How a skiing accident led to Jenny Cook swapping Southwold for a dream life in the Bahamas
- Credit: Archant
Southwold-born and raised Jenny Cook spent years nurturing a desire to live her life differently. She told Sheena Grant how she eventually made it happen.
Looking back, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment Jenny Cook knew her life had become a gilded cage from which she had to escape and find her true self.
Was it when she sat sobbing on her bathroom floor after reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love and realising that she, like the author, was masking her unhappiness, putting on a brave face for others, and wondering how many other women whose lives seemed so outwardly perfect were also dying a little inside each day?
Or was it when she was stretchered off a mountainside in the Alps, having narrowly avoided a fall of several thousand feet but tearing knee ligaments in a skiing accident on a holiday with her then partner and some friends to celebrate her 40th birthday?
It doesn’t really matter. Suffice to say that as she lay on that stretcher, in pain but alive, she knew she’d had a wake-up call. Something had to change.
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Jenny, who was born and grew up in Southwold, where her family ran a fish business, had spent much of her earlier life travelling, visiting ancient, sacred sites around the world and nurturing an addiction to swimming with wild dolphins. In 1998 she had ended up living and working on Bimini, an island in the Bahamas just off the Florida coast, which some believe could be the location of the fabled lost city of Atlantis. Ever since, she had dreamed of returning and creating a retreat centre there.
But somehow, life had taken a different path and she had found herself seemingly settled down, living a life of privilege and affluence that she acknowledges many would regard as a dream come true.
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“On the outside my life looked idyllic with a big house, fast cars, amazing holidays and beautiful clothes,” she says. “But inside I was a shadow of my former self, slowly dying to try and fit in with the role I had to play.”
Once back home after that skiing accident and facing eight weeks of immobility with her knee elevated and iced she started browsing online for the sort of experience that would reconnect her with what she really held dear.
“I felt overweight, my blood pressure was sky high, my life was a mess and I needed a new start to get me back on track,” she says. “My dream of creating a retreat centre in Bimini seemed so distant but it was still there, the place I drifted to whenever I got the chance. It was the one thing that felt like bliss to me.”
When she was well enough, Jenny booked onto a “boot camp” in Spain, offering lots of exercise and a diet of raw, vegan foods. She returned 14lb lighter and with renewed purpose. Shortly afterwards she went to the US for a nine-week course at a Florida health education institute. She hasn’t looked back since.
Abandoning her old life had its scary moments but Jenny shared those early days living in a Florida flat with two other women she had met on the course.
“It was a bit like Thelma and Louise with us all supporting one another as we started from scratch again,” she says. “We had fun days out shopping for clothes for our new-found slimmer figures and singing in the car at the tops of our voices.”
After a few months she was contacted by an old friend, by then in his 70s and suffering from cancer, from her Bimini days. She ended up caring for him and after he died was contacted by his family, who asked if she would be interested in buying his property on the island.
“I had been thinking about how I could combine all the things that had made such a difference in my life - the raw vegan foods, yoga, swimming with dolphins, time on retreat in nature and how to bring this to others,” she says. “Bimini seemed the ideal place and now I was being offered property there.”
Jenny arrived on Bimini with enough money for the deposit, having secured a loan from a friend, but found the property needed a huge amount of renovation just to stop it falling into the sea. The deposit was returned to spend on the necessary repairs and undeterred she pressed on, opening her Atlantis Rejuvenation Centre on the island in 2012.
“It’s the culmination of a 13-year dream,” she says.
Her parents still live close to Southwold and as well as running retreats on her island home she returns to the town each year to run a retreat there during the first week of January.
It’s the only retreat she now runs away from sun-drenched Bimini, where clients spend their days doing yoga, meditation, learning about food, having massage therapy and swimming with wild dolphins.
“On Bimini the boat goes out to where the dolphins are after lunch each day,” she says. “It takes about 40 minutes to get there and the water is turquoise clear and not too deep as it is around sandbanks. We stay out there for four hours, snorkelling, free diving and playing games with the dolphins. It is all done on their terms. We do not feed them or interfere with their behaviour in any way. They come to our boat and we watch, making sure they are not feeding or anything. If they are interested in us we get kitted up with our snorkel gear and get into the water. We come back at sunset and have dinner.
“The dolphin experience is a huge part of what we do. It puts people in a child-like state of awe. They have huge smiles on their faces and sometimes burst into tears. It is overwhelming.”
Clients are a varied mix of people, some of whom may be battling illness or coping with bereavement as well as those who are attracted purely by the dolphins or Atlantis connections.”
The setting is, of course, idyllic. Bimini is made up of three small islands and is the most westerly part of the Bahamas, about 50 miles from Miami on the Florida coast.
“I have always liked a simple life,” says Jenny. “I was never one for big cities and loved living in Suffolk, going on long walks and being close to nature. I’m not a city girl. Being on the island is taking it to another level. You are at one with the tides and elements here. You become very in tune with nature. “It’s a very simple life. The mail boat comes once a week and the shops run out by the weekend. Any speciality or fancy goods or materials for building have to be shipped from the United States. There is a need to be organised as you do have to plan ahead.
“I drive a golf cart and don’t have a TV, although we do have WIFI for the business. There’s a population here of about 3,000 but I think I am one of the only British people.
“Things are changing on the islands and people are worried about development and some of the natural places but there is still enough of the old Bimini left.
“When I first came here in 1998 I felt like I had come home and I do see myself being here for the long term. Every now and again, if I feel like I need a few days off the island, I go and see some friends in Florida but the longer I am here the less I am finding the need to do that.”
Jenny has a new partner too, local man Denver Stuart, who is the Atlantis Rejuvenation Centre’s boat captain and tour guide. Her beloved dog, Ralph McDuff is a constant companion and friends will often come to stay and help out for a few weeks at a time.
“Summers are very hot with high humidity and heat but it is beautiful here at the moment,” she says. “Even winter is a bit like a British summer time and although there are hurricanes in the Caribbean and south Florida at certain times of the year we do seem to have some protection from our location in the Bahamas. We’ve not had a bad hurricane since I’ve been here.”
Despite the onset of the British winter, Jenny is looking forward to her next visit to Britain.
“Southwold will always be my home,” she says. “It’s lovely coming back to see family and friends, especially at Christmas, and to experience the change of the seasons. There’s undoubtedly something about Southwold that is very special but I’m definitely living my dream out here.”
Jenny’s Southwold retreat, offering raw gourmet food, breathwork meditation, yoga sessions, hiking and massage, among other things, runs from January 2-8, 2016 and is held in a boutique-style house with ensuite rooms. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.atlantisrejuvenationcenter.com.