The Maine Event

The Maine Event

July 31, 2019

Thundering hooves, the whack of mallet on ball and a tropical breeze from the Caribbean Sea—welcome to polo as it’s played in the Dominican Republic, home to an active polo scene for more than 70 years. At local polo clubs today, visitors can take polo lessons, watch professional matches and even join a match or two, given sufficient horsemanship skills and experience. For equestrians of all sorts, and for anyone who appreciates an adrenaline-fueled display of athleticism and horsemanship, there’s nothing that compares, at least according to Jabar Singh Jr., whose father helped develop the Dominican Republic’s polo community in the 1950s. “It’s true that polo is the `sport of kings and king of sports’.”

Worldclass Heritage 

The British ruling classes helped popularize polo worldwide in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, after officers stationed in India took up the sport, which has its origins as a cavalry training game in ancient Persia. Since then, polo has remained a favorite gentleman’s sport in posh enclaves and clubs in Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, as well as South America (especially Argentina), Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Iran, Pakistan, India and the Caribbean (Dominican Republic and Jamaica). During the 1940s, in the midst of President Rafael Trujillo’s 30-year reign in the Dominican Republic, the island’s privileged class, including Trujillo’s son Ramfis and internationally renowned playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, began playing polo on the fields adjacent to Hotel El Embajador in the capital city of Santo Domingo.

In 1954, Rubirosa, who was linked romantically to actresses Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe and married to heiresses Doris Duke and then Barbara Hutton, invited polo’s then superstar Maharaja Jabar Singh to an international tournament in the Dominican Republic that featured some of the best players of the era. Born in Jodhpur during the “golden age” of India’s autonomous princely states, Jabar Singh was raised dividing his time between hunting and polo. A highly rated player, he traveled the world winning international tournaments. Impressed by Singh’s skills, Ramfis Trujillo invited him to stay on the island and help organize the sport. Singh stayed for six years, meeting the woman who would become his wife, Mireya, and having two sons, Jabar Jr. and Bijai. He would’ve stayed longer, but while playing at a tournament in Paris in 1961, Trujillo, Singh’s benefactor, was assassinated. For the next decade, Singh lived in Spain, competing successfully throughout Europe. In 1971, he returned to the Dominican Republic at the invitation of the conglomerate Gulf + Western, to help develop a polo club at the corporation’s new resort, Casa de Campo.

Island Polo 

Located on the island’s southeast coast in the city of La Romana, one hour’s drive west along the new highway from Punta Cana, Casa de Campo comprises 7,000 verdant acres bordered by the Caribbean Sea and the Chavon River. Year-round, the resort and its nearby sister club, El Pitirri, host friendly practice matches and smaller weekend tournaments. Casa de Campo has become the heart of Caribbean polo, though, with its three tournament fields, practice field, an outdoor arena and string of more than 100 polo ponies bred and trained at the resort’s Rancho Higueral. The result is the premier polo destination in the Caribbean according to the resort’s polo director, Calixto “Cali” Garcia-Velez. Garcia-Velez learned to play and ride correctly from Jabar Singh himself, alongside his longtime friend Jabar Singh Jr., chairman and CEO of The Cliffs Ocean Resort in Santo Domingo. 

At the island’s other currently active club, Sierra Prieta Polo Club in Santo Domingo, “the players are locals and play friendly games of a lower level,” explains Singh Jr. “Casa de Campo sees a combination of local and international players and tournaments are at a medium level.” Those international tournaments are the most competitive in the region with local players hoping to make an impression and move up to the highest level of the sport. According to Singh Jr., locals Denis Santana and Carlos Cortez are among the best the island has ever produced. 

The formal tournament season runs from January through April, peaking with the Semana Santa Polo Tournament held over Easter week. According to Garcia-Velez, the final weekend of matches attract a cosmopolitan crowd of a couple thousand spectators who come to watch the competition and then attend the luxurious parties that extend into the late hours, night after night. During halftimes, the global mix of European, American and Dominican spectators gather on the field to mingle, stretch their legs and divot stomp— the traditional job of spectators to toe back into place clumps of grass that have been dislodged by the ponies’ fast and furious maneuvers. 

But it’s the players who probably enjoy the week most. With its unique combination of adrenaline and intense athletic challenge, polo is addictive according to Singh Jr. “Imagine hitting with accuracy a bouncing synthetic ball the size of a baseball from on top of a horse galloping at full speed with a flexible 52-inch rattan stick, while seven other players are running after you.” “Believe me, it is not easy,” he says. “[But] polo is like a drug, once it gets into your system it is very difficult to stop. I have played many other sports, and I can assure you there is no better feeling than playing polo.”

Aleece Gregg’s list Personal Vacation Advisor

Eat: For seafood and Thai-inspired cuisine, go to Acqua Mare, in the Cap Cana marina. The glass floor over the sea at Punta Cana Resort’s La Yola is as amazing as its Mediterranean cuisine. Passion by Martin Berasetegui puts a Caribbean spin on Spanish and Basque flavors. 
Day Trip: Travel to the snorkeling paradise of Isla Catalina. Whale Watching Witness the humpback whale migration.

