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Happy campers at Bikini Boot Camp

I preferred to conveniently forget that I was going on a vacation dubbed “Bikini Boot Camp.” I don’t own a bikini and, frankly, that’s in everyone’s best interest.
/ Source: Special to

I preferred to conveniently forget that I was going on a vacation dubbed “Bikini Boot Camp.” I don’t own a bikini and, frankly, that’s in everyone’s best interest. But I was trusting Suzanne -- a friend who’d done BBC twice before -- that our six-day trip to Amansala, perched paradisiacally on the Yucatan’s Riviera Maya, could be whatever I wanted it to be. Don’t feel like doing circuit training? No problem, she said. Want to skip a visit to the Mayan ruins in favor of a nap? Enjoy! In short, as Suzanne described it, our week at Amansala could be about filling the time with nothing, or everything – whatever I was in the mood for. That sounded very good to me.

In truth, while I had no designs on achieving a bikini-ready body, I was very attracted to the mind/body approach of Amansala, which is run by Erica Gragg and Melissa Perlman, two former New Yorkers who chucked it all 2 ½ years ago to create their Lost-meets-ashram-with-amenities paradise. As a 14-year perennially beginner yoga student and someone who had given up the bright lights of big cities after 16 years, I figured these two women probably had something to teach me. And  I knew Suzanne, an overworked TV producer in Manhattan, was a diehard Amansala-ite who now made an annual trek to BBC. “It’s my idea of a perfect vacation – quiet, in a beautiful place, with lots of great, healthy food, lots of exercise and lots of time to relax,” she says. Who could argue with that?

While anyone can come to Amansala as a guest, Bikini Boot Campers typically have full days that start with a 7:45 a.m. bell. Once awakened by the gentle ringing -- though the birds did a better, and earlier, job as alarm clocks -- we were encouraged to spend about 15 minutes writing in a journal to clear our heads from any lingering dreams or anxieties from the previous day or night, a technique taken from the book The Artist’s Way. A silent (but vigorous) beach walk along the still-sleepy coast generally followed, then we segued straight into the day’s activities or enjoyed a delicious fresh-fruit breakfast of papaya with lime, cantaloupe and mango, often with a side of spicy scrambled eggs. (Carb-eschewers will be especially at home here; I thought I spotted French fries on the table one night before dinner, only to discover they were sticks of seasoned jicama. Delicious, though.)

BBC mornings include some sort of physical activity – it could be a 90-minute yoga class, a trip to swim in a cenote (freshwater pool), kayaking in a nearby lagoon after a 8-mile bike ride (each way) to the tip of the 1.3-million-acre Sian Ka’an[i] reserve, or an excursion to the Mayan ruins at Tulum.

By midday, the sun, wind and what was for most of us a highly unusual amount of physical exertion had created a voracious appetite. The food at Amansala, although seemingly very simple, is as fresh and delicious as any I’ve eaten anywhere: Fresh fish (and chicken) abounds, paired with sophisticated sauces and marinades that combine local spices and the freshest fruits and vegetables. And there’s always a delicious drink; my favorites were the ginger lemonade and ruby-red hibiscus tea.

Post-prandially, most days we could expect either a massage (two are included in the BBC package), or plenty of time for a serious nap. There’s also a Mayan Clay Treatment, in which the golden clay is mixed with honey and olive oil.

We smeared it on one another until we all seem to be glowing gold in the hot sun. Melissa then led us down to the beach, where we closed our eyes and baked to a brittle dryness as she led us in a guided meditation about, among other things, gratitude. As the clay hardened into a shell on my body, it was easy to imagine feeling grateful for being in this special place. At the end of the meditation, we rushed into the welcoming, warm ocean to rinse off the clay, feeling newer and fresher.

