Finding Balance with
Earth, Wind, Fire and Water
by Robyn Webb, MS
Health & Wellness Editor
The sepia-stained butterfly flew high above my roomy balcony. As it crisscrossed the intersecting waters of the sparkling, jewel-colored Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, I watched this beautiful creature, which once was a plain-Jane caterpillar and it reminded me of the power of reinvention. A few minutes earlier, I had checked into one of Puerto Rico’s finest destinations, The El Conquistador Resort, located in the charming fishing village of Fajardo, for their brand-new 4-day wellness program.
G a t e w a y t o W e l l n e s s
Passing through the salmon-hued front gates of the hotel, the drive up to the main lobby seemed just as long as it was from San Juan’s Luiz Munoz Marin International airport. But that’s ok, as it gave me a chance to clear my nasal passages from a lingering cold by breathing in the honeyed aroma of fresh pineapples, mangoes and coconut that scented the lush foliage lining the winding road. Greeted warmly by Lydia Feliciano, Director of Marketing, I was swiftly shown to my room in the main area of the resort. Walking by the multitude of inviting boutiques on the way, note to self was made as I was in desperate need of a new bathing suit worthy of this gorgeous setting (I did later settle on a striped little number I was most pleased with).
The room was every bit as luxurious as the main lobby, but was also down-to-earth, comfortable and definitely functional. You see, I grew up in the hotel business in the 1960’s when rooms were designed to be practical and serviceable. Many hotel rooms of today are more style over substance. I’m content in knowing that this property has kept the mid-last century sensibilities by providing quarters with clear lighting, full-length mirrors, plenty of drawer space and not too many fancy electronics, especially for technically-challenged guests like me.
Knowing I’ll probably be spending lots of time in my bathroom in between hot work-out sessions, I peeked behind the powder room’s pocket door and discovered a wonderfully spacious haven. A huge, door-less walk-in closet was the first thing I saw, though it’s more suitable to hanging elegant ball gowns than my lowly exercise gear. I’ve been disappointed so many times by hotel closets-so dark that I’m apt to select mismatched shoes and so lacking in space my clothes suffer a bad case of the wrinkles. But this extra-large bureau is like a whole other room and my wardrobe never had it so good.
The layout of the shower had me intrigued. You enter it by walking down into the porcelain tub, not by climbing above its perimeter. I had a hunch this was designed purposely to coincide with the wellness theme of the resort. Indeed as I took a quick rinse-off, it felt as if I was calmly entering the sea, rather then clumsily hauling one leg then the other into a rowboat.
Before I dashed off to the spa to endure my body composition analysis, there was something I noticed in my immediate surroundings that no other property I’ve ever stayed in could lay claim to. Emanating from outside the room, I heard a mellifluous hum
of what sounded like a prettied up version of the white noise app I go to sleep with each night ( bless my husband’s melodious tunes that I need to block out). I was sure it was the song of some kind of island animal. I verified that this soothing tone is coming from the strong voice of the indigenous tiny coqui frog. This background audio kicks my technology created sleep-inducer to the curb; there’s just no substitute for what Mother Nature can provide. It was a very nice change from the “air conditioner” mode I use now.
The first event of the program was a status check of what my soon to be 55 year-old body was made of. Waiting for me in a small office was personal trainer, Juan Perez, an honorably served 20 year member of the U.S. military. Sleek in physique, possessing an obvious perfect body fat, he began pinching and squeezing my excess padding. To my delight, it was not way off base; being a nutritionist certainly makes me conscientious of weight control, but doesn’t exempt me from the challenges many women face. Then I was ushered into the exercise room to perform flexibility, core and upper body strength tests. Before I even fold my body in half in an attempt to reach my toes, I admitted to Juan that my flexibility has never been very good. “That’s ok, that’s ok, you just try the best you can”, he encourages. I liked him immediately. Turns out my mid-decade figure was actually in pretty good shape and I rewarded myself with that new swimsuit purchase.
After I took more pleasure from the room, a change from yoga pants into a sundress (the first of many repeat performances) heralds in the first spa meal. The talents of Executive Chef Ernie Reyes are evident immediately. The cuisine was healthy, imaginative and portions were correctly sized (meaning small but yet sufficiently ample). Most importantly every bite had deep, rich flavor. No over steamed, plain food here; everything was gussied up with herbs, spices, and fresh citrus. Joined by two fellow professional writers, we began with a delicate demitasse cup filled with a smooth, creamy mushroom soup, aptly named Mushroom Cappucino. Petite in size but big in taste, this opening act proved that well-prepared miniature versions can easily replace typical full-sized portions.
