Cigar Aficionado

Super Spas

Resort spas offer luxury, pampering and realistic fitness approaches

 The wake-up call came at 6:30, but it should have come months earlier. A harried schedule of deadlines and travel and the overindulgence that go with it were beginning to show. My fitness routine, which once had bordered on fanatical, was comical, and while it was easy to lie to myself, the bathroom scale refused to be an accomplice. This was the sorry state of affairs that had brought me to Utah--way too early in the morning.  

"A lot of people go on a vacation to escape from the problems in their lives. People come here to solve their problems," explained Alan Coombs, founder and owner of the Green Valley Spa, into whose able hands I had placed myself.  

Green Valley is one of about two dozen destination spas in North America specializing in life enhancement, with a focus on fitness, nutrition and other aspects of well being. Spas accommodate just about anyone and any level of change he seeks, from dramatic weight loss to the fine tuning of an exercise program, from stress reduction to becoming a healthier cook. Offering atmospheres of boot camps, decadent luxury, boot-camp-like atmospheres and everything in between, spa vacations are exploding in popularity.  

"Traditionally, hotel spas were pampering palaces where rich men could send their wives while they did something else," according to Coombs. Today, such facilities, usually attached to resort hotels, are known as amenity spas--another activity, like golf, to be enjoyed at multifaceted vacation destinations. While many amenity spas now include more health and fitness programs, they are still best known for pampering. Destination spas, such as Green Valley, Canyon Ranch and the Golden Door, are where guests go to learn, be motivated, decompress or begin changing their lifestyles.  

"There has been a trend sweeping the spa industry. It's gone from pampering to fitness and prevention," said Bernard Burt, a frequent contributor to Spa magazine and the author of Fodor's Healthy Escapes, the definitive guide to North American spas and fitness resorts. "Spas are being repositioned for the next decade as centers for education and learning to enhance lifestyle. Since I first surveyed the marketplace 12 years ago, the movement to incorporate fitness and healthy eating into our regular lifestyle has become global. The days of quick weight loss and rabbit food are behind us. Even the European spas are moving away from their traditional water-based treatments and towards the American health and fitness lifestyle model."  

"People complain that they don't have the willpower," says Jack LaLanne, the former Mr. America, television star, athlete and author known as the Father of Fitness. "Most Americans, if they don't see results immediately--I mean they want results yesterday--they quit." This is where spas can come in. A weeklong visit to a spa cannot take the place of a healthy diet or regular exercise, or turn an out-of-shape guest into an Olympic athlete. It can, however, produce quantifiable results that will show up in the mirror and be the perfect start for a lifestyle change. These spas are most beneficial to those who have little knowledge or interest in fitness and nutrition.  

"A lot of people turn 50," says Burt, "and your doctor threatens to put you on medication if you don't lose some weight. Where are you going to go? There are no schools for that."  

Actually, spas are the perfect classroom for the situation he describes, whether it is age, bad habits or years of desk-bound stress catching up. Under one roof, you have the opportunity to get answers to questions covering a comprehensive array of lifestyle issues. Personal trainers demonstrate exercises and equipment and help develop a sensible and realistic fitness program. An array of fitness activities start you on the road to getting in shape and make it much more likely that you will continue the regimen at home. A week of healthy eating, along with classes in cooking, nutrition and related topics, can demonstrate that it is possible to survive, and even enjoy, healthy dining. Some spas also offer experts during certain weeks for those with special needs stemming from such problems as cardiac distress, asthma or movement limitations.  

A week at a fitness spa is a sure way to jump-start a New Year's resolution, justify that treadmill purchase or ease back into a golf or tennis routine. It is also great for seasonal athletes coming off a long inactive winter but planning a summer of sports and activities. You can lose a couple of pounds and make concrete advances in aerobic fitness and endurance. Most important, the spa atmosphere provides the motivation to get going. Exercise may never be easy, but after a spa vacation, it will not be torture.  

