Soar Mill Cove just outside Salcombe on the Devon coast is the kind of ultra-family-friendly hotel place where I’d normally check in with my boys. In this homely retreat, they could go rockpooling and sandcastle-building in the sandy National Trust cove of the same name, which the hotel looks out over, have a splash in the indoor saltwater pool, and expend some energy in the play areas. Rooms and suites come in various flexible configurations for families, and there are two self-catering villas within the grounds, sleeping six or eight.
So it was all the more surprising that I found myself checking into the Soar Mill Cove for a very rare child-free interlude. On the agenda were a detox regime, fartleks on the hillside and beach workouts. In my suitcase were wine, chocolate and coffee, just in case I couldn’t handle it.
The Fit for Life program namechecks the Starvation Vacation in Malibu, made famous by Christina Binkley of the Wall Street Journal, but the latter’s dawn awakenings, marathon hikes and punishing low-calorie regime are replaced at the Soar Mill Cove by a nurturing approach that sets it apart from bullying bootcamps. This couldn’t really be otherwise, when the hotel’s owners, Keith and Jenny Makepeace, and their staff are so evidently passionate about their calling and concerned for their guests’ wellbeing, whether they’re on the program or not. The program stems from Keith’s own dramatic transformation after learning that he’d developed Type 2 Diabetes. Having shed six stone and become a dedicated runner with several marathons under his much-tightened belt, Keith decided he’d like to share his wisdom and that of his personal trainer Joey Rossi, and local life-coach Frances Tala-Peck, with his guests.
I wasn’t looking to lose weight. What I was looking for was to get a grip on sleep problems, to improve my overall fitness and learn to incorporate exercise into my busy life, and to learn to relax a bit better, including escaping the tyranny of my laptop and near-constant connectedness. The fact that the hotel has no mobile signal is a big bonus if you’re in the same boat. It does have free Wifi, but this often goes down. In the event, I was quite daunted by the prospect of being totally out of contact and concluded that it was better to allow myself half an hour a day to download my emails and respond to anything urgent than to return to a backlog that would send me into a panic the moment I arrived home. It was also useful to be able to Skype my husband before bed to make sure that all was well with the kids.
The four days were filled with lots of exercise, of course, but also with lots of eating. The hotel is renowned for its good food, and though Fit for Lifers are encouraged to stick to the healthier options (an ongoing part of the daily-changing menu and available to all guests), there’s no feeling of deprivation in terms of either quantity or quality – even spotting other guests tucking into their Devonshire cream teas in the lounge didn’t cause me to crumble. Though we started each day with an 8am probiotic green smoothie delivered to our rooms (delicious, by the way – and not at all like the pond water I’d imagined), we had a substantial post-workout breakfast at 10am, including smoked salmon and scrambled eggs and coffee if we wished, a huge lunch (chicken with pumpkin seeds, pistachios, goat’s cheese and rocket being a highlight), and in the evening a three-course meal. The latter even included a glass or two of ‘low calorie’ wine if we wished – Prosecco Extra Dry, a Riesling, or Raisins Gauloises (a ‘natural’ red). If we got hungry in-between – and with this much exercise, I for one did – the large fruit-basket in our rooms was replenished daily.
In such a beautiful setting, exercise becomes a delight rather than chore. Circuits that would be tedious in a gym are wonderful on a deserted beach, with sea-spray freshening your face as you heft a 5kg medicine ball or engage in a bit of hook-and jab-boxing. The best session, however, was a clifftop run from the National Trust property Overbecks above Salcombe to Bolt Head, a spectacular headland dotted with rocky spires and pinnacles and boasting views in every direction – not only over the Channel but inland, towards Dartmoor. Non-runners in the party took the route at a gentler pace, picking wild sloes growing beside the path and admiring the vista.
There was less strenuous exercise too – lots of walks with Keith and his dog Farley, paddles in the sea, mat-based work in the hotel itself, and a stretching session in the small indoor pool, which we were free to use in our ‘downtime’ too. There’s also a sauna for completing the ‘detox’ experience with a good old-fashioned sweat.
By the end of our four days, a fellow ‘inmate’ had shed four centimetres around her waist. I’d lost about half a pound, but even that I was surprised about given how much I’d eaten and also how much exercise I’d done (muscle weighing more than fat). The effects were much more far-reaching, however: after coming home, I drastically cut my coffee habit and felt much better for it; I started to be stricter about going to bed at a reasonable hour and found myself sleeping a great deal better; and best of all, I actually started to crave exercise. The guest who had reduced her waistline, meanwhile, applied for a job that would take her away from the city to live by the sea. Having been on many fitness retreats, she felt this was the only one to have been of any real benefit and was already considering booking for the next one.
Perhaps most of all, after my return to everyday life I found myself mentally much calmer. But even when I do, inevitably, start to become frazzled, the very words ‘Soar Mill Cove’ serve the role of mantra. All I need to do is conjure up in my head the beauty of the hotel’s surroundings, the warm welcome afforded by everyone there, and the feeling of being truly cared for to feel instantly rejuvenated. It’s a place I can imagine returning to over and over – perhaps even with the kids next time.
The ‘Fit for Life’ break is not currently available but Soar Mill Cove does offer regular spa deals for two.