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Holistic Health Groups Take to the Sea

by Marilyn Green in Cruise Trade, June 2006

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Click here to read the original article in Cruise Trade, June 2006.

Sandy Pukel, president of Holistic Holiday at Sea in Coral Gables, FL, has created a spectacularly successful model for holistic health groups on cruises, and he wants more agents to be involved.

Although he studied law, Pukel speedily discovered his true mission: educating people about the healing qualities of food, supported by alternative medicine, often presented by conventional medical doctors.

Pukel recently brought 635 people to Costa Cruises Lines’ Costa Magica for seminars, cooking demonstrations and experiential sessions. It is his third cruise with Costa. The first, three years ago, brought together 420 people; the second, 520; and he expects more than 800 next year, all in addition to the land-based seminars he offers. He’s now looking at additional cruises for 2007.

“With the hotels, we try to use a resort in the mountains or something along those lines, but most hotels simply aren’t big enough to accommodate us,” he said. “There are real advantages to a cruise ship, where everyone is kept together and there is tremendous support for the overall experience.”

Pukel had a difficult time initially getting a cruise line to accommodate his needs. “It is essential that we bring our own chefs and food on board,” he recalled, “and the cruise lines laughed at us. I think they felt we could maybe bring in 50 or 100 people.”

He turned to Costa, which was prepared to meet his needs, but to their own standards of perfection.

In addition to ordering from Costa’s regular menu, Pukel offers participants really outstanding vegetarian meals, using ingredients such as organic grains, miso, beans and apple juice. Produce is sometimes organic, sometimes not.

“I was planning to keep it simple in our own dining room,” he said, “but after I met with Hans Hesselberg, Costa’s vice president of hotel operations, I had to do a better job. He was insistent that we had to do it Costa’s way, which meant we must have a soup, an entrée, a side dish and dessert for both lunch and dinner.”

Within the private dining room, people change their seating from day to day, meeting a maximum number of co-participants. There is also a singles table, and Pukel said people who met there have returned as married couples. Natural food vendors donate food or give hefty discounts to the group, since the educational work they do is so valuable, and the dishes are tempting and varied.

A similar richness characterizes the onboard offerings, which include a choice of three simultaneous classes from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., with a few interruptions for meals, parties and disco get-togethers. “Our biggest complaint has been that there is too much going on,” Pukel said. “People have to miss things they’d like to attend.”

Among the offerings are sessions with high recognition names: Deepak Chopra on Ayurveda and Neal Bernard, president of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and author of a number of books explaining the crucial role of food in health. The sessions address everything from back pain to diabetes and cancer; classes include yoga, Pilates, stretch and running, as well as reflexology, shiatsu and health tips.

Besides the various parties, the group has its own talent show, with the organizers finding to their astonishment that some guests were extremely serious about it. “We have some who have performed at Carnegie Hall, people who brought their own instruments — it’s amazing,” Pukel stated.

One of the most moving aspects of each cruise is the recovery panel, made up of people who are beating serious health problems.

“It’s so inspiring, a real tearjerker,” Pukel said.

He sees a pent up desire for this kind of cruise experience. “Unfortunately, many health-conscious people still perceive a cruise as an experience involving sugar, fat-laden food and unhealthy diets,” he stated. “We give them an assurance that allows the demand to take form.”

He added that many upscale guests choose this sort of experience. “We have a lot of suites and veranda staterooms with this group,” he said.

His next cruise is scheduled March 4-11, 2007 on the Costa Magica roundtrip from Ft. Lauderdale, calling in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, St. Thomas and the new cruise center at Turks and Caicos.

“We’ve topped out the Magica’s smaller dining room, which can only accommodate 650,” he added. “Next year we’re going for the 1,100-guest one.”

The programs offer both continuing education unit credits and now continuing medical education credits, allowing participants to take advantage of tax breaks. Pukel would like to work with more agents, who are offered a 10% commission for bookings.

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