Wellness is all about balance, and lack of balance is exactly the reason why so many health-kicks fail: they’re too extreme, too revolutionary, too unsustainable. For most of us, it’s very difficult to ditch all our bad habits and commit to the good ones we know we should overnight without looking back or slipping up—and sometimes, that slip-up means ending up back where we were before, or worse, further away from our goals than before. So what is balance on a real, day-to-day basis, and how do we make meaningful changes to our lifestyles that will make the maximum impact without forcing us to give up or take on too much?
That’s exactly the question that Nora Tobin answers on her retreat programme, Kale, Cardio & Cocktails. Partnered with JW Marriott to give the luxury hoteliers a little wellness makeover, Tobin now offers one-off intimate retreats at select locations, alongside her in-room fitness programme and wellness menu adaptation in various branches. Compare Retreats Editor Rebecca Cairns heads to JW Marriott Marco Island to experience the programme and try lifestyle optimisation for herself.
Marco Island is located on the south-west coast of Florida. A 45-minute drive from Fort Myers Airport, and 2-hours from Miami, the island is a suburban beach paradise, home to a quiet residential community and beach resort hotels along the stretch of perfect white sand. One of the biggest appeals of this location is the Everglades national park just a 20-minute drive: home to alligators, birds, and extensive wildlife, the natural reserve and 10,000 Islands protected area offers a variety of day trips and water-based activities.
Undergoing a US$3million refurbishment in 2018, JW Marco Island has undergone an extensive makeover in the last year, including a large expansion of conference rooms, a refurbishment of the spa, and upgrading of all the rooms.
The standard rooms are spacious with comfortable king-sized beds, private balconies and ensuites with separate toilet and flexible dressing space. In all the rooms, Nora Tobin’s fitness videos are available to guests wishing to workout in their room, regardless of participation in the programme.
The resort also offers Lanai Suites, which are ground-level bungalows closer to the beach; Corner Sunset Suites, which offer excellent views of the beach; the Terrace Penthouses with a private furnished terrace; or the two Presidential Suites (‘Fiji’ or ‘Bali’) which both offer large wrap-around terraces with space to host up to 75 people.
The vast resort can cater to more than 3,000 guests, but despite the numbers, it rarely felt busy. There are two pool areas, a kids club, and 11 restaurants and bars, ranging from international fine dining to low-key New York Italian diners.
The renovations have most affected the Lanai Building, with comprehensive event and corporate spaces, and two new dining venues: 10 Bar, a late night games bar with bowling alleys, game machines and karaoke booths, as well as a sleek; and the elegant rooftop restaurant and cocktail bar, Tesoro, which serves elevated international cuisine and drinks on its open rooftop veranda.
The spa is a private haven in the west wing of the hotel and features its own private, adults-only pool and Epsom salt hot tub. With 19 private treatment rooms, 2 couples rooms, and sauna, steam room, hot and cold baths in each of the waiting rooms, the spa is an oasis of calm in this already relaxed beach resort. The resort opens directly onto the expansive beachfront, where water activity booths await the adventurous, and private thatched-roof cabanas are open to those seeking beach relaxation in style.
Nutrition was a huge element of this retreat, and one of my personal highlights. Tobin’s nutritional philosophy is an intermittent fasting diet called ‘The 8-Hour Window’, which means eating all of your meals within eight hours of each other (ie, eating between 12pm and 8pm).
Breakfast was excluded from the programme in favour of high-protein smoothies and high-fat coffees, which encourages more efficient fat burning, instead of the metabolism relying on easy-to-process carbs. A few guests were dubious about the ‘no breakfast’ element at first, which Tobin clarified could be incorporated if guests wanted it but she encouraged everyone to give it a go—after a couple of the meals, no one seemed too worried about going hungry anymore. The food programme was designed to feel indulgent, and it certainly never felt like I was watching what I ate or conscious about being on a health kick.
The retreat was designed to give guests a taste of everything JW Marco Island had to offer, including a private dinner at ARIO Italian fine-dining restaurant, a star-lit beach dinner, and an intimate spice market brunch in the luxe Bali Presidential Suite. Meals were generally high-protein, high-fat, low-carb, but most were served family style allowing guests to choose the diet that best suited them, and there was always a huge selection of fresh vegetables and protein types.
Probably one of the most unusual elements of this retreat was the inclusion of alcohol. The retreat included three cocktail receptions, which as Tobin explained, were included because we all—or most of—have situations in life where we drink, whether its a work dinner or a social with friends. The cocktail recipes were designed to be low-calorie or incorporate superfoods such as chilli or herbs to stimulate the metabolism—chilli and basil margaritas, sugar-free blueberry mojitos, or lighter coconut milk pina coladas.
