When Food Connects Mind, Body and Soul

I wasn't planning to write about my vacation. The idea was to completely unplug all work-related circuitry and disallow story ideas from creeping into that overactive brain of mine and just chill.

To that end, I left the laptop behind, turned off the cell phone and headed to Costa Rica with a few books and a camera. It was to be a solo retreat, an opportunity to catch up with 18 months of accumulated thoughts and inhale cleaner air. There would be yoga, lots of nature and maybe a good massage or two. Anything else would be gravy.

One of the many awe-inspiring views from the restaurant at Pura Vida Spa in Costa Rica. (Kim O'Donnel)

I had heard good things about the vegetarian-centric food at Pura Vida Spa, which offers an all-inclusive package with three meals a day, but in my exhausted state, food was closer to the bottom of the list --- provided that I had a strong cup of coffee in the morning and a daily dose of Costa Rican pineapple.

Much to my surprise (and delight), the food was way better than good and it would play a central role in my restorative experience. Timing is everything; just a few weeks before my arrival, Pura Vida (owned by Conyers, Ga.-based R&R Resorts) hired Luis Carlos Protti as the new chef. Protti, a recent graduate of the Cordon Bleu program in Costa Rica, is just 22 years old, yet he's cooking like an old pro.

I suppose with the Costa Rican bounty of avocados, guavas, mangoes, passion fruit, melons and strawberries -- plus those famous bananas and pineapples -- that it would be easy to prepare beautiful, fresh food. But after a while, as many PV staffers expressed to me, the food, although tasty and nutritious, got boring, the same dishes being served day after day.

Protti, who's recently become a vegan "because that's what my body wants right now," is all fired up to play with local ingredients and is already expressing his creativity. He's going beyond the obvious tree fruits and sourcing local tofu and flour. When we sat down to chat last week, he showed me a jar of locally produced honey made from fermented rice, which he hopes to incorporate into his line of desserts. Instead of white sugar, he's using azucar dulce, the natural byproduct of milled sugarcane from local fields.

Protti's food isn't just delicious and interesting; it's got mind-body altering qualities. Over the course of five days, I noticed how satisfied and nourished I felt, without a hankering for inbetween-meal snacks. This was spa food in the purest sense, without calorie counts, ingredient lists or label warnings. There was something for everyone on his buffet table -- locally raised tilapia and chicken for omnivores, gluten-free options for celiacs and the most un-vegan-tasting vegan food that has ever passed my lips.

I couldn't get enough of his black bean salad with mango, radish, celery, scallions, peppers and herbs. Or his cold tofu combo with chopped spinach and a tangy tomato-y (or was it tomatillo?) vinaigrette. The black bean-filled arepas for breakfast, that I dipped into local hot sauce made with carrots and habaneros. The strawberry juice at lunch. The strawberry-spinach salad with a soy-sesame vinaigrette that I've asked him to translate (details to come, hopefully later today) because it is too delicious to keep a secret.

As I mentioned earlier, I really wasn't planning to write about my vacation. But Protti, like the yoga teachers and the holistic treatment practitioners at Pura Vida, has brought food into the forefront of this wellness equation, and it's too good to go unmentioned. In the few hours between meals, I eagerly anticipated the next buffet -- not because I was hungry and underfed but because I felt nurtured, and his food was like medicine for this burnt-out mind, body and spirit.

Humpty's back up on the urban wall, and her pieces are together again, at long last.

By Kim ODonnel |  February 4, 2008; 9:20 AM ET Travel
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Very trendy, very hip. Now where's my gigantic marbled bloody steak?

Posted by: Anonymous | February 4, 2008 12:30 PM

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It is refreshing just to READ about the experience. So glad you had time for what sounds like a much-needed and soul-satisfying retreat.


Posted by: Anonymous | February 4, 2008 12:32 PM

Hola Kim,
I've got tingles up and down my arms and spine just reading about what we enjoyed (together at times) at Pura Vida. You captured the experience in words and this article will go in with my memory box of pictures and mementos from the trip.
mucho gracias! and ....PURA VIDA!

