How to Find Your Balance, Move to Croatia, & Start a Holistic Healing Retreat

by Gigi Griffis

This is part of my new interview series, designed to demonstrate the wildly varied ways we can live, work, and chase our dreams. Please keep in mind that, since these are interviews, the opinions, methods, and websites contained within do not necessarily reflect my own views or experiences. (Which is, in my opinion, part of what makes them wonderful.)

I love unconventional stories.

Stories of people with real struggles and beautiful successes. Stories of people who, in simply following their hearts, find a fulfilling, breathtaking life that is perfectly suited to their unique background, story, tastes, and gifts.

Which is why today I’m so honored to bring you the story of Evening (yes, that is her real name), a vibrant, engaging American woman living her life on Croatia’s pretty Hvar Island where she, along with her life partner, runs a holistic healing retreat.

1. Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a pilgrim of life’s amazing lessons, following my path with faith and perseverance, doing my best to live my purpose, share my talents and gifts, inspirations and hopes, love and light with those around me through the platform of our holistic retreat and through social media, writing, photography, and online activism.

2. How did you discover yoga, Reiki, and your gift for life coaching?

It was on January 1st, 1999, while nursing a major hangover and desperate to fill my mind with anything other than the spotted memory of the previous night, like many a wasted night before it, that I started reading a book, which actually changed my life forever.

That book is Shirley MacLaine’s “Out on a Limb.” It is a tale of a successful performer who was constantly traveling abroad for work. Though her life on the outside seems amazing, there is something amiss and it is through meetings with a neighbor that she realizes what that missing element is: a connection to the Divine, a belief in a higher order and one’s own purpose in the larger scheme of things.

In the book, Shirley ends up traveling around the world and discovers some amazing things about who she really is as a spiritual being, why she was in the relationships she was in, and what she was on earth to do…and I wanted to experience that kind of understanding, too!

Not long after, another book fell into my hands. This one was “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. This is a story of a poor shepherd boy who is guided to sell his sheep so he can leap into the unknown to find his pot of gold, to discover his destiny…this book gave me the strength to let go of what was not working in my life in order to make room for my lost dreams and ultimately my destiny.

Both books acted as a catalyst for setting out on a quest for truth and purpose of my own. They gave me the courage to take a chance to go for the lost dreams I had left behind in the US before moving to Slovenia for love and, subsequently, becoming an expat divorcee and raising my small bilingual child in a country where I did not speak the language well myself. 

As long as I could remember, I had always envisioned myself to be a powerful force among the Hollywood A-list as a performer and multi-talented artist, and so I set off to re-charter a pathway to find my lost dream in La La Land, thinking that would solve all my problems and lead me to my destiny. So, in June of 1999, I sold most of my things, put the last bits in storage, and moved to LA, leaving my son with his father for safe keeping till I could get a job, get my life together, and bring him over to start anew.

My LA story is a rather banal one after that, specifically concerning my quest for fame and recognition, which quite obviously did not happen for me. The only solace I had at that point in my life was three-fold: long walks along Venice beach, visits to the Spiritual Eye bookstore in Santa Monica, and endless heart-to-hearts with my roommate Andrea, a magical spiritual being in her own right, originally from Croatia.

At the beach, I would connect to the earth, pray to the Universe for help, for signs, for strength, for wisdom, for solutions to appear. I would meditate and connect to the depths of my soul through my “personal practice,” which essentially involved a lot of stretching and breathing, and through journaling.

At the Spiritual Eye, I had access to a whole wall of used books that I could afford to buy. It was also a place of inspiration and of meeting other like-minded soul-searchers.

And it was Andrea who gave me a book about Reiki, “Essential Reiki” by Diane Stein, which is essentially a book of self-healing and empowerment…just what I had been looking for!

Nine months into my quest for Self, I decided to return home to Slovenia. I felt like I was beginning to understand myself, and the veil of my original dream seemed dull in comparison to the truth I had found I must live by.

Namely, that I would never be happy and complete if I could not offer my son a platform of safety, love, and solid education, and this meant having both parents around – unlike my own childhood story – and living in a safe, affordable neighborhood (which, sadly, the US does not easily offer), having access to free and solid education (again, not a strength in the US), and low-cost reliable healthcare (totally unheard of in the US, at least until the recent introduction of Obama Care, which has yet a long way to come).

The lost dream I was chasing was not nearly as important as this quest for my son’s safety, education, and security in my love. In truth, Slovenia had become home and was not a bad place to be at all…It was a place where I could put my talents and skills out into the world successfully and where I had a support network of friends and family stronger than I had ever known in my life, even despite the divorce. (It’s amazing the revelations a little outside perspective can bring!)

