Miraval: A Magical Desert Retreat

Jun 15, 2017 | Healthy Living, Travel

Just outside Tucson, AZ, overlooking the Santa Catalina Mountains, Miraval is a luxurious retreat for healing, meditation, outdoor adventures, spa treatments, yoga, healthy eating, personal development, and extreme positive vibes. I got to spend a few days here while my husband took off on a business-related trip of his own. Health and wellbeing are top of my list these days; the long NY–Tucson trek is well worth it.

After a 6:00 a.m. flight from JFK in a non-reclining seat, a mob scene at the rental car counter, and a two-hour high-speed drive down I-10 from Phoenix, I pulled through Miraval’s secure gate and found two greeters at the door, one offering a cool glass of pineapple-mint-lemonade, the other saying “I’ll park your car and put your luggage in your room. You can go ahead to lunch.” This is Miraval: logistical hassles fall away, you are cared for in all things, everyone is abnormally friendly, and so then you are challenged—or can challenge yourself—in the right ways, both physical and psycho-spiritual.

This time of year it’s sauna-esque dry heat all day and pleasantly mild desert nights. Palm and eucalyptus trees line the paths, with smooth stones and agave plants alongside, plus water features that recycle themselves in continuous waterfalls, and scattered sculptures, and little outdoor meditation enclaves that you come upon as you wind through the grounds looking for the Body Mindfulness Center or the Yucca Cabana or the Yurt. A modern trellis-like structure strung with Christmas lights sprays a cooling mist around the outdoor dining. At the hub of campus, the Life in Balance Spa overlooks a trio of resort-type pools with the usual chaise/umbrella lounge setup and servers offering drinks. The mountainscape is always there to the east, in changing colors of earth and pastel. Mainly, always, it’s just really peaceful.

Path through the grounds

Outdoor dining

And plus there’s the experience of cellphonelessness, which is divine. At check-in you must initial the cell phone policy: use it only in your room, the parking lot, or the courtyard outside Raindance Pass Boutique; if you choose to carry it, eg. for picture-taking purposes, put it on airplane mode. And people mostly obey. On my last visit, I stashed mine in the safe. I needed to, in order to create space in my mind and truly take a break. The rooms also have little cell phone sleeping bags that say, “Unplug. Be present,” and rest on miniature wooden beds. Evenings, at home, I like to say half-jokingly to my husband, “Okay, good night, iPad!” Since he reads books on it, he sometimes falls asleep clutching it, and I transfer it gently to the nightstand. But think about this: the way most of us live now, it feels like irresponsible decadence to be unreachable for even a couple of days. Pre-Miraval, the last time we’d gone deviceless was on our honeymoon.

My husband and I first came here three years ago. Among other things, that visit kicked off my daily meditation practice. Every morning you can attend group meditation, a guided mindfulness practice led by the various yoga teachers. At the start everyone’s asked to introduce themselves and say something about their intention. Comments range from “My intention is peace,” to “I just want to give meditation a try,” to “I’m here to hit the reset button on my life,” to “My friend is dying and I’m trying to deal with my grief.” (People will say personal things they would not normally tell a group of strangers. And I must say, it’s nice to spend some time in a radically nonjudgmental environment. It lets you confront all kinds of stuff in yourself—eg., your own reflexive judgments, insecurities, aversions, habitual reactions.) My intentions, for one, are gratitude and an open heart. “Yeah!” said the woman next to me when I stated this one morning.

Yoga and meditation center

This time, along with all the meditation, I also had my first-ever psychic reading, with the fabulous Maggie Garbarini, 81-year-old British phenomenon and former singing prodigy descended from Spanish gypsies; I scaled a 45-foot pole on belay to ride a zipline alongside the Catalina foothills (in tandem with, on her own parallel zipline, a middle-aged OB-GYN doctor who was here with her nine cousins, the rest of whom were doing water aerobics class); I worked with Brent Baum, creator of Holographic Memory Resolution, a technique to clear old traumas from the nervous system, meaning anything large or small—injuries, illnesses, surgeries, interpersonal incidents, childhood stuff, ongoing patterns of difficulty or single traumatic events—and then, per his instructions, floated around in the saltwater pool. And the colors of the sky and trees truly did seem more vivid, the sunlight extra-brilliant.

Zipline tower

They give you a ladder to get to that first rung.

And there was the Full Moon Gong Bath. I prioritize stuff like this at Miraval; you can get a hot stone massage so many places, but where else can you have a gong bath? This was a special offering on the night of the full moon. It turned out to involve lying on a yoga mat, along with about fifty other people doing same, while master healers Pamela Lancaster and Tim Frank played enormous gongs and Himalayan singing bowls such that the sound enveloped and washed over us in a deeply mind-clearing way. The vibrations of the Full Moon singing bowls are used in Tibetan medical care, the different bowls tuned to notes that correspond to the body’s energy chakras.

Himalayan Singing Bowl (photo: Miraval.com)

Tim Frank and Pamela Lancaster (Photo: Miraval.com)

A note about Dr. Tim Frank, Naturopathic Physician and Native American Shamanic Healer: I met him on our first visit here, for his Spirit Flight transformational healing ceremony, winner of “Best Spa Treatment” from SpaFinder Reader’s Choice Awards two years in a row. If you can roll with shamanic drumming, chanting, sage burning, feather flapping, etc., this is the most amazing mind-body-spirit healing experience, a combo of all the above plus massage, acupuncture, CranioSacral work, spinal alignment, and warm towel wrap. (Now, when I have any kind of healing treatment, my husband asks, “Was it chanting or non-chanting?” See: Airplane!) Tim and Pam are married and both are intense, perceptive, insightful and kind.

This week, in a private Water Lotus session with Pam, she and I stood in the Yucca Cabana pool under its canvas sun shade and did a Native-American-style ritual of the four directions (regarding mother earth, father sky, spiritual challenges, creativity, the wisdom of ancestors, the courage to be still within yourself and listen), and then I floated, supported on foam noodles and pillows, while she played the singing bowls in the water and actually on my body—which feeling, with the sound coming through the water and moving through your torso and limbs and filling your ears, is really fabulously relaxing and enlivening.

Water Lotus (photo: Miraval.com)

And now if anything in adult life can approximate womb-like comfort, the Miraval Floating Meditation is it: suspended from the ceiling in cocoon-type silk hammocks, with blankets, neck rolls and optional lavender eye pillows, you are gently rocked (the teacher comes around periodically and keeps you going), while she, as in the teacher, plays yet another kind of singing bowls—glass ones—and reads, in her soft melodious voice, the affirmations of the chakras. Which I mostly remember, though I might have dozed off a little by the time we got to the third eye and crown, I’m a little foggy on those. But oh, the way the silk hugs and swaddles you, and the gentle rocking, and that resonant, washing sound, and her hypnotizing voice—I have never felt so deeply, profoundly soothed. Sitting here now, I can still call up the feeling.

The silk hammock cocoon (photo: Miraval.com)


The food at Miraval is a nice healthy/yummy mix. Servers ask you about food allergies and the menu lists calories and Gluten-Free/Dairy-Free labels. Portions are usually small but you can order as many things as you want, and there’s a bunch of off-the-menu add-ons and alternate options—definitely not a rabbit-food situation if you don’t want it to be. Eg., my final night, while watching the setting sun’s glow on the mountains, I ate butternut squash soup with coconut milk; flank steak with garlic-herb butter, sautéed mushrooms and broccolini; and lemon-poppyseed chevre cheesecake with berry compote and honeycomb from the Miraval bees. On another night featuring red meat, my grass-fed beef tacos with house-made tortillas were so tasty and so skimpy that I asked to double down on the beef and guac, and they brought me another plate.

View from my table

At the breakfast buffet there’s an abundance of fresh fruit and berries, breads, nut butters, cooked greens, warm cereals with seeds and spices, always pancakes and stuff you can order like huevos rancheros and avocado toast, which everyone goes crazy for. (It has watermelon radish, pickled shallots, sunflower seeds, lemon and olive oil.) The gluten-free banana bread made with teff flour is moist and delicious, especially with a smear of whipped butter. At lunch the buffet has lots of veggies and creative salads, DIY salad options, warm legumes or meat dishes, chilled soups, plus a tower of cookies. The dinner menu changes every night.

The day I arrived, two women waiting to be seated were discussing the fact that technically you could even come to dinner in your robe. “But that’s kind of extreme, I don’t know if I’d do that,” was the gist of their conversation. Well, that’s one of my favorite things. Because who cares? It’s a spa. You can walk around in your robe and copper Birkenstocks and nobody minds. Evenings, the most decadent routine is early-dinner-in-robe, followed directly by spa time. First, a sauna or steam, then out to the Quiet Room with its cushy chaises, fleecy blankets, and floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking the Catalina peaks. There’s a modern gas fireplace and a selection of herbal teas and citrus-infused water, and nobody is allowed to talk, except the spa practitioners when they open the door and call your name.

Walkway to the spa

Spa quiet room

The spa treatments here are hit or miss, but if you know who to ask for and which treatments to choose, they are beyond fabulous. Intuitive massage/reflexology with the pseudo-psychic Lolita is a standout. On night number one, my Shamana Karma treatment with Sarah was a piece of Ayurvedic heaven, with scented oils, warm towels, steaming compresses of spicy herbs, and the kind of slow massage of body/face/scalp that sends you into ultra-deep peace. Which led to one of my best-ever sleeps. And ditto for the Tranquil Nights exfoliation/massage treatment from Senthil, who remembered me from last year (“I’m very good with faces,” he explained.), and is my all-time favorite spa person, an embodiment of therapeutic gentleness, with a true healing touch. “This is how you should feel every day!” he told me, as he shepherded me along the path from the outdoor treatment tent, checking that I could walk alertly enough to make it to my room.

