Weekend break: Retreat at Glengarrif, West Cork

A West Cork retreat offers women the chance to indulge in personal reflection and fine food, writes Colette Sheridan.

Weekend break: Retreat at Glengarrif, West Cork

CEILI Fitzgerald knows what women want — and it ain’t boot camp. Half Caymanian and half Irish, Ceili, who has a gentle, graceful presence, set up ‘Dare to Live!’ earlier this year, offering “retreat escapes for women”.

A former HR executive in the corporate sector in the Cayman Islands, Ceili found her job unfulfilling and frenetic, with constant travel and toxic office politics.

She felt there had to be more to life and, compelled by a desire for change, she chucked in her well- paid job a couple of years ago, sold her house and went travelling across America and Canada.

Describing herself as free-spirited, creative, and independent-minded, she attended a writer’s workshop on her travels in California.

Her Eureka moment came to her in her mother’s home near Midleton, and was inspired by her travels. She drew up a five-year plan on a flip chart and has been pursuing her dream ever since.

“I decided to do something for women,” says Ceili.

“I don’t know enough about men to know what they would find meaningful. I have created themed retreats.

"‘A Woman’s Way’ is the flagship one. I also do ‘A Healthy Life’ and retreats for amateur writers facilitated by the writer Carol Drinkwater. It’s all about women giving themselves permission to explore life choices.

“Women attend the retreats for different reasons. They might want advice about career struggles or just a break from being a mother.

“I’m hoping to tap into the international market by doing longer retreats. My sister, who lives in America, is looking after that side of things. It’s all about creating a space for women that is gentle. It’s a great escape.”

‘A Woman’s Way’ is sheer indulgence but not mindless hedonism. This three-night retreat is held in Linden House on Dromgarriff Estate, a two-minute drive from the village of Glengarriff in West Cork.

The airy, spacious modern house built from local stone was designed by German architect, Professor Peter Kulka.

He created large gable walls entirely made up of windows, overlooking the Gulf Stream-infused water’s edge. The house has two wings, connected by a glass corridor.

Each wing has a large living room, one with a huge leather couch and pink and purple bean bags and the other with a table full of self-help and psychology books such as Women Who Run with the Wolves and An Open Heart by the Dalai Lama.

With some hearts more open than others, the five of us on ‘A Woman’s Way’ retreat, led by Ceili, ‘shared’ our thoughts on where our lives are going.

Sharing is not obligatory and Ceili stresses that she is not a counsellor. The sharing sessions, constituting the only ‘work’ at the retreat, were a great way of getting to know each other.

We ranged in age from 30-something to 50-something. The group included a beautician and a food scientist. We were encouraged to write our aspirations into a ‘desire mapping’ journal.

The cuisine was one of the highlights of the retreat. We ate in Glengarriff village on the first night but that meal paled in comparison to what the ‘Dare to Live!’ in-house chef cooked for us.

Ken Heffernan, who is also head chef at the Fota Island Resort hotel, produced meals that were memorable. The daily menu, written on a scroll, was placed on our beds each morning. Decisions, decisions!

There was a magnificent traditional French cassoulet comprising confit duck leg, braised pork neck, slow roasted pork belly, Toulouse sausage and white bean and kale.

The seared fillet of brill, with West Cork scallops, smoked salmon, cauliflower puree, apple, pickled mustard, asparagus, and Parmentier potatoes was also a good choice.

Desserts included a Tunisian orange cake and berry roulade. The kitchen was open throughout the retreat with delicious snacks on offer and endless cups of tea and coffee.

At breakfast, omelettes with smoked salmon and other fillings were cooked on demand. On our last morning, we were treated to pancakes for breakfast.

The retreat kicked off with a champagne, strawberries, and chocolate reception. Apart from the bubbly, alcohol wasn’t provided but people could bring their own. A modest few bottles of wine were consumed over the three nights.

There was an itinerary with plenty of ‘personal time’ and an open invitation to walk Ceili’s cute dog, Tilly, around the wooded estate.

On a windy afternoon, we were taken on a boat trip around the harbour with a view of Garinish Island. We saw fat seals lazing on rocks on Seal Island. Mussel containers dotted the sea.

Then it was back to Linden House where some of us took a nap.

Taking afternoon naps during a few days away is a sure sign that you’re totally chilled out, with time taking on a different dimension, unencumbered by deadlines or domestic duties.

The in-house sauna was availed of prior to a massage by Glengarriff-based masseuse, Patricia Bowler. She practises Hawaiian Lomi Lomi massage and has trained in the method in Hawaii.

It was a wonderful 30-minute session with tension noticeably leaving my back and neck, thanks to Patricia’s strong, sensitive hands.

After a hot shower, I was ready for dinner. Such luxury — you could get used to living like this.

On the only sunny day of the retreat, we had a picnic on a trestle table in Glengarriff’s nature reserve park.

Ken and his assistant, Vicky Mahon, packed a scrumptious feast that included cheeses and salami, chicken, prawns, salads, bread rolls, and cake.

Sated, we broke up into groups, to go on the various walks on offer. Three of us, including Ceili’s mother Pansy, who helps out at the retreats, went on the Esknamucky Walk.

It was strenuous at times, with lots of inclines and slate steps. But we had all the time in the world and took regular breaks, admiring the scenery and figuring out the direction of the trail.

Afterwards, we stopped at McCarthy’s Bar in the village for a drink, sitting outside in the blazing sun.

On our last day, before we checked out at midday, we were given salad rolls and bottles of water for our journey home. Ceili thinks of everything. I was loath to leave my pine-floored bedroom with its writing desk and air of peace.

Admiring the blue and red patchwork quilt on my bed, it transpired that Pansy had made it. She supplies patchwork quilts for all the occupied bedrooms. It’s a nice homely touch in a large contemporary house.

Before leaving this oasis of calm, I perused one of the many books on display.

It’s called Get it Done: From Procrastination to Creative Genius in Fifteen Minutes a Day. Feeling empowered, I resolved to change my life. The retreat has that kind of effect on you.

‘A Woman’s Way’ retreat is a great few days away from the grindstone and an opportunity to reflect, engage or just hang out. It costs €795. See www.dare-tolive.com for details on future retreats.

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