Desert Oasis: Sonoran Shangri-La

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Joe MacDonald, a retired U.S. Army Ranger, asks me, as he secures the belay rope to my harness, if I am confronting any barriers in my life. Other than the 32-foot man-made climbing rock standing 90 degrees in front of me, I can think of none.


But once I am on the wall, maneuvering my way from one crag to the next, many of my strengths and weaknesses become apparent. In this moment of clarity, I recognize how my day-to-day decision-making skills manifest in the physical realm, how a lack of planning can impede progress. And though everyone’s lesson is different, all who undertake the experiential challenges at Tucson’s Miraval resort are left with valuable fodder for future reflection.

The resort’s casita-style accommodations open to intricately landscaped gardens. 

Situated in the Santa Catalina foothills, on grounds once inhabited by the Hohokam Indians, the 135-acre, hacienda-style Miraval embraces the culture of the area’s indigenous people. The resort hosts drumming rituals, monthly sweat-lodge ceremonies performed by a local medicine man, and nighttime storytelling at the kiva. One of its many bike paths even passes the remains of a former Hohokam village.

The overriding philosophy at Miraval, however, is imbued with a distinctly Zen ethos. “We want to foster the feeling of disconnection from the outside world,” says Amy McDonald, Miraval’s guest services director. “This gives guests a chance to reconnect with themselves.” To that end, cell phones and children are not allowed. Wallets are unnecessary because all meals, gratuities, and daily spa treatments are included.

Activities at Miraval are as plenteous as the Sonoran Desert’s endemic flora and fauna. Hiking, biking, equine, and fitness programs are tailored specifically to initiate revelation and transformation, while rock climbing and obstacle activities aim to bring one’s life into equilibrium by challenging perceived limitations. Guests looking for a challenge can walk the length of a log suspended 30 feet above ground or climb 25 feet to the top of a telephone pole.

For men pursuing a less strenuous yet—for some, at least—equally intimidating activity, MacDonald, Miraval’s challenge director, offers a suggestion. “Get a facial,” he dares his male clientele. “It’s really scary stuff for some men,” he says. “But the funny thing is, after they experience one, they look forward to doing it again.”



Location: The high desert of southern Arizona, approximately 45 minutes from the Tucson International Airport.

Accommodations: 106 casita-style rooms on 135 acres.

Spa: Home of the United States’ original hot-stone massage, Miraval’s spa boasts an extensive menu of traditional and innovative services, including Thai massage (known as “the lazy man’s yoga”) and aqua Zen watsu treatments.

Fitness Center: Customized exercise classes for the mind and body include kickboxing, body conditioning, circuit training, cross-training, Pilates, yoga, tai chi, isotonic resistance, and water conditioning.

Recreation: Outdoor activities abound, with horseback riding, golfing, mountain biking, hiking, and rock climbing, in addition to the property’s four swimming pools and two

tennis courts.

Restaurant and Bar: The Cactus Flower serves highly nutritious yet flavorful cuisine.

Rates: $495 to $1,145 per night.

Contact: 800.232.3969,

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