A magic mountain wellness retreat in Greece, the guy to call to see jaguars in Brazil and polar bears in the Arctic, and a little more well-dressed salad from Bordeaux
TRAVEL WELL: Euphoria Retreat in Mystras, Greece
By Alex Postman
Ideally, you want to take yourself on a spa retreat when you most need it. As we move into back-to-everything season with all the stress that brings, I’m thinking wistfully of the three days I spent early last July at Euphoria Retreat, when summer felt wide open and unscripted and I was looking more for hedonism than for healing…but found the healing part anyway.
Euphoria is in Mystras, on the Peloponnese, a criminally underrated part of Greece that’s every bit as beautiful as the islands with a fraction of the crowds. Plus, this is where many of the big historical hits are, from ancient Corinth to the theater at Epidaurus. While you can fly into nearby Kalamata, Athens is only 2.5 hours away. So I was picked up at my Athens hotel by Euphoria’s Tesla Model Y and noiselessly whisked across the canal connecting the Ionian and Aegean seas (you should stop to watch the boats gliding along their narrow path underneath), through rolling olive groves backed by mountain peaks to the village of Mystras, near Sparta. The town is a leafy square surrounded by cafes and charming houses sagging with vines and flower boxes, where fresh water pours out from underground caves into a spigot built into a tree that you can drink from—just one sign of this region’s freakishly healthy pedigree, which also includes its famous, life-extending olive oil. Euphoria is built into the foot of a wooded mountain behind the town and is unmarked, since the town is a UNESCO World Heritage site…which only heightened the feeling as we glided through its gates that I was entering some kind of ancient healing cabal.
The spa is actually conceived around two ancient healing methods. The brainchild of Marina Efraimoglou, a former investment banker who had cancer in her late twenties and turned to Traditional Chinese Medicine and Greek holistic medicine for healing, the retreat is shaped around an alchemy of the two, which converge in the concept of the Five Elements. The spa is a physical homage to this idea, starting with the central “water well”—a black-stone foot bath that you’re encouraged to walk meditatively around before ascending a 4-story white tower like some kind of de Chirico fever dream towards a skylight. Each circular floor leads to a suite of treatment rooms with saunas, steam chambers, a flotation tank, cold plunges and a watsu pool. The showstopper is the Sphere Pool, which is contained within two halves of a sphere that resembles a split bowling ball – on top, a dome pocked with light-filled oculi (stay with me) and below it, a 3.5-meter-deep curved bottom that I spent a silly amount of time trying to dive down and touch. (The sounds of whales and dolphins are piped in.) On the practical side, guests take an inventory (“Do you feel anger easily?” “Do you feel heavy headed?”) whose answers correlate with each of the five elements (fire, earth, metal, water wood) that help determine your treatment protocol. For those who want to go deeper, there’s a homeopathic doctor and nutritionist on staff and various multi-day programs that involve blood work and all that, including a detox regimen, which most people around me seemed to be on.
Each morning I went for a group hike—one day it was the Trypi springs, a walk through the woods to a waterfall that was so clear you could count the pebbles on the floor of the pool. On another, it was a hike through a steep wooded gorge along a ledge that was so narrow and thrillingly unprotected, two of my companions took to clutching the side of the rock. Back at Euphoria, I alternated between lazing in the spa’s many (usually empty) spaces (tepidarium, salt room) and hands-on treatments. Most memorable: the “Sanctuary for Busy Minds,” a massage designed to quiet the fear-based hypothalamus that involved much pinching of the toes to open the energy channels, a Turkish hammam where I was loofahed with giant clouds of black-soap suds, and classes like “Free Your Voice,” in which a Greek drama teacher taught us to breathe from parts of the body I never imagined could respire. Because the building backs onto a wooded mountain, it was also pleasant to just sit on the terrace of my room with a book and let the raucous chirp of the cicadas and the warm herbaceous breeze lull me into a nap.
I loved that every meal began with herbal water infusions: energizing thyme in the morning, oregano, which helps digestion, for lunch, and relaxing rosemary with dinner. The chef, Sarantos Rapatas, is a local from Sparta who did a stint at Noma and his recipes were simple but tasty, all made from local ingredients and based on the Mediterranean Diet. In summer, this meant lots of salads and soups for those who were detoxing (beetroot, broccoli, carrot and ginger) with plenty to fill up on for those who weren’t—lamb chops and orzo with seafood—and even the detoxers had far from Spartan (ha) portions. There was lots of Greek wine for us hedonists, too.
