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The Great Escapes: Two Longtime Spa Aficionados Pick Their Five Favorite Winter Retreats
by Jerry Edgerton And Lynn Langway
January 1, 2002
We visited our first spa 20 years ago as an antidote to our restaurant addiction and soon discovered that what we gained at these tranquil retreats--renewed energy, mental focus and strength--could be even more beneficial than the pounds we lost. Since then, we've often turned to spas in times of sorrow or stress--after the death of a parent or, in Lynn's case, to conquer a smoking habit. We've met many others seeking solace, and their ranks seem to be growing; one of our favorite destinations, Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires, has seen bookings rise nearly 25% since Sept. 11.
Spas create the illusion that there's nothing to sweat but the small stuff. Shall I take t'ai chi or yoga? Swedish or shiatsu massage? You can indulge that secret yen to rock climb or tap dance at these adult playgrounds, and after a day devoted to strenuous mountain hikes and gym sessions, you probably won't have trouble sleeping. Because spas usually include all those activities as well as three meals a day for the price of a well-appointed hotel room, they can be relative bargains--especially if you seize on off-season or promotional discounts.
From the dozens of spas we've visited over the years, we've picked five that can tone your psyche as well as your physique this winter. Our favorites combine tasty food--no need to subsist on broth and crudites--with organized hikes and extensive exercise classes. That's what matters most to us. If you want to find a spa to suit different goals, go hunting with the experts at Spa Finder (www.spafinder.com; 800-255-7727), which is also a good source for the latest discounts. We start with two luxurious splurges and move on to three lesser- known buys. Unless otherwise noted, prices are winter rates and include taxes, tips, classes and meals; beauty treatments usually cost extra.
The Caribe Hilton, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 800-468-8585; www.caribehilton.com. Like most Caribbean spas, the Caribe surrounds its healthy pleasures with a full-temptation resort. En route to the gym, you'll have to steel yourself against the siren whir of blenders frothing up pina coladas. Unlike some other resorts, though, it does shore up your willpower with a separate spa dining room.
This dowager resort treated itself to a total makeover in late 2000, building a 12,000-square-foot spa pavilion on its 17 acres of lush gardens, pools and lagoons. Reliably warm, with temperatures between 70[degrees]F and 84[degrees]F in the winter, El Caribe is certifiably romantic and rich in nonfattening diversions, including nearby Old San Juan. A spa package is $966 per person for three nights, double or single occupancy. That includes breakfast--figure another $50 a day for lunch and dinner--and three beauty treatments.
Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires, Lenox, Mass., 800-326-7080; www.canyonranch.com. Canyon Ranch is best known for its original Tucson facility, where winter is high season. But if it's the spa's unparalleled classes, food and amenities you want, not desert heat, you'll find a better deal out East. A two-hour drive from Boston, three from New York City, this Canyon Ranch--housed in a mansion modeled after King Louis XV's Petite Trianon at Versailles--also sets the royal standard among spas, for about a third less than in Arizona. Six hundred staff members pamper a maximum of 240 guests. The 45 daily classes and walks are sure to include the latest exercise moves. You can polish off spinach eggs Benedict with Yukon gold potatoes for breakfast, Cajun chicken with black-eyed pea and potato gumbo for lunch and a veal chop with potato au gratin followed by tiramisu for dinner, and still lose weight. The health and healing workshops are nonpareil--this is where Lynn quit smoking.
You can stay out of the cold--glass-enclosed corridors link all the buildings--or make the most of it by cross-country skiing across the 120-acre estate. A three-night, four-day midweek stay is $1,398 per person, double occupancy, $1,799 single. That price includes two beauty treatments or massages.
Rancho La Puerta, Tecate, Mexico, 800-443-7565; www.rancholapuerta.com. You can drop $5,975 for seven sybaritic days at the fabled Golden Door in Southern California--or head 45 miles south of San Diego to its earthier cousin, which has the same management but costs less than half as much. At this 3,000-acre desert spread nestled at the foot of Mount Kuchumaa, you'll find spectacular gardens, 10 gyms, four tennis courts, three pools and charming rustic cabins (many have fireplaces, but none have TVs) that house up to four guests.
We relished the hearty bean soups and breads, though Adkins or Zone dieters might find the spa's Mexican menu too heavy on complex carbs. The spa's strengths are its 11 daily hikes along sagebrush- scented trails or mountain paths and the more than 70 challenging classes offered every week. Though temperatures usually reach the mid- 60s during the day between January and April, mornings and eveningscan be cool (40s). A one-week stay is required; a Ranchera cabin is $2,235 per person, double occupancy, $2,792 for a single.
Safety Harbor Resort & Spa, Safety Harbor, Fla., 800-458-5409; www.safetyharborspa.com. We liked this restful 22-acre resort on Tampa Bay so much that we returned five times. By the last visit, we'd fallen so in love with the quaint town that we bought a vacation home there. Now, as local members, we take even more advantage of the imaginative low-cal food (try the crabcakes and vegetable quesadillas) and the miles of bayside trails and parks where you can spot herons, roseate spoonbills and, every so often, a manatee seeking winter warmth just like us. (From January to March, temperatures range from 50[degrees]F to 70[degrees]F.)
We also love the outstanding aquatic program, including aerobics and weight training in three pools, and the small, uncrowded classes led by some of the friendliest instructors we've ever met. Safety Harbor is 20 minutes from the Tampa and St. Petersburg-Clearwater airports and about the same distance from white-sand Gulf beaches. A three-night introductory spa package is $816 per person, double occupancy, $1,248 single, and includes a nightly 25-minute massage.
The Palms, Palm Springs, Calif., 800-753-7256; www.palmsspa.com. At about $230 a night for a spacious double, this desert retreat two hours east of Los Angeles ranks as our best buy. Located in a 1930s adobe building on 2.5 acres of well-tended gardens in the center of town, The Palms offers up to 13 classes a day, plus assorted massages and skin treatments. We've found the food tasty if not ultra- sophisticated; if you limit yourself to the recommended 1,000 calories a day, you're sure to lose weight. Before breakfast, you can sweat off your troubles on one of three wake-up walks through the Sonoran desert or the purple Santa Rosa mountains. Sometimes the 5 1/ 2-mile Endurance Walk will be led by the indomitable Sheila Cluff, the ageless founder of this spa and its funky-chic sister resort, The Oaks in Ojai, Calif. Good luck keeping up with her.