Canyon Ranch Hotel and Spa, Miami Beach

I recently decided to do something out of character for my birthday – spend lots of money at a neighborhood hotel and spa. Those who know me well find it easier to picture me covered in Everglades muck than a ylang ylang-infused clay mask but like I said, it was rather out of character and somewhat spontaneous. Though not impulsive. I scan a lot of travel magazines and recently ran across several “best spa” lists, all of which seemed to include Canyon Ranch at Miami Beach. I confess, I was a little surprised to note that this health and wellness mecca from Arizona had found it’s way to trendy and not overly wholesome South Beach. But then again, Miami does seem to attract world class hotels, restaurants and spas. Clearly, it was my responsibility to investigate this geographic displacement into my backyard.

The array of fitness classes, wellness offerings, health workshops and spa options was both exhilarating and overwhelming. The more I explored the menus, the more excited I got and the more convinced I became that I needed the full experience, including an overnight stay overlooking the beach. I began my study, comparing my calendar with on-line room availability, then with the class schedule. But wait… the class schedule applied only for the current week, not next week. I needed to plan next week. And how would my spa desires fit into the picture? How easy was it going to be to apply the relevant discount offer I noticed online? There didn’t seem to be any linked calendars or otherwise connected booking processes online. It all was rather complicated and so I finally decided that it would be simplest to call and talk to someone real.

It wasn’t long before I was chatting with a bubbly agent who reassured me that I was quite right to call, she could make the entire process painless. She was delighted that I’d decided to check out Canyon Ranch and was positive that I was going to love it! She enthusiastically queried whether there was an occasion for my stay, and I admitted that it would be my birthday, sort of as a test. She gushed that it would be my best birthday ever! A few keyboard clacking sounds and she advised me that I was all set.

“But,” I stammered, “We haven’t made any of the spa reservations yet.”

“Oh!” She zestfully responded, “I can’t help you with that. You’ll have to call Program Advising.”

“So, I have to talk to someone else?” I asked baffled recalling her promise to make this a painless process. “Can you connect me?”

“No,” she crooned, “The entire system resets overnight, so you’ll have to talk to them tomorrow after your reservation is in the system. And it may take 24-48 hours for you to get your confirmation email, so don’t worry if you haven’t gotten one by the time you call back. By the way, what’s the weather like down there? I’m going to be visiting that property next week and I’m so excited!”

Great. Not only was booking going to drag on, but the one who had falsely promised to simplify the process had never even been to the hotel! I tried not to let this dampen my spirits and diligently called Program Advising the next day, despite my lack of confirmation email. This agent was rather less bubbly, which at least suggested that she was a Miami Beach local. She confirmed that I was in the system and listened patiently to the list of classes and spa treatments from this week’s list that I hoped to fit into my stay. She assured me that the schedule of fitness classes would be the same the week of my visit and that it would be no problem scheduling the spa treatments around that. But she couldn’t confirm anything as of yet because she didn’t have a list of available technicians. Could she contact me later in the day?

Did I have a choice?

Mid-afternoon I received a rambling voicemail on my phone that went over my tentative Canyon Ranch Spa schedule and requested that I call back before 7 PM to confirm. I called back and asked for the name left in the message.

“Who?”

I repeated the name.

There was a long pause, “Um, she’s on the other line at the moment. Can I have her call you back? It’ll be within five minutes, I promise.”

“Ok, I guess that’s fine.” I sighed, already tired of the ordeal. Shouldn’t an organization with Canyon Ranch’s reputation be a little more on the ball, especially for a customer trying to make reservations to spend money?

