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Life in Balance

Casitas with Santa Catalina Mountains in Background.
Credit: Miraval

Miraval, less than an hour north of Tucson, is delightfully close to civilization, but decidedly out of this world. Dominating an unearthly landscape formed by Arizona’s Santa Catalina Mountains framing the Sonoran Desert, the setting of the 10-year old resort and spa is spectacular. The Southwestern-inspired architecture is unlike any you have seen. Built next to towering peaks, Miraval's casitas blend perfectly with the surroundings. Step out of the sliding glass patio doors of your accommodation and the gorgeous desert scenery is at the doorstep.

The nearness to nature deepened by southern Arizona's almost perpetual sunshine and crisp, invigorating air is transforming. In this wooded clearing in the mountains' foothills the colorful sunsets, lovely wildflowers, monumental Saguaro cacti, and rushing water after a storm make communing with nature and understanding the power of the gifts it can bestow inescapable..

When we visited we were granted another gift, a heaven that was heavenly. A full moon without competition from street lights below leapt out of the ebony sky. And each star, although it may have been millions of miles away, looked as though you could reach up and grasp it.

The van trip from the airport was not especially promising, reminding me of the disappointment first time foreign visitors to the U.S. might feel after arriving at JFK airport and driving through Queens before reaching the Manhattan of the movies. But when the van enters the grounds an incredible metamorphosis takes place.

Man, not nature, placed banks of rocks edged by ponds on the sides of the driveway and created streams of water that cascade over them. Nonetheless there was nothing synthetic or Disneyesque about the vista spread before us. It was authentic Southwest, appearing perhaps as though it had been moved from some wild location. Throughout the property were brooks, streams, and more rock formations, looking like they might have been in the same place for eons.

Aqua Fitness
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

Miraval's logo is purposefully stylized so that the letter "i" stands out. "I" represents individual. The philosophy of "Life in Balance" is tacked onto the name. A unique kind of mindfulness is at the core of the program. Staff members stress that the environment at Miraval acts as a catalyst. "You can learn, but we don't teach." The superb resort team is a support for the individual.

In the words of the founder, "You are more likely to bump into someone you hadn't known in a long time. It's you." Staff also talks about authenticity and commitment. At Miraval "the rest of the world does not exist" and one is in a "cocoon," said Jim Root, former director of the spa treatment center.

"Many guests transition themselves from a place of recovery to a place of possibility. We are not about ‘lotions and potions,’ but rather a true resource of health and wellness," added Harley Mayersohn, VP of Branding and Marketing.

Perusing the master roster of monthly classes, the schedule of special weekly offerings and lectures, and consulting the bulletin boards where sign-up sheets for challenge classes and
announcements of evening and one-of-a-kind activities are posted is like being presented with a long and too tempting menu. A kind of hunger sets in. Each choice is appealing. What do you do when you want to sample everything?

Start by going to a mindfulness discussion to introduce yourself to Miraval’s raison d’etre. Join a nature outing to orient yourself to the physical surroundings. "Wine 101 with Nutrition in Mind" conflicted with "Sunset Nature Walk," but flora and fauna won out over merlot and chardonnay. I’ll never know whether I gave up tasting some great vintages, but I do know that I was awed by what I saw and learned in the woods.

Arizona being the most ecologically and biologically diverse state in the country, there was much for our guide, Wylie, to point out—cacti of many stripes and gray thorn caterpillars camouflaging themselves by hanging under branches of trees. Because of the August rains, the plants were at their deepest green.

Digital Point and Shoot Photography
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

In the Fitness Department there was a surfeit of selections, perhaps as many as three classes in one time slot. When an activity is enjoyable you are always tempted to repeat it. Such was the case with morning and evening stretch and water conditioning. But, they proved not to be repetitive as the instructors were rotated and each of them modified the routines. Fletcher Towel Work, which was conceived at Miraval, is more difficult than it sounds. We stood throughout the session and used braided towels to help us stretch.

You are able to participate in a full roster of yoga, pilates, yogilates, body conditioning, fitball, and Oriental arts, all of which are offered in the Body-Mindfulness Center. Add to that hiking, biking, riding, tennis, and more than a dozen challenge activities, such as climbing a wall or a 35-foot pole, and walking on a log 30 feet above ground.

The resort appears to have more classes and workshops focusing on awareness (mindfulness) than other spas. It "is the thread that weaves all the offerings together."

The schedule is also heavy on nutrition and photography. One untutored guest came to the spa with a new digital camera. After an illuminating lesson in "Digital Point and Shoot Photography," he said with confidence, "It’s easy." He used his new toy repeatedly and returned to the East Coast with a full album.

The Treatment Center is another property haven where the inner me along with mindfulness is given center stage. The thinking is, "We define ourselves as a holistic spa where all aspects of ‘Life in Balance’ are taken into consideration." The products and services "support a healthy lifestyle" and "enhance life from the inside out."

As spas become bigger business—they now top $12 billion a year and are second in revenues only to golf—the demand for a wider smorgasbord of services from many cultures expands. For its latest offerings the resort has searched its own backyard and added three stone therapies as practiced by Native Americans. Borrowing once more from the local tribes, you can inhale the aromas of sage brush and sandalwood during a massage. In some of the body wraps and massages, mud from the Sonoran Desert is used. From further away come Ayurvedic and Oriental body treatments.

Aqua Zen
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

To prepare guests for their treatments or to let them wind down afterward, the most comfortable of relaxation rooms has been set up. Much in demand are the plush red chaise lounges into which you totally collapse.