Most of the guests were British, with a couple of Americans and internationals, and I fell in, as one does, with a few guests who were all there as solo voyagers—one of them, Mark, a convivial interior designer who lives in the South of France, had come for his third visit. He had spent several weeks at Euphoria during Covid, which he described as a sort of magic mountain of people who had escaped to this sweet-smelling, isolated paradise as the virus marched around the world, and I tapped him as my guide: of the menu (“the surprise is the vegan stuffed cabbage—delicious!”), of which treatment not to miss (watsu). While most of the modern, blonde-wood guest rooms are in the modern main building, I preferred the rooms in the old stone mansion from the 1830s that the hotel was built around—more rustic and vernacular in style. (My only bone to pick with the place is the décor is blandly modern in some public spaces and veers a little too Arabian Nights in others.)
I was especially glad that Mark had convinced me to stop before leaving at the nearby hilltop archeological site of Mystras, a fortified Byzantine city and major silk producer dating to the 13th century that once flourished as the administrative seat of the Byzantine Empire in the Peloponnese, attracting writers, artisans, and philosophers. You can drive (or hike) to the acropolis and make your way down to the lower city, ducking into small stone churches covered in brightly colored frescoes, a palace and a small museum. I would find myself alone in each of these ancient churches gazing up at the choirs of gold-haloed angels, in their ochre and terracotta gowns, healers of a sort peering down from another space and time. I wish I could go back now that I really need it! The good thing is it’s open year round, since the script’s not yet written on winter.
Alex Postman is Yolo Journal’s deputy editor
Les Sources des Caudalie is a lovely hotel/spa/winery/restaurant near the Bordeaux airport and not far from our house in the Médoc, so we will occasionally spend the night there if we have an early morning flight. Recently we went for lunch before picking up a friend, and they served this incredible salad. You could definitely swap in whatever you have on hand—the thing that was so great about it was the way they dressed the lettuce. They must have stood it up and drizzled it in because it was on every leaf—which is impossible with romaine/gems—normally I end up continuously dressing it as I go. —Y.E.
Summer Romaine Lettuce
2 little gem lettuces cut in half lengthwise
8 quail eggs cooked in boiling water for 3 minutes, then peeled and cut in half
40g (¼ cup) Kalamata olives
45g (½ cup) sun dried tomatoes
80g (1 cup) shavings of Manchego cheese (use a mandolin)
100g (¾ cup) green beans cooked briefly in boiling salted water, then cooled in ice water to fix the chlorophyll
Shavings of 8 radishes (use a mandolin)
4 anchovy filets cut into pieces
Olive oil and balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Place a half lettuce in the center of the plate
Arrange all the ingredients harmoniously on it
Will Bolsover, CEO & Founder, Natural World Safaris
I originally met Will Bolsover through the travel writer Sophy Roberts, when we worked together on an epic story on the Kamchatka Peninsula, for Condé Nast Traveler, for which the logistics, at the far eastern edge of Russia, were the trickiest I have ever experienced as an editor. Since then, I have come to know Will as a super rigorous, conscientious and creative planner of nature-focused tourism around the globe, which isn’t an easy feat, given that you can’t just arrange for a Siberian tiger or Silverback gorilla to march across your path. I was eager to hear more about his MO! -AP
Tell us about you and your company.
Setting up the company 17 years ago off the back of my degree in French and African and Asian Studies, I moved into the world of travel. First off, we set up World Primate Safaris, then brought on World Big Cat Safaris, then bears…and then realized this is too complicated, so moved it all under Natural World Safaris! We utilize the safari concept in over 40 destinations worldwide, putting our clients in the right place at the right time in order to maximize their travel experience.
What’s the entry level to talk to you?
Our trips are based at around USD $20-25,000 per trip or around USD$10,000 per person. In general, they are approximately 12 days in length with the majority of our trips being bespoke but with a niche selection of small group and specialist led trips.
What is the sweet spot of your expertise?
