Floating on glistening sapphire water, nestled in the Adriatic Sea’s largest archipelago, ‘the isle of youth’ emerges on the horizon. A soft melody floats on the warm breeze, the sweet aroma of sea salt and pine fills the air, and as my gaze sharpens I start to make out straw parasols, sun-kissed bodies lounging on a rock-carved deck, and what appears to be a unicorn floating in the water…
Deeper in-land, a group of thirty somethings sit on the deck of their safari-inspired forest lodge pondering their schedule…
“I really want to check out Hot 8 Brass Band at the Amphitheatre tonight…”
“But let’s not go too large, ‘Wakey Wakey’ yoga’s on at 7.30am on the East Harbor tomorrow and it’s supposed to be ahhhh-mazing!”
“…and we have to grab brunch at the Green Spot, I hear they have yummm smoothies, and I want to get in a swim before the ‘The Art of being Present’ workshop…”
And so it goes on the magical land of Obonjan. Where you’ll find unicorn (lilos) and at the Corner Store, sunset yoga, world-famous DJ’s spinning deep in the forest, live gigs at the open-air Amphitheatre, creative installations next to the woodfire oven pizza joint, and star gazing over the Adriatic with your local astrologer.
Pronounced O-bon-yan, the Croatian paradise has been relatively uninhabited for a close to a decade, save for one man and his dog. Thanks to local Scouts that frequented it during the 70’s, it was dubbed ‘the isle of youth’. Today, their legacy, an epic stone amphitheatre overlooking the sea and cobble stone paths that meander throughout the land, remains; as does the youthful essence in the islands’ most recent incarnation. Reborn this July with a summer-long fusion of art and culture, music and entertainment, food and wellbeing, within a carefully curated creative program, Obonjan disrupts stale notions of hedonistic island jaunts and dull health retreats. More like an idyllic school camp for creative adults, it combines the party with wellbeing, alternative learning, adventure, and relaxation, with a side of gourmet food and sustainability, set on an enchanting island reminiscent of the ‘00 cult classic, “The Beach”.
Measuring just under half a square kilometer, the pine and olive tree-covered island is located 6km off the coastal town of Šibenik on the Dalmatian Coast. Large enough to host up to 800 guests in their choice of luxurious and ecologically friendly bell tents or designer forest lodges, complete with AC, private bathrooms, super comfy beds, and a kick-ass fit out, but small enough to create a genuine community, who are intrinsic to the authentic charm of this curated destination. With founding members from around the world, including; musicians, artists, photographers, writers, poets, yogi’s, and DJ’s, artists-in-residence, local Croats, and a diverse mix of other interesting characters, the community are the willing co-creators of this inspired new lifestyle movement.
Having just arrived for a week-long stay, it wasn’t long before I noticed that smiles with strangers evolved easily into conversations, to extra friends at our dinner table, to drinking beers together in the open-air pavilion as we took turns to pitch probable film plots to each song as it played overhead. But what I loved the most, other than the fact that it’s only a short walk anywhere (no need for Uber here), on Obonjan, the pace is yours to set – to dip in to as much or as little as you like. As artist-in-residence, Darren Henderson put it, “You can stay up late and swim all day or get up early for yoga or meditation class. Party up or peace out”. He also mentioned that he “probably could have done more yoga…” while he was there, but hey, don’t we all?
Part of Unit 44 Gallery, who were commissioned to coordinate the art and installation program across Obonjan this summer, Henderson – an Australian artist – was among the first to visit the island. Arriving a week before us, we talked about how things were running a little behind schedule when he first got there, “There were a few teething problems. Great things take time. I think it actually helped bond all of the staff, artists and musicians. Everyone worked hard and got it together. There was so much creativity. My mind was buzzing every day. I’ve made a lot of new friends. It felt more like family by the time I left.”
The creative work of established and emerging artists can be discovered across the island, each a visceral interpretation of the artists’ own unique experience there. From the pop-color musings of Camilla Walala that adorn the Corner Store; Henderson’s ‘worldly creatures’ that found new sanctuary in a large scale mural overlooking the Forest Bar, to London-based Slinkachu’s series of ‘little people’ miniature beach scenes, creative inspiration abounds.
On our first night, we opted for an early one – perhaps something to do with the seafood-pasta –induced- coma we found ourselves in after dinner at The Kitchen – the more casual restaurant that overlooks the hilltop pool. But as we wandered back to our lodge, we spotted a familiar face lighting up the big screen at the open-air Pavilion. We snuck into the front row halfway through “The Life Aquatic”, as Steve Zissou was introducing his son to the crew. As I stretched out on the seats, it was the soft lull of cicadas fading in and out between scenes that reminded me where I was, in the middle of the forest enjoying an impromptu film night of cult-classic proportions.