Dinner also included wine pairings, which where possible were organic or very dry (low sugar) wines. As part of the lifestyle retreat, this worked—it was useful to have it demonstrated how to have a healthier relationship with alcohol, and ways to make social drinking a little lighter and easier so it doesn’t impact our wellness routines.
4-Day Retreat Programme Review
The 4-day retreat is a mix of high-intensity cardio sessions, spa treatments, water activities, wellness workshops, private lifestyle consultations and dining experiences approved by Nora. What sets the Kale, Cardio and Cocktails programme apart is that it doesn’t try to cut out the things in your life that many people enjoy or struggle to avoid in social settings—for example, alcohol, or eating out—but looks at optimising your lifestyle to minimise the impact of these things on your body.
There were daily fitness activities, including a welcome yoga session, morning beach walk, and HIIT fitness class, as well as activities designed for mindfulness like yoga nidra: 20 minutes of this deep meditative practice makes up for three hours of sleep, making it perfect for busy or burnt-out people.
The two spa treatments included one custom massage, and one five senses massage, a treatment specially designed by JW Marco Island’s Spa Director Paul Nunez and his team which used aromatherapy, a body scrub, and gentle reggae music combined with a deep tissue and hot stone massage for a totally unique experience. The massage ended with a gift: a mojito flavoured ice pop and a hot aromatherapy travel pillow to take away.
08:00 Morning HIIT
09:00 Nutrition Workshop and Smoothie Demonstration
10:00 Yoga Flow
12:30 Family Style Lunch
13:30 Spa Treatments/Lifestyle Consultations/Free Time
18:30 Restorative Breathing
19:30 Cocktails and Beach Side Dinner
The retreat focussed on cardio and exercise in the mornings, while afternoons were for relaxing in the spa or enjoying the various resort amenities. Unlike a lot of wellness retreats, the programme didn’t begin too early, and the free time in the afternoon offered enough flexibility for guests to still have time to relax, recover or reflect.
One of the standout activities was the Everglades Jet Ski tour. Split into two groups, we were led by a jetski expert from the JW Marco Island water sports team on an open water jet ski tour around the neighbouring 10,000 Islands National Park area, spotting dolphins and manatees in the wild. We were lucky enough to see several pods of dolphins, and even without the chance wildlife encounters it was a brilliant, unique way to see the Everglades National Park.
Expect to feel refreshed, and with a lot of great, practical ideas about how to improve and tweak your wellness habits. The toolkit Tobin provided and the recommendations she made in our one-to-one consultation were easy to implement and have made a lasting impression. It wasn’t the most intense fitness programme, but I did leave feeling leaner, stronger and pampered from all the spa sessions, with a better idea of how to incorporate meaningful exercise into every day.
This retreat is ideal for anyone looking to optimise their lifestyle and finetune their wellness habits, without making huge lifestyle overhauls: one of the retreat guests left with the takeaway that they would include a 20-minute walk into their routine for both fitness and the destressing benefits, while about half the group agreed the 8-hour eating window suited them and would continue to use it outside the retreat. If you’re looking to detox or lose weight fast though, this isn’t the retreat for you—this is a slow-burn retreat which is about sustainable changes.
The Kale, Cardios & Cocktails programme is an important reminder that wellness doesn’t always mean lifestyle revolution, but that small, simple changes can make a much more lasting impression on our physical and mental health.
The attention to detail. Nora Tobin (pictured above) was our retreat host for the weekend and was there for every minute of it, always ready to answer questions, amend the schedule to suit the group, and got to know each of us personally. The small group size (we were a group of eight, but the max is 15) made the retreat feel intimate, even in a large resort, through the personal quality of the programme, and use of special spaces around the resort throughout the retreat. The gift box, which included Nora Tobin’s book specially made for the JW Marriott retreats and contains all of the recipes and workouts we experienced over the weekend, was a great takeaway to have for guests looking to implement the lifestyle changes suggested.
Top insider tip
The standard rooms are perfect for solo travellers or couples, but make sure that you ask for one that’s south facing to make the most of the beautiful Florida sunshine. To elevate your experience at JW Marco Island though, book yourself into a Corner Sunset Suite—the wrap-around balcony is worth it for the uninterrupted beach views.
For more information about booking JW Marriot Marco Island, visit jwmarco.com.
Learn more about Nora Tobin’s retreat programmes here: noratobin.com.