole group attends a community meeting, an opportunity to meet the rest of the tribe and to find out about all the courses on offer for the week. What’s more guests can volunteer for community duties such a clearing up after meals and vegetable chopping. Our affable Course Director, Steve, told us that relationships and even a marriage had originated from a veg chopping group. There was a queue to sign up for that one.
So what was a typical day ay Skyros like?
Each morning I found myself up with the enthusiastic nearby rooster at 6am, showered and ready for yoga with Ellie at 7am, the most perfect way to start the day. Then breakfast, and ‘Demos’ a group meeting and update on the day ahead as well as an insight or two from the (volunteer) speaker, and a short Greek lesson. It was so fascinating to learn the derivation of certain words from the ancient Greek. For example, ‘kali orexi’ translates as ‘bon appetit’, from exia meaning hunger, and hence anorexia, lack of hunger.
At 10.15am it was time for the Oekos group where small groups sit together and chat about pretty much anything. It sounds a bit corny but actually was a lovely way to pause and chew the cud with strangers who were fast becoming friends. Then it was off to Mindfulness at 11am – two glorious hours relaxing in one of the shady circles, learning how to train my brain to better deal with the challenges of life. I started as a bit of a sceptic and finished with a set of techniques which have been nothing short of revolutionary.
Lunch followed at 1pm, always fresh and plentiful with glorious salads and Mediterranean fare, eaten outdoors to the sounds of nature and the sea. Food is plentiful, fresh, and delectable always with a Greek theme – think huge Greek salads brimming with the ripest of tomatoes, mountains of feta, stuffed peppers, moussaka. Not a chance of any exia here!
Birthday cakes appeared for those celebrating, and a special treat when they arrived from the kitchen on a platter carried by two of the kitchen team wearing only their aprons. Well it was quite a shock when the naked waiters turned around to return to the kitchen, and indeed quite a treat for some of the middle-aged ladies!
Then time for a swim (or two) and off to creative writing at 3pm. This was led by the outstanding Australian author Graeme Simsion. He has sold over 5 million books and taught us how to write a best seller. Yes really – it’s all about the process explained Graeme and he made it seem so easy.
At 5pm it was time for clowning with Ailon Freedman. We all have an inner playfulness – just look at how children behave, but life just gets in the way sometimes, and it’s rare to have the opportunity as adults to improvise and make fun of yourself. To my amazement, I found myself quite literally clowning around with a group of people I hardly knew, uninhibited and unselfconscious.
At 7pm I chose between kayaking and art – one evening out on the water in a kayak paddling away in a tandem with the lovely Edward Reid a semi-finalist from Britain’s Got Talent who made me laugh until I could no longer paddle. Another night I sat in the bar watching the sunset and trying to transpose this view onto paper with watercolours. The tutor was so encouraging at my childish efforts.
If this sounds like I packed it all in, I did, but some people did very little at all. Everything is optional – you can throw yourself into everything… or just be.
I’ve returned from Skyros with new friends, new skills, raring to write a novel and determined to practice daily mindfulness. Swimming in the sea, spending all day outdoors, and eating good food – this is a healthy way to live for body and mind. Skyros, I’ll be back (although next time I’m booking a room!).