The ferry to Heir Island is quite an experience. Barely signposted, Cunnamore pier is down a long, winding, road with grass growing down the centre in some places. A collection of cars at a lonely pier with no signage, and a couple of tied-up boats is your only clue that this is a transport hub, of a kind. A ferryman straight from central casting, with black beard, woolly hat and overalls, hoists your bag into the boat and takes your €6 with hardly a word, and that’s it. Transaction complete.
Heir Island in Roaringwater Bay has to be the ideal location for a retreat. With a scattering of cottages – mostly holiday homes for Corkonians with a connection to the island – the island boasts no amenities besides a sailing school, an unexpectedly fine restaurant and a gallery. It doesn’t have a hotel, so retreaters stay in holiday homes scattered near to the gallery, which hosts classes. This may not appeal to everyone, but these are well kitted out homes, and provide a really cosy, homely West Cork welcome as well as a measure of freedom.
The restaurant is unique, in that it only opens in high season and offers no choices. Book with Elmarie over the phone and her husband John will serve up whatever’s in season and has taken his fancy that day for lunch and dinner. It’s the finest French cooking in Ireland, from a tiny kitchen most of us would struggle to serve spag bol from.
Much like John Desmond’s cooking, Heir Island is all about its ingredients. So the yoga retreat offered by LA based Glanmire native Ducky Punch, follows a simple recipe. Take one exceptionally talented and experienced yoga teacher, 12 enthusiastic retreaters, one beautiful island and four incredible meals at John Desmond’s restaurant, and it serves up a satisfying, refreshing retreat that leaves body, soul – and stomach – satisfied.
Yoga retreats don’t usually feature dishes like roquefort and onion tart or duck with red wine sauce, but Heir Island Yoga with Ducky is different. To ensure retreaters are still able to stretch and flex without problems, the menu is light on starchy foods, although by day two our carb-loving group had requested and received home-made brown bread with lunch! It’s classical French cooking with such a light hand that the lemon soufflé featured on Sunday will never be beaten; a buttery cloud of citrus delight that I can still taste when I think about it.
Food isn’t usually the focus with yoga retreats, but it plays a starring role in this one – second, only, to the yoga itself.
This retreat is billed as suitable for beginners, but only a pretty fit beginner would attempt this. Granted, you don’t need yoga experience, but you’d want a level of familiarity with your muscles that only someone who exercises regularly would have. I’ve practiced yoga for four years and there were times during my weekend with Ducky I thought I couldn’t go on. And that is where she works differently to most teachers. Workshops are very different to standard yoga classes. They’re longer, less frenetic (particularly for ashtanga fans), there is far more time for chat and interaction, and more time to really stretch what ails you. And boy, oh boy, was there stretching.
The first two hour session on Friday evening featured stretches I’d never seen or heard of, and if I thought that was the half of it, I was mistaken. Ducky has studied under some of the world’s best-known yoga teachers including, initially, Bikram (a controversial form of yoga she has moved away from), Ana Forrest and others. Holding a masters degree in Neuroscience from Kings College London, she’s not your ordinary yoga teacher. Yes, there is some talk of chakras and third eyes and there are some Kundalini elements to her classes, but what is unique to Ducky’s approach is a very deep knowledge of physiology, informed by her undergraduate biochemistry degree, her neuroscience qualification, and the years of study she’s done in different yoga techniques. She knows the body inside out, and introduced this desk jockey to some new, cruel and unusual stretches, that had me whimpering in pain but did the job, loosening curled-up iPhone fingers and straightening hunched shoulders.
Each yoga session lasted over two hours but was different in tempo and style. For those used to Ashtanga Vinyasa or Bikram yoga, there was precious little jumping around and rather a lot of long, deep stretches; the kind of thing that makes you question how fit you thought you were, and teaches you about muscles you never knew existed. If those muscles begin to kick up a fuss, massage therapist Ciara Curtin bases herself on the island for the weekend, to iron out the kinks before they become problematic.
With sessions on Friday evening, Saturday morning and afternoon, and Sunday morning, it’s a packed weekend, but the company and craic of mealtimes in the Island Restaurant (John and Elmarie’s front room) really adds to the feeling of wellbeing.
While the schedule is busy, a walk across beautiful, quiet, Heir Island takes just 45 minutes and is essential to really grasp that feeling of being at the ends of the earth. The freshness of the sea breeze, the sounds of numerous species of sea and land birds and the colour of wildflowers all remind you that people have always sought solace and solitude off Ireland’s west coast. And while this retreat is a far cry from the suffering and deprivation of monastic life, the peace and calm remains. Add this beautiful setting to gourmet food and world-class yoga,and it’s fair to say Ducky’s retreat packs a punch.
Ducky Punch runs yoga retreats on Heir Island throughout the spring at a cost of €325 per person per weekend including accommodation, lunch, dinners and yoga. For full information see http://www.facebook.com/heirislandyoga.
Published in the Sunday Business Post Magazine on Sunday 17 May.