Learn how to deal with life's challenges... after a massage

Destination Arizona

December 17, 2006|By Beverly Beyette | Beverly Beyette,CATALINA, ARIZ.

Los Angeles Times — CATALINA, ARIZ. / / The bedtime "mint" on my pillow was a small, green card with a Chinese symbol and the word "joy."

Flipping it over, I read, "Joy is inside you ... the simple feeling that lies within you" -- in short, "Life in Balance," the mantra of Miraval Health Spa Resort in the Sonoran Desert about 20 miles north of downtown Tucson.

The literature in my room told me that the "i" in Miraval is me, that the spa's goal is to relax me, make me feel cared for and thus able to see things more clearly and be better prepared for life's challenges.

It's all a bit New Agey, but this 135-acre oasis is so beautiful and serene that, had I not been so busy taking notes, I might have been lulled into all manner of explorations of my inner self. As it was, I walked a labyrinth and communicated with a horse, but I balked at swinging from a 25-foot pole. My real goal was to better understand the experiences that high-end spa-goers have.

For three days in late April, I was pampered, pounded and repeatedly reminded to be mindful. Mindfulness is big at Miraval.

So is the tab. For the room, meals, three spa treatments, airport transfer, activities and use of all facilities, it came to a little more than $2,800.

I ate well. Miraval does not impose a Spartan diet. Indeed, repeat guests from Pittsburgh lamented that they gained weight every time they came. There's also a full bar, the Brave Bull Lounge, and a wine list is offered with the dinner menu. It notes that wine is good for lowering bad cholesterol. There's no mention of calories.

My room was one of 102 in villages of Southwestern-style casitas scattered among the cactuses, palms and pools. The room, in earth tones, was nice but not spectacular and opened onto a patio overlooking a manmade stream.

Heading out to explore, I encountered men and women padding about in gray-green robes, on their way to or from the holistic spa. Miraval is so laid-back that guests may come to dinner in their robes, but I saw only two women, of Japanese descent, doing so. (It's common in traditional Japanese hotels.)

My first stop was the Palm Court, where a snack bar serves complimentary coffee, cookies, smoothies and fat-free frozen yogurt throughout the day. It's also where each day's activities and sign-up sheets are posted. Guests may do as much or little as they wish. Among the choices: nature hikes, power walking, yoga, bird watching, loving kindness meditation, sunset photography, tennis, trail rides and drumming.

There are lectures on healing sleep and on better sex. Dr. Andrew Weil, Miraval's director of integrative health and healing, is a regular speaker.

Adjacent to the Palm Court is the pretty fountain-centered courtyard, in a corner of which is a little nature center where guests record wildlife sightings on the property. One reported "a Western rattlesnake beside the door to our room." Rattlesnake? "It does happen," a staffer told me. "This is the desert." The staff, we were assured, is trained in removing snakes mindfully -- i.e., to more snake-friendly locales.

The grounds are spectacular. Little desert cottontails dart among big boulders. The Santa Catalina Mountains, purple at dusk, are the frame. The silence is palpable. Cell phones are taboo in most public areas, and I was surprisingly aware of the chirping of birds.

At Raindance Pass Boutique, I browsed a rack of bejeweled jeans for $310 a pair. In the books section, I thumbed through various titles, including Outsmarting the Midlife Fat Cell and How to Get From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.

I had signed up for the next day's Equine Experience, a Miraval signature activity. We were driven to a nearby stable, where cowboy John Orr explained that this was about self-discovery, facing one's fears and gaining insight into relationships. As he put it, "Horses never lie. And they have nothing in common with you."

In teams of two, we approached our challenge: to scrape mud from a horse's hoof with a tool resembling a giant crochet hook.

Ali, a 1,100-pound brown mare, and I reached an immediate standoff. I pinched her right back leg repeatedly, as instructed by cowgirl Ellen Butterbaugh, but Ali ignored me. Back off, Butterbaugh told me, then stride toward her confidently while searching your emotions.

On my fourth try, Ali lifted her hoof. I felt triumphant.

Good, Butterbaugh said, explaining that the exercise was less about cleaning the horse's hoof than "about cleaning out your head."

Later, we were asked to express our feelings about the Equine Experience. Some said it had brought on a rush of soul-searching. I don't pooh-pooh these things, but quite honestly it didn't change my life; it has made me a little less leery of horses, especially now that I know they can't kick sideways.

And so the days passed: breakfast, activities, lunch buffet, activities, spa treatment, dinner.

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