Seasons by the Sea: The Balancing Act

Miraval spa transforms both healthy and not-so-healthy food into tasty and more nutritious options.

   I was recently fortunate enough to spend some time at a health-concscious resort called Miraval. Miraval’s motto is “Life in Balance.” It is set on 400 acres next to the Santa Catalina Mountains outside of Tucson, Ariz. And it serves booze!
    Miraval has been around for almost 20 years. Oprah likes to come here, so now it is super famous for that. Dr. Andrew Weil has been a part of its integrative wellness program from the beginning. He is so adorable, looks like a Zen Santa. Besides having every kind of exercise from beginner’s yoga (an expensive nap) to the challenging all-day hikes up the mountain, it has lots and lots of woo-woo stuff like spirit journey and astrology readings and a “discover your soul mission.” I go for the food. It is delicious and it is free, or perhaps I should say included in the entire package.
    One of the things I loved about this place is that a lot of the guests, men and women alike, just wander around in their bathrobes. They are on their way to or from a spa treatment, so why bother with clothes? There is also a welcome and refreshing no-cellphone policy, which is constantly ignored by the more type-A types who simply cannot bear to be disconnected from their little rectangles of aluminum. I like to be the cellphone tattletale in places like this. No one needs to hear you yammering on your phone while they’re trying to enjoy the view of desert flora and fauna, hummingbirds, prickly pear cacti, and men naked under their robes.
    Maybe you’re jealous by now — “Wow, she’s so lucky she gets to go to this fancy resort” — and you would be right. But I earned it. In the year before this trip, my brothers and I sold our family home, an event as fraught with sibling nastiness as it should be in a family that usually puts the “fun” in dysFUNctional. I moved to Sag Harbor, and four months later my dog died suddenly and unexpectedly. Two weeks after that a moron fell asleep at the wheel on Route 114, plowed through a streetlamp, a tree, and then my house, destroying the porch and foundation. The moron was fine, by the way. Two months after that I tore a tendon in my hand, preventing me from working (as a chef) for a month. So I arrived at Miraval with a custom-made hand brace that makes it look like I am perpetually about to give you the finger.
    “Mindfulness is the core of the Miraval philosophy,” begins the mission statement. Mindfulness is the practice of “being awake and fully aware, giving you the opportunity to work toward greater self-understanding and peacefulness,” according to the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Miraval is now owned by Steve Case, former C.E.O. of AOL, so its interpretation of mindfulness is just a smidge different, calling it “a vivid perception of one’s choices, strengths, and potential — empowering yourself and optimizing your energy.” The food was awesome, but I was mindful of the frightfully small portions.
    The breakfasts at Miraval had all the things you would expect at a health and wellness-oriented buffet. Fruit of all kinds, low-fat muffins, oatmeal, ground-up birdseed, I mean flax, yogurts, etc. But it also had bagels and lox, omelets, burritos, salsas, pancakes, homemade sausages, salmon patties, baked sweet potatoes, and so on. There was a smoothie and juice bar open all day in case you were compelled to drink something green between your desert zipline adventure and Unleash the Power of your Soul sessions.
    All of the food has a Southwestern flair, with such local delicacies as prickly pear syrup, nopales salads, and desert flower honeys. The calories and carbohydrates, sodium, and fat content of every dish are displayed with little signs or on the menus. Surprisingly, this bothered some people because they don’t want to be reminded (or mindful?) that they just opted for the bagel-palooza instead of three blackberries. I found the information helpful because a lot of people do come here to lose weight or have to watch their sodium intake. Sadly, the coffee served here was God-awful weak, but I concluded this was intentional. Don’t need people to be all Starbucked-up in this serene environment.
    Some of the more genius creations at Miraval are the peanut butter and guacamole. The peanut butter was thinned with cooked carrots, giving it a disconcerting orange hue but making it slightly sweet and far less fattening. The guacamole has all the fun stuff you expect — avocado, lime juice, jalapeno, red onion, cilantro — but is also made more virtuous with the addition of edamame and steamed broccoli. There are risottos and steaks and brownies and pizza and polenta and elk, all delicious but made less fattening and served in smaller portions.
    Miraval recognizes the advantage of sauces and aiolis and truffle oil and spices to perk up an otherwise dull dish. While tempeh scallopini doesn’t sound too exciting to me, doesn’t caramelized three-onion polenta lasagna with wilted baby arugula, goat cheese, and ratatouille sauce sound good? Blue corn crab cakes with avocado corn salsa? Pecan pie empanada?
    Although I am having a bit of fun describing the woo-woo activities and corporate interpretation of mindfulness, the fact is Miraval is a place where many people come while recovering from or dealing with cancer, coping with the death of a loved one, divorce, and other rotten life experiences. And once we’re all in our bathrobes and our “Crackberrys” have been stowed in our casitas, we are all equal on the journey to mindfulness.
    Places like Miraval are both an escape from everyday life and a place where you can learn how to better deal with everyday life. The trick is to take and keep the exercises you have learned and put them to use once you leave. For me, the ongoing quest is to make food healthier and tastier, learning tricks from these talented chefs and bringing them home to share with friends and family. Mindfulness. Life in balance. With a glass of wine.

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