The rest of the satisfying meal consisted of a refreshing Caprese salad dotted with colorful tomatoes and baby basil, one (trust me, all you need is just one of these rich morsels) plump sea scallop topped with crushed native plantains and a very tender, diminutive piece of lean New York Strip paired with a smooth shrimp mousseline. For dessert, a raw lime cheesecake was an unexpected revelation considering I’ve never been a big fan of the raw food movement. Formed into what resembled a log rather than a
traditional triangle-shaped slice, the low sugar, nicely tart treat was a fine finish. Every meal for each participant on the wellness program can be completely customized (you are requested to fill out a preference form prior to your stay). So whether you are vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, paleo, or have any food allergies, Chef Reyes and his team can happily accommodate your needs.
Over dinner, we learned more about the property’s celebrity visits. It seems a recent episode of the deliciously wicked Real Housewives of Beverly Hills was filmed here as well as the casino scene in the 1964 film, Goldfinger, my very favorite James Bond movie. Sorry Real Housewives, but shaken, not stirred is a bit more my speed.
As a little sample of what was to come in the upcoming days, after our meal we followed Andrea outside for a short, but very powerful exercise, Labyrinth Meditation. She led us to plush plot of land near the spa that was carved to look like a grassy version of the Yellow Brick Road from the Wizard of Oz. Andrea gave us each a slip of paper on which we wrote down something that’s been weighing on our minds. Under fiery torches and the cool late-night breeze, we began spiraling quietly through the maze until the final stop, where we literally set our troubles ablaze, tossing our papers into the fire until they became ashes.
Feeling a little mentally lighter, I returned to my abode relying on the chorus of the coqui frogs to lull me to sleep. They didn’t disappoint.
M o u n t a i n s a n d M o o n s
Every morning, the first meal of the day was set in a different location. This was smart logistical planning so you are able to see parts of the resort you might not otherwise get to visit. You can sip your acai berry smoothie overlooking a spectacular infinity pool or on kelly-green grass as the sun rises above the gentle sea. In addition to thick, cold fruity drinks, the bill of fare included yogurt studded with house made granola, garden-fresh vegetable frittatas, cantaloupe and honeydew melon kebabs and moist, reduced sugar banana bread.
When you complete your paperwork prior to arrival, you will be asked to choose one of the four elements as your retreat theme. Each element offers specially designed activities and spa treatments. I experienced a little sampling of each (you will be asked to choose one) but whatever element you settle on, you will be in for a treat.
So now sufficiently filled with breakfast fuel, it was time to hit the gym for the first element activity, Bosu Boot Camp. The promise of the class was to expand your movement, reshape your body and strengthen your mind. To achieve these goals, you use a Bosu ball, which is basically a traditional stability ball sawed in half, with one half of the ball attached to a rigid platform. The device has always been on my exercise to do list, well, way down on the list! I always casually pass it by when in my home gym, thinking “someday”. Someday has arrived! Juan, my favorite soldier, strides in all excited to improve our balance and get our hearts pumping. After a series of deep squats, fast side steps, difficult burpees and more, I doubt Juan will be recruiting me for his battalion any time soon, but let’s just say, my own Bosu ball is closer to getting a dust-off.
As a cool down, the lovely Lydia led us in an easy walking tour of the property. We were shown all over the grounds stopping at Las Casitas Village. In addition to lodging in the main part of the resort, accommodations are available in this secluded enclave of one to three bedroom breathtaking villas, complete with butler service and private pools. Recently inducted into Trip Advisors Certificate of Excellence Hall of Fame, the villas are perfect for executive gatherings, and I thought a stay here would be ideal for a getaway with my besties. After brutal workouts, a butler-drawn bath sounds just about right. Lydia also shows us Coqui Water Park (my hypnotic frogs have star status here), a world class, one-of-a-kind aquatic playground complete with high-speed water slides, a river for inner tubing, an infinity pool and everything else a water-lover could ask for.
The low impact tour was short lived, while the next activity proved to be a strenuous,
challenging one. Taken by the hotel’s own luxurious catamaran that speeds through undulating waters, the craft headed for the 10 minute trip to Palomino Island, the resort’s own private 100 acre islet. The archipelago offers a bevy of water sports such as kayaking, paddle boarding, snorkeling and scuba diving and this is where the entire rest of the day would be spent. But the first activity on this oasis
is to be on dry land. I put one tootsie in front of the other one as we followed Juan for the Palomino Mountain Trek, an uphill excursion 165 feet above the sea. All the while, I patted myself on the back for ignoring the little voice who wanted to roll back over many mornings instead of doing my 3 mile runs. This formidable journey was a sweaty one, but I made it just fine, not out of breath at all. The hike’s reward was walking down towards the awe-inspiring view of the powder soft, white sandy beach being lightly caressed by soft waters. Now I fully understand the purpose of my room’s shower design; cascading downwards is a much more serene experience than climbing upwards.
