This is Clew Bay, looking out from County Mayo across the Atlantic to the Statue of Liberty.
And this is Cloona, a converted mill tucked into the hills above Clew Bay, which is not quite a yoga centre, nor quite a Buddhist retreat, nor quite a health farm – but, really, all of those things.
The mill at Cloona was bought, way back in the 1950s by Sonia Kelly with the money from her father’s tea estate in what was then Ceylon. With her husband, Josie, she repaired the mill and set to, with the help of around 20 local girls, to weave and create sweaters and hats, some of which even got exported to the US and featured in glossy magazines. Then, in 1959, the Dalai Lama was exiled from Tibet and Sonia, already friendly with the chief Tibetan monk in Ireland who was often to be found cycling around the Cloona hills in his orange robes, offered Cloona as a place of sanctuary for the monks. But, under pressure from China, the Irish government refused to grant the Tibetan refugees visas so Sonia decided to ‘invent her own philosophy and establish the health centre.’ (If you want to know more there is a long and fascinating interview with Sonia in the September 2008 issue of Mayo News.)
And, over 50 years later, Cloona is still going, now run by Sonia’s youngest son, Dhara, very much on the food-combining, Hay diet principles that Sonia espoused back in the 1960s, but now combined with yoga, ‘structured’ walks in the hills, a sauna with the coldest shower short of Alaska – an escape from the hurly burly of 21st century life. No TVs, no radios, no DVDs, no wifi, use of mobiles and laptops heavily discouraged on the premises. But ample opportunity to chat (only if you want to) with other guests, read your book, walk in the hills or down on the beach – or even just sleep!! For five days or, if you can’t escape for the full five, Cloona also offers weekend retreats. (This year they have been very dashing and have also set up Cloona in Italy…. A identikit week to the Irish one but in the hills overlooking the Adriatic.)
The diet is perfect for anyone on a gluten, dairy, egg or soya-free diet as it consists entirely of a lot of fresh well water, and fruits and vegetables, either straight or made into the most delicious soups and salads. (See my article on the Foods Matter site for more details on Cloona’s food philosophy and on the recipes site for some of Dhara’s soup and salad recipes.) The only down side is Dhara’s enthusiasm for freshly mascerated wheat grass, grown for him by his niece who lives in the cottage up the road. I do not doubt that it is wonderfully good for you – positively bounding with life giving enzymes – but it does required dedication to get it down each morning!
Post fruity breakfast there is a two hour yoga and meditation session – easy enough for beginners to manage but stretching enough for more seasoned campaigners to enjoy – ending up, much to my delight, with half an hour of my favourite Yoga Nidra meditation. (A guided meditation in which you focus, not on sounds or mantras, but on different parts of the body. For more read my rave blog from a couple of years ago…)
A yummy and extremely ample lunch (we never managed to finish the salads…) is followed by an hour’s walk through the ‘soft’ Irish hills running up towards Croagh Patrick, St Patrick’s sacred mountain, or down to the dunes of Clew Bay. But this is not just any old a wander in the hills. Each walk is led (at a cracking pace and come sun or hail) by Dhara and, before you set off, he gives you a mini Alexander session on walking. Day one – flexing and relaxing shoulders knees, ankles and feet; day two – shifting weight from hip to hip; day three – tipping pelvis to balance the body….. which you are then expected to practice during your walk. You are not encouraged to talk, or even to look at the countryside, but to ‘take time for yourself’. (To be honest, remembering to flex not only the knees but the ankles and toes, while swinging the hips and tilting the pelvis, leaves very little time for any other thoughts at all!!)
Post walk there are optional therapies – massage, relexology, meditation etc. I had the most wonderful session with a delightful Peruvian lady, Isabela Basombirio Hoban, who used Himalayan Singing Bowls…..
Or you can take yourself off to Westport (an extremely nice little town with lots of good shops and – although of course one would not be tempted to visit them – excellent tea shops and restaurants) or even 30 k down the most spectacular tiny coast road to Leenane for a hot seaweed bath! Sadly I had not taken the camera in with me so I cannot treat you to a picture of me up to my neck in ‘freshly cut seaweed from Killary harbour’ but this is what it looks like – and I have to say that it feel really great.
Evenings at Cloona consist of a huge plate of fruit, the the sauna (and Arctic shower), a complementary massage (on two evenings) – and nice early bed!!
Rooms are not luxurious but comfortable – much more so since the installation two years ago of several ‘en-suites’ with lovely huge and vigorous showers. Certainly more than comfortable enough to spend a few hours with that book you have been meaning to read for the whole of the last year. (I got through two of Vera Brittain’s classic autobiographies – Testament of Youth and Testament of Friendship – which I thoroughly recommend to anyone who, as I did, thought they knew about WW1, but really did not…)
What does a visit to Cloona cost? Well a remarkably reasonable €590 for a single room for the 5 day programme (Sunday to Friday lunchtime), €740 if you have one of the posh new en-suite rooms. This includes all foods, drinks and facilities apart from any optional treatments that you have in the afternoon. For full details see their site – www.cloona.ie
Of course you also have to get there – easy if you live in Ireland, rather more expensive if you come from further afield. If you do, I would strongly recommend combining your visit to Cloona with a week’s holiday elsewhere in Ireland. Two of the ladies who were there on my visit were Canadian (one of whom, Kathleen who wrote the poem below, on a return trip) and were combining Cloona with a visit to Dublin and a week of ‘Celtic Spirituality’ on Aran….
Would I go back? Yes, certainly – in fact, this was my third visit over the last twelve years. The regime is relaxing, reviving and rejuvenating and the surroundings are spectacularly beautiful, but there is no doubt that Cloona is good for the soul. Whether it is St Patrick looking down from his mountain, or the care and enthusiasm that, after nearly 25 years of running Cloona, Dahra still devotes to every visitor, every walk and every daily happening at Cloona, the soft rains or views across the islands of Clew Bay, there are few who visit Cloona who will forget their visit. See the reviews on one of the spa review sites for example – or read Kathleen’s poem below.