Tranquil spaces encourage private and group meditation.
2006 – voted #1 spa by readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine.
2006 – voted #1 spa in North America by readers of Spa Finder, Inc.
Voted #1 destination spa by readers of Travel & Leisure magazine for three years.
I have journeyed to the high desert of southern Arizona, the foothills of the Catalina Mountains, 50 minutes drive out of Tucson, Arizona. I am standing smack in the middle of a riding ring with the equivalent of a skinny nine-foot pool cue in my hand looking at a horse that is looking back at me. It’s easy to pick out the veteran in the ring. I am assured that this pointer with a leather thong dangling from the end is not a whip; it is a prop to help ME concentrate better as I use my body and mind to communicate with my spirited chestnut therapist.
With a small group of other guests staying at the Miraval Life in Balance Resort and Spa, I have eagerly anticipated sampling the Equine Experience, the resort’s most popular and written-about program on a list of 25 or more activities offered on any given day. Yet, according to Wyatt Webb, the resident human therapist who developed this trademark activity, “It’s not about the horse!”
As I had stepped out of the van following a brief mini-bus ride to the horse farm on the edge of Miraval’s 135-acre property, the conversational group howl of a coyote family very nearby immediately reminded me that I had strayed beyond the managed, manicured grounds of Miraval itself.
Equine Experience creator, Wyatt Webb, communicates comfortably with Monsoon.
The Equine Experience reveals strengths and weaknesses in the human, not in the horse! Alison Gardner
In a large corral with half a dozen horses as our subjects and a bucket full of horse-grooming tools at hand, each participant did about 30 minutes of supervised horse-bonding while housekeeping our assigned horse’s hooves and brushing all that desert dust and sand from its coat. This exercise is designed to help develop some focus and communication skills for each of our horse encounters later in the ring.
“The horse will simply mirror you,” Wyatt emphasizes. “If your communication is confused, if you get frustrated or you’re timid, or if you easily lose your focus as leader of the task, the horse instantly reflects what is going on. Once you understand your own strengths and weaknesses, you can then transfer these insights to your human relationships and maybe improve the way you handle different areas of your life.”
Miraval is an award-winning model among a growing number of all-inclusive health and wellness resorts. Guests come and come back again to enjoy a few days or a week of hiking, biking and horseback riding, yoga, meditation, widely varying exercise classes from Tai Chi to Pilates, healthy cooking demonstrations and informal question-and-answer lunches with a nutritionist. If that isn’t enough, there are naturalist outings, challenge activities, memorable native elder-led sweat lodge experiences, star gazing, photography lessons, bird watching, and a menu of special workshops and private consultations that focus on discarding harmful habits and improving mental and emotional wellbeing.
Activity options range from comfortable for the beginner to challenging for the advanced.
As one would expect, there is the ever-expanding menu of expert spa treatments with increasing appeal to men as well as women. Time was when the concept of “real” men taking health-focused vacations was patently alien. Not any more.
After check-in and an unhurried introduction to all facilities and activity programs, the first challenge is what to DO. Staff caution that most first-time guests will try to cram far too much into the first couple of days – instantly sabotaging the resort’s mission of teaching a “Life in Balance”. However, by the third and fourth day each person seems to find a natural rhythm, and set a more mindful, healthy pace for the rest of the stay.
Accommodations frequently offer glimpses of the nearby Santa Catalina Mountains.
“We don’t have a whistle and clipboard mentality here,” declared the Director of Spa and Program Development, on my first day at Miraval. “Each individual is encouraged to set priorities for their vacation – the agenda is entirely their own.” This was surely confirmed for me when I overheard one guest sharing gleefully with another, “After eating so much healthy food in the past three days, I just had to ask the lunch chef if he would make me a hamburger in a bun with fries, and he said “No problem!” Needless to say, such items do not appear anywhere on the daily menu, but it’s good to know that slipping off the healthy-eating stool for a few hours doesn’t result in a horrified glance or a disapproving lecture from the food police!
The barrier-free, desert-landscaped core area of Miraval is invitingly walkable and wheel-chair friendly. Accommodating less than 100 people at any one time, the core includes accommodation clusters, indoor and outdoor dining facilities and healthy snack centers, artistically decorated Southwestern style lounge areas, and many well equipped activity buildings and pools. The main challenge course, equine programs, and nature activities range out to the perimeters of the desert property, and sometimes even into the mountains.
With camera in hand, I thoroughly enjoyed my expeditions around the property with Miraval’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic naturalist. Together we marveled at the wide, shallow river that blocked our desert exploration after a rare rainstorm. A rainbow stretching from ragged mountain ridges to this fleeting water course was just the icing on the cake. We identified dozens of birds and plants, examined geological formations, and bid good morning to a family of javelina [wild collared peccary, not pigs] feasting on cactus fruit.
Even when a person is healthy and apparently leading a balanced life, it never hurts to collect a few tools to use in later chapters of life, particularly for those negative experiences that are sure to come along sooner or later. For those of every age who are already struggling with physical, emotional or spiritual challenges, a wellness vacation may be an imperative to a healthier future.
Popular with all ages, Miraval’s Climbing Wall and other challenge activities help guests overcome fears and develop strategic skills.
At Miraval, I met a woman just ending a marriage. Unsure of herself and her future, she was clearly drawn to all the challenge activities from the climbing wall to high wires and the quantum leap. Over several days her physical and emotional countenance went from fear and lethargy to rekindled confidence in her abilities to deal with the next step in her life. A solo seventy year old with painful arthritis focused on the massage and spa facilities, nutrition consultations and meditation classes. Many mid-life couples were there because they were curious to try out everything that crossed their path or they were looking for ways to enrich their lives together.
A 5,000 year old Ayurvedic massage from India is one of dozens of spa treatments offered at the resort.
I am naturally skeptical of extravagant promotional messages, so I confess that my own agenda included mindfully testing Miraval’s claim to offer “more than a vacation, a place where you can appreciate the moment and bring life into balance.” After four days, I was definitely better attuned to appreciating each moment and each person with whom I shared an activity, a meal or just a brief chat in the lounge. Balancing my life .. well, that is going to require a few more visits to Miraval to nail down the techniques securely. Be warned that wellness vacations can become addictive – in a perfectly healthy way, of course!
Follow Up Facts
Miraval Life in Balance Resort and Spa, www.miravalresort.com. Based on feedback from guests, new Life Enrichment programs led by recognized authorities in many fields are being added to the menu monthly. For descriptions and schedules, including two multi-day workshops offered by Wyatt Web, check the Miraval website.
Wyatt Webb‘s insightful, very readable books are called It’s Not About the Horse! and What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do: Common Horse Sense. Both are published by Hay House, California, http://www.hayhouse.com/it-s-not-about-the-horse.
Tucson Visitors Bureau, www.visittucson.org.
Arizona Spa Travel Packages
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Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine.