Wellness retreats can be expensive and full of strangers. In Puglia, a group of yoga teachers, wine connoisseurs, photographers and more decided to curate their own - with a good dose of poolside lounging and wine to boot. Turns out that teamwork really does make the dream work…
There are two kinds of trips that appeal to me: curated - and often expensive - wellness retreats with strangers, and a girls' trip which involves lots of poolside lounging and wine.
Running Female Narratives, a creative agency that aims to empower women, I am fortunate to be surrounded by kick-ass women, many of whom are making waves in the wellness industry.
So, I thought, rather than going on an expensive retreat with strangers, why don't we club together and curate our own girls' trip in which we all contribute something by taking charge of activity about which we feel passionate? Combining our skills and interests we could create our own retreat, complete with essential pool downtime of course.
When I suggested this in an email to some of my friends, the response was overwhelming. Katie, acro-yoga teacher, offered two classes; Danielle is a wellness expert and treatment-trainee so she could provide massages and meditation sessions; Micah is a dancer and offered to teach a routine; Franzi is a wine connoisseur volunteered to organise our F&B needs (more complex than it sounds when you have a vegan, celiac, pescatarian and someone allergic to alliums and another allergic to apples). Jada offered to host a dinner conversation focused on mental health and Steph, who is an incredible photographer, would document the experience.
As for me? I'm a relentless planner. I would organise flights, transfers and our schedule. Having studied history, I also took it upon myself to add some context to the trip by organising sightseeing. It was all perfectly planned out in theory, but would it work in practice…
Find Retreat-Friendly Spaces
It felt like things were destined to work out. As our destination we chose ancient and beautiful Puglia, where we would stay in the five-bedroom Masseria Pettolecchia La Residenza, a rural retreat entrenched in Puglian traditions. We arrived by the light of the moon, driving through acres of Unesco-protected, millennia-old olive groves that surround the main house - after our bumpy RyanAir flight felt like entering another world. The next morning, after one of the best night's sleep I've had this year, I awoke in a glorious king-size bed to the twitter of birds and smell of freshly made coffee.
The local staff at La Residenza quickly felt like family; each of us wanted to take Palma (our host) home - there was lots of hugging when we departed. Having a space that felt like was fundamental to the success of our retreat. It meant we had all the space to play and neither be disturbed nor feel in the way of other guests. Being in a big hotel wouldn't have worked. Equally, had we got an Airbnb, there would have been more pressure to organise who was cooking or cleaning and doing other duties - we didn't have to think about here.
Re-Discover Experiential Exchange
I recently read Talking To My Daughter About the Economy: A Brief History of Capitalism in which economist and professor Yanis Varoufakis explains in simple terms how our society shifted from prizing experiential value to commodity exchange, a society in which every transaction now has a monetary value. Yet it's the real, experiential exchanges, things that we don't - or can't -put a monetary value on that often bring us much more joy.
If there is a way to split responsibility and create a trip based on experiential exchange (I give you a yoga class in exchange for your dance class and your cooking skills etc.) then we can create something that communally brings more joy and more value when combined. This retreat worked so well because each person took ownership of their role and brought their best to the table. It didn't work because we were paying each other, but because we wanted to create the best possible experience for each other.
Customise Your Retreat
If you read through my list earlier of yoga, dance, massages and conversation and thought '"well my friends don't do those things so I couldn't do that" - don't worry. There are endless numbers of activities and roles that could be included depending on what you and your friend's like to do. Try rock climbing, cooking, writing, hiking, running, painting and more. Play to your strengths; everyone is different. That's the beauty of the idea.
If this still sounds like something you'd like to try but aren't sure how to go about it, Six Travel is an app that can help you find the right space to facilitate your own retreat, or join an existing one someone else is putting together. It's the easiest way to discover and book expert-curated hotels and retreats, allowing travellers to book easily at the moment of discovery.
Embrace the Unforeseen
I'm not saying that everything went exactly as we planned - the weather meant we couldn't go the boat trip and the schedule wasn't airtight. We only had three days in which to do everything we had planned so our dance class kept getting pushed back until we didn't have time for it. On the last morning, we were all sat on our suitcases waiting for our transfer to take us back to the airport, back to work and back to reality. The staff notified us that our car was going to be at least half an hour late - things run a little slower in Puglia. We panicked, frantically checked our flight, realised that was running late too and then, because it was all out of our control, we decided it was the perfect time to forget our worries and have a dance break.
Right there, by our suitcases, on the dirt path, shaded by palms and cacti, Micah led the best dance class of our lives while Aaliyah played off a portable speaker hanging from a tree. We used Jada's tripod to film the whole thing and laughed at the videos all the way home - and napped, leaning on each other for support. Going with the flow worked out better that we could have ever planned. As much as I've enjoyed trips where I just lay by a pool, I now find myself wanting more from a holiday. From now on, this is how I want them all to be.
Photos by Stephanie Sian Smith on a Fuji GFX50R at Masseria Pettolecchia La Residenza, Palazzo Pettolecchia and Masseria Torre Abate Risi, Puglia, Italy
Clothes by Lululemon, Solid and Striped and model's own Skin by Kiehl's
Girls: Tijana Tamburic, Franzi Klein, Micah Barnes, Katie Burn, Danielle Copperman and Jada Sezer