Green juices, 6am wake-up calls, zero wine: it’s all standard territory on a wellness retreat, right? But the road to feel-good doesn’t have to be through hardship and deprivation. The breed of retreat to know about in 2024 ditches self-flagellation in favour of fostering one simple emotion: joy.
‘Why wouldn’t you want to experience joy?’ says Margaret Reckitt of Manoir Mouret, a specialised wellbeing retreat in the south of France. ‘It’s not an everyday thing for most people. It can be hard to find when you have a busy lifestyle or high-pressured job, but you know it when you feel it. Stepping out of your normal environment and giving yourself time to explore things that make you joyful is a privilege.’
Unlike typical wellness retreats that try to ‘fix’ us through diet plans, intense workouts and spa treatments, this kind of self-care getaway is all about putting mental health first. The specifics vary tremendously; there might be more physical-focused sessions like yoga, sound-bathing, nature walks or dance, but also creative hobby classes such as cookery, pottery-making or painting. But what almost all have in common is a central focus around connecting with other people.
‘The biggest disease in the western world is the disease of loneliness,’ says Luuk Melisse, founder of Sanctum – a ‘global mindful movement’ with retreats in the likes of France and Italy. ‘We are more connected than ever, but lonelier than ever. By creating a community with likeminded people, you see the power of sharing, integration and listening to one another.’
One of the greatest mental benefits of such a retreat is the chance to interact with different types of people. Even if they don’t become long-term connections, they will open up your perspective to new things and help you discover a fresh side to the self. ‘We’ve had senior social workers and actors, PhD candidates and corporate lawyers, book agents and event managers,’ says Margaret, ‘it’s amazing to see all these eclectic people come together.’ Joyful retreat hosts report guests come away feeling mentally refreshed, having let go of trauma and gained insight as to what they want out of life. ‘Ultimately,’ says Margaret, ‘this is about investing in yourself.’
And hey, you might even get a glass of wine, too.
6 Joyful retreats to try
Manoir Mouret Retreats, France
Margaret Reckitt and her husband Jack run their regular ‘accessible wellness’ retreats out of an idyllic stone-faced 1850s manoir in the southern French commune of Andillac – about an hour from Toulouse. From qi gong to yoga, kimchi-making sessions to workshops in sleep management, the eclectic programming of each retreat is designed to give guests the space to mentally reset and feel inspired to think outside of the box. The romantic Gallic setting alone sparks joie de vivre: plentiful sunshine, a glittering pool and down-time socialising with other attendees in the elegant 12-bedroom house makes it feel like a proper holiday as much as a soul-searching exercise. This being France, the food is a highlight: five acres of onsite gardens produce 30 types of fruit and veg, the stars of your zingy vegetarian meals.
From £1,500 per person for five nights, manoirmouretretreats.com
Sanctum Infinite-Self and Community Club at Six Senses Rome, Italy
Drawing inspiration from his work as a dancer and his mum’s background as a medium, Luuk Melisse founded Sanctum with his partner Gabriel Olszewski as a hybrid between physical and emotional forms of release. Blending kundalini, martial arts, philosophy and sound-healing in a unique practice that has you moving mindfully and joyfully, his latest retreat takes over the plush new Six Senses Rome this May 24 to 26. It’s not only the setting that’s sexy; a cacao ceremony soundtracked by an electronic DJ and fabulous dinners with curated seating plans add fun and glamour. One of Luuk’s favourite parts? The closing circle on the final day: he says attendees often shed real tears of joy.
From £1,930 per person for three days, sixsenses.com
Lead with Love with Gina Murdock and Elisa Bava, Greece
With its golden beaches, sun-kissed landscapes and refreshing Mediterranean eats, a trip to Crete is already high on feel-good factor – and that’s before you add in this six-day May retreat with wellness experts Gina Murdock and Elisa Bava. Gina has taught yoga to the likes of Sir Richard Branson and Dr. Deepak Chopra, while certified sound therapist Elisa is an expert in the power of music (in a past life she competed in Eurovision). Together they dish up an itinerary that blends everything from journaling to cookery classes, movement work to scheduled reflective time. You’ll also have the opportunity to see some of Crete on boat trips and tours of archaeological site Knossos, so you leave feeling not only uplifted but like you’ve seen the destination too.
From £3,600 per person for six days, travelgems.com
Curious House at The Bell in Ticehurst, East Sussex
Trying something new can unlock your creativity, get you out of your head and deliver a dose of joy all at the same time. That’s where Curious House comes in with its half-, full- and multi-day experiences based out of a funky pub-with-rooms on the Kent/Sussex border. From Japanese kintsugi to paper collage art, mosaic-making to willow-weaving, the idea behind each session is that regardless of the outcome (read: you needn’t be any good) you’ll find some meaning in building a fresh skillset. After you’ve made your masterpiece, overnight at the quirky Bell in Ticehurst to carry on the creative experience – this 1560-built coaching inn is far from generic, with neon art, tree trunks in rooms and an events calendar of comedy and cabaret nights. For the ultimate joy, book one of the romantic lodges, complete with the likes of woodburners, copper baths and private roof terraces.
From £60 for a half-day class, curioushouse.net
Land of Joy, Northumberland
Set in the green rolling hills of Northumberland National Park, Buddhist retreat Land of Joy pairs a soothing environment with a calendar of religious and secular retreats that bring calm and peace to the mind. For example, a three-day ‘Mind and Nature’ weekend in April is designed to help you beat stress and reconnect with the great outdoors through meditation and walking; an ‘Awakening Joy’ retreat in May focuses on cultivating positive thinking and a sense of calm. Accommodation is shared and no-frills, but there’s a nice collective air; you can sometimes bring your own tent and camp in warmer months. For those strapped for cash, the most joyful thing of all is the fee: that is, nada. Retreats work on a donation-only basis, so you just pay what you can.
By donation, landofjoy.co.uk
Leap Mindfulness Joyful Being Retreat, East Sussex
Spend April 12-14 enlivening mind, body and soul with this hosted weekend in the woodlands of East Sussex that combines yin yoga, meditation and creative mindfulness practices. Hosts Sue and Sally welcome up to 12 guests on a ‘not too serious’ retreat that brings a lighter side to the spiritual journey – filled with simple pleasures and fun. Besides twice-daily stretch sessions and relaxing morning meditations, you’ll get the chance to experience an evening fire circle, a chakra trance dance with drumming and a manifesting ritual that helps welcome positivity into your life. The communal house that acts as home base is surrounded by wildflower meadows and bluebell woods so you can also take some time out during the day to enjoy nature. Meanwhile, on cold evenings, all is warmed by the crackle of a wood-burning stove.
From £485 per person for three days, leapmindfulness.com