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Meet the London women who’ve founded a new wave of life-changing retreats

Lindsey Holland is the founder of adventure retreats in Portugal and now Bali (Marnie Rays)
Lindsey Holland is the founder of adventure retreats in Portugal and now Bali (Marnie Rays)

Discovering the transformative power of surfing is what gave brand founder Lindsey Holland, 36, the impetus to start her own retreats, Marnie Rays. “I was sitting in my favourite place — China Walls in Hawaii — during a surf trip thinking about how it’s changed my life and how it made me feel. I wanted to be able to spread that to other people,” she recalls.

She first went on a solo trip to try the sport three years ago after “having one of those really funny, vulnerable times in life. I felt: I don’t know if I have things that make me really happy anymore.” After a week of surf, yoga and some soul searching she felt revitalised — and wanted to go surfing every chance she got. “I just came back so refreshed and with this massive excitement,” Holland recalls.

Lindsey Holland surfing at Marnie Rays in Portugal (Marnie Rays)
Lindsey Holland surfing at Marnie Rays in Portugal (Marnie Rays)

Now Marnie Rays’ Portugal surf trips are in their sophomore year and the company has announced two new locations for 2024. One in Ubud, Bali for a unique retreat combining surf, skate and breathwork, and another in Cornwall for a surf and yoga break in the scenic town of Padstow. As well as high-end accommodation (a big step up from the “rough around the edges” hostels from the retreats Holland has tried), charismatic instructors and renowned chefs including Clare Cole from Towpath were on the must-have list. “I wanted to offer the same community and joy, and break down the barriers of it feeling intimidating, but also provide people with a certain level of luxury so that they could feel really nurtured on their solo trip,” explains Holland.

Holland’s trips may be niche for the pursuits she has chosen, but her concept is part of a new wave of retreats founded by female Londoners. They’re geared towards solo travellers who want an intimate, inclusive trip (group sizes are around eight and fifteen). Unlike the typical associations of wellness retreats which might come to mind, there’s no women-only codes, strict itineraries, detoxes or vitamin drips. These are not spiritual holidays in the traditional sense — though feeling recharged and renewed can be a happy side effect. And the locations? Emerging, cool spots loved by travel insiders.

I wanted to offer the same community and joy and break down the barriers of it feeling intimidating, but also provide people with a certain level of luxury so that they could feel really nurtured on their solo trip

Lindsey Holland, Marnie Rays

For foodies, there’s Matriarch Eats from travel journalist and cook book author Anastasia Miara. She takes guests “behind the beaded curtains” in Corfu and Athens, and into the whitewashed homes of locals such as her Yiayia (Greek for grandma) as well as to the secret tavernas and rooftops to eat, drink and be merry outside of the typical tourist traps. Miara is a former Bompas & Parr events planner and splits her time between Athens and London, spending summers in Corfu. She says she curates the itineraries in the same way she would for “my best friends who had never visited before.”

Anatasia Miari and her Yiayia (Matriarch Eats)
Anatasia Miari and her Yiayia (Matriarch Eats)

Another food retreat, launching this spring, is House Soup in Provence by London chef and writer Anna Barnett. Focused on a slow approach to holidaying, guests can kick back and let Barnett and her co-host, yoga teacher Renee Stewart, take the reigns on an itinerary spanning local crafts, cooking lessons, meditation and wine tasting (this is the south of France, after all).

“To visit Provence and not experience some of the best wine and produce from the area would be to not experience the essence of Provence,” as Barnett says. “Wellbeing, moderation (in moderation), calmness, and community will all be at the heart of our retreats. We’re aiming to embrace all that is deliciously inspiring.”

 (Anna Barnett)
(Anna Barnett)

Then, more in line with traditional retreats but with a chilled, inclusive spin is Pana. The week-long culture and yoga retreats have so far taken place in The Gambia — and as of last month — Kenya. The trips are an offshoot of founder Dr Rebekah Jade’s BPOC platform and classes of the same name, which started in south London. "It's elevating the health and happiness of the black community and the allies. And that kind of came off the back of Black Lives Matter, the pandemic and everything that came to light during that time," she says, adding, "I wanted to help my community explore Africa and the Caribbean in a really sustainable way."

“It's a holiday where yoga is one of the key activities we do to elevate our wellbeing rather than being specifically for yogis, to come and do advanced practices every day. Some people are doing their first ever yoga class,” explains the yoga teacher and medical doctor, 27.