Green Valley is a typical fitness-oriented spa. Most guests come for a week, although shorter stays are possible. Hiking is the mainstay of the regimen, like at many other spas, and the setting in the beautiful Utah desert assures good weather year-round. An orientation and hand massage are provided to arriving guests, along with a tour and explanation of the various activities. A weekly schedule lists exercise classes, lectures and optional activities. Each day begins with a hike, and guests can usually choose between three levels of difficulty, ranging from a casual stroll to 12-mile forced marches at an aggressive pace.  

Hourly classes include mainstays like step aerobics and yoga, as well as newer creations such as aerobic boxing, circuit training and spinning (an updated routine for the exercise bicycle). Guests may take as many classes as they want, and while the hiking is enough for many visitors, some adventurous souls work out from dawn to dusk. Optional activities include guided rock climbing and biking trips, an excursion to Zion National Park, and evening lectures on topics ranging from native American spirituality to self defense. Like many spas, Green Valley also offers packages with an emphasis on golf and tennis.  

Food is an important part of the spa experience. Green Valley offers three low-fat meals daily, aiming at a total of about 1,300 calories, with no added salt or sugar. Guests with no interest in weight control are free to order seconds, or even thirds, snack throughout the day, and help themselves to leftovers from the kitchen refrigerator. Despite its cost, $3,000 and up for a week, the spa has an extremely casual atmosphere, and guests dine at communal tables in their sweatshirts or in the terry-cloth outfits provided by the spa. While the schedule is highly structured, guests adhere to it as they please, and can sleep each day away if it suits them.  

Almost every destination spa, even the most fitness-based ones like Green Valley and Canyon Ranch, offers elaborate treatment facilities for more traditional spa services, such as manicures, pedicures, facials, other skin treatments and a variety of massages. Packages generally include a set number of treatments in the price, often one daily, and guests, especially men, who have never indulged before are often surprised at the therapeutic value of a post-workout massage.  

My average day began with a long hike early in the morning, returning just in time for lunch. Hiking was the highlight of my visit, as it was with most guests. While I am an avid hiker, many were experiencing this kind of hike for the first time, and the beauty of the jagged canyons surrounding the spa, filled with saguaro cacti and ancient petroglyphs, blew them away. An abundance of state and national parks, as well as abutting private lands, ensure that no terrain is repeated in the course of the week.

Stopping for a snack of fresh fruit and nonfat cheese atop a huge rock outcropping, our group of a half-dozen hikers shared an admiration for the rugged surroundings, and cameras clicked away. Each hike had two radio-carrying guides, a leader and one bringing up the rear, and the groups could split up according to their pace if necessary, without losing anyone. As the week progressed, people upgraded from intermediate to advanced hikes, and upon completing the challenging jaunts, the satisfaction was openly expressed on their faces.  

After lunch, I surveyed the list of afternoon classes, held on the hour, trying to select two out of the four time slots before my pre-dinner massage. I tried a circuit training workout, which involved short, intense bursts of energy, like jumping rope or running in place, alternated with sets on the strength training equipment. Like many other guests, I killed time between this and my next class in one of the hot tubs available throughout the spa. Dragging myself reluctantly from the hot tub, I took a shot at cardio boxing, which quickly became the favorite class among male visitors.

Despite the fact that Shawna, our instructor, had led an advanced hike that morning and taught four consecutive classes, she proceeded to run us ragged, baiting me with comments like "Come on Larry, show me something." After boxing, I enlisted my wife's assistance to sign up for the next morning's hike, since I was unable to hold a pen steadily enough to write my own name.  

Massages and other treatments can be scheduled throughout the day, but I found prime time to be at 5 p.m. after a long day of exercise and before dinner. Dinner was full of excited conversation about the activities everyone had tried that day, and we compared notes, trying to sell one another on our favorite classes or instructors. By the end of the week, I had isolated boxing and spinning as my two favorite, and the cruelest, workouts. Despite our enthusiasm, we were generally in bed by 9:30. Early next morning, the wake-up call would start the cycle over again. The week flew by, and as promised, I departed relaxed yet invigorated, seven pounds lighter, and ready to conquer the world. I also craved a bloody steak and a glass of wine, neither of which can be found at Green Valley. Alcohol is generally verboten at spas, and some shy away from coffee as well, although you can bring your own instant.  

