Finally, I stumbled on something called Bikini Bootcamp at an eco-friendly resort in Tulum, Mexico. I cringed at the name - and still do - but I looked past it and found the type of trip I sought.
It promised rustic beach cottages, certified trainers leading fitness sessions, healthy food, excursions like biking through Mayan ruins, spa services, and enough downtime to make my vacation my own.
For the most part, that's what I got.
I was immediately hooked on the model, and, in the years since, I have gone to several others, including Pura Vida Adventures, a surf and yoga camp in Malpais, Costa Rica, that was founded by Tierza Eichner. Most recently, I've gone to a SUP (stand-up paddleboard) and yoga retreat in Rincon, Puerto Rico, created by Jessica Bellofatto of KamaDeva Yoga and Gina Bradley of Paddle Diva, two companies based in New York's tony Hamptons beach area.
Don't misunderstand: These aren't fat camps. These are vacations tailored to people who value healthy lifestyles, active travel, and trying new things, seeing new places, and meeting new people.
The formula is generally the same.
All are run by strong, independent, entrepreneurial, outgoing women with interesting life stories and a true zest for living fully.
The trips either are geared toward or attract mostly women, though the men who do go seem to fit in easily. The demographic tends to skew toward female professionals in their 30s and 40s from all over the country and, sometimes, the world, though everyone from stay-at-home moms to almost-retired grandmas attend. Many people come alone; some come with friends and relatives. The programs attract both extroverts and introverts.
All are bound by an up-for-anything, adventurous attitude and a shared desire to have an active life with nutritious food and vigorous exercise.
So it's easy to see why bonding usually occurs shortly after arrival, and why it quickly seems as though everyone is looking out for - and rooting for - one another. Many seek to push the bounds both mentally and physically, and they do things they typically wouldn't, like trail-running through the steep and slippery jungle or jumping off rock ledges into crystal-blue water below.
"Expand your comfort zone," was the daily positive mantra of paddle instructor Shari Hymes during the January retreat in Rincon.
Many leave these trips with great memories and lasting relationships, and the vacations have their own touches reflective of their founders.
Bikini Bootcamp, run by Melissa Perlman, offers an African dance session, a tribal drumming lesson, and a traditional Mayan clay treatment on the beach with an eyebrow-raising component: swimsuit tops optional.
The Pura Vida instructors become informal tour guides, taking clients to favorite surf spots in a Scooby Doo-like van that's been known to stop for cold ones at shacks run by Ticos - or Costa Rican locals - after a long day on the water.
Bradley's organizational expertise, culinary skills, and local connections shape the entire Rincon trip. Bellofatto goes well beyond traditional yoga, teaching one of her specialty skills: downward dog, headstands and other poses while on paddleboards floating on the water.
All serve meals with local ingredients, focusing on nutritious fuel for active bodies. In Tulum, low-fat soups were a staple. In Malpais, traditional Lizano sauce was on the table. And in Rincon, no meal was complete without avocados, tropical fruits, and greens from roadside stands.
The venues are breathtaking.
Bikini Bootcamp's home, Amansala, is a shabby-chic Tulum resort with open-air bungalows, a large fitness pavilion, and a swath of white beach with orange lounge chairs strewn about. Pura Vida is nestled in the jungle that abuts the beach of Malpais, with gorgeous beachfront cottages, a yoga platform, a soaking pool, and hammocks strung between palm trees. And the Puerto Rican retreat is based at Casa Azul, Bradley's private, four-story house in the Rincon hills, with balconies that offer stunning views of the ocean, beaches, and town below.
The prices depend on the trip's duration and number of people per room. They cost from $1,400 for four nights in a shared room with a shared bath in Rincon to $3,200 for six nights in Tulum or Malpais in a private room with a private bath. At a minimum, the price typically includes: accommodations, at least two meals a day, and daily lessons or sessions. Some also include massages. Transportation is never included, nor are gratuities for the staff.
One restaurant dinner is typical, and you're responsible for covering your part of the check. And if you want booze during the trip, you pay for it yourself. There's also no shortage of optional - with fee - activities, such as snorkeling into underground, freshwater swimming holes called cenotes in Mexico, zip-lining in Costa Rica, or climbing waterfalls in Puerto Rico.
When you sign up for any of these trips, expect a detailed e-mail that usually includes a what-to-pack list, a lineup of possible add-on activities, details on the best way to travel, and a typical daily, subject-to-change schedule.
Yoga sessions always are a staple, but they never dominate the trips. Usually, there are one or two sessions a day, in the morning and late afternoon. Like the other lessons, they're taught by instructors mindful of the need to tailor their practices toward beginners and veterans alike.
Like the other meals, dinner is communal, with mounds of nutritious grub and even healthy dessert, and it often stretches for hours, with people talking about lives back home and adventures of the day.
It's certainly not all perfect; all three trips have room for improvement.
Yet, all seek - and get - feedback and tweak their programs to ensure an even better experience for the next batch of campers looking for the perfect mix of adventure, fitness and fun.
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