An Irish "Health Tour"

Cloona revives the body and spirit, if you can survive for a week.

In the company of a British politician, an American, two burnt out 20 – something’s from Dublin, and an ex-nun, I spent what was probably the best and worst week of my life at Cloona, a “health tourism” center halfway up the side of a mountain in the west of Ireland. This “vacation” offered a strict menu of fruit, vegetables, salads and soup (vegetable of course). Rumour had it we would be given nuts on day 4, if we were all still there.

Cloona is a “rejuvenate your mind and body” kind of place, once described as “a little retreat without the religion”. If you’ve been abusing your body with junk food and alcohol, and you think climbing the stairs is exercise, you are in the same state of mind I was in when my parents presented me with a gift of one week in Cloona. They would look after my two small children while I was away. I was euphoric! It would mean a week of sleep with no one tugging at me. I also had fantasies of being pampered, body and soul. They remained largely fantasies!

Tourists Not Lamas

Cloona was originally an old woollen mill, built in 1790. In 1970, it was renovated to be a commune for Tibetan Lamas, refugees from the Chinese invasion of Tibet. However, at the last minute the Irish government, afraid of offending China, refused asylum to the Lamas. The mill’s owners decided to launch a whole new concept: “Health Tourism”. Today Europe boasts many famous spas/health farms, including Champneys in England and Stobo Castle in Scotland, where the rich and famous go to stay looking young and beautiful. Cloona offers a more DIY, holistic approach, using simple foods, yoga, exercise and massage in an unpretentious, natural setting.

On Sunday afternoon, 8 of us slated to spend the week arrived in dribs and drabs. The only person who’d visited Cloona before started telling us stories about cravings, headaches and guests who’d disappeared in the night, unable to take it. I began to question my parent’s choice of a get-away. “You’ll feel fabulous at the end” she promised. We all looked doubtful.

When our first mealtime had arrived, the salads were indeed delicious. All ingredients are grown in Cloona’s Gardens, or delivered daily from organic farms nearby. We were all feeling positive, until one of the 20-somethings from Dublin, who turned out to be an overnight dotcom millionaire, asked, “Well that’s the starter done, now what’s for main course?” Suddenly all conversation turned to our “ideal meal.” This set the tone for the week. We spent far more time discussing food than actually eating it. There was also a good deal of trading. Nuts were a prized possession – worth several tomatoes. There was as much soup as you could eat, though you soon find out you can only eat so much of anything flavoured ‘vegetable’.

Mountains, Bays & Grapefruits

Waking up in Cloona was always joyous. The rooms either have stunning views of Clew Bay, or they overlook Croagh Patrick mountain, where the light changes every hour. Days were loosely scheduled. At breakfast, everyone was assigned two oranges and a grapefruit, served with herbal teas. I could not take citrus fruits on an empty stomach, so I opted for apples, which are not as good for cleansing the system, but good enough. We were told to drink eight glasses of water a day. Cloona sits on a spring well so the water is as fresh and clear as it comes.

At 10.45 am, there was yoga, led by a German instructor who’d somehow found her way to this remote part of Ireland. We all became very juvenile during these sessions, with lots of sniggering all around. During one, the British politician in our midst seemed to be having a rather urgent discussion with the president of some African nation. No one else seemed interested.

After two hours of yoga, we could easily have slept right through the afternoon. The smells of home-made soup wafting from the kitchen, however, soon had us all lined up like little Oliver Twists with our bowls (during the day there were also reflexology and shiatsu offered, each of which I sampled and enjoyed, in so far as you can enjoy someone squeezing your toes)!


Each afternoon featured the “daily walk,” led by Dhara (who runs Cloona with his wife Emer). When I spotted Dhara limbering up outside before our first walk, I knew I was in trouble. We started at three miles, and built up to five by the end of the week. The routes down country lanes seemed to take us back in time. We passed cottages and little farmsteads, and sometimes just sheep clambering over rocks. The walks, about and hour and a half long, went on rain or shine.

We had pleasant, and sometimes rather odd conversations on those walks. Something about being in the company of strangers who are all eating exactly the same diet makes you able to bare your soul. The ex-nun had gone from the convent to the World Health Organization; the dotcom success story hadn’t slept properly in a year. The locals apparently christened us “Cloonatics,” a good term to describe the bedraggled bunch of people puffing and panting down the lanes.

Late afternoons were free. Bicycles are available, and there are beautiful beaches nearby. There are also potteries, art galleries and farms that sell cheese in the area. Our evening meal of fruit and the low point. We’d walked five miles and we were starving. We felt we’d earned a steak. After eating, we all had a massage and a sauna, and collapsed into bed by 9.00pm, after the ex-nun would offer to get in the last round … of spring water!

Calming Influence

I must admit that whether I was sitting inside, reading one of the many books on how to change my life or my diet, or outside working my way around the labyrinth, a maze that had been created in the long grass of the neighboring meadow. I felt a calm descend on me at Cloona. Others seemed similarly affected, and spoke of changing jobs, buying houses, and doing all sorts of things they’d been putting off for years.

Was it all great? The bedrooms are small but comfortable, with soft down Duvets. For me, the only downside was the shared bathroom. Having no TV or radio actually helped me withdraw from outside pressures.

As promised, we did each get a few headaches. But by Friday there was a real feeling of triumph. We had survived. Our bodies were pure and our minds in the frame to accomplish anything. We exchanged goodbyes and we talked of all returning the following summer (the owners claim that 60% of guests do, in fact, return). Driving past the petrol station where I’d downed a bar of chocolate as if my life depended on it one week earlier, I thought “Caffeine – who needs it.”

Cloona Health Centre, Westport, County Mayo
Reservations: 011 353 9 825 251
Sunday to Friday course in high season (Mar – October) €490 (inclusive)