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From spiritual soul-searching to recovering after illness, the reasons we look to get away from it all are wide and varied. As Northern Ireland embraces the concept of retreats, Una Brankin visited three of these idyllic sanctuaries and spoke to some of the visitors about their experience of the services

Published 02/04/2016

Marie Brierley is planning to return to the Embrace Holistic Retreat
Marie Brierley is planning to return to the Embrace Holistic Retreat
Kim How
Maureen Courtney at her Briers Country House
Tim McEvitt owns Lake Isle Retreats
Carmen teaches cookery at the Lake Isle Retreats

Killinchy couple Jim and Juliette Stewart decided to set up a holistic retreat on their 95-acre farmland after a routine health examination revealed that Jim, then 68, had an aggressive form of prostate cancer.

"It was very traumatic and out of the blue," recalls Juliette, a Dutch physiotherapist. "There were no symptoms, no warning, and suddenly, he could be gone, very quickly. But he was very lucky - he had fantastic treatment at the City Hospital, in 2010, which saved him.

"The whole thing really threw me, though. I'd sit by the lake on our farm, looking at the swans. I really needed the peace and quiet and time to think and it was then that the initial idea of a carer support group began to take root.

"I had the personal experience and I saw how much the emphasis was on the patient, but not on the carer, who often has to totally readjust their life to carry out their new role."

A former volunteer with the Marie Curie Hospice, Juliette (61) set up the carers support group in 2012. She was already running a clinic from her home, offering physiotherapy, reiki, yoga and keep-fit classes for the over-50s. Over the next few years, she extended her facilities and converted a large barn on the 400-year-old farm, near Newtownards, to create the Embrace Holistic Retreat Centre.

Opened in the autumn of 2014, Embrace welcomes anyone seeking a supportive, peaceful place to reflect, restore and recharge. Complementary therapies on offer include yoga, tai chi and shamanic treatments, all against the scenic backdrop of the Mournes.

To enhance their rolling farmland and designated walks, the ecologically-minded Stewarts planted more than 1,000 trees seven years ago and added an additional 14,000 trees in the summer of 2013. They have also installed solar panels to provide some of the electricity required for the retreat.

"Anyone who needs time to reflect and get back in touch with themselves is welcome here," explains Juliette. "Simply being in a beautiful, natural environment is beneficial in itself. It's extremely frustrating that GPs and health visitors don't help to spread the word, when, in fact, we can offer much-needed support.

"We work closely with the Killinchy and District Community Carers Association and they help to organise stand-ins for carers coming to us for some time-out."

Now with a clean bill of health, Jim (75) looks after the maintenance of the retreat. He and Juliette have one son, Alan (25), a businessman. Juliette was born and lived in The Netherlands until the age of 24. After working for five years in Switzerland as a physiotherapist, she moved to Northern Ireland to marry Jim, whom she met while travelling in Kenya in the early 1980s.

In 1986, she set up her own private physiotherapy practice, situated on the farm, also using her additional qualifications as a reiki practitioner and yoga teacher.

"It would be a dream come true for me to have a special, full-time facility for carers here, with accommodation, classes, courses and treatments running round the clock," says Juliette. "But we have this beautiful land and anyone in a stressful situation can come and have peace and quiet here. That we have in abundance."

Visit tel: 028 9754 2141 or visit

Donaghadee grandmother Marie Brierley (57) spent three days last month at Embrace Holistic Retreat for some much-needed quiet time. She says:

I came to Embrace on my own and was able to clear my mind of all my concerns in that beautiful scenery. I relaxed and slept - I couldn't believe the quiet and the feeling of peace. I've had a stressful time of it over the last few years. I've had problems with my thyroid and a lot of things going on at the same time. My mother died last year; we were very close. She was 93 and had been bed-ridden and suffering from depression for a long time. I sat with her a lot, but I felt I'd lost her a long time ago; she didn't talk very much.

Then, my daughter Catherine had a baby, Thomas. He's six months now and just lovely, but somehow the accumulation of events caught up with me. I've suffered from depression and anxiety myself and needed some time out.

All I wanted was to get away for a while, never mind the complementary therapies, but I had a back massage, which was very beneficial for my neck pain, in particular. Juliette's a very knowledgeable therapist and she knew exactly what I needed. She's very positive and genuine.

I joined the over-50s exercise class, too. It was really good: nice, gentle stretching. I stayed in the converted barn above the clinic, beside Juliette's house. It was very well-equipped and has a wood-burning stove and I went on some lovely walks. Juliette's husband showed me the paths to take. I spent the evenings watching TV and just relaxing, having early nights. I couldn't believe the quiet and the dark.