Make Yourself at Home; Punta Cana

The polo fields at Casa de Campo are within an hour’s easy drive from Inspirato’s Signature Residences in Punta Cana and Cap Cana, highlighted by the 16,000-square-foot Villa Palmyra with 6 bedrooms, 7.5 bathrooms and a dedicated chef, housekeeper and butler. Intimate parties will enjoy Villa Tortuga’s 4 bedrooms and 4,150 square feet of living space and a private pool. Those desiring beachfront and a private pool can opt for the 6-bedroom, 9,800-square-foot Casa Caribe.

The Ultimate Wellness Destination in Tucson

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The Ultimate Wellness Destination in Tucson

April 11, 2019

Find the joy in the world,” says the yoga instructor with a silk flower tucked into the back of her smooth ponytail. Elizabeth enunciates and intonates so that these six words stretch out like reverberations from a gong. And the way she says them makes them sound like the most important, profound sentence in the world. A minute later, in case we’ve forgotten what we’re supposed to be doing, she reiterates.

I begin to find joy in the idea that she sounds like a benevolent dictator of some far away fairyland. I’ve never heard anyone speak like this. Elizabeth takes joy very seriously. Another minute in, our assignment changes, but the voice does not. “Find the joy in this moment.”

Lying in corpse pose at the beginning of a yoga class at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, finding the joy in this moment isn’t hard. Canyon Ranch’s campus, which is about 3 miles up the road from the Sabino Canyon National Recreation Area—where many, but not all, of the Ranch’s morning hikes go—is full of signs, elegantly carved into sandstone slabs, directing you to everything from a labyrinth to a spiritual wellness center, two restaurants, a medical center, a golf performance center, “serenity,” metaphysical offices, an aquatic center and a spa, among other things.

Also contributing to my present joy, the clouds waltzing across the bluebird sky look like cotton candy at the county fair. Cacti and wildflowers are just starting to bloom. The 150-acre campus is a desert Eden, with hummingbirds flitting between cholla and barrel cacti and roadrunners darting around under mature eucalyptus trees. And, an hour earlier in an Intermediate/Advanced tennis clinic with Susan at the Ranch’s tennis center—six courts, four hard courts and two artificial grass, all lighted—I had a major breakthrough with my forehand.

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Flush from the glow of finding my joy, I sit down to lunch and am pleased to find dining at the Ranch is not about sacrifice, but moderation. Yes, all menus include the number of calories and amount of carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber and sodium, and you have to ask for things like salt and butter. But, if you ask for salt or butter, they’ll happily bring either— or both—without judgment. Ricotta cheese is made fresh when the ranch serves its Mediterranean-focused “Trattoria Locale” menu and chocolate chip cookies and several flavors of ice cream are made daily. All of the food is delicious and you can order as much or as little of it as you want.

The only place I find the Ranch doesn’t seem to support moderation is in its variety of fitness classes and learning opportunities. There are close to of 50 classes every day, from Aerial Yoga to Wallyball; Don’t Worry, Bead Happy; photography hikes; Abs Express; Drumming Circle; golf clinics and indoor cycling. Also the class I’m in, Yoga for Balance.

Elizabeth again: “Find the joy in this moment.” If I keep looking for joy I’m going to explode, or at least render myself incapable of doing the balance-y things this class requires. How can I hold a warrior pose when thinking about my Muscle Melt for Road Warriors massage scheduled for later in the day? (The Spiritual Wellness Center is the newest building on campus— built last year—but the spa is easily the biggest: 80,000-square feet including 26 massage rooms, one spa suite, four facial rooms, two rooms for body treatments, nine separate gyms and the yoga pavilion I am presently in.) Thankfully, before I can dwell too much on that treatment Elizabeth calls us back to reality. Or as real as time at Canyon Ranch can be.

Sixty-five percent of guests here are repeat. I meet a gentleman from Toronto whose only vacations for the last decade have been to Canyon Ranch. This time, his eighth trip to the Ranch, he’s staying for two weeks. “Every time I come, I stay longer and longer,” he says. “It’s like camp for adults, but better, and it’s the only place I can really disengage from work and the world. Every time I come I focus on something different. But I always hike.”

I don’t have much experience with non-western medicine—acupuncture is the usual upper limit of my comfort level—and I don’t have any kind of regular spiritual or meditative practice, but I’m here to truly improve my overall wellness, so over my four-day stay I resolve to be open-minded. I promise myself I’ll explore the Ranch’s spiritual and gentle options in addition to its hard-core workouts. If left to my own devices, the latter is all I’d do—join one of the Ranch’s daily 8- to 10- mile, 5-hour morning hikes and call it good. But I’m self-aware enough to know that I do need help learning how to treat my body with kindness.

My second night there’s a talk by one of the Ranch’s acupuncturists, “The Yin and Yang of Sleep.” Stressed by work and health issues, I have had serious sleep issues for the last month. So I go. Walking into the Catalina room, adjacent to the formal dining room—white linen tablecloths and reservations required at dinner—in the Ranch’s historic clubhouse, I’m given a pen, a clipboard and a handout. For the next 40 minutes, I take notes about such things as points on my wrists, ankles and ears I can pressure for a couple of minutes before bed each night to help bring my yang more in balance with my yin, which should help me sleep better.