I discovered that my ultimate purpose in this life was not to entertain others or be famous or even be recognized for my talents or contribution, but rather to heal myself, to be whole and holy, and to continue being the best mother I could be while living out my life as a teacher and as my artistic, bohemian self (minus the self-destructive patterns). And perhaps to, at some stage, offer my own healing journey as an inspiration to guide others to finding their way from the darkness into the light of their own life so that they may lead a life of purpose, clarity, health, and connection, too.

3. When and how did you decide to open a holistic healing retreat?

During my time in LA, I had gone through a meditation – visualization – journaling process, inspired mainly by two books: “Wishcraft, how to get what you really want” by Barbara Sher with Annie Gottlieb and “Creating Money, keys to abundance” by Sanaya Roman and Duane Packer.

During that process, essentially, I came up with a vision of the life I could have at my highest potential. It took three years and a month (and a lot of cleansing and healing and growing) for the final ingredients of that dream-life to appear, and they were:

1) Meeting Stipe, my husband, partner, and best friend.

2) Discovering this beautiful island that offers the perfect backdrop for the kind of lifestyle I was longing to live.

3) Realizing it was time to make a 100% shift into living and realizing the real me, the Spiritual me, who had been slowly growing stronger since 1999.

But, in real-world terms, in order to be together (Stipe was living in Croatia; I was living in the neighboring country of Slovenia), we realized that we would have to combine our talents, interests, and vision of a dream life into a structure – and the structure that somehow made sense was a company that we named Suncokret (the Croatian word for Sunflower), for it is through this structure that we both have blossomed to a higher potential under the sunny skies of Hvar, and where we offer the space for others to do the same.

4. How did you finance or save enough to start the business?

Back in 2003, all you needed to open a company in Croatia was 3000 euros (which may still be the case), a good lawyer, and a lot of patience (certainly still the case).

And somehow, for the first time in my new life as a more grounded person walking a spiritual path, I actually had an extra 3000 euros to invest into my future! (This is a huge accomplishment for a person who had, for many a year, nearly always been in the red in her previous bohemian life in the ’90s!)

So, with my 3000 euros and with Stipe’s support in dealing with the local authorities, we were able to manage all the legal procedures, buy office equipment, etc. to get started.

5. What was the biggest challenge of starting your business? What was the biggest challenge of doing it in Croatia?

The biggest challenge of starting a business was not having any previous business experience to guide us through the process; neither of us had ever fathomed that we would OWN or MANAGE a company! That, and endeavoring down an unknown path in a foreign country.

I’m also personally not very good at numbers, so pricing everything and managing the financial side of things was and remains somewhat challenging for me. Thankfully, Stipe and I make for a great team in so many ways. Often times, our strengths and weaknesses compliment one another, so management tasks somehow get naturally distributed between us without much discussion.

It also goes without saying that another big challenge for me is having to deal with bureaucracy in a foreign country and language, but again, Stipe helps deal with the Croatian side, while I tend to deal with the international side of things.

6. What are some of the greatest joys of having your business and living in Croatia?

The greatest joy of running a retreat is first being able to apply all our talents, interests, and passions under one roof, so we feel constantly engaged and inspired to keep up with every aspect that comes along with such a business on the creative as well as practical side of things.

Moreover, witnessing, week after week, month after month, year after year, the amazing souls from all walks of life, from all corners of the world, who pass through our doors and go through some kind of personal transformation under the space that we have created and to share in life’s journey with them in such a beautiful place is simply amazing.

For some of our guests, the retreat is simply time to unwind, connect, relax, enjoy good food, sea, sun…a beautiful holiday adventure in an amazing destination with like-minded souls.

But it’s the guests who come to us dedicating their vacation time to purposefully seek out a profound healing and lifestyle makeover experience under our guidance and care, who come to discover a newfound sense of spirituality, of deeper connection to the Self, to re-discover a purpose and pathway worth living for…they are the ones that I feel most blessed to be able to serve, for it is through helping them that I connect to my own purpose and light. And to be doing this kind of work with the support of my life partner, Stipe, whose own natural calm and grounded life disposition, not to mention his cooking, is a healing balm unto its own, makes it all the more inspiring.

(Not to mention being able to live in paradise while doing all this…it’s not a bad deal, at all!)

In short, running a retreat fills me with a sense of purpose and love for humanity that I never could have had as a starlet in Hollywood and I am so grateful to have found this path of service!