Lunch was al fresco under swaying palm trees with a few colorful roaming iguanas as extra guests. Have you ever had salad greens snipped right in front of you? Me neither until this restorative mid-day meal. To start the feast, one of the handsome chefs deftly used a pair of scissors to shear and trim greens into a fluffy base for fresh carrots, radishes, cucumbers and more crunchy vegetables. Rounding out the rest of the menu were mango flavored shrimp and chicken kebabs and a cute little veggie burger that was surprisingly very good (I’m a bit cynical about finding a good veggie burger, most are just soggy messes).
For dessert we moved over to a little wood pavilion closer to the water’s edge to meet Pastry Chef Michelle Rivera, the genius behind the El Conquistador’s sweet, but nutritious endings. As a nutritionist, I also conduct cooking classes and I take every opportunity I can to learn from the masters. Michelle created a delicious power-packed energy ball made with almond meal, goji berries and sweet dried pineapple (the only source of sugar in the recipe). The color is so much more inviting than the ubiquitous muted brown specimens. But the highlight of this “Lunch and Learn” session was her coconut ice cream. Made without an ice cream machine, coconut milk was whipped up into a frenzy by the whirring metal blades of a standard Kitchen-Aid electric mixer. With an assist by Chef Reyes, Michelle added pitchers of dry ice that produced billows of cold steam so as to transform liquid into a soft serve custard. Two ounce portion cups were provided and this small amount was perfect for an afternoon refreshment in the warm sun.
With the creamy ice cream still in the digestion process, Lydia sweetly “nudges” (or as my mother used to say,”noodges”) participation in one of the many wet activities, but a cushy lounge chair called my name and that’s where I planted myself until several raindrops put an end to my prone position. Back on the boat to the hotel my quads and hamstrings are all fired up, in a good way. Despite being a daily runner, my body told me thank you for using different muscles today. But the kudos go to Juan, gracias señor.
An early dinner was at the Golf Grill Terrace, with a setting magenta sky enveloping the manicured course. The entire spread was divine, but my two favorite dishes were the appetizer of little flawlessly seared tuna cubes nestled on top of buttery organic greens and a shot glass portion of intense raw chocolate mousse studded with raspberries as dessert (I think I might be catching on to this raw thing after all). Dinner was a short affair in order prepare the body for this evening’s encore, Full Moon Yoga.
The definition of a goddess is a female possessing great beauty and grace. She is believed to be the source of life. Our yoga instructor was Rita Maldonado, who I would dub “the goddess” for the remainder of my stay. I was instantly drawn to Rita’s energy and light. She typically teaches Hatha Yoga-which she explained as the union of the opposites in each one of us. The syllable Ha (in Hatha) stands for the Sun while the syllable Tha stands for the Moon. The class for the evening focused on the second syllable.
Under the hazy night sky, Rita facilitated the unleashing of my feminine strength and power that had admittedly been buried under some recent worry and stress. “In Full Moon Yoga, we attempt to connect to the Moon aspect of ourselves- the ultimate feminine principle, or the embodiment of emotion, intuition, psychic faculties and loving kindness”, Rita explained. She softly told us, “By working “in” rather than working “out” we can connect to ourselves and touch the yin aspect of reality, alive and radiant as the Full Moon”. I’m still not quite sure what all those gentle movements did to my body and soul, but I can say unequivocally I felt much more centered and at ease about some important choices I needed to sort out. Plus it just was pretty darn cool to try this practice, one completely new to me, under a luminescent heaven.
Wonderfully spent from the sun-up to sun-down activities, the coqui frogs would have to find someone else to serenade for I was out before I could even hear one chirp.
A B r e a k t h r o u g h
After another hearty, healthy breakfast with the best-loved dish being the quinoa oatmeal topped with caramelized bananas, I was excited for a day of hiking in the El Yunque Rainforest. While all the physical activities had been great so far, what I was hoping for was a big breakthrough moment; something to symbolize that I’ve made not only physical changes, but emotional and mental ones as well. As it turns out, deep within the verdant forest, today would be that day.
Approximately 20 minutes from the hotel, lies 28,438 acres of the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System (there are other rain forests in the U.S. but none are tropical). Our guide today was Juan (this was another Juan, drill sergeant Juan was back at the hotel whipping other guests into fantastic shape) who first stopped at the El Yunque Visitor Center so we could get an overview of what we are about to march through. Then it’s was off to the rainforest and despite the narrow path and many stairs, I found the journey relaxing. I was good at this.
