Located on a tiny speck in the Adriatic Sea, this Croatian summer resort is part of a wave of seasonal retreats that mix rowdy good times with fervent self-improvement.
As the ferryboat chugged west from the Croatian port of Šibenik, a narrow stretch of land came into view. Rising from the Adriatic Sea, it looked like the proverbial desert island that city people have in mind when they talk about running away to one, with lush, overgrown greenery framed by undisturbed pebble beaches. Docking at Obonjan, however, was a bit like discovering a busy ant colony in what looked like virgin field grass—if that ant colony were made up of millennials in bathing suits working on laptops, all swaying to the faint but steady thump of electronic music. Upon arrival, I was handed a cocktail and an hour-by-hour itinerary of “fun” science talks and a yoga class named after a Nirvana song (“Come as You Are”). A twentysomething redhead named Lorna was excited about a training session with a man named Chakabars Clarke. “Chakabars is, like, super famous for his philosophy on veganism,” she said. “And he’s really big on social media.”
Until very recently, Obonjan truly was uninhabited. Developed in the 1970s as a camp for Croatian boy scouts, it had been sitting abandoned until 2015, when Sound Channel, a British music-festival organizer, began turning it into a summer resort. Swimming and sunbathing are part of the draw, but Obonjan also offers talks about technology and philanthropy, Reiki, hypnosis, meditation, tarot readings, and stargazing. The goal is to attract a certain multitasking young professional who, having tired of debauched weekends, prefers to let loose with green juice, yoga, and a healthy dose of self-improvement.
Obonjan belongs to a new breed of seasonal resorts that are to “vacation” what co-working spaces are to “job.” In Ibiza, hotelier Claus Sendlinger opened La Granja, a members-only farmhouse with Slow Food workshops, full-moon rituals, and artist roundtables. Utah’s Summit Powder Mountain, a “next-generation alpine town,” hosts lectures, cooking classes, and fly-fishing excursions. You could think of these gatherings as part summer camp, part networking event.
Cofounder Dan Blackledge talks about Obonjan with the earnestness of a start-up CEO. “You can come and just swing in a hammock,” he said. “Or you can use the platform to try to better yourself.”
The 136-acre island is an unlikely locale for such a venture. With its imposing pine trees, gravel roads, and swarms of overzealous Slavic bees, it resembles a forgotten Eastern European village. Under Blackledge’s supervision, it has become a kind of modish utopia, its hand-built stone structures repurposed into farm-to-table restaurants and the Zen Den, an organic tea bar and wellness center. Accommodation for 700 guests—who can stay for days or months—is in eco-friendly bell tents and lodges with real beds, macramé wall hangings, and Turkish towels that double as blankets and sarongs during the day. The tents have no soap or bottled water, but there are iPhone chargers above the beds. Instead of money, visitors wear watchlike bracelets that serve as credit cards. That most attendees are experienced festivalgoers (and also British) gives Obonjan the feel of Glastonbury crossbred with a 1970s Catskills colony.
Much of the programming has the inspirational whiff of a TED talk, with titles like Ecstasy and the Art of Losing Control, Applied Yogic Science and Technology, and Best Lessons from Buddhist Monks. My first day, I decided to try Mindful Drawing. My classmates included a project manager, an art student, and two storklike Hungarian women. “I’m Lisa,” said our instructor. “I teach yoga, and I’m also a textile designer.” Lisa had the friendly manner of a schoolteacher, except that she wore sparkly blue eye shadow and a bikini. After handing out colored pencils, Lisa led a brief meditation and then told us to draw with our eyes shut. “Let the breath guide your hand,” she said.
Most of us ended up with childlike doodles, but that wasn’t the point. Obonjan’s activities are less about productivity than about connecting with other people. “Weren’t you in my Mindful Drawing class?” one of the Hungarians, U’dyt, asked when she saw me eating alone later. She and her friend Kati invited me to watch the sunset, and I joined them that evening on the island’s southern tip. Kati, a model, manages an Airbnb apartment in Budapest. U’dyt designs a line of clothing and objects called Contentment. “The idea is to feel content all the time, which is a little less abstract than happiness,” she explained.
