I recently decided I like beef after a lifetime of despising it.
And it’s all thanks to devouring a burger so good that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since that first bite. I’ve since had three more beef burgers and it feels like I’ve unlocked a ‘bad’ primal desire in my appetite.
Not good timing.
I was thinking about it as I headed for Tywyn, a small coastal town in Wales, where I was about to spend four days on a strict vegan diet, while practicing yoga twice a day, going on hikes and beach walks in the local area and residing in a converted chapel.
After a Christmas period of overindulging, going temporarily vegan was intriguing from a health perspective and appealed to my natural curiosity in wanting to try new things.
The extent of my ‘veganism’ prior to this was switching from cow’s milk to oat milk five years ago for hormonal reasons. I also adopted a flexitarian diet as a student to save money. Generally, I’ll eat anything.
Upon arriving to Sunsetbay Retreats, I was greeted with a vegan loaf cake. Maybe this wouldn’t be so hard after all, I thought.
Between that and dinner, I had a reflexology session (which was fascinating – the practitioner said she could tell I’m strong minded by how strong my toes are), an hour long yoga flow class and yoga nidra. My appetite had worked up.
Then I was presented with a celeriac steak and plentiful colourful veggies with a garlic cashew sauce. It was delicious. Kelly Mason, a talented private plant-based chef, designed and cooked all our meals – I quickly ate it all, hungry for more.
Dessert followed (thank god, though it was small and healthy) and I realised enjoying eating vegan wasn’t going to be the challenge here as Kelly can make just about anything taste divine. Instead it would be the difference in portion sizes and the radical switch from what I’m used to.
This proved true the following morning when, after a dip in the hot tub, I did another hour yoga class on an empty stomach. As someone that needs breakfast first thing, this wasn’t easy.
Sunsetbay was already far more accessible than a juice or weight loss retreat – but it was about looking after your body, being mindful of your intake and not overindulging.
After yoga we received a berry breakfast bowl – though full of nutrition and delightful to taste and look at – that only did so much to fill my empty stomach before a hike up Bird Rock, a 40-minute steep peak.
I love going on walks like this, but it was more challenging than usual. Most likely due to the energy I was exerting on smaller portions when compared to my usual buttery toast. I felt weaker.
However, things started to shift by day three. Still on daily yoga and walks, though slightly less strenuous than the previous day, I found my energy levels were more balanced and the meals sustained me better.
Not once did I feel overly full or bloated. Instead I felt ‘just right’, allowing for my appetite to genuinely build rather than stress snacking and confusing emotional hunger for real hunger. That was a pretty good feeling.
Those of our group who were already vegetarians and vegans on the retreat didn’t go through this adjustment so much, but I was relieved when another person admitted to me she was still hungry after breakfast one morning. She also fancied a piece of toast.
The abilities and experiences of each individual were mixed, which made the retreat a safe space for anyone interested in living a little bit differently for a long weekend, stepping into a slower pace of life more deeply rooted in nature.
We ate locally sourced mushrooms, healthy grains and seeds, nuts, diary alternatives like coconut yoghurt, ginger shots, turmeric lattes (my favourite drink of the entire trip), homemade kimchi, seaweed, and plenty more, in varying forms from salads to stir fries. I can’t do it justice just how delicious this all was, even if it sounds too ‘green’ to a meat eater.
Maggie Paterson and Graham Lyon, who run the retreat (along with their cute little dog, Smudge), were friendly and understanding when I did hit a wall of hunger and were happy to offer out extra nuts and fruit. Their warmness made the experience all the better too.
Alongside the initial lack of energy, other bodily changes I noticed were that I urinated a lot more – perhaps because I was actually taking the time to drink enough water, rather than waiting for a slight headache to signal I’m dehydrated, but also due to the significantly higher vegetable intake my body was experiencing.
Sorry if this is a little gross, but I also became more gassy (I’ll blame that on the upped green intake and switch to various grains). It was a relief when another retreat attendee offered the confession she had also encountered this.
With any radical diet change (for reference, my dinner the night before going was anchovy pasta and chocolate mousse), some kind of adapting period should be expected.
By the final day I was sad to be leaving Kelly’s cooking behind me, though armed with a few of her recipes to try at home after her nutrition class and cooking demo.
Each morning I rose an hour before the scheduled activities to dip into the hot tub for a calming moment. It was the best wake up call.
My favourite yoga session of all the ones we did was the restorative yin session. I felt my body relax into the long-held poses, joints loosen and my mind slowly unravel.
The retreat included a massage, which was honestly one of the most relaxing ones I’ve ever had. My back is tight and sensitive, but my masseuse got the pressure perfect.
An eight-minute walk from the beach, whenever we had free time I went down to the coast to breathe in some gusty winds and even caught the sunset one evening.
Though we did this on day two when I was struggling the most with the portion sizes, it’s a rewarding walk with a picturesque view at the top.
On the final day we did another walk I loved, this time lower to the ground avoiding marshland.
Traditional Welsh song
One night we had a local singer and educator tell us local Welsh myths while singing in a traditional style. It was an unexpected yet soothing end to the day.
Gong sound bath
My tired legs appreciated just lying back and letting the sound of the gongs lull me into a semi-sleep state.
As we said goodbye after a hearty brunch, which featured tofu prepared to look and taste like scrambled eggs (using turmeric and nutritional yeast) and a celery-coconut drink, everyone asked if I’d take up veganism upon returning to London.
No, I told them, honestly. I’d miss cheese, fish and chicken too much. What this has given me, though, is some new food for thought around the nutritional values of what I’m eating and portion sizes.
Going forward. I’ll make simple swaps. Like switching to brown pasta; snacking on nuts instead of chocolate; and really thinking about whether I’m truly hungry. And when I’m really feeling fancy, I’ll try making vegan sauces, such as the garlic cashew one Kelly made for us the first night. I feel more confident that I can make flexitarianism more exciting in a culinary sense too.
For the sake of ease I also wouldn’t switch. In lots of contexts veganism is hard work – seeing the labour and love Kelly puts into her food shows it can be time consuming – even just finding a vegan sandwich at the train station back to London was tough. I’m grateful those four days it was made as easy as possible for me.
Would I do a retreat again? In a heartbeat. It was a welcome switch, going for a peaceful, sober, healthful weekend, rather than my usual partying and 3am chicken nuggets. I’m also inspired to get back into yoga practice more regularly.
I don’t think a retreat has to be a gateway to a new life – it can just be exactly what it is, four restful days that do the body and mind some good, before you return to normalcy with a fresh perspective (which, for me, was a smaller portion of dinner and more greens when I got home).
Prices for upcoming Sunsetbay Retreats start from £675 and include accommodation, food, activities, one massage, hot tub access and travel to sites during the trip.
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