By the spa

The bed at Miraval is a silken paradise cloud, and there are these ingenious little hinged bedside reading lights that turn off when you swing them down against the headboard. The effortlessness of bedtime is a wonderful thing when you’re in post-spa trance.


There are lots of other things you can do at Miraval. You can get nutrition and exercise physiology advice; attend cardio drumming and advanced fitness and aerial yoga classes; climb and jump off of tall things on the ropes course; walk across a log way up in the air, or a tightrope; go hiking and mountain biking; take photography, drawing, and how-to-make-a-dreamcatcher workshops; consult a medium (as in, someone who talks to the dead) and an astrologer; hear lectures on mindfulness, stress mastery, and finding your purpose; watch cooking and cocktail-making demos; do the Equine Experience with Wyatt Webb, which uses horse handling and round pen stuff to bring out people’s non-self-serving patterns; talk to the gardener and the beekeeper; taste a bunch of different kinds of honey (“A Sensual Journey”); take tennis lessons; walk the labyrinth and leave at the center a little note under a stone, with your intention or your wish or some loving words for the next person; and, of course, shop for Navajo jewelry, swimwear, exercise gear, skincare products, sun hats, healing crystals, scented candles, CDs and books on mindfulness and meditation, mugs with inspirational sayings in rainbow-colored letters, and wind chimes that say Be Kind.

The labyrinth

You can also just chill out by the pools, where there’s usually a way to stay in the shade (including, which I love, having your face and torso in shade and your legs protected by a sun-warmed towel, post-swim). If you’re doing healing-type stuff, it’s especially important to take time to let things sink in, rather than racing to the next activity. I spent some wonderful hours on a chaise by the salt pool, reading or snoozing in the breeze, with birds singing and the rushing-stream sound from the artificial water feature behind me. (My tackiness meter is way down at Miraval. Everything just seems so wonderful I can even tolerate corny mugs and wind chimes. The artificial water feature really is lovely.)

Water with fountains

Walking to breakfast

Desert spa gear

On this visit, there was also the pleasure of eating alone and without distraction. Just sitting there quietly at the table, looking around, being present, tasting the food—it’s nice. Or sometimes, at lunch, chatting with someone at a nearby table. You end up meeting all kinds of people, and usually people greet each other and talk in the warmest manner you’ve ever seen between strangers.

My final night, a group of us followed the astrologer down to the Kiva (named for the Pueblo meeting space) to look at the stars. We sat around the fire pit while the last of the light faded, and she told us about the movements of the planets and pointed out constellations. Intermittently, whoops and hollers would float up to us from the uber-popular Twilight Zipline Experience. I was taking pictures that last day, and I’m glad I had my phone along. The astrologer showed us the SkyView app, which you can point at the sky to see which planets, constellations, and satellites are there. The moon that night was in Sagittarius, my birth sign. Saturn is right there as well—and will be for a while, I gather—which made for an ultra-cool screen shot.

Arriving at the Kiva

The astrologer talks about the stars

Virgo and Jupiter

The moon and Saturn in Sagittarius

Bootes overhead

Moonrise by the spa entrance

Moon over Catalina peaks


Earlier that day I’d attended an afternoon practice of forgiveness meditation. The practice is about cultivating love, patience and compassion for the self and others. The past can hold us prisoner; the intention is to let go of the wish that the past were somehow different, better or more—to forgive ourselves and others for things that have caused us pain. It is not about denying suffering, condoning harm, or sacrificing our own needs for the sake of what others want from us. Nor is it meant to lead to any particular outward action. Rather, it’s about releasing guilt and resentment for our own sake—an act of kindness toward the self that opens the path of profound wellbeing, so that we can make choices with clear eyes. This is not a one-time cure but an ongoing exercise that we can practice in meditation and bring into our daily lives.

The actions we take from a place of forgiveness can have many forms, the teacher said. We might calmly stand up for what we need. We might repair a relationship or choose to move on. But living with resentment is like drinking poison and then sitting down and waiting for our enemy to die.

That last simile actually comes, I think, from a version of the following story, which the teacher also told us. It’s the Cherokee Tale of Two Wolves:

A grandfather says to his grandson, “I have two wolves fighting inside me. One wolf is anger, envy, guilt, resentment, judgment, and blame—all things that bring suffering. The other wolf is good. It’s acceptance, peace, compassion, courage, joy, forgiveness, love.”

He tells his grandson, “You have these two wolves fighting inside of you, too. Everybody does.”

The grandson considers this. “Which wolf will win?” he asks.

The grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”

Walkway from the meditation center

Prickly pear in desertscape

River of stones



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