The whole thing was very reasonable. The massage was £40 and accommodation was £40 a night, with one night free and it was self-catering. I didn't have any counselling, but I was able to totally focus on my surroundings and nothing else, which was very therapeutic.

Personally, I think our mental health services are good, but complementary therapies and retreats can be a terrific help. At Embrace, I was really listened to. I'm definitely going back.

Breakthrough Retreats at the secluded Briers Country House in Newcastle, Co Down are led by owner Maureen Courtney, a professional psychotherapist who specialises in bespoke holistic breaks. Geared towards those seeking to boost self-esteem and self-confidence, or anyone in a rut, or simply in need of a detox and fitness overhaul, these all-encompassing retreats are tailored for both groups and one-on-one, within one-day, weekend, five-day and seven-day programmes in luxurious accommodation and gorgeous natural surroundings.

A wide range of therapies are available to visitors, including counselling, hypnotherapy, reflexology, massage, lymphatic drainage, reiki and yoga.

"We help our clients examine their lives in detail and trace the origins and consequences of their behaviour patterns," says Maureen, a youthful 60-year-old. "We are all guilty of developing negative habits and beliefs and this process can be so gradual that often we don't even recognise it.

"Getting away and investing time in mental therapy facilitates and accelerates change. The fact we're called 'Breakthrough Retreats' is no coincidence - we are aiming for a breakthrough which brings the personal transformation and a wave of self-awareness all our clients will experience this at some point.

"And, typically, this is followed by a welling-up of creativity and self-expression accompanied by positivity surrounding the future."

Born in Hertfordshire, Maureen and her husband, a London-based loss-adjuster, bought Briers Country House in 2014 and set about restoring and refurbishing it beautifully, to four-star B&B standards. Maureen, who had previously run retreats in Cornwall and worked with disabled people, was turned down for grant funding and ploughed £200,000 into the property.

"I think the powers-that-be think, 'Why fund a load of mad people getting together for these wacky therapies?' without considering how important they are for mental health and the huge rise in the numbers suffering from depression," says Maureen, whose mother hailed from Co Cavan. "We've treated lots of people affected by abuse, addiction, suicide and loss and helped them move on and change their lives. We also have people coming for weekend detox retreats and bootcamp breaks, but I've found that Northern Irish people don't tend to make 'me time' a priority. But everyone needs an extra bit of care and understanding now and again and someone to listen. That's at the core of what I do."

Full-package Breakthough Retreats at Briers Country House range from £365 to £500. A bright and comfortable self-catering cottage is available to rent in the grounds for up to seven people. Complementary therapies cost on average £45 for an hour's treatment. Visit or tel: 028 4372 4347

Dr Kim How (37), from Preston, Manchester, changed his career path after spending time at the Breakthrough Retreat. Formerly a hospital-based physician, Dr How now works as a holistic personal trainer. He says:

When I came to Maureen's retreat two years ago, I was under a lot of pressure at work and didn't feel supported. I had low self-esteem and didn't feel good enough and that led to issues with depression.

My experience in Newcastle was fantastic. It was so peaceful. I got out into the Mourne mountains, running and cycling with the retreat's guide, Ian Bailey, and had massage and reiki and cranial sacral therapy. I felt so relaxed and at peace.

I went on my own for five days and had counselling with Maureen. It was so cathartic and useful. I had time to reflect on what was going on in my life and felt refreshed and recharged afterwards.

The food there was natural and wholesome and I've improved my diet since. I've also got into meditation and different holistic therapies.

The retreat definitely helped me make a major, positive change in my life. Becoming a holistic personal trainer is one big step on the right direction for me. I've gained so much confidence and I'd recommend the experience to anyone, wholeheartedly.

Lake Isle Retreats at Upper Lough Erne, Enniskillen, is owned by Tim McEvitt, who hosts the yoga-based breaks in conjunction with a group of self-employed therapists and facilitators. Born in Dublin, Tim (41) left home at 18 to become a Krishna monk.

"It was initially a bit of a shock to the family, but now everyone is happy," Tim says. "I lived in the temple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness on Inish Rath, Co Fermanagh, for 12 years, and that's where I married my former wife, Carmen. We still work together and we get on so well."

Carmen Elena Padilla Quiel (40), from Panama, teaches vegetarian Indian cooking at Lake Isle Retreats.

"I was brought to the Krishna temple at the tender age of 15 by my father and I soon enrolled as a full-time member," says Carmen. "The head monk was an expert cook and I asked him to teach me the secrets of Eastern spicing. Instead, he made me wash the pots for months, so I learned all about patience and humility before the techniques of Indian cookery.

"Several visiting Swamis have tasted my cooking over the years and given their approval. Cooking is about love and consciousness - and I love to teach it."

