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In need of a post-pandemic reboot? Then a trip to a luxury health resort in Greece might be the solution, says Louise Atkinson...
Peering down the steeply sloping sides of an ancient amphitheatre in the Greek city of Sparta, I’m filled with trepidation. Beside me, a personal trainer is pulling stretchy exercise bands out of her backpack, and I am frankly dreading the prospect of having to wring my creaking joints through a gruelling workout. But suddenly a man appears from the wings and starts pounding up the steep stone steps, his arms pumping like pistons, shouting a hearty ‘kalimera!’ (good morning) as he hop-skips back down again, three steps at a time.
I am stunned. This Greek Adonis – deeply tanned, chiselled jaw, rippling muscle – had, for some reason, forgotten to pull on a T-shirt for his training session. And it turns out this is precisely the exercise inspiration I need.
The rest of the morning passes in a blur of burpees, squats, speedy-feet and star jumps, and much to my surprise, I find myself grinning through every sweaty minute. I was lucky enough to slip out of the UK just before the second lockdown in November 2020 and spend a few days at the Euphoria Retreat in Greece. I’d booked myself on a special ‘Spartan Spirit of Adventure’ package, so I knew exercise was going to be an important part of the mix, but I didn’t expect to actually enjoy it quite so much.
The months in and out of lockdown had left me – like so many – feeling emotionally drained and physically exhausted. I was desperate for a change of scene, a bit of pampering, and the inspiration and incentive to ramp up my fitness and get my health and wellbeing back on track. I needed the healing power of the great outdoors.
Although Euphoria offers an assortment of relaxing, immunity-boosting, ‘emotional transformation’ and weight-loss programmes which last from three days to two weeks, I was keen to spend as much time as possible outside.
The daily programme of activities includes yoga on a rooftop deck with spectacular views of the Spartan hills, HIIT classes in an outdoor gym hidden away in the forest and ‘warm up’ 5km bike rides to the amphitheatre training ground. Even in the winter months, the Greek sun shines brightly, and I feel my heart lifting with every blast of vitamin D and fresh mountain air.
There’s plenty of science to show the extra health benefits on top of the muscle building and calorie burn of regular exercise when you take it outdoors, and after months of rather lacklustre indoor Zoom classes my experience inspired me to try an outdoor bootcamp when I returned back home and to take my yoga mat into the garden.
Even Spartans need downtime and, mercifully, relaxation and recovery forms an important part of the Euphoria mix. In fact, you can opt out of all organised activity if you prefer and just spend your days lazily wafting in and out of the sauna, steam room, salt cave and hammam instead.
On arrival every guest is given a health assessment and prescribed spa treatments to help keep everything in balance. The resort ethos combines Chinese medicine with traditional Greek healing and modern technology (blood and breath analysis) to create a seductive mix of spirituality with cutting-edge science.
My prescription included a massage so rigorous it made me yelp, and instructions to allow time each day for reflection and mindfulness. It was only then that I realised I’d let ‘me-time’ slip through the net. Euphoria’s tranquil poolside lounge areas and all-inclusive mindfulness sessions were precisely what I needed.
My health prescription also advised de-stressing my body by bringing breakfast back into my life (I’d been trying to skip meals in an attempt to lose a few lockdown pounds) and to rein in the carbohydrates in the evening.
Thankfully the Euphoria breakfasts are spectacular (buckwheat pancakes drizzled in honey with berries, green juices, plus good strong coffee and a wide choice of plant milks) and the Mediterranean-inspired lunch and dinner menu is delicious, plentiful and packed with health-giving antioxidants. We could choose from soups, salads and risottos, local specialities (such as a deliciously moreish feta-stuffed filo parcel called ‘Laconian saiti’) and healthy twists on Greek classics.
Vegetarians and vegans are catered for, but you’ll find nothing deep fried on the menu. This is proper fancy fine dining: my request for a simple Greek salad was met with bemusement. Dinner each night kicked off witha mini amuse-bouche, and the mushroom soup was poured with a flourish from a carafe over a scattering of fairy-size enoki.
The spa resort, only two years old, is a cluster of stone buildings cut into the forested slopes of Mount Taygetus on the edge of Mystras, a 13th-century Unesco-protected castle town on the Peloponnese mainland, two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Athens.
On three or four mornings each week, all the guests at Euphoria are invited to join a guided hike into the hills to visit castle ruins, explore an old chapel cut into caves, or marvel at the brightly coloured frescoes inside the renovated churches scattered along the ridge of Mount Taygetus.
It’s not arduous climbing, but it’s tough enough to clear your lungs of fuggy lockdown air, and I relished the opportunity to fall into step (and conversation) with other spa guests visiting from around the world. It is so easy to get wrapped up in how well – or badly – the UK is coping with pandemic issues and fascinating to hear that life for the Greeks, Israelis, Croatians and Irish is little different from our own.
Euphoria offers a smorgasbord of yoga classes (vinyasa, yogilates, yin yang, expressive dance yoga) and I was keen to try them all, but one in particular caught my eye: aerial yoga. I’m pretty experienced on the mat, but I’d long yearned to try yoga suspended on lengths of cloth, and finally here was my chance!
As I was led out of the resort, through the sleepy village of Mystras and into the olive groves, I discovered my lesson would be taking place in a silk hammock draped over the gnarly bough of an old olive tree.
It is not often you get the chance to step outside your comfort zone like this, to trust in the tree and the fabric, and to feel the stress flowing out of your body as you bend and twist and flip upside down.
Switching up one’s fitness and workout routine has lots of benefits, and I hoped I’d find my own kind of euphoria in the ‘runner’s high’ of elevated fitness levels, burned calories and strengthened muscles, but it turns out it wasn’t more that my body really needed, it was less. After several days of Spartan exertion, this gently swaying yogic dangle was utter bliss.
How to book
A bed and breakfast stay at Euphoria Retreat starts from €342 per night in a double occupancy Superior Deluxe Room. The Euphoria ‘Spartan Spirit of Adventure’ Group Retreat (three days) costs from €2,010pp based on two sharing a Superior Deluxe Room on full board, including daily healthy snack and smoothie. BA (ba.com) flights from London to Athens cost from £120 return. Transfers to the resort from Athens cost €230 each way. For more information, visit euphoriaretreat.com