Five minutes passed. Ten minutes passed. Forty-five minutes passed and still no call back. It was nearly 7 PM when I finally picked up the phone to call them, not wanting to lose my potential reservation and start from scratch. There was another round of “who?” and silence on the phone, but this woman at least offered to help instead of rushing me off the line with faulty promises. I told her that what was scheduled was fine, but that I had also requested an in-suite couples massage for the next day and wondered if she could help book that. I was told that would be no problem, they had an opening in the afternoon. I pointed out that I wouldn’t have a room after the noon check-out, which would seem to be somewhat necessary for an in-suite treatment. I was asked to hold. Spa-style elevator music filled the line for quite some time before the receptionist returned to regretfully inform me that they couldn’t do couples massages in-suite anyway. I suspected this was another way to get me off the phone since their website clearly advertised this as a possibility and two other agents, and in fact this one too for a fleeting moment, claimed that this would be no problem. It wasn’t worth the effort though. I simply requested an emailed confirmation and hung up. Their monetary loss, not mine.

About an hour later I discovered another rambling voicemail from the woman whose call I’d been trying to return. Suddenly she had reappeared at work even though it was well after her 7 PM deadline. She informed me that she had already sent me a confirmation email prior to phone tag but would resend and would be at work again at 8 AM the next morning if I had any questions. Except she later mentioned that she wouldn’t be in until 10 AM and also that she’d be on vacation for the next few days and therefore not in at all. It was all too convoluted. I verified that I had the spa confirmation email, though I still lacked a hotel confirmation email, and decided to leave well enough alone until I checked in. It was a little unsettling when yet another woman from Program Advising called mid-week to recommend that I make reservations for any treatments prior to arrival. I stuck with my decision to do nothing further until check-in.

The day of my great backyard pampering, I got a later start from home than I had hoped but didn’t think I was cutting things unmanageably close. It was a moderately rushed check-in, which was successful despite lacking a hotel confirmation email, made faster by my room not being ready until closer to official check-in time but slowed by my shifting stuff between luggage heading for storage and my newly acquired day spa tote. I scrambled to locate the changing room and controlled my impatience as one of the attendants interminably demonstrated how to access the lockers. By the time I returned to the lobby seeking directions to my desired Zumba class, my heart was pounding and I was officially nervous that I’d be too late. This was certainly not the way I’d hoped to start my 24 hours of health and zen! I scurried behind the receptionist guiding me along, relieved to note a clock in the lobby that indicated I had five minutes to spare. The relief was fleeting as sounds of Pitbull taunted my ears when we reached the final outdoor corridor. Sure enough, as we rounded the corner, the class was in full swing with a large sign at the doorway requesting no late entry as a courtesy to other class participants. I was devastated.

I looked pleadingly at the receptionist, “I’m too late? I can’t go in?”

I’d hoped for reiteration of the policy that I was pretty sure I’d read somewhere that said it was fine to enter classes up to five minutes late. The woman glanced at her watch and shrugged forbodingly. Then, probably in response to a look of intense disappointment on my part, said that it really depended on the instructor, some were strict about it and others not. She gave a forlorn shrug, then turned and left. I stood immobile, unsure what to do as I watched another woman walk up, gaze at the sign and walk away. I took that as a cue that late entry wasn’t permitted here. Crushed, all the planning for nought, I sat down and stared at the schedule to see what else I might do. What time was it anyway? 11:02. My dismay flashed to anger.

The class was supposed to start at 11 but judging by the tempo even when I’d first walked up, it was clear they had started early. I was furious with the instructor for starting prematurely, with the receptionist for not being more encouraging, and with myself for not being more audacious. I grappled with the notion of barging in at this point, but I’d never done Zumba before and didn’t relish the idea of a grand entrance followed by me stumbling over my own feet. No, instead I’d try whatever the 20-minute “ready, set, jump” class was going to be in half an hour. That would give me time to regain my calm while observing whether Zumba was actually something I wanted to attempt in public someday. The jump class would be held in the neighboring lawn and it would be done in time for the core strength class I wanted to do back at the Zumba venue in an hour.

Overall the plan was successful, though my irritation was piqued when two other women walked into the Zumba class 20 minutes late, and again when I realized the woman who had inspired me to sit down instead of entering the class because of her consideration of the no late entry sign was in fact another instructor who had no intention of attending that class. She turned out to be the trainer for the “ready, set, jump” class, which proved to be code for jump rope. I hadn’t jump roped since elementary school and was surprised both by how tiring it could be and how complicated jump rope tricks could get. Once we got past the basic moves, I spent more of the time smacking the rope against my legs than actually working out. Nonetheless, it was an educational experience and the following core strength class was both enlightening and a good work-out. Now, it was time to relax!