While spas were once the exclusive domain of women, men are visiting in skyrocketing numbers, and entire families are becoming common sights. Some famous spas remain open only to women, such as the Greenhouse in Texas and the Golden Door (which offers a handful of men's weeks each year). But at many spas, men are nearly as common as women, and Canyon Ranch, with locations in Tucson, Arizona, and Lenox, Massachusetts, claims that about 40 percent of its customers are male.  

"I've really seen the numbers of men going up, and surprisingly, we're seeing a lot more younger men," says Christine Kent, president of Destination Spa Group, a New York City­based company that specializes in matching guests with appropriate spas. Kent had advised me to try Green Valley, and for male spa goers, she also recommends Canyon Ranch, New Life and Lake Austin. Many are starting to target men directly; Canyon Ranch, for instance, offers a men's program at both its locations, with classes aimed at male visitors as well as activities like pickup basketball games.  

Chris Innvar, an actor who has appeared on Broadway and television, discovered spas a few years ago when a friend's suggestion led him to La Source, a relaxation-oriented spa in Grenada. Innvar, like many other spa goers, male or female, became a repeat customer when he journeyed to Green Valley. "The reasons I've gone to the spas is because they're convenient and everything is done for you. I called Spa Finders [another consultation service] and told them I had this one-week window between shows. I really wanted to go to boot camp and get my ass kicked, since I'm in pretty good shape. I wanted someplace beautiful that would still be a challenge. Green Valley came highly recommended and did not disappoint. It also opened my eyes to other things I'd like to do, like rock climbing."  

"These are what I call real spas, unlike going to a resort hotel with a spa program," says Kent. "People who go are going strictly for the spa experience, to get healthy or to relax in a healthy way, with healthy food, exercise or stress relief. It all depends on their goal. We ask simple questions to try to find out what their focus is, then we give them the toll-free numbers for the spas we think are right for them. Do they want to just work out, do they work out now, is there a geographic preference, do they want to lose weight? In a loose sense, they are all similar, offering the same types of activities. But they are also much different. I just got back from Birdwing, in Litchfield, Minnesota, which is located on a bird sanctuary, and it is a real retreat experience, one of the most relaxing places I've ever seen."  

On paper, Canyon Ranch and Green Valley are very similar, with morning hikes, daily fitness classes, spa treatments and three meals daily. In person, they offer much different experiences, and guests who adore one might be disappointed with the other. Since Canyon Ranch is much bigger, a wider array of classes are available, often with seven gyms being used simultaneously. Canyon Ranch also offers more specialty options, such as in-depth medical testing, including cardiac stress tests and advanced cholesterol screening. These advantages also create a more impersonal atmosphere. The facility has more of a resort hotel ambience, and the dining room resembles a restaurant, with guests seated individually and ordering from menus.  

Green Valley usually has just two classes at a time, puts less emphasis on medical offerings, and has more of a small-inn group dynamic. The experience is more casual and intimate, with very small class sizes, more one-on-one interaction with staff and instructors and friendships formed among guests.  

Because amenities and atmosphere can vary widely, guests considering a spa vacation should do their homework, determining what activities are important to them, whether they prefer mingling or privacy, and what value they place on personal attention.  

In his book, Bernard Burt divides the specialties of spas into categories, including life enhancement, holistic health, kid fitness, luxury pampering, nutrition and diet, preventive medicine, stress management, weight control, vibrant maturity, and sports conditioning, among others. While one facility might stress meditation and alternative medicine, another might feature old-fashioned iron pumping. Most spas include more than one specialty, and at many, guests with different goals can have vastly different experiences. Some visitors spend their entire day working out, while others, who are escaping from stress, enjoy several spa treatments each day and never tackle any class more demanding than yoga.  

