Serenity Retreat review | meditation retreats UK & Greece
Zen Buddhism meditation, silent & relaxation retreats
The Quick Read: Set up by Zen Buddhist meditation teacher Kim Bennett, a down-to-earth yet incredibly warm woman with an infectious sense of humour, Serenity Retreat runs affordable retreat-style holidays on the island of Lefkada in Greece and short courses, including silent retreats, at various venues in England. Solo travellers interested in spirituality and personal growth or just pure relaxation come for this pick’n’mix break (courses, excursions, therapies and meditation sessions are all optional) that tends to attract people who have started to question their lives and who want to live more meaningfully. Laid back but deeply caring, it’s something rather special. Crucially, there’s no single supplement and no shared rooms.
More on the retreat: The retreats, for solo travelers only, are held in the small, friendly village of Nikiana on the Greek island of Lefkada – read a word from the queen on her experience – with a wide choice of accommodation. Aside from one shared meal in a local restaurant, you are responsible for your own self-catering (there are plenty of local restaurants in Nikiana although the choice is a little more limited at the very beginning and end of the season). Serenity Retreat prefers to use local accommodation, restaurants and shops, to support the local economy.
The wellbeing activities: The major focus for the retreat is complete relaxation. If you want you can choose to do absolutely nothing except relax on the beach or potter around the village. There’s also morning meditation and guided walks – no need to book for these – just turn up if you’re feeling in the mood. Meditation is simple sitting, from a Zen perspective – usually held outside, a few footsteps from the beach.
The courses: During your stay in Greece there are also a range of interesting, enlightening courses you can pick and choose from. They are totally optional and must be booked beforehand. Groups are small and, where possible, courses are held outside to make the most of the weather and the setting. They tend to focus on nudging you into thinking about your life and about finding easier ways of living with oneself. Teachers are carefully picked and of a high calibre.
Jane Matthews’ courses, based around Louise Hay’s work, are always popular. Her ‘Heal your Life, Achieve your Dreams’ shows how to stop sabotaging yourself and allow yourself to create healthier relationships and a more peaceful, creative life. ‘The Teachings of the Buddha’ is aimed at anyone curious about Buddhism (whether you have any experience of the teachings, or not). The course introduces key concepts (including mindfulness, the Middle Path, and the Four Noble Truths) and opens them up for debate. In addition, Kim runs many free courses herself in Zen meditation and mindfulness.
The treatments: Treatments are optional and you pay the therapist direct in Euros. They are held in a small but comfortable room. Kim is careful to pick excellent bodyworkers, who tend to change each season. There’s also reflexology, Swedish massage, sports massage and Indian head massage.
Other lovely stuff you can do: There are several optional trips recommended by Serenity – cruises, walks, tours – on a take them or leave them basis. The herb walk in the mountains with the gentle and knowledgeable Aris is highly recommended – a gentle hike stopping every few paces to investigate a plant, learning its history, its mythology, its healing properties, culminating at the grounds of Ayios Georgios, an abandoned monastery. A slow meander then takes you into the tiny village of Alexandros for lunch with Maria, a kitchen goddess, a true Demeter who lays out a feast: long peppers stuffed with piquant cheese and herbs; spicy little meatballs; salad plucked from the garden a few scant hours before. Also recommended is a trip on the MS Christina to explore the ‘forgotten’ islands of Kastos and Kalamos. There are several opportunities to swim and snorkel off the boat or just lounge on deck like lotus eaters, lapping up the sun. On the way back to harbour you explore the coastline of Skorpios, the island of the doomed Onassis family, mooring off the beach that was supposedly the favourite of Maria Callas. Watersports are available in the village and there are several beaches for swimming. Cars can be hired to explore the island and guests often club together to share the cost.
More on Nikiana: Nikiana is a down to earth, friendly village and Serenity’s great reputation for supporting the local economy means superb service and a warm welcome wherever you go. The village is not picture postcard pretty, and some of the back roads are a little down at heel. A main (but not busy) road cuts through the main street which houses the majority of shops. The beaches are pebbly but the sea is good for swimming and keen yachts people will enjoy sailing in the bay. Most tourists tend to be Italian or other Greeks (from the mainland). There is no centre – meet-ups happen on the beach, in the cafes or bars, or at the Garden Room. Solo travellers have a range of apartments right on the beach with stunning views to choose from. Both Tassoula Apartments and Pan’s Apartments are simple self-catering apartments – traditional, basic but spotlessly clean and rather charming. Lefkothea Studios and Theo’s Apartments are more modern and stylish in feel and more upmarket.
Food & Drink: Apart from an initial welcome lunch, you sort out your own food – whether self-catering or eating out (with or without fellow guests). There are three mini-supermarkets in Nikiana for self-catering supplies – and a great opportunity to practice your Greek – though prices are extremely reasonable at the local restaurants (we rarely spent over seven euros for a meal). These serve typically Greek food – good kebabs and the inevitable chips, but also seafood, Greek salad and plenty of vegetarian options. The bakery offers superb pies (the spinach ones are moreish) and the internet cafe Pepe le Pew does good coffee (iced, expresso, cappuccino etc -Lefkada has a strong Italian influence).The group tends to pick a particular taverna or restaurant for informal meet-ups- so you never need eat alone if you don’t wish. Local wine is cheap and perfectly quaffable or you can spend more for imported vintages.
Fellow guests: Serenity is ideal for independently minded people who like a degree of autonomy although first time solo travellers may welcome the optional structured activities. It’s not ‘hippy dippy’ – less mung beans and group hugs and more intelligent, soulful and lively conversations. Guest numbers are kept small – no more than 12, and the age range tends to be 30 and upwards – you’ll find generally professional people on a ‘quest’ or ‘inner journey’. Inevitably there is the odd self-absorbed person who will bore you senseless with their ‘experiences’, but it’s as easy to avoid people as it is to find them. Serenity wouldn’t suit those who like a very formalized programme, or those who are looking for luxury, wall-to-wall pampering or to be settled at a specific location – at Serenity you tend to become part of the village. The majority of people come alone, as there is no single supplement, but it’s equally open to friends who want to be together.
Costs: A week at Serenity Retreat in Nikiana costs from £399 per person (in a simple beachside bedroom or apartment) to £589 per person (in a more comfortable apartment) per person for a room alone (add £295 for sharers – there is no single supplement). The price includes accommodation, transfers from most flights, a welcome lunch, guided meditations and walks. Treatments cost from €40 (approx £30). Some courses such as Teachings of the Buddha are by donation; others cost from £100.
At least 5% of profit made by Serenity Retreat will go to a combination of charities. These include Amnesty international, Clic Sargent, Concern Worldwide and the Hope Community Village
What’s queenly: These retreat-type holidays are run with genuine grace and from-the-heart by a woman who knows her stuff. You will inevitably meet interesting people and have fascinating conversations. The village is so friendly, you feel like a local within days.
What’s lowly: The location lacks a lovely indoor meeting place in the village. Not having a specific ‘centre’ is a little discombobulating, and sometimes it can be hard to find people. It’s a small quibble, though (and Kim is always available by phone).
Reviewed by Jane Alexander
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