As a travel outfitter, we fill the gap between a tour operator and a DMC. We excel in the stranger corners of the globe, whether that be Madagascar, Svalbard (where we run our own small ships catering to only 12 clients on each departure), tigers in India or pumas or jaguars in Chile and Brazil (amongst many others!). Our sweet spot is truly searching out unique product that often other operators do not offer, and then providing access to this niche in a small intimate format for the benefit of clients and all involved.
A favorite experience/trip you’ve planned that best represents your travel philosophy…
Svalbard – this is where we run our own small ship(s), taking only 12 clients at any one time. This promotes minimal impact on the environment and a truly unique experience for our clients being able to access hidden corners of the polar north that few others can. Most people think small ships are 50 clients, we take 12. A truly intimate experience with 2 expedition leaders catering to your every need and on our specialist led departures, a dedicated global photographic leader as well.
Exploring the high Arctic north aboard our 12-passenger expedition ship is a trip like no other. Nine days aboard the cozy Kinfish puts you in the far reaching corners of the polar north to experience an icy wilderness with glaciers calving, Arctic fox bouncing across the icy plains, polar bears on the hunt for unsuspecting seals and hot toddies to finish off each day. Twenty-four hours of surreal Arctic sunlight make for a truly unique trip, as days blur into night and you can be called out to see the next wildlife adrenaline hit at any time of day or night. For those needing to burn off a bit more energy, walk the tundra-scapes (in company of your expedition leader of course), wake up with a polar plunge, or climb the lookout tower for the ultimate icy view.
A favorite hotel you love and go back to again and again…
Masoala Forest Lodge – the only property standing in the last remaining primary rainforest of Madagascar affords a true sense of adventure. Huge ebony and rosewood trees disappearing into the forest canopy, red-ruffed lemurs, leaf-tailed geckos on the nearby Nosy Mangabe, or humpback whales in the season breaching through the bay. Explore the wild coastline, walk the forests, or soak up the forest views from your beach side hut. I also love Zarafa Camp in Botswana and Ellerman House in Cape Town.
The most memorable meal you’ve had while traveling…
Crickets on the side of the road in Uganda late at night with the nets out and lights beaming into the night sky to collect unsuspecting cricket-esque beings!
A not-to-be-missed favorite experience (or two) in your region of expertise…
Tracking mountain gorillas in either Uganda or Rwanda, or lowland gorillas in the Republic of Congo.
Standing on the front deck of our polar ship in the midnight sun. Quiet and surreal with the chance of a polar bear appearing from your white surrounds…
Underrated location, overrated location, personal favorite, recent discovery?
Underrated location – Madagascar! Never on the front cover of those glossy magazines, people are scared of Madagascar and what it represents, when in fact it is exactly the opposite. The fourth largest island in the world, endemicity like no other, a warm and welcoming people, wildlife, beaches, cultural conundrums and more. If you want something to educate and inspire, then look no further.
Overrated location – I struggle to think of an overrated destination as I would like to think that when it comes to travel I can find something of interest in most places I visit.
Personal favorite – Congo and Central African Republic (CAR). Lowland gorillas, forest bais, leading conservation efforts and some truly pristine wilderness rainforest in the heart of Africa. Hands-down the best lowland gorilla tracking project. Then moving north into CAR you come across the mind-blowing Dzangha Bai, where forest elephants congregate—up to a hundred at any one time—to excavate the mineral-rich soils.
Recent discovery – Putting aside recent politics, it has to be the far reaches of Russia. Whether it be the volcanic heartland of Kamchatka or tracking the largest feline predator left on our planet—the Siberian tiger—in the tundra of the East, this brutal land has a lot to offer.
The one thing you always pack...
Camera…or phone as that incorporates a more than suitable camera these days! And a Leatherman.
What is something you wished we all knew or were better at as travelers?
I wish we all knew how to structure an industry with less impact on the environment. Nobody knows how yet…but we need to keep trying.
How do you want people to reach out to you?
Instagram @willbolsover or @portraitsonhumanity and through the Natural World Safaris website.
One of our favorite photographers to follow on Instagram.
We always learn something new about Italian food and culture from Elizabeth Minchilli’s Substack, Newsletter from Italy.
Japan is expected to announce their reopening to visa-free travel any day now.
Use this highlight reel from our friend Jenny to plan the perfect fall road trip through Vermont.
Sound on: Cervantes Family Vineyard in Pope Valley, CA, 8am, 9/21/22
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