I took lunch by the pool – seared tuna in lettuce wraps and a good, strong mojito. Paying with cash seemed to totally throw the waiter, and getting change took forever, but it was a pleasant place to kill some time and as far as I knew, my room wasn’t ready yet anyway. Best to check though. I had been promised a phone call just as soon as the room was available, but given all the communication issues prior to arrival…

Despite the lack of a call, my room was in fact ready and aside from a wad of toilet paper already in the toilet upon entry (fortunately in clear water) and some workers renovating the neighboring balcony, it was lovely. Relaxing decor, soothing music in the background and a lulling, though partial, view of the ocean – this was more what I had anticipated from such an establishment. I wasted no time in donning my swimsuit and headed for the beach.

Friendly beach boys efficiently set me up with a fuzzy cover and towels on a lounge chair, another mojito by my side. Warm sun, cool breezes, lapping waves – I was officially in paradise. All too soon my alarm alerted me to my next phase of relaxation. I traded my fuzzy towels for a fuzzy robe and found myself taking a tour of the Spa’s Aquavana facilities. No time to use them at the moment, but I vowed to return (for research purposes of course) to the Experiential Rains, the Herbal Laconium and the Igloo – the latter only because my guide was so insistent that altering heat and cold was essential and this version of cold at least involved a choice of aromas. After the water world tour, I was led downstairs, handed a cup of chamomile tea and ushered into a hushed, dimly lit room. Several other ladies in robes were distributed among the over-stuffed chairs, sipping tea and leafing through magazines. I followed suit. One after another, soft-spoken beauticians gently summoned the other ladies by name and they rustled out of sight. Finally it was my turn.

I was a little concerned that the other half of my couple hadn’t turned up for our couples Royal Body Ceremony, but he was waiting in a fashionably lit hallway with his own spa lady and a male version of the fuzzy robe.

“Have you been here before?” the ladies asked in near unison.

We shook our heads. They smiled in a manner that suggested we were in for a treat.

“Our journey begins here,” one of the ladies motioned to a voluptuous stone basin piled high with colorful glowing objects.

They looked like jelly beans to me. Surely this health destination wouldn’t be serving jelly beans at the start of their treatments. Or would they? Maybe there were new fangled therapeutic benefits to running one’s hands through a giant bowl of candy, particularly if we’d be forbidden from taking any.

The lady continued, “You may choose one to keep as a reminder of your visit.”

This was baffling until I got close enough to realize that they were polished stones rather than jelly beans. I selected a glimmering red one.

“Red jade,” my guide informed me, “It evokes warrior energy – strength, vitality and passion.”

I hardly felt like a warrior as I shuffled down the hall behind her in over-sized slippers. Once in the Feng Shui of our room, we were given an overview of our treatment with one woman elegantly describing the experience while the other enlightened our senses with samples of the products that would be used to exfoliate, relax and moisturize our bodies. It was finally time to settle onto our massage tables and I nearly melted into the warm softness. It only got better as my muscles turned to putty under my masseuse’s attentive hands. I could feel why this part of Canyon Ranch received accolades.

“Ok,” I was brought back to the present with a soothing voice, “I’ll be in the hallway when you’re ready to transfer to the Rhassoul Room.”

The Rhassoul Room proved to be a private, starlit steam room designed for mud pamperings inspired by royal purification ceremonies. We were informed that our experience would be orchestrated by a timer. A crystal globe atop a volcano-emulating statue at one end of the room would glow to indicate the start of our session, then would turn off and a light above our marble chiseled bench would warn prior to the start of a rinsing shower. We would have about 45 minutes to apply our detoxifying muds, a minute or so to rinse them off, then ample time to apply a luxurious moisturizer prior to drinking our grand finale herbal elixir. As promised, once our attendants departed, the crystal-topped volcano glowed tantalizingly red and spewed mist throughout the space.

