Nature and nurture: Hill Country wellness retreat offers a salve for the soul

April, 2021

On a chilly Friday in January, I tossed some old blue jeans and exercise clothes into a duffle bag and headed to Marble Falls for a wellness weekend at The Retreat at Balcones Springs, which doubles as a summer camp for kids.

I needed a last-minute trip to another world, where a healthy dose of fresh air, nature and conversation could unmask my silence.

My grip loosened on the steering wheel and construction cranes disappeared from view, replaced by Lake Travis and green-hooded canyons along Ranch Road 1431. In Lago Vista, the highway collapses into winding two-lane roads, passing game fences and hand-painted signs pointing toward vineyards. After a little over an hour’s drive, I reached a cedar gate at the camp where buffalo once grazed, Indians battled and pioneers settled in the early 1800s.

The two-day wellness retreat promised a loose agenda of home-cooked organic meals, horseback riding, guided walks, yoga, crafts and pickle-making classes. What I took home from the weekend was something totally different—and unexpected.

As a writer, my world is confined to an office surrounded by books, scattered reading glasses and computer screens. During the pandemic, I spent way too much time alone, instinctively veering away from shoppers in grocery aisles and on walking trails. Unmasked conversations were rare, and my sense of humor seemed lost. I needed to get away.

The weekend of my visit, 15 guests were assigned to private yellow-pine cabins, each named for a Texas hero. I bunked up in the Goodnight with my dog, a disabled corgi named Rocket, who happily rolled around the camp in a muddy wheelchair, dodging a playful pack of retrievers who live at the camp.

Guests drove in from Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. We arrived with different stories, scorched by the pandemic. Some were Zoom-fatigued graduate students in their 20s, others were exhausted working mothers home-schooling young children and a few were lonesome empty nesters craving a soulful connection with people and the land.

Opening Back Up

As a child, my favorite book was the One-Word Boy, a gift from my grandmother in 1969, urging me to talk. As an adult, I had no problem with conversation, until Covid caught my tongue.

A brisk, two-mile trek around the property cleared my mind.

Kristen Kristynik, an Austin mom of three girl campers, yoga instructor and health coach experienced the same release, explaining that the weekend rebooted her spirit, allowing her to unwind, laugh, and enjoy the outdoors in the company of funny, intriguing women.

“The camp is a place to plant down and connect with people and nature, and it happens instantly,” says Liz Gotten Howard, an Austin mother of three boys who has attended several wellness and family weekends. “It is a place where the world explodes into technicolor; you feel the wind and the sun on your face; notice the wide-open blue sky, and breath in the fresh air. Without phones, you can look people in the eye without distraction, and listen to their words.”

That evening, we dined at a mile-long wooden table beside a window overlooking trees threaded with lights. Conversation was the main course, along with salmon glazed with cilantro, local wine, and mixed-green lettuces grown on property.

No patina polished the grit of the stories told around the table. We’d all experienced a complicated, painful year. Instead of talking about the pandemic, we laughed off daily struggles that suddenly seemed funny—the baggy sweatpants, straggly grey hair, belly pooches and failed gardens eaten by squirrels. Then we reached deeper, sharing the stories that defined us long before quarantine—babies we lost, heartbreaks that still sting and failures that gave us strength.

For the first time in months, I slept fitfully, waking to sounds of cattle communing in a pasture near the lake. At daybreak, I walked barefoot through wet grass to an outdoor coffee station, and spotted a red fox peering from beneath a mountain laurel. Sitting back in an Adirondack chair, I listened to birds singing, and tree branches rustling while the sun cast an orange glow on the canyons.

The camp boards 22 horses managed by a couple of wranglers who live onsite with a rescued pack of dogs. As a child I was bitten by a horse, triggering a lifelong fear of them. That day, I happily saddled up an old Mustang named Belle for a trail ride, winding down switchbacks through high-grassed fields toward the shores of the small lake. In the afternoon, we canned homemade pickles in mason jars on the porch beside a smoldering fire. In the outdoor breeze, the cucumbers, beets, and coriander looked more colorful and smelled a bit sweeter.

Because of the property’s manageable 250-acre size––and the abundance of covered outdoor spaces––owner Christine Baskin says the camp and retreat have operated continuously throughout the pandemic. Staff are also trained to enforce social distancing protocol, making it easy for guests to relax in a safe setting.

“Women arrive with laptops and cellphones,” said Baskin, as she walked briskly toward the fitness center to join a yoga session. “Within an hour, the electronic devices disappear as guests relax in rocking chairs and hammocks, ready to engage.”

Rolling over the cattle guard on Sunday, I left the camp, feeling energized instead of exhausted. As I drove home, twisting around canyon bends toward Austin, I opened the sunroof, cranked James Taylor, and laughed.

If You Go

Getting there:

The Retreat at Balcones Springs (104 Balcones Springs Drive) is located approximately 50 minutes northwest of Austin, between Lago Vista and Marble Falls.

Stay:

Log-cabin tranquility meets the boutique hotel experience in rustic-chic cabins decorated with gallery art from U.S.- and Mexico-based artists and a dash of southwestern flare.

Do:

The Retreat’s 250-acre property features 25 miles of hiking and biking trails, professional tennis and pickleball courts, a state-of-the-art gym and yoga deck, and a private, spring-fed lake for canoeing, kayaking, and fishing. Nearby Hill Country gems like Marble Falls, Oatmeal and Johnson City stage frequent festivals for those wishing to explore off-site.

Eat and drink:

A stay at the retreat includes all meals. The kitchen can accommodate all dietary preferences and restrictions. Locally sourced food and nutritional expertise combine to provide a new take on traditional southwestern fare. In the evening, take in picturesque Texas sunsets while enjoying
all-inclusive cocktails or non-alcoholic drinks.

Insider tip:

Remember to ask about The Retreat’s signature activities—like the famous zipline and guided horseback trail rides through the Lake Travis wilderness—when booking. 

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