Sharon Walker reviews a challenging fitness retreat at a gorgeous coastal hotel on Kefalonia and finds herself loving every single minute – even the hill sprints
There are many good reasons to go on fitness retreat and in my case the trigger was a big birthday. Another big birthday. They come around faster with each passing decade and this was a particularly tricky one to get my head around. I’d planned to ignore it, but had somehow been hoodwinked into having a great big bash for which I’d need to be in my Best Shape Ever. Radical measures were required.
I’d been on an HHH retreat before and knew what to expect, which is great food, great fun and sweat (lots of it). So on a balance more pleasure than pain and I knew the hotel was lovely. This time, however, I’d signed up for the hardcore retreat so when at 3am the alarm went off, signalling it was time to bounce out of bed for my EasyJet flight to Kefalonia, I did wonder about my sanity. In keeping with the hardcore theme, one of our crew had come straight from a party, which is probably the best way (he slept like a baby on the plane). But from the moment we landed, when we were greeted with a delicious packed lunch, the week was a joy and I loved every minute of it. Yes, even the hill sprints. It was really, really fun. I don’t know if fit people laugh more than most but the group fizzed with a vibrant joie de vivre and the trainers spent the entire week ribbing each other mercilessly.
There were six people in our group, including an Amazonian former beach volleyball champion, an Italian financier who played Tinder like an Olympic sport and a lawyer who was headed straight for a hill sprinting ‘holiday’ straight after this one. So not exactly slouches. Was I scared? Maybe a bit, but the competitive environment was absolutely brilliant for me, because if I’m training with a guy who’s bashing out one-legged burpees (yes really), I’m going to make sure I match him. Kayak Death Challenge? Bring it on! Even the Pilates class was hardcore and I soon discovered a whole new layer of muscle. The ‘friendly’ water polo match rekindled my competitive streak and I shocked myself (and everyone else) by becoming a fearless ‘goal machine’. By the end of the week I felt invincible.
The fitness mantra here is ‘turn it up’, and everything about the way the retreat is designed will inspire you to push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Between the ten-mile hikes and the dreaded bleep test (a fitness test they use in the army and police force) – one of our trainers, James Larkin, estimated that we’d ‘dumped 24,000 calories’ in six days. Not something you can easily do at home.
‘I don’t know if fit people laugh more than most but the group fizzed with a vibrant joie de vivre and the trainers spent the entire week ribbing each other mercilessly’
But do you know what, none of it was that bad. Even crawling over the finish line of the final day’s (mini) triathlon, I still had a smile on my face. Doing it all in a fabulous five-star hotel certainly helped and the meals were always a treat to look forward to. Al’s food is exceptional; you can see why billionaires fly him half way round the world to cook for them. In fact, the standards were brilliantly high all round, with top personal trainers and the location is delightful, imagine incredibly clear water, shady pine forest hikes and the scent of wild herbs in the air. Then there’s a wonderful sense of camaraderie which makes all the sweat worthwhile.
I did the retreat in preparation for my 50th birthday, ostensibly to boost my energy and fitness in preparation for next decade, but also because I wanted to look hot in my party dress. Did it work? You bet, and I easily wore a dress I’d bought 20 years earlier.
Back home, armed with sheets of Al’s recipes, I steamed into Wholefoods like a woman possessed and immediately maxed out my credit card on chia seeds and gogi berries. Three months later I’m still hooked on Al’s Bircher muesli and have swapped fried eggs for poached, inspired by Al’s brilliant cooking demo.
Would I go back? Yes, in a shot. I loved the combo of hardcore fitness and totally fabulous surroundings.