Wellness Resort in the Canyons of Laguna Beach, California
I am alone on a secluded trail, high in the hills above Laguna Beach, California when it occurs to me I may be lost. It had been a while since I saw the red flags that marked the trail I should be on. I had just snail paced my way up the gruelingly steep and technical Rattlesnake Trail (rocky terrain with a 23% grade at its steepest) and was so in my own head, that maybe I missed a turn. The trail, I now notice, is getting narrower and I am still ascending. Where the hell am I? When was the last time I saw those damn red flags?
I hear a scuttling noise and look over my left shoulder but don’t see anything except for the mounds of thick sagebrush covering the ground. The thought of a stalking mountain lion spurs an immediate rush of adrenaline through my body. I hear the noise again and this time spot a group of little birds. OK, I tell myself. Chill out. I have plenty of water. I am fine.
I have been hiking these steep trails for 5 days now, 3-4 hours a day, and my legs feel strong. My pace picks up as a cool breeze blows across my hot, sweaty face. I turn my music off. To have this time alone with just the sound of the wind and the birds and the crunch of my feet on the dirt path is a revelation. I move from panic to elation. I am ecstatic! I look up at the perfect blue sky, take in a deep breathe of fresh air and then just as suddenly I am crying. Sobbing in fact. Why? I have no idea. Holy crap, I think, I am having a profound personal moment.
Welcome to an afternoon at The Pearl Laguna, where morning yoga and intense afternoon hikes are the cornerstones of this weeklong cleansing retreat. Nestled in the canyons 2 miles north of the quintessential California coastal town of Laguna Beach, the resort itself is housed in a large, sprawling mansion. Set on multiple levels, the house features 12 private bedrooms and baths, a large yoga room, a “poolcuzzi” (a small pool heated to 104 degrees), a weight room, infrared sauna and quiet outdoor sitting areas.
I found The Pearl Laguna via a Google search for “restorative spas in Southern California.” I had a week off in between jobs as a busy Hollywood reality TV editor and desperately needed some kind of reset. I was particularly motivated after I found myself one afternoon on the floor of a co-worker’s office complaining of mild chest pain. “Oh don’t mind me. I’m just going to lie on your dirty floor for a while.” After 20 years of long hours in a dark edit bay, relentless deadlines and commuting in LA traffic, stress was actually manifesting itself physically for the first time in my life. (I did go to the doctor to have my heart checked out. It was perfectly healthy.)
After a lot of internet digging, searching for the ultimate, I didn’t know what, I came upon a series of YouTube videos about The Pearl Laguna made by a high spirited Australian woman, Megan Castran (aka Jewelchic on Instagram and Facebook). I watched her videos, I will admit, somewhat obsessively. It seemed to me the type of mind/body restructuring I was seeking. I booked my week.
Geo Takoma and his wife Katresha founded The Pearl Laguna in 2010 after years of hosting popular health retreats around the world. Together with a top-notch team of fitness instructors, house staff and an incredibly gifted head chef, they’ve created a unique and intimate wellness experience.
Upon check-in on a Sunday afternoon in February, I am shown to my private room and then measured and weighed. I am assigned the Emerald Bay room, located in the front of the house with large windows and pleasant views of the property’s oak trees and sycamores. It is simply furnished with a comfortable bed, organic bedding and a massive bathroom and shower. Rooms vary in terms of size and layout, so call ahead if you want to discuss options.
My group of 11 guests is comprised of three men and eight women of varying degrees of fitness levels and ages. Four of the guests are return visitors who all make a pilgrimage at least once a year to this hiking, yoga and detox mecca. Among the returnees is my YouTube starlet, Megan Castran and her husband Paul who travelled from Melbourne for a month long stay. What a crazy coincidence and I am beyond thrilled to be a part of the video blog that had inspired my own visit (you can glimpse me in her week one postings from February 2018). And, yes, she is just as lovely and energetic in person.
Life at The Pearl Laguna is a thoughtfully planned schedule of food and physical activity intended to cleanse the body while building strength, muscle, and flexibility. There are also daily afternoon massages included in the weekly rate. For some guests the goal is fitness. For many, it is weight loss. You’ll most likely experience both.