My partner picked up his bowl of mud and wrinkled his nose, “This reminds me of the paste dentists used for temporary fillings!”

Having never had a temporary filling myself, the clay evoked no such memories for me, though I could see its dental potential once mentioned. Menthol and clove aromas wafted from the fascinating substance and while it rubbed on smoothly, it shortly became gummy and stiff like any good putty. I was doubtful that the short shower would effectively rinse it, but it washed away easily and left my skin feeling refreshed. I lavished on the final moisturizing cream before noticing my partner’s reticence.

“Smells bad,” he wrinkled his nose again.

“Really?!” I was stunned, “That’s unfortunate. I think it smells great and I’m now covered in it…”

“No, I mean it smells bad on me. Not you.”

I looked at him doubtfully. He stretched out his hand for me to smell and he was right. It smelled different on his skin and it was indeed not all that pleasant, though fortunately faint.

We were both led into the men’s relaxation area, fancy for waiting room, to enjoy our herbal elixir together. The tonic was a refreshing pineapple and spirulina blend. While tasty, it was only going to last so long and our next treatment had been scheduled for an hour later – not really enough time to do anything or go anywhere. Fortunately, the inner sanctum receptionist was able to choreograph scheduling miracles that Program Advising was not and I was shortly led to my facial treatment.

Just like the Royal Body Ceremony, this treatment began at the impostor jelly bean bowl. I selected a lovely shade of burnt orange this time, only to discover that the warrior in me was in control whether I felt it or not – this too was declared to be red jade. I nestled into the warm sheets and yielded to another indulgent, luxurious and utterly relaxing treatment. I was pretty sure I was glowing all over by dinner time.

The hotel’s restaurant menu included a string of numbers beside every item, which it turned out were nutritional values – calories, carbs, protein, fat and fiber content. I found myself subconsciously comparing the numbers and willed myself to concentrate on what actually sounded best to eat instead. The offerings were diverse and included a range of tastes, styles and food preference options from vegan to full-fledged hunks of red meat. It didn’t seem to be the sort of menu I’d expect from an uber-health conscious venue. Nonetheless, tasty and unique seemed to be goals, and some of the less healthful sounding options, like the artichoke fries, proved to have wholesome twists. The latter delicacies, for example, were baked instead of fried despite their name. Ultimately, the food was good and it was relaxing to eat out in the ocean breezes notwithstanding our aloof waitress. It just wouldn’t be South Beach without a little attitude from the staff.

Our room was amidst turn down service when we returned, a service we normally decline but had no way to do here since the hotel provided no “do not disturb” options. We also had a phone message waiting from Program Advising, left at the time we were starting our spa treatments, that let us know they could help us arrange such things. For an organization dependent on selling multiple experiences, scheduling was oddly not a forte. Once we got past the message and turn down though, it was blissful. The repeated inquiries about whether my stay was for a special occasion were finally followed up with a hand-written birthday card from the manager, a rather unhealthy looking chocolate cake covered in luscious berries and two bottles of fancy sparkling water. Sitting on the balcony watching the waves while eating cake, drinking the wine we had smuggled into the hotel, and contemplating the yoga, beaching and Aquavana explorations I had planned for the next day, it was hard to imagine why I didn’t do more backyard pampering excursions… except maybe for the price tag, and having to schedule it.

Travel Tips:

  • The Miami Beach Canyon Ranch spa certainly lives up to its reputation, but the hotel is quite overpriced for what it is. Certainly, there should be no glitches or frustrations in a place where the cheapest accommodation option is over $500. Here annoyances were practically the rule, with more than a few on my stay. It’s beautiful and the never ending list of included fitness classes is certainly a perk, but overall the service didn’t live up to the price tag. I’ll likely indulge in the spa again, now that I’m fully certified in locker use, but the hotel won’t be on my list. You can find more information about the Miami Beach Canyon Ranch Hotel and Spa on their website.
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