Traipsing through the jungle-like setting with the sun peeking through the tall leafy trees, we reached the prized destination; a gushing waterfall suitable for a swim below it. Then at the moment of arrival, as if sent down by Central Casting, it started to rain. Hard. Despite its name, it doesn’t always rain in the rainforest and I wasn’t expecting it to or least hoped it wouldn’t! No one around me knew this, but as the rain came down, inner panic starts to set in. I was comfortable with the hiking, but I fear rain, I always have. My friends will tell you of my grand collection of pretty parasols to keep me protected from droplets. I will do anything to avoid the rain. But what I finally realize this day after 54 years of living, was my unease with the rain was much more than surface level. As I watched others around me enter the waterfall, splashing around with complete abandon while embracing the precipitation falling from the sky, I wanted to join them. I saw the freedom they were experiencing and I desired it. Perhaps what led me to this point was pushing myself beyond my comfort zone in the Bosu ball class or Rita’s insistence that you can tap into your strength despite any negative circumstances. But whatever led me to this actualization, I discovered it wasn’t the rain itself that caused so much dread, it was merely symbolic of my relationship with control. When I can’t control something, rather than just letting it go, I resist and miss opportunities. As a successful businesswoman, control is my middle name. It has served me well in so many professional situations. But this wasn’t about business. It was about just me.
So as I stood on the rocks deciding whether to enter the swirling pool of water under the effusive fall, I had two choices. I could retreat and be comfortable or I could just give in and join the fun I was clearly going to miss if I shrunk away. I chose the latter. I let my just-blown dry hair get soaking wet. My sneakers that I left on the rocks became one squishy mess, I didn’t care. I felt liberated and exhilarated. Before we left the waterfall, with beads and beads of water still streaming down my entire body, Rita led us in what is known as a Mudra. This is a Sanscrit word that means seal or gesture. They are used in yoga practices to direct or channel energy flow in the body. After about 15 breaths with my fingers intertwined with only the two forefingers pointed, according to Rita, my cares and heavy energy would flow out of my hands, into the ground, flow over the rocks into the waterfall, where the water would carry my inner worries into the sea. Ah, I realized then why Andrea based the entire wellness program on the elements; the water activity, or as Rita described, our Water Mother, had left me feeling mentally and emotionally buoyant.
Even though the hike wasn’t physically difficult, my muscles looked forward to the kneading they were about to receive at my hot-stone massage. Under Andrea’s directorship, the 26,000 square foot space is well run with a happy staff eager to make sure you have a tranquil experience. That’s exactly what was delivered to my sore arches, tight neck, and slightly aching lower back. My therapist expertly moved the stones
with long, smooth strokes for my relaxation and used them firmly with quick movements on my tough spots. As far as I’m concerned, the whole day was a perfect purging of all toxins, good riddance to them all.
The last dinner on the program was held on the breezy terrace of the candlelit Stingray Cafe, one of the many restaurants on premises. With a name like Stingray, you’d expect the fish to be fresh. It was that and more. A silky piece of grilled Dorado on top of warm arugula was stunning as the main course, but preceding that the chef served a little sampling of his finest appetizers. The Calabaza soup was perhaps my favorite dish of the entire stay. Bright orange and velvety, this fiber-rich vegetable is a relative of the pumpkin, but tasted sweeter and lighter. If it could pass agricultural inspection at the airport, I would have requested vats of the soup to bring back home.
Ensconced in my comfortable king-sized bed, it was my last night to enjoy a coqui frog symphony. So instead of nodding right out, I listened to the little critters belt out a few tunes until I drifted off to dreamland.
On the final day, protein-rich eggs made their appearance in many forms. A breakfast salad of fresh greens with a poached egg perched on top, crunchy egg tacos and zesty huevos rancheros were among the choices. I sampled a just a little bit of each one, for this morning I wanted to stay afloat, not sink, as the last activity of the program was in one of the many lavish pools.
This resort’s signature Aqua Parkour class was designed by the goddess Rita. Parkour is the art of developing balance, power, agility and awakening your core in water. Just when Rita had provoked every part of my being, there was more to stimulate. When I thought of water exercises, I envisioned ladies with outdated, plastic floral swimsuit caps doing very simple exercises so as to not break a sweat. Well, Rita had a different plan in mind. “You are mermaids, beautiful mermaids! “, she clamored. There she went again with that feminine thing…..
After an hour of tough movements in the water that got the cardiovascular system racing, I’ll never think of water aerobics the same way again. The class was also a perfect remedy to ease any residual aches still left in my body and helped alleviate any new pains from forming while in a cramped plane seat headed towards home.
All elements include 4 optional fitness classes
My experience at El Conquistador was nothing short of magical. Being born into the hospitality business makes me one tough critic when it comes to evaluating hotel and resort experiences. So when I say my time here was pretty much perfection, I think I have a leg to stand on-and now I can balance better on it too.