The menu is primarily vegan, exceptionally executed, with the occasional egg or goat cheese making an appearance, much to the delight of all guests. There’s no meat, no caffeine or refined sugar, and an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, organic of course. There’s no calorie counting and portions are plentiful, but not large. Early on, I worried that there would not be enough protein or carbohydrates to sustain our high intensity hikes, but I was wrong. I never felt weak or depleted.
A typical day starts with a 6:30am knock on my door after which I amble, pajama clad, into the kitchen for a glass of self serve lemon water. The lemon, I am told, aids in digestion, detoxification and helps to boost your body’s alkaline levels. I’m not entirely clear on the alkaline bit, but know that a lot of celebrities with hot bodies tout its benefits and that’s good enough for me. I dutifully drink my lemon water. I thought for certain I’d be craving my coveted morning espresso, but by Day 2, I don’t even miss it – in part because I wake up feeling so great. By Day 3, I am actually taking morning selfies in my bathroom mirror and texting them to my husband, shocked at the rapid transformation my body is undergoing. My stomach is actually FLAT.
At 7am sharp, we all head to the yoga room for Geo’s Signature Power Yoga class, taught most mornings by Geo himself. Geo is a 40 plus year veteran of yoga and a pioneer of the style we now know today as power yoga. His stern and passionate guidance push us through the early morning’s poses, push-ups, yogi-centric squats and eagle abdominal crunches. I had stopped doing yoga a few years ago after injuring my back numerous times, but Geo tells me not to worry. He is the first instructor to show me how to properly rise from a standing forward bend without straining my back (bend your knees and keep your back flat). He also doesn’t try to adjust my very stiff and awkward triangle poses telling me: “The position finds you, you don’t find the position.” What a relief since my flexibility left the building a decade ago.
Morning yoga is followed by breakfast at the communal dining table. The primary conversation is always the day’s hike. Would it be easier or more difficult than yesterday? How may hills? How many miles? We always got answers either from our über fit hiking guides or from the resort’s veterans, but in truth, all the hikes were hard.
Referencing the Orange County Parks’ trail map guide which classify trails as “easy, moderate, difficult and strenuous” – our hikes were always a good portion on the designated strenuous trails. Elevation gains would range from 600 to over 1000 feet and the hill grades averaged around 10%, frequently reaching 15% and steeper.
The key to surviving the hikes is pacing. The super fit guests charge up the hills, the slower guests, like myself, crawl up the hills. There is always a guide at the front of the group, at the back and in the middle. Red flags are posted at every turn on the trail, but you have to stay alert because in truth you are suffering, head down, pushing forward. There is plenty of flat terrain along the way and absolutely stunning views of the land and the ocean, but the trail is unforgiving. When you think you are done climbing, you are not. It is hills, hills and, damn, more hills. It is endurance. It is strength building for both body and mind.
Every guest, at every level of fitness, completes the hikes. Some take longer than others, some opt for slightly shorter routes. We are a team and if you pass or are passed by a guest, it is always with a word of encouragement. Our guides are pros – part forest rangers and part caretakers. They give directions, point out local flora and fauna and dispense electrolytes if needed for dehydration. I only need electrolytes once, but besides that, my provisioned snack pack of apple and pear slices and a small tangerine are enough to sustain me.
Upon returning from our afternoon hike, we all gather back at the resort’s large outdoor deck, red faced and exhausted, in anticipation of the day’s post hike juice. There is a different juice every day and a choir of “oohs and ahhs” is heard as the tray of beverages is presented. My favorites are the raw coconut water sipped straight from the shell and a freshly pressed dragonfruit, strawberry and banana smoothie – the color of rubies, ice cold and frothy on top.
Following our juice break, we continue our fitness regime with a short pool or weight session and then lunch. Like all the meals served at The Pearl Laguna, the food is beautifully presented and absolutely delicious. I swoon over the vegan sushi: thinly sliced vegetables and forbidden rice wrapped in nori, accompanied by homemade pickled ginger, tamari dipping sauce and a squeeze of organic hot wasabi. I am told that the wasabi is sold downstairs at the gift shop and I promptly purchase a bottle after lunch.