Talks & Workshops
One afternoon, we were caught by surprise as an unexpected voice in the distance commanded us to “Relax”, “Let Go”, “Move…”. As we approached the Pavilion, we saw a bunch of people, eyes closed, cutting shapes to the man’s words as he dropped the beat. This, we would find out later, was a workshop on Movement Medicine – a practice that involves dance, movement, and meditation, to help deepen your connection with yourself, and help unlock your creative potential.
But if rave-type dance/meditations wasn’t quite your thing, other food for thought was easy to come by. This years’ program included ‘The Scale of The Universe’ with Dhara Patel, ‘The Journey of Self-Discovery’ with Adah Parris, ‘The Art of Being Present’ with Kate Taylor, and ‘How to Live a Native Lifestyle in a City’ with Native High, among others.
We arrived the day after Four Tet played an epic set – we could tell by the dusty folk emerging in the early afternoon that it was LARGE. But it wasn’t long before we found ourselves (and the rest of the island’s inhabitants) kicking up gravel to the obscenely funky, Horse Meat Disco in the Forest Bar ‘till the early hours of the morning.
Unlike traditional festivals, where you have to choose between sets like picking your favorite child, the clever folk at Obonjan have erased the usual fomo by scheduling only one big gig at a time, so everyone can be together for those glorious events. This season, the line-up included Four Tet, Kate Tempest, Gilles Peterson, Roy Ayers, Mr Scruff, Hot 8 Brass Band, Gaussian, DJ Shadow, Poliça, Talaboman and Matthew Herbert, to name just a few.
But it really didn’t matter what time it was, there was always some sweet tunes filling the air. Whether it was the sundowner mix spinning at the Drift Bar, old school tunes around the pool, or a live band playing to oscillating bodies in the Pavilion or Amphitheatre, the island soundtrack was sorted. And it’s a good thing too, ‘cos we really, really like to dance.
Wellbeing & Relaxation
If you’re like me, your hangover may be sponsored by some watermelon-infused vodka cocktails from the night before but your cure is just around the corner at the aptly named, Zen Den. This charming wellbeing center is jam packed with goodness. You’ll sort yourself right out with a spot of restorative yoga, an afternoon massage or meditation session. PLUS, the neighboring Green Bar serves awesome salads and smoothies so, even if don’t want to get your stretch on, you can load up on the good stuff as you peer over to your fellow islanders’ perfecting their downward dog among the towering pines.
Obonjan’s swimming spots are a tranquil oasis of sapphire and turquoise water, heavenly cocktails, and sultry tunes. You can catch the party vibe and sunbed-drink service over at the East Harbor. It’s easy to while away the day here, between lounging, making new friends, partaking in a unicorn lilo race like we did, or perfecting your somersault twist from the stone diving board. Or, if you fancy something a little more subdued, the secluded East Beach has a few scattered straw parasols to throw your towel under. And there’s always hilltop pool for those in the mood for something a little less sandy. For night owls, the South Beach is the perfect spot for stargazing or chill out session post-gig.
Ahhh, island-lyfe. It’s easy to get comfortable here, in fact I can guarantee no matter how long you come for, a week, a month, or more, you’ll never want to leave. But, with an enchanting archipelago surrounding you, you’d be advised to push yourself off on a mid-week day trip.
Thanks to some local girls we met, we managed to organize a water taxi to take us out for the day. Šime (pronounced Shimey), with his gorgeous golden tan and piercing blue eyes, was the perfect captain – perhaps more to do with the fact that he arrived with an esky full of local craft beer than his complexion, though.
Our first stop was a fresh oyster and mussel bar that appeared out of nowhere like a floating piece of heaven. Milé and his girlfriend’s dad, who’s been serving sea-wanderers for over 20 years, treated us to freshly shucked oysters for the small price of 50 kuna for six (or 50 cents each). With a smile, we said our goodbyes in broken Croatian and were on our way. Between snorkelling in the open water, and a stop at the one of oldest city in Croatia, Skradin and the enchanting village of Prvic, we pulled up to a quiet cove with a little seafood restaurant called Konoba Vidrovaca for lunch, and washed down the best grilled squid we’ve ever had with some crisp Croatian wine.
We could have all done more yoga, but…
In one week on Obonjan, we managed to collaborate Vita, a lovely girl from nearby Zagreb, for an impromptu fashion shoot in a secluded cove; made friends with an awesome group of Croatian girls and artists whose job titles included “gang boss”; star gazed over the Adriatic; practiced yoga as the sun disappeared behind the sea, and danced all-night-long in the forest with new friends from around the world. I can’t wait to see what happens next year…
Obonjan’s set to reopen for an extended season from July to September 2017.