Nearby, a few dozen people were crawling around with their eyes closed as part of Wild Fitness, a workout based on primal movement. “I like the concept here,” U’dyt told me. “I can be on holiday but also be useful. Plus, I wanted to try glamping."
In the evenings, there is always music, which during my visit was provided by European DJs I’d never heard of and the Hot 8 Brass Band, flown in from New Orleans to perform in the stone amphitheater. Some came to the Hot 8 concert after attending a talk by members of Love Specs, a Malawi-based charitable organization whose initiatives include selling heart-shaped sunglasses to aid African farmers. “I think I’m going to volunteer in Malawi!” I heard a young woman in a peasant skirt announce while the band launched into a blend of 90s hip-hop and funk.
As the concert turned into a boozy dance party, I left to catch Thinking Outside the Love Box, a workshop on “conscious relationships.” Most talks take place at the Pavilion, an open-air structure with a wall of potted succulents and seating made of recycled crates. At the front was Jason Chan, a London psychologist. “Personally, I’m a bit of a junkie for anything having to do with personal growth,” Chan said, by way of an icebreaker.
Chan suggested we introduce ourselves by naming our favorite foods and our relationship challenges. “My favorite food is avocado,” Chan began, “and what I find challenging is the feeling of being trapped.”
“My favorite food is broccoli, and I really struggle letting anyone in,” said a woman named Sophie.
A young woman in the back practically whispered: “My favorite food is hummus, and I’m very insecure.”
While Chan doled out the basic tenets of attachment theory, the class grew from six to 30—including the glamorous British model Poppy Okotcha and her boyfriend, architect Toby Burgess, who once delivered a TEDx talk at Burning Man entitled “The Architecture of Joy.”
At times, Obonjan reminded me of a cruise ship. Sequestered at sea, I would see the same people during breakfast at Bok, one of the restaurants, that I would see later at the Zen Den and the afternoon meditation sessions. Some evenings everyone gathered at the Pavilion for movie nights and stand-up acts, including a British comedian who riffed on kitchen appliances like NutriBullet and SpiraLife. “People are dying,” he joked, “and I’m turning my carrots into noodles.”
If there’s any discord at Obonjan, it is between those who come for the wellness and those who come for the music, which often blares into the wee hours. Fern Ross, a yoga teacher from London, told me she relied on sleeping pills and earplugs to get up for her morning classes. Asking her neighbors to keep it down proved unproductive. “Why don’t you go find yourself?” one told her.
Blackledge, who has hired experts to study the island’s acoustics, promised to resolve such kinks by the 2017 season. He also hopes to add artist residencies, conservation projects, and tree houses.
My favorite discovery at Obonjan was a man named Mirko, the island’s superintendent and formerly its sole inhabitant. With his leathery skin, thick mustache, and scraggly dog Jimmy by his side, Mirko has the look of a reclusive fisherman. When I asked if he minded his new neighbors, Mirko shook his head. “I like to be alone,” he said, sipping one of Bok’s macchiatos, the foam coating his mustache. “But I learn to be alone with people.”
On my last day, I caught a talk by Zoe Cormier, the author of a scientific exploration of hedonism called Sex, Drugs, and Rock ’n’ Roll. Cormier’s lectures had been drawing impressive crowds that chose to forgo prime beach hours in favor of ogling diagrams of the clitoris and videos of dancing cockatoos—proving, perhaps, that Obonjan’s organizers were correct in their bet that the new generation of travelers is as interested in learning about pleasure-seeking as in the act itself.
By evening, I had decided to skip the rest of the itinerary and finally go to the beach. En route, I encountered U’dyt, who was in a deflated mood. She had spent the morning photographing pieces from her line, but Kati, her model, had grown tired of their working vacation and retreated to the tent for a nap.
The beach was empty except for a few Croatian women. The wind had picked up, whipping the pines and sending Obonjan’s crickets into a frenzied chorus. As the sun dipped below the horizon, I lay wrapped in one of U’dyt’s blankets, a large white flannel sheet stamped with the word contentment, and did absolutely nothing.
Obonjan’s 2017 season runs from June 23 to September 3. obonjan-island.com; from $62 per person, per night