A weekend at Miami Beach’s new wellness retreat, Carillon Hotel & Spa

One of the first travel stories to truly captivate me and make me think, “I want to do that” was a story by New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd in January 2009. In place of her typical political and social commentary, which, at the time, I devoured every week, she was moonlighting for the Travel section with a story about her visit to the newly opened Canyon Ranch in Miami Beach. At the time, President Obama had just taken office and the nation’s economy was in a free fall. In true Dowd fashion, her story was just as much about the economic and moral implications of indulging in a pricy wellness retreat while people’s life savings were going down the toilet, as it was about profiling the resort. 

The property—and Miami, itself—had piqued my interest. I was living in Key West at the time, and a move to Miami was still almost two years away. I loved that the resort sounded extravagant and luxurious in Dowd’s description, “perched on the ocean, with gorgeous shimmering mosaic designs, gentle lighting [and] sumptuous rooms,” but also grounded, with meditation, Chinese medicine lectures and “intention walks.” I loved how, in spite of this Zen retreat, the allure of Miami’s “salsa and jangle” led her to stray off property for dinners at the Versace Mansion and the now defunct Joe Allen. 

Truth be told, she found the whole experience slightly absurd, begging the questions, “With America so busy detoxifying from its toxic greed, hubris and overreaching, is there still room for the more aesthetic form of detoxifying? Will our depleted nation finally learn the existential lesson that eyebrow plucking can be done at home?” 

But she was there. And she had other spa stories to compare it to, proving that she was, indeed, a spa goer, using words like sybaritic to describe both South Beach and the spa. It all sounded very grownup and glamorous, and something I very much wanted to be a part of.

So, last month, when I checked into Canyon Ranch’s reboot, now going by the name Carillon Hotel & Spa (6801 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-514-7000; rates from $385-$2,570 per night) I was excited to get a taste of the wellness retreat for myself, some six years later. While the Canyon Ranch brand, long associated with holistic health and wellness, is gone, much of the staff, programming and core values remain intact under new ownership Z Capital Partners.

As I drove up Collins Avenue towards the North Beach resort, I couldn’t help but think how the mood of the nation has shifted since Dowd’s 2009 visit. For one thing, the economy is on the rebound and Miami, never one to demure from frippery (to borrow a term from Dowd’s vernacular), is experiencing a boom time once again. We’ve had a yearlong wave of new hotel openings, a glut of over-the-top condominiums breaking ground and the Design District has morphed into a luxury shopping mecca seemingly overnight. 

But the most discernible difference between now and six years ago is our plugged in society. In 2009, the iPhone was in its infancy. Facebook was only five years old and Twitter was gaining traction, but apps like Instagram and Snapchat had not yet launched. None of this media was being consumed on the go as ubiquitously as it is today. As a response to the Age of Information, hyper-connectivity and iPhone addiction, the groundswell of another movement is crystallizing, that of wellness and mindfulness. 

What Dowd poked fun of in 2009, wondering whether “spas were a bit out of date,” seems positively of the moment in today’s climate. Every other one of my girlfriends is dabbling in meditation, juice cleanses, plant-based diets (or low-carb diets or gluten-free diets?), tarot card readings, Mercury in retrograde validation or the power of crystals. And my personal devotion to yoga is deepening with every asana. We’re all after that Holy Grail catchall that we now call “wellness.” In his book The Art of Stillness, travel writer Pico Iyer argues that the more connected we are through technology, the stranger we actually are to one another—and to ourselves. As one of my favorite yoga teachers put it over coffees at Panther, “There’s definitely a mindfulness movement under way.” So, needless to say, when I checked into the Carillon, I was game. I was ready to unplug, unwind and be good to my body, mind and spirit—all in the lap of luxury, no less. 

But first, what’s with the new name? 

Canyon Ranch management officially left the building at the start of 2015 after former owners, Lehman Brothers affiliates, lost the property in a bankruptcy auction in late August 2014 for $21.6 million. Turns out, Lehman affiliates originally bought the property in foreclosure in 2009 and have been dealing with messy, multi-million dollar litigations ever since with key developers involved in a Ponzi scheme. If Maureen only knew… Whatever eerie financial crisis vibes she felt during her stay may have been much more deeply rooted.

Financial turmoil aside, I’m sure the new ownership burned some sage to ward off the bad energy. Today, Carillon is affiliated with Leading Hotels of the World. Its name comes from the property’s original 1955 incarnation with the vintage neon moniker emblazoned on the façade.

Everything about the resort is grand in scale, from the elevated port cochere to the sprawling campus, which includes 580 residential condominiums in addition to the 110 all-suite hotel and four pools. Today, it looks much the same as Dowd described it back in 2009. It’s the kind of place where it’s easy to decompress because there’s plenty of elbowroom.

My suite was more like a spacious Miami Beach one-bedroom apartment than a hotel room, with a full kitchen, oceanfront balcony and oversized spa-like bathroom with a soaking tub and marble shower. Being that this was a stay-cation rather than a getaway, I didn’t have the temptation to breakaway as Dowd did, but instead enjoyed one night dining at The Grill restaurant and the other nesting in my suite with room service, a bubble bath and a split of Perrier Jouët. 