Lunch also marks the beginning of our 3 hours of “restorative time” which includes a daily 60 minute massage. We are encouraged during this downtime to hang out in our Pearl Laguna robes and do as we please. I often shower and read by the pool until my appointed massage time. There’s also a freshly made, organic face mask each afternoon presented in little ceramic dishes in the kitchen. One day, the avocado mask resembles a little blob of guacamole. “Yum,” I say as I pick it up. “You can put it on your face, but don’t eat it,” I am told by the chef. Good to know, it looks delicious!
My first day at the resort, those 3 hours of restorative time seemed to go on forever. I was restless, not sure what to do with myself (so used to going, going, going). I kept checking the time on my iPhone waiting for it to end. But by the end of the week, as I learned to embrace this quiet time, those 3 hours were not long enough. I stopped looking at my phone, checking the time, reading emails. I was learning to relax and actually enjoying my own company. What a concept.
At 5pm a bell announces the serving of our healing broth which has been simmering on the stovetop since the afternoon. Its savory aroma of vegetables and herbs fills the whole house. We gather by the fireplace in our robes and pajamas to sip and chat. The broth is surprisingly rich and satisfying and the conversation, free and light. We talk dreamily about lattes and glasses of rosé, about our lives and our families. By the time we change for our evening class (restorative yoga, meditation, tai chi, and other surprises), we are giddy and silly, the atmosphere very much adult summer camp.
Following our evening’s class, we head down to the dining table in our workout gear for dinner. Dinner is a formal affair, Pearl Laguna style. Service begins when everyone is seated and the table is beautifully decorated each night to a different theme. On Valentine’s Day, the table is dressed in red and our veggie patties and broccoli are formed in the shape of a heart. At each person’s setting there is a small heart shaped stone, all different, a gift from Katresha. It’s these little details sprinkled throughout your stay at The Pearl Laguna, in the form of small touches or big surprises, that make this resort so special. On this night, we are joined by both Geo and Katresha. It doesn’t feel like they’ve been sharing meals with guests every week for 8 years. They are attentive and engaging. Our conversation runs the gamut from the history of the resort to which word is more offensive “sweat” or “perspiration”. Perspiration won. Tea, served in a quirky array of elegant china teacups follows dinner, and one by one, we excuse ourselves to our rooms, our little Pearl Laguna cocoons, tired and ready for some well earned rest.
On our final day at The Pearl Laguna, we revisit an old friend, one of the most challenging of the week’s hills, for a short morning hike. I am undaunted. I charge up the hill, head down, walking sticks in hand, amazed at the improved level of fitness I am able to achieve in one short week. It’s such a simple premise: diet and exercise. Duh. But who has the time to make poached pears for breakfast, vegan sushi for lunch, and workout 5 hours a day? At The Pearl Laguna, you are given the gift of time, of structure. Yes, you pay for it, but it works. At least it did for me.
Before departure, we are once again measured and weighed. I lost 4 pounds and 12 inches all around while other guests lost between 6 and 12 pounds and many, many inches. We say our goodbyes. There are hugs and a few tears.
As for my holy crap moment earlier in the week, my sobbing breakdown on the trail – it ended just as abruptly as it started. It felt very deep, both joyful and heartbreakingly sad. And then, it was over. I blew my nose one last time and marched on. At some point along the top of the trail I ran into a photographer and asked him if he had seen any other hikers. “An Australian couple had passed by not too long ago,” he replied. Yes, I thought, they are part of my group. I am on the right path.
Things to pack:
A great playlist (to listen to on hikes)
A couple good books
Workout gear (daily laundry service is provided so no need to pack more than two or three outfits)
Shorts or pants for hikes
Sneakers or hiking boots
(I opted for a good pair of sneakers which were fine)
Rate: $5,500 per week all inclusive
(Tips for masseuses and house staff not included)
You can view Megan Castran’s videos on YouTube or visit her at www.facebook.com/JewelchicPage
Guest post by Tori Rodmann (seen above – first day back home with her prized Chef’n Lemon Citrus Juicer!)
Photos courtesy of Tori Rodman, Megan Castran and The Pearl Laguna