November 19, 2012

Girlfriends’ weekend feeds the soul

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Health, Travel, Women at 6:16 pm by dinaheng

My friend Jonelle and I are sisters of the heart. We’re both single, we’re both writers, and we both hold spirituality at the center of our lives. At the same time, I’m a city gal and she’s a country girl, so we each have different things to share.

Six months ago, Jonelle had a hip replacement — apparently due to a hereditary condition, the hip didn’t fully form, and after years of athletic activity, it needed to be replaced. Since we hadn’t seen each other in seven years, we decided to have a girlfriends’ weekend in Phoenix to celebrate her recovery from the surgery.

So one Saturday, I flew in from Los Angeles, and Jonelle drove up from south of Tucson. As  she picks me up at Phoenix Skyharbor Airport, we share a quick hug before she warns me that there is hay in the trunk of her car.

“I’ve got two goats and a horse,” she reminds me. “I couldn’t clean out the stall after my surgery, so I left it a couple of days, and the horse learned to clean it out himself. He just kicked it out of the pen, and it’s dooty-free. So I told him, ‘I’ll buy the feed, and you take care of everything else, because this is all I can do.’ “

In the same way, she notes, that’s how she looks at taking care of her physical body. “I say, ‘I’ll take you to the doctor and get surgery, but you’ll need to heal yourself, too, because I can get along without you. I’m not just this body,’ “ Jonelle says.

This weekend, though, we agree that we’re going to pamper ourselves — body, mind and Spirit — as much as we can while enjoying each other’s company. For our retreat, we chose the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, a luxurious resort designed in the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright, who served as the consulting architect.

Driving up to the lobby, we’re struck by the unusual look of the “Biltmore Block,” pre-cast blocks made from desert sand on-site, that are interwoven with blocks of glass in the walls, bringing natural light into the hotel. Framed by lush greenery and palm trees, the hotel is an historic oasis in the desert.

Set on 39 acres, the Biltmore has guest rooms and suites spread across several wings, a residential complex called the Villas, and Ocatilla, a “boutique hotel within the hotel.”

We check into Ocatilla, which has numerous additional amenities, including its own concierge service, a club lounge with complimentary continental breakfast, beverages during the day and light fare at night, daily newspapers, and WiFi Internet and computer access.

Our room is spacious and comfortable, done in soothing desert colors of sage, paintbrush and copper tones. The sensibility of Craftsman design can be seen in the built-in media wall with flat-screen TV and work area, and an enchanting Art Deco touch is found in the embossed translucent blocks of glass that light up in the paneled wood headboards. My only criticism is that there’s no mirror in the guest room, which makes it harder to get dressed when the bathroom (where the mirrors are) is occupied.

The first order of the afternoon is a cabana lunch at the Paradise Pool, one of the resort’s eight pools. We sit at a table for four under a shady awning outside the cabana, which sports a full bath, refrigerator, phone, TV and robes. Rock music is playing over the sound system for a lively crowd that’s enjoying the pool and the nearby 92-foot-long water slide.

Paradise Pool

For lunch, Jonelle orders White Bean Hummus ($11) and a Very Veggie Rice Paper Roll ($13), while I try the Turkey Wrap “Waldorf Style” ($15). Jonelle, who’s a low fat vegetarian, pronounces her meal perfect. I have to say the same about mine. I love the combination of cubed turkey bits, crunchy lettuce, nuts, and sweet grapes in the wrap.

As we talk about our daily lives, we agree that people work too much and hurry too much to really appreciate the things we have. Stress contributes to ill health, and when we don’t take care of ourselves, well… we all know where that leads.

“I got more upset with my computer crashing than I did with the diagnosis of my hip,” Jonelle says. “You take care of your computer and your car. When your body’s working well, you don’t pay attention. But when it doesn’t, you suddenly realize what you could have been doing all along to remain healthy.