Late afternoons the lineup features two more fitness classes, such as African dance, circuit training, Pilates mat, power abs and legs, cardio dance or more yoga. Samantha, recently graduated from Berkeley and one of our instructors, led us through crazy dances to old funk and new rap. Though few of us got all the moves, the dancing went a long way in helping the nine of us BBCers to feel more comfortable with one another. We were, in all, attorneys, teachers, a television producer, writer, philanthropist, art director, and accountant; we came from east and west and in between, from city and suburbs. Any anxiety I had about overachieving exercise obsessives vanished the first day; there was a tremendous range in fitness levels, but we each did what we could, the goal being to enjoy ourselves on vacation, not train for the Ironman.

As the day winds down at Amansala, dinner is served -- in three courses, which might include a lentil or tortilla soup, followed by chicken kebabs or fish tacos, and then a plate of fresh fruit, such as mango dressed with shredded coconut or a baked apple with cinnamon. (While cocktails are not a strong suit of the resort, you can have a good margarita, cerveza or glass of red wine.)

Evenings, there is tribal drumming, painting postcards, stretch and relaxation or meditation. While we were there, the turtles were in town to plant their eggs. One evening we took a moonlit turtle walk on the beach to spot one. Mother turtles cut a wide swath on the sand as they make their way up, up the beach to find a just-right spot for their eggs. We saw two turtles, one making her way back to the sea, another dug in and forcefully throwing back sand with her flippers to give her eggs safe refuge. Alison, a lawyer from Los Angeles, had a late-night visitor to room 10: A turtle came up to the entry to her terrace. (Turtle walks take place from April to September.)

If the schedule at Amansala sounds full (or overfull), consider that in spite of so much activity, the days seem to pass very sloooowwwly. In a good way. Every day we did a lot – and some days I did less, hearing the call of my hammock over African dance class one afternoon – but there would still be hours in the afternoon to do quite a lot of nothing. That sort of languorous feeling is hard to come by – at best, it’s usually accompanied by feelings of guilt for sloth and/or gluttony. Suzanne says the planned program is precisely what she comes for. “As someone who has to make decisions all day for my job, I love the fact that someone else has decided what I’m doing for the day,” she enthuses. (Anyone who’s done the daily vacation dance of “What do you want to do today? Where do you want to eat tonight?” can appreciate the bliss of not having to decide anything. Especially when you can opt out of anything with no dirty looks or awkwardness.)

Excepting a particularly boisterous and stealthy population of mosquitoes (this is the jungle, after all), Amansala’s setting is simply idyllic. The ocean is right there – mere steps from your front door if you’re in room 9 or 10 – and you won’t find clearer aqua waters or silkier white sand. While there are no phones, TVs, Internet, hair dryers or air conditioning, luxury comes in other ways: namely soft cotton sheets and bedspreads, silk bed pillows and comfy hammocks.

The greatest luxury is, perhaps, the sense of true ease that pervades the place: No one wears shoes, there is no dressing for dinner, and large, beach-ready “mattresses” sit on the beach to encourage lazing around. You can’t go 10 feet without encountering some place to rest your bones. At night, candles are lighted in the rooms and throughout Amansala, their golden glow somewhat countered by the fluorescent light of the solar-powered lights. It’s early to bed for us all, most nights.

Best of all, there is quiet. (That is, when you get used to Mother Nature’s symphony, namely the pounding surf, often strong winds, frequently cacophonous birds and bothersome mosquitoes. It took me a couple of days to adjust, in truth, perhaps because I’ve never really had a lost-on-a-desert-island fantasy. ) But if you’ve ever had any variation on such a fantasy, Amansala largely satisfies. As Suzanne explains, “You can get margarita-fueled vacations. You can get simple beach living. You can get ashram-type healthy vacations. You can get five-star hotels. Amansala give me the best of all these things, in unpretentious yet beautiful surroundings. There’s an understanding of comfort, an emphasis on health without being punitive and people who share my values.”  If that’s not paradise, what is?

Bikini Boot Camp is $1842 for 6 nights, including accommodation, meals, two massages, 1 Mayan Clay Treatment, all fitness classes, excursions, activities, tax and service. A taxi from Cancun airport to Amansala is $125 and takes about 1-1 ½ hours. For more information, visit