Wellness is a maddeningly nebulous concept, isn’t it? Wellness is saying yes. But also saying no. Wellness is running fast. But also lying down. Wellness is a candle that smells like…
A single word inevitably falls short in trying to define everything, for everyone. And yet, you know ‘wellness’ when you feel it, don’t you?
Lately, I’d not been feeling it at all. It wasn’t anything dramatic – just a never-ending winter of nursery bugs that my toddler son, husband and I passed between us, the new one arriving before I could restock the Kleenex from the last. Followed by the gloomiest UK spring on record (probably).
As much as we’d prefer to burn on our personal pyre of martyrdom, drained and ragged mothers are of no use to anyone, so I began to look around for somewhere to recharge.
A week-long retreat or anywhere involving long-haul flights was unfortunately out, but then I was reminded of Euphoria Retreat, a destination spa with a healing philosophy in Greece’s myth-rich Peloponnese peninsula. If anything could get me battle-ready again, it was a retreat near ancient Sparta.
When I land in Athens, I am not a sight to behold: a grey complexion and heavy under-eye baggage betray my winter of discontent. But things are looking up – I am met on arrival by Takis, the driver, who escorts me to a gleaming white Tesla. Then, he hands me a full-size, freshly laundered pillow so I can nap more comfortably. After my 5am start, I am wordless with gratitude.
After two hours’ drive, the Taygetus mountain range is all around us, some of the peaks still snow-capped in early May. We drive through the modern city of Sparta – it’s built on the site of the ancient one – and then through the town of Mystras to Euphoria’s proud hillside perch.
The arrival is choreographed and magical, the hotel revealing itself bit by bit. You step into an elevator on the ground floor and emerge outdoors in a walled orchard of orange and lemon trees.
Inside the arched, Byzantine-inspired reception, staff float about in uniforms of tunics and trousers. I sip my herb-infused welcome water, let my eyes rest on the horizon – each enormous window frames the view over the valley of Sparta and the blue-tinged mountains beyond – and notice that everything smells sublimely of honey, citrus, and oregano.
After my travels, I am desperately hungry and it is with a slight feeling of foreboding that I go to the restaurant for dinner, expecting clear broth and steamed vegetables. But instead, I find a menu that features bread, pasta, cheese and even steak.
Of course, there are plenty of soups, salads, grilled fish and vegetables on offer, too. At every meal, you can choose to order from the ‘healthy’ menu or the regular menu. And, no matter what you order, everything is prepared with organic ingredients that are either grown here in the vegetable gardens or sourced from local fishermen and farmers.
Already, I am starting to get the sense that the philosophy at Euphoria has nothing to do with deprivation and everything to do with joy. In other words: all carrot, no carrot stick.
The next day dawns crisp and clear and I opt to start with the guided hike before breakfast. Getting outside in nature is a key tenet of the healing philosophy here and every guest is encouraged to spend as much time outdoors as possible. It’s a welcoming prospect, given the balmy year-round temperatures in the Peloponnese and the beckoning network of mountain trails that run right from Euphoria’s front door.
Back home, it’s all I can do to drag myself to a morning exercise class but now I’m bounding up the wildflower-strewn hillside like an Olympian, taking great lungfuls of mountain air. Without a single drop of caffeine, I feel incredibly awake and am even a bit disappointed when we get to the top of the hill and have to go back down again.
Next, it’s time for yin yoga with Liz – an hour of deep stretching and meditation in the airy and light-filled yoga studio – before exploring the fascinating universe of the four-story, 4,000-square-foot spa.
Imagine if Willy Wonka was into water instead of chocolate and you’ll have some idea of the architectural wonder and fantastical array of Euphoria’s spa facilities.
There are hot and cold therapies of various temperature and purpose: hot, hot-hot, cold, very cold, actual ice, indoor, outdoor, watsu, and sensory deprivation.
But the most extraordinary is the Sphere pool where the outer stone walls contain hydrotherapy jets and inside the womb-like central circle, you can dive to a depth of four metres to hear a soothing underwater soundtrack of dolphins.
I have it all to myself and although I’m fairly certain I am supposed to be floating and meditating while I’m in here, I splash and dive like a six-year-old at Center Parcs, opening my eyes underwater and swimming through the arches.
I feel slightly guilty afterwards, like maybe I’m not mature enough for ‘proper’ wellness. But all my fears are assuaged when I have a chance to talk to Marina Efraimoglou, Euphoria Retreat’s owner and founder.
Marina battled cancer in her late twenties and then exhaustion and burnout from a high-powered job in investment banking. She visited countless healers, spas and retreats around the world in her journey to recovery but felt that too often the focus was on denial and suffering.
Unlike many eastern philosophies where suffering is the key to catharsis, for the ancient Greek philosophers, life was for celebrating. It was a practice known to them as ‘ef zin’ or ‘living well’ and its ultimate expression was euphoria, a state of wellbeing where body, mind and spirit are balanced.
Marina is proud to bring ef zin to life as the guiding principle here, the only destination of its kind in Greece. It explains why there are no strict rules, why there’s pasta on the menu and why it’s more than ok, Marina assures me, to splash in the meditation pool.
The next day starts again with a hike, yoga and more dipping in and out of pools. In the evening, I try one of Euphoria’s signature spa treatments, the hammam ritual.
I have to smile to myself as I realise, in a strange turn of events, it is early evening on a Wednesday and, instead of bathing my toddler as I usually do around this time, I am the one being bathed.
Bubbles are poured all over me as I lie on the enormous marble table. The combination of the enveloping steam, and the smell of the soap puts me into such a blissful reverie that my usual chattering monkey-mind is, for once, completely silent.
Afterwards, reclining with a warm cup of mountain tea in one of the many spa lounges, I look down and see that I have shed my dull winter skin like a carapace and emerged with an entirely new one: plump, anointed, glowing.
That’s the magic of Euphoria Retreat. Whether you’re on one of their seven-day immersive retreats or just, like me, skimming the surface with a healing holiday, after just a few days they’ll give you back to you.
And, after these slow and sensuous days, I believe I have a few new entries to add to the ever-expanding definition of wellness:
Wellness is time to daydream. Wellness is walking up the side of a mountain in springtime. Wellness is waking up without an alarm clock. And it definitely involves bubbles.
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