Posted by: jo ann | February 4, 2008 1:02 PM

So, Kim, does this experience make you want to actually go vegetarian?? I urge you to take the plungle, giving up bacon and all!!! Thanks for the lovely posting, a pleasure to read.

Posted by: anon | February 4, 2008 1:25 PM

Kim - I would love to hear more about your trip - I am a 40 year old woman who has been searching for a trip to take by myself. The website for the resort looks wonderful. Did you feel out of place being by yourself? Did you do any of the eco excursions? What else was there to do there? Would love to hear more...

Posted by: DC | February 4, 2008 3:50 PM

DC: Of the 18 guests, there were only 2 couples, plus one daughter-mom combo. Everyone else was solo -- and loving it. We were a mix of married and single, but all chose to come to PV on our own. You would def. feel at home by yourself. I chose not to do the eco-excursions, but I was in the minority. There is a pool, hot tub, a great variety of holistic treatments, yoga 2x a day. I read two books, a great luxury in a busy life. Next time, I'll bring Scrabble. Excursions can be arranged outside of what they have organized. Go, go!

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | February 4, 2008 4:25 PM

Hello, Kim!
This is the first time I read your blog, I just loved the way you managed to describe this whole experience. I am Costarican, and very glad you decided to write even during your vacations. It is very gratifying to realize that other people have discovered this precious jewel! The place is breathtaking as a whole, the sight is beautiful and the air just clears out the soul. This is without mentioning Mr. Protti's creations, which simply cannot be described with words... a real piece of art!

Posted by: Marisol | February 4, 2008 6:56 PM

Costa Rica is indeed a beautiful and relaxing country. However, visitors should be aware that uncommonly good food is not the rule, particularly at many of the hotels and restaurants that cater to tourists. This was my only disappointment with the country.

Posted by: Bob | February 5, 2008 8:42 AM

Glad you had a relaxing time, Kim, you're a busy person! Did you get any recipes for the dishes there, especially the cold tofu combo? I'm mostly vegan and always looking for new things to try.

Posted by: Up north | February 5, 2008 10:19 AM

I've never been to CR but I hear it's simply gorgeous! And from sound of it, the food is exceptional. 22? how fabulous for him. How did you like the arepas? Those are goooooood.
There's a little whole in the wall here in Atlanta that sells them. Too bad this city is so spread it out--i'd rather not drive 30 minutes only to devour it before I even get back in my car!

Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: FlaNBoyant Eats | February 5, 2008 10:40 AM

Oh, this looks lovely. But Kim, am I misunderstanding something? How is honey being made from fermented rice?

Posted by: Sass in Arlington | February 5, 2008 5:15 PM

oh. my. GOSH. that foods sounds so incredibly divine i need to go eat it all right. now. thanks for all the luscious details.

Posted by: nicole | February 6, 2008 5:32 PM

D.C.:Adventure tours included Ziplining across the canopy tops of the Central Highlands of Costa Rica while safely harnessed in, flying over waterfalls at tremendous heights, White Water River Rafting for 4 hours down the Pacuare River (18 miles of class 3 & 4 rapids) winding through a most impressive rainforest (Braulio Carrillo National Park) where monkeys, sloths, ocelots, jaguars, iguanas and many species of beautiful birds find shelter. Other adventures included a tour through the La Paz Waterfall Gardens with lots of toucans and other exotic wildlife. Another day, we trekked to the La Poas Volcano (no longer active and also not visible on the day we went). It was on the other side of the mountain where it was considered "winter" -- rainy, cloud-covered and noticeably cooler. We also hiked through the coffee plantations which abutted the Pura Vida property high in the mountains. These excursions are part of the Mind, Body, Spirit package if you choose to go that route. A highly recommended place to visit - and possibly LIVE!
Pura Vida! (meaning "Life is Good")

Posted by: jo ann | February 8, 2008 7:16 AM

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