Soul Spahhh-ting
Body and Soul Holidays, UK
News & Spa Editor, Debbie Robinson finds the soul in her Body and Soul Holiday

2010 has been the Year of the Grinch. Not the green variety. The bleach blonde and fading-to-grey-variety. Despite working with utterly gorgeous spas every day, it's usually me sending someone else to get their face plied with potions and skin exfoliated for England. Overworked, uber-stressed, and feeling ancient, I wondered if there was a spa in the world that had enough treatments to soothe what assailed me.

Then I remembered one of those Oprah-esque aphorisms that sounds something like... at times of great difficulty, it is your soul causing chaos, so you better pay attention. And it gradually occurred to me -- it wasn't my body that needed attention. It was my soul that needed pummelling. Lucky for me a few days later, I traded emails with an old friend who mentioned he was escaping to the South of France for a writer's retreat. Intrigued, I asked him where.
Hmmmm. Not exactly St Tropez where I could put my finger on a five-star spa should the writers retreat turn out to be a dud. And wouldn't a writers retreat feel more like work rather than less. But curiosity prevailed. In my business, there is always a new spa, a new treatment, a new version of some ancient healing practice which is wonderful. But I wanted something I could bring back home with me, something more solid than a pukka bracelet. Massages and facials fade away, diet and exercise regimes break down in the face of daily routine, showers leak and dogs bark when meditating. Somewhere in my shrinking Grinch-sized bean of a heart lurked the urge for renewal. And the idea of writing whatever I wanted for a week without deadlines or interruptions called like a siren's song.

So I hopped a train to the South of France to Relax and Write at a French villa near Collioure. The brainchild of former US soap star and actress, Maia Danziger, Relax & Write™ was developed by the artist as part of her healing process after she was diagnosed with cancer in 1994. A practicing Buddhist since 1979, Maia fashioned a series of guided meditations to teach writers and artists how to relax and unlock the unconscious, excavating rich material from both memory and imagination to use in their life and art.

Being meditationally-challenged myself, I envisioned muffled sniggers as I tried to twist myself into human origami, but Maia's programme is just what it says...relaxed. You can sit, stand or sleep through the guided meditation. It's all up to you. The days are structured into two sessions. Mornings start at a leisurely 10 am with a guided meditation and journey that ends with the words, "And when you are ready...begin to write." Within seconds you hear yawns and stretches. Pads, pens and keyboards spring to life. And for the next 45 minutes, you hear nothing but the steady sound of souls scribbling, plus or minus a few loo runs.

The group of ten mostly North Americans (well-travelled, globally-aware and inclusive) drifted into a lovely, synchronistic rhythm both in terms of interactions and writing. There was magic adrift and alchemy brewing between the different personalities whose love of writing, reading and by the end of the week, Maia, was a remarkably deep connective thread. When the morning scribbling was finished, lunch would be prepared. Food was provided as part of the week, but was cooked and cleared as a group. For a single parent of three longing to escape kitchen chores, it came as a surprise, but not a hassle. Maia's mantra is do what you need to do, so I helped because the group made it easy and fun, not because I had to.

The most difficult part of the week for me ended up not being the meditating or the writing, but the reading that followed. Part of the practice is to share what you write in front of the group. Then Maia offers her thoughts and encouragement. The sound of my voice scares me on a regular basis. The sound of my voice reading my writing in front of a group was petrifying, but Maia has a gift for listening and extracting the gold from every writer's exercise, regardless of voice, style or intention. She was an extraordinary presence sitting at the centre, guiding both the individual and the group, which at times was a heavy burden when excavations of painful memories resurfaced for those writing memoirs. For some, and perhaps for all, the writing inevitably becomes part therapy and Maia has the emotional range to not only handle it, but to nurture it with the warmth and softness of eiderdown.

Our afternoons were spent exploring Collioure in the Pyrenees Orientales, an idyllic place for artistic inspiration. Just north of the Spanish boarder, this picturesque village nestled in a small Catalan harbour is a hidden jewel of France's Mediterranean coastline. Known as the "City of Painters", the colours of Collioure have inspired artists for centuries including Matisse and Derain whose work here inspired the first major avant-garde movement in European 20th century art, Fauvism.

Collioure is also home to the world's most coveted anchovies. Its reputation dates back to the Middle Ages when the port specialised in the salting of tuna, sardines and anchovies. Their production became so significant that in 1466, King Louis XI exempted the Colliourenqs' right of gabelle (salt tax paid in France until the late 18c) "for need for making large saturates with fish".

The 8-bedroom villa where we stayed was cozy and accommodating. There was a quiet, unassuming stretch of beach called Le Racou within 10 minutes walk. In our first few days, we were introduced to La Tramontane, south central France's version of Le Mistral. Coral clouds stretched dramatically between crystal clear blue skies and tree branches stood at 90 degree angles. It was refreshing, invigorating, and sometimes scary -- a reminder that the world is ours to admire but not to control.

Our second writing session began around 5pm and lasted until dinner which was usually between 7 and 8. We read after several bottles of the local rose were consumed and dinner finished. The evening sessions were cheery and teary depending on whom was reading and what they'd written. Every night I went to bed totally exhausted and yet exhilarated. Sleep came quickly and I rose at dawn every day keen to start the process all over. Everything around me seemed to sparkle - calling for me to notice it, write about it, memorialise it. After months of being a miserable Grinch, prey to an ageing body and shrivelled soul, I felt youthful again - not young - but alive, re-energised, and yes...renewed.

I don't know whether it was the extraordinary people I met who shared their writing with me, the extraordinary place we visited and took its sea, wind and light to heart, or the extraordinary woman who brought this all together in one place and cultivated it day to day, but the Relax & Write™ retreat worked at the deepest, neediest layers for me. In the span of one week in the hands of good people and great atmosphere, I had my soul restored and my faith in life reignited - a true Body&Soul Holiday, the souvenir of which will be my personal writing for many years to come. I don't have the lifestyle to write the way I did there any time soon, but I know now I can when the time is right. I know now for sure that "when I am ready...I will begin to write."

[Info Panel]
Relax & Write™ Website:
Relax & Write™ Workshops and Classes:
The next workshop will be held at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck , NY, USA. Maia conducts weekly class in LA (Thurs 7-10pm and Sat 10am-1pm) and holds a weekly webinar on Mondays 6.30-10pm (EST).

Maia herself. She's not only a brilliant writing coach, her voice is like velvet and her guided meditations like carpet rides.

Located where the Pyrenees meet the Mediterranean, this lovely seaside hamlet is a must visit during the warmer months when you can take advantage of the outdoor cafes and seaside ambience. Low cost flights are available to Perpignan where you can take a taxi for around 60 Euros or to Girona where the Frogbus is a transportation bargain. I travelled to Lille first class on Eurostar - it was delightful and far too short. The longer train ride on France's interior train network, SNF, to Perpignan was less civilised and long unless you have lots of work or reading to do. The onboard services are not reliable, but the staff tries its best.

Spas Near Collioure:
The more established Hotel Les Mouettes offers the most extensive range of services. The newer 3* Grand Hotel du Golfe just down the road offers a more limited range of services and facilities that need to be pre-arranged, but the staff are very accommodating.

Debbie Robinson began her writing career in the great publishing houses in Manhattan before trading the NYC skyline for Oxford's gleaming Spires. She worked as a travel and promotional writer for Berlitz and was Communications Director for WHSmith Online before embarking on her own web marketing and PR consultancy in Oxford. Her spa career began after the birth of her third child, when the family decided she needed a day off. She assumes they grew up nicely...