Picture your perfect yoga retreat: An island in paradise, great food and company, sunrise Vinyasa and Ayurveda sunsets, and a schedule as flexible as you are.
Welcome to Florian Villa on St John, the most pristine of the US Virgin Islands. Here, owners Deborah Bernstein and Scott Wahlen host relaxing yet invigorating yoga vacations where guests exercise their bodies and minds on a beautiful poolside veranda overlooking lush jungle and island bays, in between day-boat trips, scuba diving, snorkeling and hiking around the island's secluded coves and white-sand beaches.
Best thing about the largely undeveloped island of St John – 90 per cent of which is protected national park -- is that it's part of the U.S., which minimizes much of the worry and hassle associated with foreign travel (a passport is not required for travel, though is recommended, and most cell phones work). Its US status also ensures it's one of the safest parts of the Caribbean for American travelers to visit. The British Virgin Islands are a short skip – and a passport stop – in a sloop or sailboat and Puerto Rico is just 35 miles to the north-west. St Thomas, the jumping off point for St John, is a short connecting flight from San Juan or a couple hours from Miami. These factors were key to Deborah and Scott's decision a couple years ago to locate their luxurious retreat on St John, which along with St Croix and St Thomas make up the larger islands of the Virgins.
St John's beaches frequently top lists of the world's best – you may have heard of Trunk Bay, Cinammon Bay, Maho Bay or Francis Bay, all strips of white surrounded by translucent blue. Laurance Rockefeller famously settled here in the 1950s, opening the exclusive Caneel Bay resort which to this day provides the ultimate in luxury for the jetset crowd including Angie and Brad and singer Kenny Chesney, who loved the island so much he bought a house here. Land prices top $1 million per acre and supply is severely limited. Rockefeller's legacy includes the donation of much of the island to the US government in 1956, ensuring its continued preservation.
After meeting Scott and Deborah at St Thomas Airport and embarking on the 20-minute ferry ride to St John, guests quickly realize that their hosts for a full or half-week stay are not only bubbly and fun folks but are also exceptionally organized and accommodating. Want to skip sunrise yoga after a couple celebratory drinks the night before? No problem. Want three daily sessions of two hours or more of advanced yoga? You got it. Want to bake on the beach or snorkel all day? The island's clear, warm water and white-sand beaches are all yours.
The split-level hillside Florian Villa has four bedrooms – one king, one queen and twin, a full bed and queen, and a queen loft – and three bathrooms, one of which boasts an outdoors shower where you bathe surrounded by lush and fragrant flora. Rooms are large and have TVs and most of the usual amenities including wireless Internet, and were exceptionally clean and well prepared on arrival. The west-facing open living and dining area has a 180-degree view of the forest below and island-filled horizon through screens to keep the bugs out. It's hot but not too hot while the swimming pool and ceiling fans keep guests cool in the humid tropical air a mile or so inland of the island's main town of Cruz Bay.
Deborah, 37, who has practised yoga for ten years and taught Vinyasa, Hatha, Ayurveda and Kundalini for eight years, every sunrise and sunset expertly guides guests through the various techniques in a balcony veranda as relaxing as it is spectacular. Our group of four guests – including sisters Pam and Debbie from Florida and Virginia respectively and Lauren from Massachusetts – loved Deborah's instructive, adaptive teachings and marveled at the easy manner in which she guided us through complex exercises. Deborah enhanced our understanding of familiar elements of yoga and taught us new ways to think about the relationship between body and mind.
Key thing to note here is that Deborah fashions her schedule and teaching to accommodate both beginners and experts. She will guide when needed and adapt her classes to include most elements of yoga depending on guest requests and skill levels. She also has a range of yoga props to minimize body stress. The villa is also available for yoga instructors to bring a group of their students and teach them in tandem with Deborah, or on their own.
Deborah says: "I usually try to adapt what I teach mostly to whoever is there, but it usually ends up being a Vinyasa flow (body healing through control of breath) and I also teach a lot of restorative yoga and meditation. We usually have between four and ten people, from people who are new to yoga up to experienced practitioners. To me, in keeping with the Vini yoga tradition, when I teach a class it's a good sign if everyone individually is doing something that works for their body.
"For the yoga adventures, we do the beginner retreats which you really don't need to be in shape for and for the adventure retreats we do a little more hiking. This is more of a water retreat. If people want to do a whole yoga program or yoga once or twice a day we can tailor that, too.
"Instructors can either do a hosted retreat where Scott and I will provide logistics, driving and food and we take them on guided hikes, or instructors can do a yoga independence where they have full use of the villa and they take a rental car around the island and I schedule trips in advance. A lot of instructors like to have us for logistics here though, the driving here can be real tough."