“When my body was in pain, I had to ask, what is the most helpful thing in this situation?  The answer — to not be cranky with an arthritic body.  How do you do that? By getting acquainted with who you really are. You can use pain as a focus to keep your negative thoughts from taking over your mind.”

Jonelle, who does Tibetan meditation, would focus on her pain in meditation and ask that her pain take away the pain of all beings — people and animals, both.

“All of a sudden, my pain is useful, and if you have faith in that, it’s extremely helpful,” she adds. “If you ask Christ or Buddha to help, it helps even more. I received a steady confidence that what I was going through was okay, and everybody goes through things like this, so why not me?”

After lunch, we decide to rest in the room a little, then head to the Ocatilla Pool for some exercise. The sun is getting lower in the sky, and the guests at this pool are much quieter than those at the Paradise Pool. We swim for awhile, and Jonelle enjoys the hot jacuzzi spa.

Before long, it’s time for dinner. As we walk through the property toward the main building, we pass beautifully landscaped grounds and gardens, framed by the evening silhouette of the mountains.  Outdoor fire pits are lit as we walk past The Wright Bar patio into the main lobby, which feels like a blend of Wright influences and modern conveniences.

The hotel’s signature restaurant, Wright’s at the Biltmore, features fine dining that has reimagined classic dishes like Beef Wellington and Veal Loin Oscar, adding trendy accompaniments like lemon scented asparagus and wild mushrooms. Large and small plates are offered for everything, which is a nice touch.

Jonelle chooses the small Waldorf Salad ($11.25), based on the original 1896 New York City recipe, with sliced apples and celery, candied walnuts and grapes, and the Root Vegetable Risotto ($18.50). I order the Filet “Au Poivre” ($41.50), which comes with blue cheese au gratin potatoes, buttered root vegetables, and broccoli rabe.

A server comes to the table and makes the Waldorf salad, sharing information about the preparation, and a little entertainment along the side.

As we ate, I could imagine being a guest decades ago when guests like Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, and George Burns walked the lobby, and Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. might give an impromptu concert in the piano bar.

Wright’s Bar

Today’s Wright’s at the Biltmore was designed with wonderful little touches that remind you of days gone by — whether it’s the globe lighting that hangs from the ceiling, or the stained glass oil lamp holders on the tables. The service, as expected, is impeccable.

Jonelle and I talk about the future of food, and the issue of genetic engineering. While intellectually, I understand the need to grow food efficiently for a growing world population, I can’t stomach the thought of eating food that may have long-term side effects we know nothing about today. Happily, Wright’s utilizes fresh ingredients for its menu, including herbs from the Chef’s garden outside the dining room.

For dessert, we indulge with a signature dark chocolate souffle ($17.50) and a chocolate trifle ($12.75). The chocolate trifle turns out to be layered chocolate with the look of a Frank Lloyd Wright building — creative in design, but more candy than a trifle.

The surprise ending to the meal is freshly-spun lime cotton candy. As Tom, our server notes, “Whether or not you order dessert, we like to leave you with something sweet.”

One of the nicest bonuses to dining at any of the Arizona Biltmore restaurants is getting the recipe for any of its dishes. Jason Allen, Sous Chef at Wright’s, was happy to give us the restaurant’s Root Vegetable Risotto, which we both aim to try making at home.

Dinner over, Jonelle and I walk back to our room, totally satisfied. It’s impressive to find a restaurant where nothing is overly salted or too heavily seasoned, and Wright’s offerings are exemplary. Jonelle’s only wish is for more vegetarian options on the menu. While servers say anything can be made vegetarian by removing the meat or seafood from the dish, vegetarians know that’s not as satisfying as an entree designed with vegetables as the focal point.

At 9 p.m., Jonelle is yawning, but stays awake with a book while I check e-mail and do a little writing. When I tell her I’m usually up until 11 p.m., she says she’s usually in bed by 8:30 p.m. and up at 4 a.m.

All I can say is, I’m glad we’re on vacation.

Next: Relaxation comes from sharing

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