Buffed and Polished

Health spas are more numerous and diverse than ever before. Our correspondent learns how to choose wisely.

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THE health-spa industry continues to boom. Two decades ago there were about twenty "destination" spas in the United States--the traditional self-contained, full-service resorts that spa implies. (The word is borrowed from the name of a Belgian resort town.) Now there are twice as many, and this growth has been accompanied by an explosion of both high- and low-end offshoots. There are now more than 350 upscale hotel spas, club spas, and day spas in the country. At fancy resort hotels, in-house spa complexes that offer athletic facilities, exercise classes, and personal services such as massage and facials have become a must: convention bookers and well-to-do family vacationers expect them. At the other end of the spectrum the beauty salon or health club in the local shopping mall is likely to offer a "mini day spa," including facials, massages, and a gourmet lunch. These are countless. And imaginative variations on the destination spa are springing up as well--specialty spas that build the experience around, say, mountain hikes, rafting, or yoga.

Kim Marshall, a spokesperson for the International Spa & Fitness Association, a trade organization, explains that aging, affluent Baby Boomers, who "won't take their own health sitting down," are at the heart of this market. The great majority of today's spa customers are women, some of whom are strictly devoted to their spa ritual. For example, Grace Mirabella, as the editor of Vogue and then of Mirabella, had her annual spa visit written into her contract. The spa industry views men as a tremendous potential market. Ten years ago they made up eight percent of spa customers. Their share has now risen to about 25 percent, and the industry is hopeful that still more men can be persuaded that spas are not "fat farms for the wealthy," as Marshall puts it, but a smart way to keep stress low, muscle tone high, and creative energy on edge.

I've recently spent time, courtesy of the owners, at four premier health spas: the Golden Door, near San Diego; Rancho La Puerta, just across the border in Tecate, Mexico; and the two Canyon Ranch spas, in Tucson, Arizona, and in the Berkshires, in Massachusetts. Besides returning home "buffed and polished," as my family described me, I learned some things that may help you explore the possibility of your own spa vacation.

THERE was a sameness to the patterns of daily life at these health spas, involving hard physical exercise, mental rest, spiritual renewal, and healthful eating. The Golden Door excels at fine-tuning a personal daily plan for each guest. At the initial interview I had indicated that I was interested in tough exercise, and my schedule looked like this: Mornings began at dawn with a brisk hike through secluded hills. Breakfast appeared in my cottage while I showered and changed. By eight o'clock I was at my favorite class, an hour of tai chi. The hard work and play continued throughout the day: hour-long classes of floor aerobics or circuit training or weight workouts or swimming, alternating with luxurious choices from the "beauty menu," such as an aromatherapy face-and-neck treatment and a Moortherapy body treatment (it's mud from Austria).

At the end of each afternoon, after a few minutes in the eucalyptus steam room, I fell onto the table for my deep massage, which was accompanied by New Age music and cooing doves. Any evening energy--and there wasn't much--was spent on a movie or a lecture. The day was capped off with another, brief massage before bed. Entering the Golden Door was as good for my spirit as for my body; I felt like Jane Wyatt entering Shangri-la in the 1937 film Lost Horizon. There was an aura of tranquillity and serenity and isolation from the world's turmoil. With only thirty-nine guests each week, the 120-member staff could anticipate our every need (fresh exercise clothes delivered daily) and indulge our every whim (would you like your massage in the bathhouse, or perhaps in your room, or even outdoors?).

The Golden Door is where practice has made perfect. The site of the practice is its older-sister spa, Rancho La Puerta, in Mexico. "The Ranch" opened in 1940 as a humble cooperative health camp. In the start-up years guests contributed $17.50 a week and their own labor chopping firewood and tending goats, crops, and the camp vineyard in exchange for the opportunity to hike in the mountains and swim in the river, eat healthful vegetarian meals, and--the main draw--listen to daily lectures by the camp's founder, Edmond Szekely. Szekely was a Hungarian scholar and philosopher who preached the value of a simple, caring, healthy life based on principles he had extracted from the study of the Dead Sea colony's ancient Essene sect.

By now, of course, much has changed. Edmond Szekely is dead. Deborah Szekely, who was there in the beginning as his seventeen-year-old child bride, and the couple's children carry on the spirit, but they have moved Rancho La Puerta into the 1990s, in which it is a unique, transcending, offbeat experience. Normally tough customers such as New York literary agents and Washington lawyers use the word "magical" to describe it. The meals remain vegetarian, almost all still straight from the ranch's gardens. The accommodations are comfortable but simple, with handmade signs requesting that you conserve water. A philosophy of the interdependence of mind, body, and spirit sets the tone for many activities: guests commonly rise before dawn to practice yoga by firelight in a gym with a beamed ceiling. At sunset another gym fills for the popular Inner Journey class, in which guests explore private problems or thoughts or just drift along to the rhythms of chants and temple bells.

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Deborah Fallows is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and the author of Dreaming in Chinese.

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