Life after COVID has seen the appetite for retreats increase. Dr Jade recalls “taking a leap of faith” after returning from her own life-changing solo trip from The Gambia on the recommendation of a friend who’d stayed there during the pandemic. “My community was building at that time [in 2022] anyway so I launched my first retreat there,” she recalls. “It sold out really quickly — I think because no one really goes to The Gambia for retreats,” she says.

Dr Rebekah Jade founded Pana to elevate the health and happiness of the black community and allies (Pana)
Dr Rebekah Jade founded Pana to elevate the health and happiness of the black community and allies (Pana)

While Miara remembers “doing a test poll on Instagram” when travel restrictions were easing in 2021 to see who would attend a retreat with her as the organiser, after she had been bombarded with requests for travel tips for Corfu. “Overwhelmingly people said that they would join. I actually had a waiting list. Everyone was just so desperate for a holiday by that point.”

Since travel restrictions were lifted and the world opened back up, research shows that people have invested heavily in unique experiences over material goods. And adventure travel is on the rise, with the market expected to grow 15.2% from 2022 to 2030, as people crave going to places they could only dream of while locked down.

There is a trend of wanting to have an efficient holiday: people have a whole itinerary laid out for them. They don't need to stress about making it, it's all done and it’s done really well.

Lena Evstafieva, Villa Lena

As Lena Evstafieva, a seasoned retreat organiser and the founder of Villa Lena, Tuscany says, “So many things were crystalised for so many people during Covid. It became a catalyst that brought desires to the surface, which were buried by so many other things that went before.” It’s clear more people are now saying 'f*** it' to factors they used to consider an obstacle to travel, such as not having a companion, and these curated solo trips are answering their call.

Barnett also believes that the new wave of creative and alternative retreats offers something unique to increasingly time-poor people living in cities. “Retreats are a brilliant way to avoid compromising when travelling,” she says. “The hard work has already been done for you. I think given that our time is increasing precious these days, a curated trip can really ensure you get the most out of your time off and give you what’s truly important to you.”

Being taken care of in an atmosphere of conviviality among a like-minded community definitely seems to be something people are craving on the founders’ retreats. “Some of the guests might be having a challenging time at home and want to go and push themselves out of their comfort zone,” says Holland. “Some people have gone through horrendous grief, some people were just burnt out with work, some people had left jobs and been having a bit of a f***ing year. Everybody is so different, and I think we all learnt a lot from one another.”

It's all about having a laugh, having a drink, having a dance, eating really good food and meeting welcoming locals. But I guess that is enough to reset. Sometimes it’s all people need to bring them back to life

Anastasia Miara, Matriarch Eats

Miara has had guests say how “cathartic” her trips have been for them — in spite of typical wellness activities not being anywhere on the itinerary. “It’s nourishing on a fun level,” she explains. “But not doing anything so serious. It's all about having a laugh, having a drink, having a dance, eating really good food and meeting welcoming locals. But I guess that is enough to reset. Sometimes it’s all people need to bring them back to life on something they've been going through.”

Life is only getting faster and more exhausting, with 79% of UK workers having experienced burnout in the last year, according to a study by Ceridian. And with Forbes reporting that despite the rising cost of living people plan to spend more than ever on travel for 2024, it’s no wonder these fledgling London-founded retreats are already expanding with more dates and locations to meet demand. Holland even has her eye on starting the first luxury surf hotel of its kind in the future.

You might have thought wellness wasn’t for you, but it looks different at these 2024 retreats.

Your need-to-know on 2024’s alternative retreats

The slow living one

House Soup retreats, Maison Slix, Provence, France, May 2-6

 (Maison Salix)
(Maison Salix)

Hosted at the beautifully rustic boutique hotel Maison Salix in the heart of Provence, this the first retreat from chef Anna Barnett, in collaboration with yoga and meditation teacher Renee Stewart and the hotel’s interiors mastermind Hugues Delvaux. Over five days you’ll learn the art of slow living with a bank holiday break combining gastronomical adventures; visiting local markets and being led in Mediterranean cooking lessons; introductions to local crafts and plenty of restorative exercise, with morning yoga and breathwork as well as freshwater swimming. You’ll be part of a small group to ensure a hands-on, immersive experience in the charming village of Vallabrègues.