Hiking is integral to many spas because the vast majority of guests are able to hike at some level of exertion, and it is an activity that can be done for longer periods than more highly intensive, aerobic exercises. Mainstream fitness spas such as Green Valley, Canyon Ranch and the Golden Door make hikes the starting point for the day, and augment them with classes, while other spas feature mainly hiking. Jimmy LeSage's New Life Hiking Spa in Killington, Vermont, is one of these, and gets a lot of repeat visitors by using a low-key approach to spa fitness.  

According to LeSage, "In the old days, most people really came for quick weight loss, but now there are a lot more people looking for stress relief and fitness. We are seeing more men, and one of the fastest growing trends now is small groups. We're a bit unique, because we use an existing hotel, the Inn of the Six Mountains, for rooms, maid service and the like, but I have my own kitchen, our own dining room and our own hospitality lounge. These facilities are only for our groups, which are limited in size to 15 to 25."  

One of the smallest spa programs of its type, New Life nonetheless enjoys a great reputation and, after more than 20 years, still offers one of the best values in the spa industry, with five-day packages at just $999. "We make the fitness program comfortable for everyone, and we usually do one hike a day [for three different levels]," says LeSage. "We have an aqua-pool class, body conditioning and yoga. We include massages and facials, and in the evenings we have educational classes and cooking demos. This creates an atmosphere of camaraderie."  

Another hiking-oriented spa is the Skylonda retreat outside San Francisco. This rustic lodge hosts only 30 guests a week and sits in the middle of an elaborate trail system that allows hikers to explore a maze of beautiful redwood forests. Although small, Skylonda is extremely popular. As at many of the best fitness spas, reservations need to be made well in advance.   "Most people who go to spas go back," says Spa Reservations's Kent. "Some people go to the same one, often several times a year, while others try out all different ones." Many of the other guests during my stay had been to other spas, some were repeats at Green Valley, and one woman was in the habit of taking a spa vacation on short notice whenever her husband went on an overseas business trip. She rattled off her visits to places like the Golden Door, Rancho La Puerta and Canyon Ranch the way I would list golf courses I've played.  

Two developments loom in the future of spa vacations. The Golden Door, perhaps the nation's most exclusive spa, was purchased in 1998 by a hospitality and hotel company that plans to replicate the spa at numerous locations throughout the country. The first location that the new owner, Wyndham International, plans to open is at its flagship Boulders property near Phoenix, next March.  

Furthermore, amenity spas are increasingly modeling themselves after destination versions. The best example of this is the Wyndham Peaks Resort and Golden Door Spa in Telluride, Colorado, with its Next Level Spa. While guests of the spa enjoy the same hotel facilities as other guests, they choose between four- or seven-night programs, and one of five "quests": rejuvenation, vigor, tranquility, adventure or change. The quests employ daily schedules that resemble those at the destination spas, mixing exercise, spa treatments, stress relief techniques and educational lectures and demonstrations.

The Next Level program also allows guests to opt for staying in "spa rooms," special hotel rooms that have foot massages, aromatherapy and health items in the minibar. In addition, the programs incorporate the local attractions that draw nonspa guests, including world-class skiing, golf and mountain biking. The restaurants at the Peaks offer a mixture of spa and nonspa cuisine, allowing those on a quest to enjoy a more traditional resort experience but also demanding a higher level of self-control to avoid indulging in decadent desserts and a deep wine list.  

While few offer programs as detailed as those of the Peaks, more and more amenity spas are adding fitness evaluations, training consultations and sports medicine programs to guests. For the most part, these are better suited to people who already pursue an active lifestyle or want to fine-tune their programs. For a new beginning, destination fitness spas remain the best choice.  

Despite their rigorous agendas, spa vacations remain vacations. No one tells you what to do, and ultimately each guest makes the most, or least, of his visit, with the help of expert advice. Guests who delve deeper into the experience will come away with the information, experience and self-confidence to make lasting, positive changes in their lives.  

Larry Olmsted is a freelance writer living in Vermont.    


Seeking word of mouth from people with similar goals is the first step in spa research. A referral service like Destination Spa Group (888-772-4363 or 212-414-1920) can also help you determine the best spa for your needs. A similar service is offered by the Spa Finder Co. (800-255-7727 or An excellent resource is Fodor's Healthy Escapes; an all-new sixth edition was published in January.    