7. Your retreats have been growing year-over-year. What do you think the secrets to that success are?

1) Authenticity of having walked the walk, having had a rich life experience worth sharing, living a life full of love and gratitude, and having a profound appreciation for and will to learn from all the lessons and challenges that present themselves along the way.

2) Choosing a line of service that is based on fulfilling our purpose as soul beings, which supplies us with an unlimited source of inspiration and passion.

3) Not having followed a formula, but having concocted our own.

A fortune-teller once said to me that a talented mechanic needn’t have a physical garage, he only need fix the cars and the rest would come. This is a great analogy for how we came into being.

We started our company on a shoe-string budget along with a great passion for one another and what we wanted to do. We didn’t even have a property in which to run our services to start with! All we had was an unfurnished apartment above Stipe’s parents house, so our services were, at first, conducted entirely outdoors in nature. Ten years later, we have a main retreat center with common areas including a yoga terrace, a garden, a kitchen and living area, and a second guesthouse, which we renovated a few years ago to convert into an additional living space for our guests. Now we’re in the process of building yet another new addition on our property, so our space and standard is constantly expanding, as are our services, expertise, and number of guests.

In other words, our garage is being built over time, by the grace of the Universe and the blessed souls who entrust us to do what we do, while we, the mechanics, are passionately out there helping the cars to keep on running smoothly.

8. What tips do you have for others who want to open a retreat center or run retreats?

Running a retreat is a life calling, not a job or a business, though it must also be operated at this level, too. More than anything, it is a great privilege and responsibility to run a spiritual or holistically based program. Make sure you are in the right place to do so. The rest will follow. If you’re not in a financial position to make it happen overnight, keep your day job while you need to and never give up on your dreams and purpose! This goes for any business, for any endeavor.

The secret to success is knowing who you are and what you truly want to experience as you live out your purpose. Or, as Dr. Wayne W. Dyer would say, “living the good life means living in the place you belong with the people you love doing the right work on purpose!”

9. Any tips for people who want to live and do business in Croatia?

Hire a good lawyer and accountant to walk you through the process and provide ongoing support. Remember that you are in a foreign country, so things may not always go the way you expect. Remember why you have chosen to live and do business abroad and be willing to embrace the plusses with the minuses, the ups with the downs along the road to your dreams. There is no good and no bad, only life’s lessons to learn. Enjoy the ride!

10. What’s next for you and the business?

We are always up to something new; each season brings its own new inspirations and developments.

Currently, as mentioned, we are expanding our property and will therefore be offering more luxurious accommodation with en-suite options to our already cozy communal living space.

We’re also in the process of redesigning our website to reflect how we’ve matured in the last few years and I’m planning to start a blog this year to give voice to some of the inspirations and challenges of running a retreat, living on an island in Croatia, and following a spiritual path. We hope that both of these tools will enable former and would-be guests to connect with us more regularly and in new and meaningful ways.

Program-wise, we are planning to invite a few visiting workshop facilitators to add some fresh, creative, holistic content to our ongoing weekly summer program this season.

We like to take life’s opportunities as they come and keep things flowing as we feel inspired, so stay tuned!

Any questions for Evening? Interested in starting a retreat and/or moving abroad? Ask away!

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Rebecca February 3, 2014 - 12:20 pm

I have a question….do you post your job openings on your website? I am a Reiki master and would love to use it to help others.

Evening February 4, 2014 - 5:23 am

Dear Rebecca,

We do not seek or hire outside staff, however we do sometimes join forces with experts from various fields who we have already had the pleasure of forming a harmonious relationship with and feel would be an excellent addition to the Suncokret family and retreat offerings that vary from what we already have on offer. On the other hand, we do warmly invite energy workers, yoga teachers, spiritual masters, artists and visionaries who are dreaming of conducting a retreat on Hvar to consult with us with regard to organizing an “exclusive group retreat event”, where you may use our support and expertise to manifest a vision of our own within our space. Please feel free to contact us directly should you have further questions: Namaste.

Nancy A February 3, 2014 - 9:55 pm

Evening – what a beautiful and inspirational story. I feel truly blessed to know you. You are a super star of the highest magnitude, even if you’ve never starred in a movie. I hope to someday experience your beautiful retreat for myself. Thank you for sharing your journey.

Evening February 4, 2014 - 5:28 am

Nancy, my dear childhood friend, thank you for your encouragement and love, extended through time and space. We hope to have you join us whenever you decide the time is right to come visit us on Hvar! Your own story of personal growth, that I have been blessed to witness through our ongoing connection on Facebook, will certainly be an inspiration to others at the retreat! You are more than welcome! Namaste.


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