For my first dip into the pool of healing, I signed on for my favorite, Aqua Zen, known elsewhere as Watsu. Shaded by two umbrellas, Livia waited for me in the small Middle Pool. The sun beamed through the trees and the water was a soothing 80 degrees. In this aquatic comfort zone, she cradled me in her arms and every so often swished me through the water with a deft kneading or stretching movement, releasing some knot of tension. Therapist and client bond during this essentially water shiatsu and reflexology. The exercise is about trust and giving up control. At times Livia simply rocked me or she supported me with an arm or rested the back of my neck on her hand. I compared my feelings about this whole dreamy experience with others and some agreed that it was like imagining how a fetus might feel in the womb.

Another stellar session was Thai Massage. Dressed in comfortable clothes, I lay on the floor while Patcheree, who came to Arizona from Bangkok, used her body—arms, legs, feet, elbows, hands, and shoulders—to stretch, push, pull, pound, contort, and help me relax. This form of massage is a bit like assisted yoga. When Patcheree finished I was totally unwound, but I realized that sometimes you have to travel a long way to reach nirvana.

Ed raved about his Cranio-Sacral Treatment proclaiming that it dissolved the knots in his neck and back and made his head feel clearer. I found the same treatment somewhat helpful, but mine did not compare with his epiphany. A Deep Tissue Massage gave me the release I sought. The masseuse cleared away every tense spot in my body with the use of "neuromuscular release, trigger, myofascial stretches, and compression."

Nutrition is another meaningful facet of a stay. For whatever reason guests always obsess about food at spas. Many of the lectures, including some during shared meals, centered on healthy and mindful eating. An experiment in sharing a group breakfast with MacKenzie, a nutritionist, was particularly instructive. She directed us to consume the meal with awareness of the present, focusing on the moment. She suggested several techniques for sounder behavior at mealtime, including being attentive to breathing.

A seminar in weight loss was also helpful. The goal was do away with the impulse to "grab and go," to "explore the psychology behind food and eating," and to aim for "well-balanced and personalized nutrition."

Dining Terraces, Cactus Flower Restaurant
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

You can practice what you’ve learned about mindful eating in the Cactus Flower Dining Room overseen by a wizard of a chef who skillfully decalorizes and defats food and infuses the maximum amount of taste in the dishes he creates. Because the emphasis is on using ingredients that are bulky rather than dense, you get the most bang for the calorie and fat gram count. There is great latitude in the choices you make at mealtime. And it is a surprise to find that items like muffins, pancakes, and waffles are served along with herbed egg white omelets. At lunch the same sanity in eating prevails. A buffet overflows with many salads, cold cuts, pasta, breads, and even a variety of tasty pastries, albeit small ones. Or order a hot cooked-to-order entree from the menu.

Dinner is where Miraval earns its Michelin-like stars. Choose from five rotating three-course international menus with four selections of appetizers, main courses, and desserts. To re-emphasize the value of starches and vegetables and to play down protein, all entrees containing 2-3 oz. starch, 2-3 oz. vegetables, and 4 oz. protein avoid commonplace descriptions of the dishes and list the ingredients in reverse. Thus a selection from a French dinner would be described as "Gallette of Truffle Turnip Puree and Braised Swiss Chard accompanied with Cervena Venison and Chipolte Corn Sauce." An appetizer of Mixed Baby Garden Greens gets first billing in front of Smoked Duck Breast. It’s hard to believe that Chocolate Orange Molten Cake and many other delicious desserts are under 200 calories. Fat, carbohydrate, and protein grams are listed on the menus.

In the non-judgmental and non-dogmatic atmosphere of Miraval alcohol is served. Not only can you drink, but you can taste before you commit to a bottle or just a glass of wine. Your server will pour as many samples as you like until you find one that satisfies.

Native American Kiva
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

The same exemplary service that prevails at dinner—waiters, waitresses, and managers politely ask if everything is satisfactory—is pervasive throughout every department. A pair of lost glasses was returned to the front desk and promptly delivered to our room. As though a genie had summoned them, maintenance quickly appeared to change light bulbs and to set up a laptop. After discussing Ed’s and my need to stretch regularly, Susan, an instructor, sent sketches on the double to our casita. Ask a staff member for a needed phone number and they will make the call and get the desired information for you. A request for directions turns every employee into a personal escort. Staff is actively encouraged to use the facilities, which may contribute towards their very positive attitude.

Landscape and buildings at Miraval are one. As expected tasteful Southwestern is the mood of the décor. Colorful, yet soothing. Much is borrowed from the Native American peoples—their crafts, designs, architecture, and pigments. The stucco buildings set into the rolling earth are designed like pueblos. The property has an open-air Kiva, an Indian arena or temple. Many of the Native American artifacts are eye-catching and as you stroll through the lounges and dining rooms you are treated to woven rugs hanging on the walls and dolls in tribal dress poised in wall-hung dioramas. In the main lounge you find wood, stucco, massive fireplaces, a sofa upholstered with pony hide fabric, slate floors, and oil paintings of pottery. Rooms are similar in atmosphere. Even the toiletries borrow from the surroundings. All are scented with cactus.

More is headed Miraval’s way as Dr. Andrew Weil partners to open a clinic for integrative healing. With all its pluses it’s no wonder that the resort was ranked #1 destination spa in the US by Zagat in 2001, ‘02, ‘03, and ’04; #1 destination spa in the world by Travel & Leisure in ‘03, ’04, and ’05; and #1 destination spa in N. Amer. by Conde Nast’s Traveler in ’04.

Miraval, Life in Balance, 5000 East Via Estancia, Catalina, AZ 85739.
Tel. 800-232-3969.


Fall 2005