BACK IN SHAPE WITH MARJORIE JAFFE various locations; 212-245-9131 or 800-205-0575 (e-mail at  

Employing a unique moving spa approach, Marjorie Jaffe, owner of New York City's Back in Shape Exercise Studio, hosts six spa weeks a year at locations in the Caribbean, upstate New York and Florida. Jaffe brings her own fitness and nutritional staffs to selected resorts and focuses on giving customers a training methodology they can continue to use after the spa experience. While clients come from all over, New York City­area residents have the benefit of following up their trips to her studio. Prices for domestic spas start at about $1,200 a week. Jaffe also has a spa scheduled for the Le Meridien resort in St. Martin, May 27­ June 3 ($2,200).    

BIRDWING SPA Litchfield, Minnesota; 320-693-6064  

Located on a nature sanctuary teeming with birds, this Midwest spa caters to just 25 guests at a time and features hiking, biking, canoeing and fitness classes in summer and switches over to a cross-country skiing and snowshoeing program in winter. A full-service treatment spa, offering such beauty treatments as body wraps, facials and pedicures, is available as well. Weeklong packages run $1,300 to $1,800 a person.    

CAL-A-VIE Vista, California; 760-945-2055  

Popular with West Coast movie moguls and corporate executives, this exclusive retreat focuses more on relaxation and stress relief than exercise. Twenty-four guests are pampered by an amazingly large staff (80). Weekly rates are about $5,000.    

CANYON RANCH Tucson, Arizona, and Lenox, Massachusetts; 800-742-9000  

The best known of the fitness spas, Canyon Ranch offers a complete experience, with dozens of classes from which to choose daily, medical evaluations, and numerous outside activities. The Arizona location offers similar activities year-round, while the one in the Berkshires has a winter season, with cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and other cold-weather pursuits. Frequent weekend visitors mean more turnover among the groups, which can be quite large. Tucson has a capacity of 240, Lenox 200. Peak-season rates run from about $3,000 to $9,200 for a week.    

THE GOLDEN DOOR Escondido, California; 800-424-0777  

Catering mainly to women, this exclusive spa features a staff-to-guest ratio of four to one and offers treatments outdoors or in your room. A Japanese theme, including architecture and gardens, promotes relaxation, and nearly 400 acres of trails beckon. There are about five men's weeks annually and four coed weeks. New Golden Door locations (opening soon) will be all coed. Prices generally run $5,375 a week.    

GREEN VALLEY SPA St. George, Utah: 800-237-1068  

This full-service yet boutique spa accommodates a maximum of just 65 guests. An informal group atmosphere, Native American themes and furnishings, and a desert setting make it perfect for relaxation or health improvement. An on-site tennis program is available through the Vic Braden Tennis College, and golf packages are offered as well. The typical program costs $3,300 ($2,900 off-peak) a week.    

NEW LIFE HIKING SPA Killington, Vermont; 800-228-4676  

This mountain spa is open from early May to late October. The emphasis is on hiking and the atmosphere is very casual. The spa is within the confines of a regular hotel, and many classes and activities take place under an outdoor tent. New Life has less elaborate facilities than some places, but is one of the best values in destination spas, starting at $999 for a five-night package.    

RANCHO LA PUERTA Tecate, Mexico; 800-443-7565  

Opened more than five decades ago and considered by many the original fitness spa, Rancho La Puerta was the first project of the family that opened the women-only Golden Door. Hiking sessions and 60 other fitness classes, coupled with the Mexican vegetarian menu, create a recipe for health. Rates range from $1,400 to $2,500 a week.    

THE LODGE AT SKYLONDA Woodside, California; 800-851-2222  

Up to 30 guests are housed in a three-story log lodge in the mountains 35 miles south of San Francisco, where hiking, stress relief and a low-fat gourmet diet are the specialties. In a very rustic setting, Skylonda offers five-day programs at a rate of $265 to $525 a night; a two-night mininum stay is required.