That night I try to pressure the wrist and ankle points as instructed: simultaneously. I feel like a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. And then end up on the floor, twisted and laughing.

An appointment the following day with Dr. Nicola Finley, one of four board certified physicians at the ranch’s Medical Center, is more my speed. Finley is a specialist in internal medicine who did a fellowship in integrative medicine. I leave wishing she were my regular physician. In 50 minutes, she not only gets my complicated health history, but also checks in on my emotional well-being and asks how happy I am with my spiritual life. “I’m an integrative physician, so I look at the whole picture,” she says. She supports the use of pressure points to try to help me sleep but also likes the prescription sleep drug cocktail my oncologist prescribed.

Later I meet a guest who does use the Ranch’s doctors as his primary care physicians. Over a side of mashed cauliflower and an entrée of butternut squash risotto topped with fresh Alaskan salmon (me) and an appetizer of tuna tartare, a side of roasted onions and an entrée of Moroccan stew (him) at the captain’s table in the dining room, he says, “It gives me a reason to come back at least once a year. I haven’t found any doctors in San Di- ego [where he lives] that spend half as much time with me and, when they’re with me, actually listen to what I’m saying.” After talking about doctors, we both order crème brulee for dessert.

Day three I relapse into my regular habits, taking a break from the spiritual and educational to get my fitness on. Tucson is surrounded by mountains, and I’m eager to get into them. Every morning the Ranch has three different off-site hikes at various levels. The short hikes cover 4 miles or so. I sign up for the longest one at roughly 8 miles, which is slated to leave the ranch at 7:30 a.m. and return around 1:30 p.m.

The prior day I did one of the group morning walks—there are 40-, 50- and 60-minute walks to choose from every morn- ing. These are around the campus and surrounding neighbor- hoods though; you can marvel at the Santa Catalina Mountains a stone’s throw to the north, but you’re not in them.

Also, I had done several laps on a 2-mile loop that meanders around the campus. Some of it is on pavement and other bits are a wide, flat trail through saguaro, prickly pear, cholla and barrel cactus and different species of agave. It’s more wild than the neighborhood walks, but you’re still looking at the mountains instead of hiking through them.

I expect our off-site hike to be in nearby Sabino Canyon—you can check out a hybrid bike from the outdoor center and ride there yourself in 20 minutes—but we go to Mt. Lemmon in the Coronado National Forest instead; our trailhead is a 45-minute drive away, up the Sky Island Scenic Byway. If we follow this highway to its end, we would reach 8,200 feet and Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley, the southernmost ski area in the country. We stop about halfway up.

We set off with guides Jim at the front and Mark bringing up the rear. About two hours later, our group reaches a rocky outcrop with vistas of Thimble Peak, a crumbly rock feature that comes by its name honestly. The pace is leisurely, with numerous water and snack breaks, and we all agree we feel like we’re a million miles from any city. For most of the trail, there’s nothing in sight but cacti, grasses—green and lush this early in the season—and mountains that look rolling and welcoming until you get closer. Then you see their sides are blanketed with all sorts of plants that want to hurt you and the hillsides are actually as loose as a pile of kitty litter.

Finding a seat on a flattish sandstone boulder at the over- look, I dive into the snack box—yogurt, pretzels, a hard-boiled egg and a banana—which the Ranch packed into the loaner backpack all hikers receive. Between bites, I take pictures for some of my fellow hikers and do a 360-degree panorama shot for myself. The sprawl of Tucson is only visible in about 5 per- cent of it; the rest is wilderness.

Hiking back to the van, Mark and Jim switch places—every fitness activity at the Ranch, whether a yoga class or a hike has at least two guides or instructors—but the pace stays comfort- able. At the end of the hike Jim leads us all in a short stretching session, but it’s not enough for me to consider giving up a restorative yoga class at 4 p.m. I’ve never before done restorative yoga, but it sounds like a kind thing to do for my body, which was one of the many recommendations Dr. Finley gave me, and one of the things I promised myself I’d do while I was here.

Of course, first comes lunch. At the Double U Café, named for the guest ranch originally on the site and the more casual of the two on-site restaurants, it’s lemon raspberry bar day. I’m hoping my restorative yoga teacher will again be Elizabeth, so I can focus on the serious joy these bars will bring me.

Home a week later and settled back into my usual routine, I can report some of Canyon Ranch’s influences have stuck: I’ve done two restorative yoga classes on my own. With my boyfriend’s help, I pressure the sleep points on my ankle and wrist most nights. (I still don’t know that they work; but what’s the harm in trying?) And, as much as I laughed at how seriously Elizabeth took joy, I’m thinking about it, and looking for it, in more places than I did before. Of course I haven’t traded hikes for yoga, but when I’m out on the trail in the morning, instead of speeding along, I focus on what a gift it is to be out hiking at all. And also on when I might next be able to return to Canyon Ranch.