THE LAST time I was in Greece, it was a bit different.
Two summers spent island-hopping during college meant lazy days catching ferries in my pyjamas, rucksacks on our backs, cooking fried eggs on a camping stove, dancing in the Dubliner Irish bar, and staying up till sunrise eating gyros pittas in the after-party cafes on the beach.
Fifteen years later, I’m sitting in a glass house overlooking the sea, creating haikus with 10 strangers.
I had searched for a writing holiday in the sun, and a week in the Writer’s Lab on Skyros Island sounded perfect. Established on the island over 35 years ago, Skyros holiday company offers writing, art, relationship, water sports, and yoga holidays.
“Everybody who comes back from a holiday [in the Skyros Centre] recommends others to go,” wrote Maeve Binchy, almost 30 years before, and the most commonly-used description in online reviews is ‘life-changing’.
Hailed as ‘the best alternative holiday’, their ethos is one of personal growth and development. On Skyros island, this means sunrise yoga on a large stone terrace each morning, choosing a co-listening partner to connect with daily, and having the expertise of hosts, Richard and Clare Maddicott, who cater to our every whim.
Compared to other Greek island stars (Paros, Ios and Santorini), Skyros is a quiet, unassuming place, accessible only by a thrice-weekly flight from Athens, or a lengthy bus and ferry journey.
Scrubby bushes and parched grass cling to the surface of the southern-most part of the island, and wild goats whirl around in a panic indignantly flicking their hair, as buses whizz by. There may not be Santorini sunsets set to a soundtrack of Ravel’s Bolero, but in Skyros there are old men sleeping on their sides on the stony beach at Kalamitsa Bay, Athenian families in town eating late night ice-creams, and couples drinking cocktails sitting on stone seats built into the streetscape.
The course is ‘Life Writing’ and everyone has a story to tell. Tutored by Man Booker shortlisted author, Deborah Levy, we cringe as we read out monologues of seduction, write poems and listen to a radio play while lying on huge cushions on the ground.
My voice shakes as I read some personal writing aloud, to be critiqued by fellow participants, and one morning all 12 of us cry as we present love letters to family members past and present carved on leaves, clocks, apples and stones. Levy offers gentle advice, and I leave feeling more confident in my abilities as a fiction writer.
My afternoons are spent mainly on the beach with a few others. As the heat of the day segues into early evening, we close our books and order cold beers from the beach barista. It’s very easy to be sociable in Skyros. We chat over a breakfast of porridge and feta on toast in the Skyros Centre, or afterwards while scraping dishes in the bins marked ‘general’ or ‘goat.
We chat during mid-morning coffee, or while losing our way in the unmarked, slippery cobbles in the town. We chat while shopping for jewellery and miniature Grecian urns, while eating sour cherry cheesecake in Ariadne’s secret garden near the beach, or over strong mojitos and a platter of fresh fish on the beach at night. And for those who prefer to be more independent, there is no pressure to get involved.
There are few signs of the economic crisis here. Despite having only a short six-week summer season, the Greeks are generous. They give us complimentary beer and wine over dinner and unasked-for discounts in boutiques. On this virtually crime-free island, we feel safe leaving money belts full of euro notes in our suitcases.
The hosts organise a variety of afternoon trips, including drinking from the Fountain of Youth at the Springs of Nyphi, admiring artist Manos Faltaits’s paintings in the local museum, eating figs near Mourieres in a restaurant roofed by a mulberry tree, and reading the poetry carved on the grave of World War English 1 poet, Rupert Brooke, who died from a mosquito bite in a ship off the coast of Skyros.
My worry that fellow participants would be much older is unfounded. It’s a diverse group of people, of all ages. There are lawyers, academics, teachers, photographers, psychoanalysts, psychologists, a yoga teacher, a theatre company director, an entrepreneur, a blogger, and a former glossy magazine editor. They are married, divorced, widowed, in love and successfully single.
On the last morning, we walk the quiet path to the beach to swim. Further up the beach, as the last songs of an all-night wedding finish, the hardiest of the wedding party jump off a hotel balcony onto the sand and run into the water with a whoop. Two men begin to lay out hundreds of sun loungers, and an elderly woman arrives for her daily swim. Late roosters call out as we wander back towards breakfast, laughing as we leave hand-written letters to ourselves in the Skyros Centre which the hosts will post to us soon, before packing our bags to catch the 20-minute flight back to Athens.
And six weeks later, a letter with a Greek stamp arrives, tempering my morning tea with memories and an advice list about what I had learned that week.
‘It’s okay to be on your own sometimes,’ I wrote, and ‘Everyone has a fascinating story’. And even more profound: ‘You’ll never find a sunhat to fit your head.’
Flights from Dublin to Athens via London from €200 return
www.aerlingus.com www.swiss.com www.airfrance.co.uk
Aer Lingus operates direct flights between Dublin and Athens between April-September
Direct flights from Athens to Skyros three times weekly from €20 return www.aegeanair.com
Aer Lingus flies to Athens.
Holidays now start from €916 for 7 nights and €1689 for 13 nights.
One-week course costs €545; two-week course costs €1,245. The price of the holiday is inclusive of half board, twin shared accommodation and daily yoga. Most shared rooms have one bed downstairs and one in a small mezzanine area. Single supplement is €175.
Skyros also offers holistic holidays on the other side of the island at Atsitsa Bay. Participants stay in huts without wifi, with families welcome.
Other international holidays include salsa dancing in Cuba, an eco-adventure in Trinidad, journal making in Marrakesh, sightseeing in Venice, meditation in Thailand, and life coaching on the Isle of Wight.
Buy intricate gold jewellery in the town centre, watch the sun set at Kavos Bar (which plays the theme song from 2001: A Space Odyssey every time the Skyros Shipping Co ferry arrives into the port), read ‘The Soldier’ inscribed on Rupert Brooke’s grave in an olive grove and see the adjacent unmarked grave of the pauper who tended this burial site, sample some rose petal liqueur, buy some prints and see some of the best views on the island in the Faltait’s museum, and photograph endangered Skyrian horses in the Skyrian Horse Trust on the north of the island.
Breakfast on Greek apple and semolina pastries from the bakery at the Ouzeria in Chora, drink mojito’s at Alamudia Beach bar on Magazia Beach, sample the famous cheesecake in Ariadne’s magical garden, pick a fresh fish from a tank at Stefano’s restaurant near Magazia Beach, indulge in some peoplewatching and try shots of amaretto sour at Kalypso Bar.