From £2,500, housesoup.co.uk

The find-your-joy one

Manoir Mouret Retreats, Andillac in South West France, multiple dates between June and October

 (Manoir Mouret Retreats)
(Manoir Mouret Retreats)

If there's one thing that the French know plenty about, it's how to live the good life — and this series of food-and movement-based retreats are all about imparting that wisdom via good wine and homegrown French fair in a bucolic setting in the South of France.

Founded by Margaret and Jack Reckitt, who decamped to the area from London to become winemakers, and bought-up Manoir Mouret (which was originally built in 1850 by the village's head winemaker) in 2020, the retreats are meant to offer a slice of rural French life and reignite your joie de vivre. The 'Nourish' Nutrition retreats focus on the power of good produce and community when it comes to food, and are run by nutrition therapist, lecturer and author, Kirsten Chick, and holistic chef and Qi Gong teacher, Hayley North, while the 'Move for Life' retreats will help you develop a personalised movement practice to support your wellbeing goals well after you've left France. All are five days and take place in the idyllic surroundings of the Manoir, with its five acres of gardens and vegetable patches.

€1,750 per person, manoirmouretretreats.com

The Instagrammable one

Marnie Rays Surf & Wellness retreat Portugal, June 11-16, Bali skate and surf, October 1-8

A feast by one of Marnie Rays' chefs, who include Nina Parker and Claire Cole (Marnie Rays)
A feast by one of Marnie Rays' chefs, who include Nina Parker and Claire Cole (Marnie Rays)

Unlike the typical surf retreat, Marnie’s offers private or double rooms in a chic private eco retreat surrounded by farmland in Portugal’s Aljezur. Daily surf lessons, plus some hikes and yoga will be fuelled by filling, delicious breakfasts and two group meals, cooked by emerging London chef Rosie Kellett. Holland and her team provide all the little luxuries you might find yourself needing on the trip, from a towel from her brand The Longing to La Roche-Posay SPF and Free People accessories. These thoughtful touches and the team’s hands on approach give it a serious edge in the hospitality stakes.

Or if you fancy going further afield, Marnie’s first skate and surf retreat will take place in Ubud, Bali in autumn. Sound baths will provide some calm after the adventure sports. Total beginners are encouraged — even those who aren’t confident in water have thrived on the retreats.

Portugal from £2,199. Bali from £1,799. marnierays.com

The retox one

Matriarch Eats, Corfu, September 28 - October 3, 2024. Athens dates coming soon

Miara in Athens (Marco Arguello)
Miara in Athens (Marco Arguello)

Eat your way around the rugged island of Corfu with an immersive culinary itinerary and live cooking demos. You’ll meet Greek producers, artists, discover hidden beaches and learn to make uniquely Corfiot dishes in locals' homes. Miara says that learning how to make coffee with her charismatic Yiayia (the namesake of her 2023 cook book and entire brand) is most guests' highlight. Accommodation is an 18th century Venetian manor in the island’s serene hills. Dancing and poolside aperitivo are also on the menu.

Or if you want a buzzier break, book in to Miara’s epicurean tour of city of the moment Athens, to discover “the secret beauty behind all of the chaos.” You’ll stay in a chic mid-century apartment, shop for local produce and drink the best Greek wine and Orzo at the hidden bars. A dip in the Aegean sea and some hiking will help you to shake off the cobwebs.

Corfu is priced at £2,900 for a double room solo, or £2,300 per person when sharing. A full itinerary can be found at matriarcheats.com/retreats. Pricing for Athens 2024 tbc.

The OG one

Villa Lena seasonal retreats, various dates

17th Century Villa Lena has its own organic farm, bar and restaurant (Villa Lena)
17th Century Villa Lena has its own organic farm, bar and restaurant (Villa Lena)

The stunning 17th century Villa Lena is in the heart of Tuscany with its own bar, restaurant, organic farm and a pool with panaromic views. Inside, the rooms have a boutique feel while retaining rustic charm. Think beamed ceilings, luxe marble bathrooms and vintage lamps. All in all, it's a stunning setting for a culture or arts retreat, whether solo or as a duo looking to reconnect. Mothers and daughters are common pairings here. The venue attracts requests from the crème de la crème of global talent to curate its seasonal calendar of environmentally-minded creative retreats, with workshops and feasting at their heart. Next year book in for Porcelain's Natural Perfume retreat in spring, a Souljourn Yoga retreat in summer or the autumn harvest-themed retreat, with foraging, workshops and yoga from Nina Butler.

From €1,899 (£1,636). villa-lena.it

Kenya retreat details from Pana for January 2025 are coming soon. Register your interest at wearepana.com