Health

I arrived on a Friday afternoon and my first appointment was with Dr. Karen Koffler, the hotel’s medical director. With whispy blonde hair swept loosely behind her ears, beaded jewelry dangling from her neck and a warm smile, the 54-year old doctor is far from clinical with a natural gift for putting people at ease. 

“What we’re doing here is radical,” she tells me of creating a space for both medicine and the tangential benefits of spa. “There are more effective rules to reinstate calm than drinking, smoking or overeating,” she explains, “so if a massage [or yoga or meditation] helps, then that’s great.”

Combining both western and eastern practices, her staff of 15 medical professionals includes doctors of Chinese medicine, nutritionists and energy healers, as well as facilities that support full diagnostic testing. Koffler, herself, was the founder and director of integrative medicine at Evanston Northwestern Medical Center and joined Canyon Ranch in 2006. 

She advocates for a holistic lifestyle approach to health with an emphasis on preventative measures to help her patients avoid medical emergencies in the trauma room or intensive care. “Wouldn’t we be much better off never having to go down that road?” she asks. For most people, this means small adjustments on a regular basis. “I’m not saying you have to give up food or become a gym rat.” 

Her approach is much more gentle: “Take care of yourself most o
f the time.”

To figure out what that means for each individual, a consultation with Dr. Koffler begins with an unhurried, meandering conversation about how you feel. When I met with her, we discussed my activity and energy levels, diet, sleep, menstrual cycle and family history. In these conversations, she’s looking for what she calls “low grade schmutz:” bloating, brain fog, indigestion, fatigue or hormonal imbalances. She says stress and weight are amongst her patients’ top concerns.

I left Dr. Koffler’s office feeling validated with a clean bill of health, but mostly wishing she was my primary care physician who I could visit every month just to sit down and chat. As someone categorically afraid of doctors from an early age, this was a first. 

Fitness

I hurried down the hall to my first fitness class of the weekend, a Long & Lean Barre workout, which had almost no resemblance to Core Fusion Barre that I take at Exhale Spa. This was more of a free-form “dance-based class” that seemed to be completely of my instructor’s invention. A former dancer himself, he proudly exclaimed, while warning us of the class’s rigor. We hardly touched the barre, but instead pranced and danced and squatted using a variety of props and weights in different circuits.

A longtime Pilates devotee, I’d always wanted to try gyrokinesis, a restorative core exercise related to Pilates, so I joined the Saturday morning class. Led by a cheerful, hard-bodied Englishman with muscular thighs that could have been the model for the Gold’s Gym bodybuilder, the class consisted of 360 degree gyrations of the spine, mostly executed while sitting on a folding stool with a funny breathing technique that includes “sparkling eyes” and big bright smiles. Held in a shaded, open-air, studio by an oceanfront pool with a disproportionate number of senior citizen residents to younger students, it was an amusing taste of what I imagine old Miami Beach as retirement community to have been like. While it was hardly strenuous, my spine definitely felt more open and elongated post-class. 

Over the course of the weekend, I also participated in Pilates mat, power yoga and meditation sessions. With classes a standard and brief 45-minutes (unless otherwise noted—yoga, for instance, was 75-minutes), they offer refreshing bursts of physical activity. For those accustomed to high-intensity workouts, like Barry’s Boot Camp, Fly Wheel or power yoga, much of the offerings at Carillon may feel a bit lightweight. I didn’t mind scaling back the intensity for one weekend, though, enjoying the cumulative effect of a wide variety of classes just a short walk from my hotel room. There’s an impressive 19,000-square-foot gym with a rock climbing wall and personal trainers on hand for those who prefer a workout on their own terms.

Nutrition

On Saturday morning, after gyrokinesis, I met with nutritionist Larisa Alonso, curious to get her take on healthy, balanced eating habits. She explained that nutrition is the key to prevention of chronic disease, and listed the issues that can arise from a poor diet, such as indigestion, skin problems, inflammation and, of course, weight gain. After ruling out wrinkles and sunspots as nutrition-related skin problems—Alonso’s talking about more serious medical conditions here, like eczema and psoriasis—she asked what brought me to her that morning.

“Do people ever just say that they want to be really skinny and fit?” I asked, slightly embarrassed, realizing that wasn’t exactly a medical condition.

“Sure,” she answered with a smile. She drew a plate on a piece of paper and divided it into three portions. Half of your plate should consist of vegetables, at least two cups of uncooked salad greens or one cup of cooked veggies. Women should limit their protein (chicken, fish, beans, tofu, etc.) consumption to three to four ounces and complex carbohydrates or starches (sweet potato, brown rice, quinoa, oats, winter squashes, etc.) to half a cup per meal. Good fats include avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts and seeds. This is a starting point for most women, but individuals can learn even more with food sensitivity blood tests. What I took away from Alonso’s re-imagined food pyramid was basically, OD on veggies and eat far less protein and carbs than most meals are portioned today.

