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The Best Gift I Gave Myself: Brazilian Boot Camp

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Daily yoga. No coffee. Five-hour hikes. After one week at a Brazilian boot camp, our city girl discovered a strong, calm side of herself that she's tapped into back home.

Island of Intensity

This trip is definitely not my style: Rain pours down in driving sheets, and mud squishes under my feet. The narrow path I'm on is lined with branches that constantly poke at me; I grasp them for leverage while I battle to make it up the steep, slippery slope. When that doesn't work, I grab for the nearest body, which happens to be Julyana, our yoga instructor-slash-trainer who's a dead ringer for Gisele (yes, supermodel Gisele; this is, after all, Brazil). "We don't have to go back this way to get to camp, do we?" I gasp. "Of course," she says, as she guides me to flat ground -- flat for about five feet, until we reach the next hill on the way to our destination -- a waterfall. More water? Not exactly what I need right now. What was I thinking when I signed up for this?

My beauty secret on the trip? Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen -- at least 50 SPF.

I chose to go to The Island Experience (I.E.), an adventure spa on Ilha Grande, an island about two hours south of Rio de Janeiro, for a couple of reasons. The program, consisting of a low-calorie diet (with no sugar, coffee, or alcohol) plus two hours of yoga and roughly five hours of hiking and kayaking a day, could kick-start anyone's healthy lifestyle. I live pretty healthfully as is, watching what I eat and working out four or five days a week, but I was itching to get out of the gym and challenge my body in new ways. I think it was the tagline on the Web site -- "You can change your outlook in one week" -- that sold me on the trip. I'll admit that I'm a pretty wound-up type-A New Yorker. Could one week of boot camp give me the perspective I needed? Could I even handle a day without coffee? I wanted to know. That's how I found myself in a minivan last April with 10 others (including Sharon, a casting agent; Vicki, a lingerie designer; and Mark, a marketing exec), all ready to give up their daily Starbucks for an attitude adjustment.

After a two-hour drive we boarded a boat and sailed for 30 minutes to a cove that can only be described as magical. Impossibly tall palms swayed in the breeze along mountains. An adorable, rustic lodge was built into the side of a steep jungle hillside. It looked like the set of Lost. As we got off the boat we were greeted by the team behind I.E. -- Martin, program director; Adriana, nutritionist; and Daniel, Bob, Fernando, and Gabi, all trainers along with Julyana.

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