Formerly a management accountant at a Fortune 500 accounting firm, Deborah turned her back on the corporate world six years ago to open her own Princeton, Mass., yoga studio before selling it to buy Florian Villa last year with her partner Scott, a newly promoted fire captain. St Florian is the patron saint of firefighters.
The Boston couple also has developed an ambitious plan to open the retreat to families of injured firefighters or those killed in the line of duty. Scott, 39, hit upon the idea after attending more than 50 funerals for the victims of the 9/11 attacks in New York. Every five weeks of guest booking allows Scott and Deborah to house a firefighter family for a week free of charge, and families from California to South Carolina have visited the retreat. Often they will rent a car on the islands and undertake their holiday at their leisure, largely undisturbed by their hosts who are always available when needed.
Scott, an 11-year fire service veteran, says: "A lot of them have had a lot of exposure and want a retreat from the world. We wrote to the unions and posted ads on firehouse.com and placed radio ads, saying if you need assistance to please get in touch. For firefighters we usually give them the villa and set them up with the caterers and our cleaners. We keep an eye on them but really they enjoy the seclusion. This is a place for them to get away. However, one of the firefighters from Boston and his family are going to come on a yoga retreat."
Scott has worked with Families of Fallen Firefighters, Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (SUDS) based out of Walter Reed, the families of the Worcester tragedy and many other 503c charities. He has applied for charitable status for Florian Villa and has hosted the family of a firefighter killed in a California wildfire. "Anybody in LA or the California area that thinks they have cause – it's not just LODD (line of duty deaths) but anyone who has a story to tell we would like to hear it."
On a lighter note it was great to eat dinner with our hosts and hear Scott's stories from the fire service relayed with typically Boston good humor. Food was generally excellent. Deborah hires a local caterer to look after the costly and time-consuming business of preparing daily lunch and dinner. Dinner is the standout with dishes ranging from passionfruit chicken to grilled mahi-mahi. On the last night Deborah carefully delivered a perfectly cooked piece of sesame tuna seared to each guest's preference -- despite her protestations that she'd not cooked the dish before -- as Scott, a former bartender, mixed up some zingy mango and pineapple margaritas.
Other meals included pear and walnut salad with pomegranate sauce, rosemary mash potatoes and deep-fried brie alongside tangy pumpkin seed and mango red onion salsas. Desserts included yummy lemon bars and impossibly rich chocolate cake. Two coolers on the balcony – the smaller containing essentials like spring water and milk and the larger essentials like white wine, Corona and Virgin Islands lager – were an ecological alternative to guests continually opening the fridge to get water and letting the chill evaporate. Breakfast is fruit juice, granola, bagels and freshly brewed coffee. Sandwiches, snacks and beer are provided for lunch stops on secluded beaches.
Snorkelling trips revealed astonishing coral formations, sting rays, octopus, moray eels and spiny lobster alongside parrot and pufferfish and others straight out of Finding Nemo, as described by our day-boat captain Nate, who runs Nate's Custom Charters at www.natescustomcharters.com / 1-340-643-7795. He takes guests on half or full-day snorkeling or fishing trips on an expansive tour of the island's secluded beaches and coves. He's knowledgeable and easy going and exceptionally accommodating and his double-engined boat speedily allows you to visit snorkeling spots and beaches with no land access. Sunset trips on a smaller beach cat boat with Han at Sail Safaris at www.sailsafaris.net / 1-866-820-6906 were tremendously serene and beautiful and a turtle-watching kayak tour was great fun with Sarah at Arawak Expeditions at www.arawakexp.com/ 1-800-238-8687. Scott also takes you by SUV to spots that only locals know about. And don't worry about costs: all of that is included in the cost of the trip.
Deborah acknowledges that the retreat can be expensive -- especially in high season when rates can top $700 a night for a double occupancy, check out www.florianvilla.com for more information about yoga retreats, adventure retreats, full-week rentals and other options -- but says that the island's location and resultant high prices for basic goods and services means that it is impossible for the couple to compete with other retreats in terms of price. Guests can expect to spend no more than $200 outside the cost of the retreat. And here you're also paying for the most unspoiled island in the Caribbean and the exceptional service provided by Scott and Deborah, and of course the use of their luxurious villa and a small contribution to the ongoing firefighter program. It's quite difficult to explain but the villa attracts largely independent people who have yet to be lulled by a cruise ship or an all-expenses luxury chain resort like the Westin down the road. The main clientele are yoga groups, families, couples and singles, who experience the best of St John and all of its charms from its plunging roads and trails that can only be traversed by Jeep or SUV to its rich history, magnificent beaches, friendly locals and great bars.
Picture it now. And breathe. And go!