She also stressed the importance of eating organic, whole foods over processed foods and to learn how to read labels. For instance, grass fed organic beef also needs to be labeled “pasture-raised.” It’s not enough to buy extra virgin olive oil; it needs to be cold-pressed, too.

Dining

In the Carillon’s transition from Canyon Ranch, they’ve hired a new executive chef Fritz Zwahlen, formerly at Amanyara resort in the Turks & Caicos. According to Katie Riguzzi, Associate Director of Marketing & Communications, they’re still in a transitional phase rolling out menu concepts across the resort’s restaurants. While there’s a juice bar by the gym and some healthy menu options, there’s nothing about the dining experience at Carillon right now that screams health food. Riguzzi explains that they’re figuring out the formula to meet the needs of a variety of eaters, from health nuts to those craving a more traditional gourmet experience.

Considering the growing trend towards healthy, mindful eating (and the open playing field for these types of restaurants in Miami), I’d love to see the Carillon become a bastion for creative, delicious health food, especially since they have such a great platform to educate their diners. But they’re not there yet.

While dinner at The Grill was impressive with a perfectly cooked filet mignon in Alonso-approved portion sizes and plenty of bright vegetables and fresh seafood to start, the breakfast buffet was brimming with greasy sausage and bacon, overcooked eggs and pain au chocolate without much to really inspire a healthy start to the day and the room service menu is about as average as it comes with the requisite Caesar salad and turkey club. 

Spa

The spa at Canyon Ranch always held mythic proportions in my mind, whether it was because of Dowd’s article or a dreamy promotional picture of a hot tub set against a mosaic wall or its claim of having the largest facilities in South Florida at 70,000-square-feet. The spa is decked out with a full “thermal experience,” including a sauna, aromatherapy steam rooms, various rainfall showers and a whirlpool. On the Saturday afternoon of my visit, it was positively brimming with women. While it doesn’t disappoint, it’s not exactly as exciting as it might have been when it first opened in 2009, and the competition for lavish spas in the marketplace today is fierce.

Still, I melted into a totally relaxing Vitamin-C facial, which was more impressive than anticipated, being that it’s a pretty standard offering on most spa menus. Utilizing organic South African skincare line Environ, it came with a fluffy-as-merengue mask as a finale paired with a sublime shoulder massage. Prior to the therapy, my aesthetician directed me towards a shimmering well of crystals and invited me to select one to set my intention for the next hour. After a moment of indecision perusing the shiny rocks, a tiger’s eye caught my eye and I snatched it up. “Insight,” my therapist said. Or maybe it was intuition. Either way, never underestimate the power of healing crystals!

Energy Healing

On the final morning of my little Zen retreat, I had an hour-long appointment with Sarah
Parienti
, the Carillon’s resident energy healer. Not knowing exactly what to expect or even what it means to be an “energy healer,” yet excited to find out, I entered her office with as open a mind as I could. She asked a few foundational questions before I launched into an explanation of my career and creative ambitions. She gave me the time and space to say my piece and then shifted gears with, “I can also see that you really want to be in a relationship.” 

That hit my like a ton of bricks. 

She brought up the laws of attraction, how my deepest desires are there because they’re already in the process of being manifested and that my lover is waiting for me. “You haven’t missed him,” she said. “He’s just waiting for your energy levels to meet.” I liked that she called him my lover and emphasized that there are many lovers, infinite lovers in the universe, so if one disappears during the quest for eye-to-eye energy, another will fill his place naturally. And the way to find him? Just relax and be good to yourself. This sounded right to me. And was much preferable to agonizing over online dating or hyper analyzing why I’m still single. 

As she spoke, she explained that the healing was already taking place, and it was a slightly trancelike experience listening to her talk and having her energy focused exclusively on me. After a little more conversation, the question arose, “What are your priorities right now?”

I explained: “I want to unleash my creativity and, yes, find love. Live an adventurous, exciting life and shut out the noise of second guessing and self doubt.”

With that, I got on the table and she explained that she was going to align my energy with my destiny. I liked the sound of that. The experience was extremely subtle. She started by simply touching the bottoms of my feet. For me, there was no particular sensation, just a feeling of extreme calm developing, like a deep shavasana and eventually a subtle buzz of energy in my fingertips as she moved up my body to different touch points. I have friends who have tried this and explained a different experience, unleashing pain or a palpable spark of energy.

When she finished and asked how I felt, the best way to describe the sensation was fully charged. I was smiling from ear to ear and couldn’t stop. It was a natural high that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. Her recommendations to me: meditate to quiet negative thoughts and dance class to awaken my feminine and sexual energy. The intense good feeling lasted for a solid 48 hours and the good vibes stayed strong for a week and a half after that, with a tangible recharge during shavasana at my favorite yoga class. 

I felt buoyed by my weekend at the Carillon. And I think my experience equipped me with new tools for a sound mind and body beyond my weekend stay. Above all, I think everyone should pay a visit to the energy healer, no matter who you are. I mean, who wouldn’t benefit from having their energy aligned with their destiny. Maybe Maureen would even dig it today.

Shayne Benowitz is the hotels & travel editor for Miami.com. Check-in with her on Twitter @ShayneBenowitz.

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