Buffed and Polished

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

travel picture

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.

If the Golden Door and Rancho La Puerta are, respectively, the Rolls-Royce and the Hummer of the spa world, then Canyon Ranch in Tucson and its sister spa in the Berkshires are the sleek and polished Jaguars. In 1978 Mel Zuckerman, who was then an overweight, overwrought real-estate developer, spent four weeks at a California health spa, where he lost twenty-nine pounds and had what he calls a "transformative experience." Zuckerman saw "how empowered people were to be healthy," and this spurred him to set out with his wife, Enid, to realize their version of the spa dream.

Eighteen months later they opened Canyon Ranch in Tucson, which today is a shimmering seventy-acre spread--a community of good will, plenitude, and energy. There are nine gyms, eight tennis courts, assorted volleyball, racquetball, squash, and basketball courts, and four swimming pools, including one with a state-of-the-art underwater treadmill. A sun-never-sets tone drives the day: five different morning walks depart at 7:00 A.M., and thereafter guests may choose among forty exercise classes, guided hikes and bike rides in the Santa Catalina foothills, and evening programs from hobby classes to lectures to astrology sessions.

I spent a breathless day or two trying to do everything--a mistake made by many neophyte spa-goers--before I slowed down and made choices. I browsed the fifty-three-page guide to services, therapies, and treatments (including those offered at the impressive full-scale medical facility that sets Canyon Ranch apart from every other spa I know of). In Tucson or in the Berkshires I tried acupuncture, reflexology, biofeedback, a seaweed treatment, and a posture alignment, and I had a bone-density evaluation. Having approached some of these a bit skeptically, I was consistently impressed with the staff's professionalism and the first-rate service it provided. The whole experience was also a lot of fun.

Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires , the Zuckermans' second spa, which opened in 1989, was built around a restored turn-of-the-century thirty-five-room mansion in Lenox, Massachusetts--a town once considered the Newport of the hills for East Coast millionaires. This Canyon Ranch has adapted to the East Coast nicely as a more sedate, New England version of the original, with an elegant country-French formal dining room and a firelit high-ceilinged library. And it makes the most of the seasonal offerings of its neighborhood, sending guests to Tanglewood on summer evenings or cross-country or downhill skiing in the winter.

I LEARNED some valuable lessons from my spa stays. Most important, spa-goers must know what they're after. People generally go to health spas for some combination of these three reasons: to get in shape, to be pampered, to deal with a problem such as stress or overweight or grief. Since spas have different strengths and emphases, you'll feel happy or dissatisfied with your stay according to whether you choose a spa well suited to your needs. The publication The Spa Finder, produced by the country's largest spa-specialty travel company, Spa-Finders (call 800-255-7727 or, in New York, 212-924-6800 to order a $5.95 catalogue), or a good guidebook such as Fodor's helps you search by categorizing spas according to specialty, such as luxury pampering, preventive medicine, sports conditioning, nutrition and diet, or spiritual awareness. Once you're in the right field, you can shorten your list according to location, cost, size, and so on. You can also try reading between the lines to get a sense of atmosphere, although I've found that to be a lesser substitute for talking to friends or acquaintances who know a spa firsthand.

Other things to bear in mind:

Do you want a stay of just a few days, or can you spare a week? This choice matters particularly because some spas have prescribed schedules, whereas others let you create your own. It seemed to me that one key to the harmony of the Golden Door and Rancho La Puerta is that all the guests arrive together and depart together, and they can be paced through a full week--unwinding and mellowing--in unison.

At the Golden Door, I felt the world slipping away day by day. On Monday, I was my usual hyperorganized self, trotting from class to class toting schedule and gym bag. By Wednesday, very relaxed, I could barely keep track of my locker key. On Thursday it seemed a wholly appropriate question when, at the conclusion of a silk-mitted total-body scrub, the young attendant, who was holding up a fluffy, warmed towel, asked, "Shall I dry you?"

The sense of harmony is diminished when guests check in daily, bringing their fresh tensions from the outside world. And it is nonexistent at spas within large hotels, where your fellow guests may be conventioneers whooping it up at night after long days in meetings. They won't be in the same frame of mind as you are.

Since spa vacations aren't cheap, look closely at the packages and plans offered by spas that interest you. The Golden Door (800-424-0777) charges a hefty fee: $4,375 for the week, or $3,875 in summer. But this covers everything: daily massages, wraps in herb-soaked linens, body scrubs, facials, and more, which could raise your cost well above this fee if you were ordering a la carte elsewhere. In addition you're buying the pleasure of avoiding decisions and forgetting about money (do Iwant to spend another $55 today for another massage?). At Rancho La Puerta (800-443-7565) fees range from $1,485 to $2,330 for the week, with beauty treatments and massages extra.

The Canyon Ranches (800-726-9900 for information on both) offer many options. In Tucson, for example, there are packages ranging from a four-night off-season stay (about $1,300, plus an 18 percent service charge) to a ten-night high-season stay in luxury accommodations ($5,740, plus service). Each package includes a number of services, and more may be added--for example, an herbal wrap, the exotic Parisian body scrub, a complete physical, or even a night of sleep-apnea monitoring.

Spas have personalities, just as regions and neighborhoods do. Staff members at Canyon Ranch say that guests who have been to both their campuses tend to like one style or the other. For me, relaxation and renewal mean the hot climates of the dry Southwest or the humid tropics. Others prefer tall oaks to tumbleweed, and live by the change of seasons.

Similarly, the setting of the spa matters. Rancho La Puerta is so far from civilization that you are likely to be able to watch a meteor shower against the black sky from your terrace at 3:00 A.M., as I did. But, to be fair, if you enjoy this side of the spa's rusticity, you shouldn't object when the soap won't lather or your feet are cold on the tile floors.

At Canyon Ranch in Tucson you'll see the light of the city's suburban sprawl, but you can also plug into the pulse of the nation with TVs, radios, and newspapers, and stock your room fridge with beer from a nearby shopping mall. The accommodations are luxurious; the cottage I stayed in was more comfortably equipped and appointed than the house where my entire family of four lived for a year in Yokohama.

Your fellow spa-goers will also affect your experience. Here those worried comments your children may have made should resonate with you: "Who will share my cabin at summer camp?" "Do you think I'll like my college roommate?" Of course, you don't need to share your accommodations, but you will share a spa experience with the other guests more intimately than you would share most other vacations. Mealtimes tend to be social occasions; people get to know one another during hikes and walks; faces become familiar at exercise classes. You may not be able to do anything about it, but be prepared for it.

The Golden Door meets the gender gap among spa patrons head on: thirty-nine weeks of the year are for women only, five are for men, and the rest are co-ed. I didn't do a head count at Rancho La Puerta, but women predominated, and the men looked like they were having a great time. At Canyon Ranch in Tucson there were lots of couples. In the Berkshires it was a strongly feminine week. The few men in attendance seemed to be just following their wives around. Whether the balance of the sexes matters to you is worth thinking about.

Now, here's a lesson that spas try to teach: find something to "take home with you." They don't mean a T-shirt or a recipe for salsa. I've been surprised that many months later, long after the mellow vacation feelings have dissipated, I can recall something about my spa stays--the way the light looked behind a mountain, or how I felt doing tai chi--that will bring back a moment of magic I found.

The Atlantic Monthly; July 1996; Buffed and Polished; Volume 278, No. 1; pages 36-41.