November 20, 2012

Blissful relaxation comes with getaway

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Health, Travel, Women at 4:08 pm by dinaheng

Nothing defines a weekend getaway for me more than having no plans, no deadlines, and no pressure to be anything but lazy.

On the second day of a girlfriends’ weekend at the Arizona Biltmore, my friend Jonelle rose with the sun while I stayed in bed till 8 a.m. When I finally join her in the Ocatilla lounge for breakfast, she’s going out on the patio to feed a stray cat some milk. After I get some juice and danish, I join her at a table outside.

It’s a beautiful fall morning, and work is the farthest thing from our minds. Instead, our conversation centers around the meaning of our lives. Both of us have had near-death experiences, though we didn’t really share them until this weekend.

At 18, I was driving in the rain when a school bus stopped suddenly. The car behind it stopped short of hitting the bus, but I skidded into the back of the car. I felt myself rise out of my body, and looked down at my body, covered with blood. I heard a voice that said, “It’s not time for you to go yet. There are still things you have to do.”

I was then jerked back into my body. I’ll never forget the feeling of being encased in skin again. The experience set me on a path to explore the meaning of life, why we are here, and how to heal our wounds.

For Jonelle, the experience happened at age 20 on her first mountain climb.

“I got hypothermia climbing Mt. Rainier, fell in the snow, and didn’t want to get up,” she shares. “We were in a snowstorm and set up a tent. It was a group climb, and we were at 11,000 feet. I experienced being above the storm, and could see my body and the others in the group. I felt it was perfectly fine to move on without being involved in the scenario below, but also knew that I could complete something within this body, if I could hang on.

“I had to calm my heart down to regulate it, and force myself to breathe. There was no separation between me and the universe. Meditation’s the only thing I’ve done that’s expanded that. If I lose my life tomorrow, I can say I’ve found my true nature, even if it is just a baby glimpse.”

Not many people can say that, particularly since our daily lives usually keep our focus on what’s right in front of us. For the last six months, Jonelle’s focus has been on recovering from her hip surgery.

“I had to put things in perspective,” Jonelle says. “By focusing less on myself, I naturally opened myself to the rest of the world. When I was focused on my pain, I had to remember that pain is not a permanent state, just like happiness isn’t permanent. When you’re happy or suffering, both have ebbs and flows.”

Fire pit outside Ocatilla lounge

After a long, thoughtful conversation, we decide to focus on our surroundings and take a walk around the hotel. The property, which boasts two 18-hole golf courses, tennis courts, life-size lawn chess and other recreational activities, feels like a playground you would never tire of enjoying.

We poke our heads into a row of boutiques off the main building, which offer everything from sunglasses and apparel to jewelry and gifts. The stores are filled with fun finds, but none that cause us to open our wallets.

After lunch, we enjoy the highlight of the day — massages at the Biltmore Spa. Built in 1998, the spa, fitness center and beauty salon offer an array of services designed to pamper and relax.

After changing in the women’s locker room, we wait in a relaxation lounge for our massage therapists to come get us. Both of us choose to get the Hands of Healing Massage, a 50-minute treatment combining Swedish movements with other techniques for relaxation and well-being ($135).

Spa at Arizona Biltmore

Yunven, the massage therapist who works on me, is amazing. Not only does she work out all the knots in my body, she shares insights and health tips that make me grateful to have met her.

“In the last couple of years, I’ve seen more men come for treatments than women,” she notes. “Women have taught them to take care of themselves, yet we don’t always take care of ourselves enough.

After our massages, Jonelle and I lounge a bit in the steam room area before dressing. While the treatments were wonderful, the spa itself is in need of renovation and expansion, so we didn’t linger.

For dinner that evening (and lunch the next day before leaving), we eat at Frank & Albert’s, a lovely restaurant that serves comfort food with organic produce from local suppliers. We’re seated in the outdoor patio area by a warm fire, and take a deep breath, the weekend nearly over.

Jonelle orders Garlicky Hummus ($11.65) and Angel Hair Pasta ($17.85), while I get the Crispy Salmon Filet ($32.55) and a side order of Mac & Cheese ($6.75) and the Waldorf Gala Apple Salad ($11.55), a different version from the original recipe, to taste.

The salmon was delicious, as was the Waldorf Gala Apple Salad. Unfortunately, both Jonelle and I found the angel hair pasta and Mac & Cheese too salty for our taste. Since we both have sweet tooths, the best part of the meal came last, as Jonelle swooned over the Butterscotch Pudding ($7) and I finished all four of the miniatures on the Sundae Tasting Menu, with the Caramel Banana and Butter Pecan Brittle my favorites ($7).

Frank & Albert’s

Service here is exemplary. For lunch the next day, Jonelle craved a Portobello Burger and Sweet Potato Fries ($14). While it wasn’t on the menu at Frank & Albert’s, the wait staff got it for her from the kitchen that handles guest room dining, where it was on the room service menu.

It’s that kind of care that has no doubt given the Arizona Biltmore its “Jewel of the Desert” reputation. Before leaving, I take a history tour of the hotel, which is offered every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 10 a.m., complimentary for hotel guests.

Becky Blaine, the resort historian and public relations and marketing manager, gives a fascinating glimpse of the landmark hotel that opened in 1929. We visit the Biltmore History Room, once the hotel library, that holds items ranging from a wake-up call clock for hotel operators to an original desk designed by Warren MacArthur, one of the hotel’s original owners.

“Irving Berlin wrote ‘White Christmas’ when he stayed here in 1939, and Marilyn Monroe called the Catalina Pool her favorite,” Blaine shares. “Every U.S. President since Herbert Hoover has stayed here, and we’re working on getting President Obama to come.”

When it’s time to pack up and leave, Jonelle and I are both sad — to leave the Biltmore, and each other. Even though it was a quick weekend trip, we are nourished by the time spent together. We know we’ll stay close, even when far apart, because our hearts are connected.

It may be time to get back to work, but living a meaningful life means spending time with  the friends and family you love, speaking from the heart, and feeling what connects us as human beings.

As Jonelle puts it, “What’s in your heart will always be heard. Maybe not by the people you want to hear it, or expect to hear it, but it will be heard. It just has to come from the heart. If something remains intellectual and never becomes part of your heart, how can anyone hear you?”

So stop procrastinating, and plan your weekend getaway.

Rates at the Arizona Biltmore change seasonally, and range from $99 to $229 for classic guest rooms. Ocatilla rates range from $149 to $299. For more information, check out


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