Tim opened the cosy retreat facility, Mandala House, in 2012. Peacocks strut around the property and heron, swan and deer wander freely in the peaceful lakeside atmosphere. The spiritual, holistic and meditation retreats there take in visits to an exotic Krishna temple on Inis Rath, where visitors are encouraged to join in with the celebratory chanting.

Courses available on the retreats include yoga, mindfulness and cookery and visitors can have full-body aromatherapy massage and other holistic therapies.

Upcoming retreats include a mindful eating workshop, with holistic nutritionist Deirdre Kavanagh, from Friday April 8 to Sunday April 10, and a detox health retreat with Lake Isle therapists from Friday May 6 to Sunday May 8.

Entrepreneur Tom Hughes (45) has spent two weekends at Lake Isle Retreats and plans to go back for more. The former mechanical engineer lives in Magherafelt with his wife and two young children. He says:

I enjoy Indian spirituality and it's nice to have a slice of it in Northern Ireland in such a nice setting. Here, people think you're some sort of Martian if you're into that sort of thing and that you're going to run off and become and Hare Krishna follower, yet it's so mainstream in India.

Initially, I went to a meditation class locally. It is very poorly taught, in general, but I got a taste for it. Once you put your full attention on the body, you get out of the business of your brain.

I'm not a massive fan of the traditional hatha yoga, but I follow the self-realisation teachings of Paramahansa Yoganda [an Indian yogi and guru, who introduced millions of Westerners to the teachings of meditation and Kriya Yoga through his book, Autobiography of a Yogi].

I first went to the Lake Isle retreat last November. It is a very serene experience - I'm normally very busy with my hybrid businesses and it can get hectic, but I've become very disciplined at making space for quiet time and meditation. I found the visits to the temple and the chanting really good fun and very uplifting.

I'm probably more open to that side of things than the average punter, but I looked around me and there was no one freaking out.

The food is all vegetarian and really, really great. I went again to do a cookery course, because I liked it so much. The course teacher, Carmen, is a star in the making - she's lovely and very warm. She should have her own cookery show. She's a big Krishna devotee and that comes with a high level of inner peace.

I felt rejuvenated after the retreat. It's time out for the self, which four or five years ago I would never have contemplated. It's a couple of days to just stop and to be quiet, with no wi-fi or TV.

The only books there are about spiritual stuff, but they are very welcoming to non-believers. Personally, I'm into Eastern philosophy and I believe Christianity and Krishna are branches of the same tree. True religion is not exclusive, as in along traditional Northern Ireland lines. Our situation here has made many people I know anti-God, but we're all ok, no matter what religion we're born into.

The Lake Isle retreat is really cheap, too. They actually undercharge. I was very pleasantly surprised by my experience there and I'll be back.

The superstars' retreats

Cal-A-Vie, Vista, California

Celebrities including Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman regularly escape to Cal-A-Vie for its luxurious private villas and customised, calorie-controlled cuisine. With five staff members for every one guest, every wish is catered for at this Mediterranean-inspired hotspot.

Hikes through wildflowers and hilly trails are followed by group fitness classes - from spinning and kickboxing to fusion cardio-core classes. Spa treatments - and afternoon naps for those exhausted millionaires - are encouraged.

Sanctuary on Camelback, Paradise Valley, Arizona

Jay-Z and Beyonce chose to honeymoon in one of the private mountainside estates at this boutique-hotel-style resort near Scottsdale, Arizona.

Olympic Gold Medalist Misty Hyman coaches swimming there, while triathlon trainers put visitors through their paces on hikes and Reformer Pilates machines.

The "health and fitness menu" is strictly fine-dining and the resort's famous infinity pool and spa area caters for body massage and exclusive anti-ageing facial treatments.

Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat, Queensland, Australia

Actor Hugh Jackman enjoyed sunny Gwinganna so much that he bought the holistic-living resort, where his Australia co-star Nicole Kidman has become a regular. The retreat incorporates an organic spa which specialises in an Australian 'Spirit of Sound' treatment, using rain sticks and basalt stones to massage, while headphones emit a trance-inducing rhythm.

There's also a canopied rainforest nearby, where visitors can spot wallabies, as they are serenaded by hundreds of native birds.

The Miraval, Tuscany

The Miraval desert spa retreat attracts celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Ellen de Generes, actress Julianne Hough and E! presenter Giuliana Rancic. While some stars visit to drop a few pounds, others come for the challenge-course activities and 'Equine Experience' (where, according to the blurb, "your interactions with horses illuminate your own fears and learned behaviours").

Lazier retreaters can lounge by the pool, enjoying edamame guacamole, or linger in the pampering spa rituals.

Belfast Telegraph

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