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Destination Wellness Spas

Southern California has some of the best destination wellness spas in the world. These luxury boot camps offer programs that will help you laugh at winter in style while you lose weight, learn how to eat right and lower your stress level.

Cal-a-Vie, Vista
The soft amber glow of sunrise is beginning to color the sky as a dozen hikers crest a hill in northwestern San Diego County. Their view encompasses steep slopes terraced with grapes, a long green valley and distant homes and businesses. In the golden light of early morning, the scene is electric. But no one pauses long to savor the beauty. The hikers are in the midst of a 90-minute morning workout; there are hills to climb and trails to descend before they can rest. Even when they stop for breakfast, they probably won’t relax for long. The day stretching ahead offers CrossFit, spin, Zumba, weight training, yoga, stretching and the possibility of 120 other classes before they fall into bed, exhausted.  
But for participants such as Malibu resident Nancy Kaye, the effort is transformative. “This restores me to a healthy balance; when I leave I’ll be back on track, eating and exercising the way I should be.”  

Kaye is a regular at Cal-a-Vie Health Spa, a high-end destination wellness spa in the foothills outside Vista that celebrates its 30th anniversary in January. A regular “World’s Best” winner in polls by Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler magazines, Cal-a-Vie is a grande dame among health spas, offering a Provençal-style retreat that’s anything but spartan.  

The 200-acre resort – more village than hotel – features a 400-year-old French chapel, a 32-foot-tall windmill that looks like it came straight out of Don Quixote and 32 guest cottages in the form of Mediterranean villas, complete with terra-cotta tile roofs, window boxes bursting with flowers, patios overlooking the rolling hills, and antique-filled rooms featuring oversize beds and luxurious linens.   

In addition, the village has a well-stocked gift shop – “We call it retail therapy,” said my guide – an antique shop and large, lavishly decorated public rooms.

The Cal-a-Vie program (the name connotes a blend of the California lifestyle with the European spa tradition) allows guests to do as much or as little as they like, but mornings are generally spent working out, while afternoons allow guests to slow down and do yoga or other stretching exercises. That’s also the perfect time to enjoy the daily spa treatments – massage, facial, reflexology, etc. – offered as part of the program.

“Before lunch, it’s all about exercise,” says spokeswoman Colleen Cosenza. “Afterwards, it’s all about healing.” Or about making some subtle changes that might enhance your appearance. The spa offers teeth whitening, hair color, laser treatments and fillers, in addition to dozens of facial and skin treatments for women and a lineup of treatments for men.  

If a guest’s desire to exercise falters, they can count on someone being available to cheer them on, since the spa has an employee-to-guest ratio of 5 to 1. They can also count on them to make sure the healthy menu being served is gourmet, in addition to being low-calorie.

“It’s very simple,” says Curtis Cooke, the executive chef. “We use quality ingredients and limit sugars and fats.” The celebrity clientele (generally kept hush-hush) includes Oprah Winfrey, who once hired away a Cal-a-Vie chef to be her personal cook.

Cal-a-Vie’s cuisine, combined with its exercise program and stress-free atmosphere, is perfect, says guest Nancy Kaye. “I get a lot out of it. I leave with a sense of peace and the feeling that I’ve been restored. It’s the one thing I do for myself, by myself, at least once a year.”

Details: Three-, four-, and seven-night programs available, starting from $4,150 for three nights to $8,650 for seven nights. Plans include accommodations, three meals a day, spa treatments, unlimited fitness classes, nutritional lectures, cooking demonstrations and complimentary round-trip transportation from the San Diego International Airport.     

Cal-a-Vie, 29402 Spa Havens Way, 866.772.4283 :: cal-a-vie.com

Golden Door, Escondido
If you’re looking for the perfect place to salute the sun and find inner peace, check out the Golden Door, a pioneer in the destination spa industry. Designed to replicate a Japanese village, the spa encourages guests to leave their worries and stress behind when they enter the shiny golden door. Inside they find an emphasis on mind, body and spirit, along with rigorous physical activity and a low-calorie gourmet diet. Despite its venerable age – the Golden Door opened in 1958 – the spa was named the Top Destination Spa in the world for 2015 by Travel & Leisure magazine.

The setting: Tucked into the hills in northwestern San Diego County, the Golden Door offers guests dramatic scenery and landscaping that includes groves of mature trees, waterfalls, Japanese gardens and vegetable gardens. There are more than 600 acres, with mountains to climb and a bamboo forest to explore. Guest rooms are large, but plain, with low Japanese-style beds and decor and a garden or patio deck.

The program: Guests, mostly women, hit the trails each morning at 5:30 for hiking. They also can utilize a 2,000-square-foot gym, two pools and a water therapy pool. Other pluses: group exercise studios, tennis and a hilltop retreat for private fitness sessions. Each guest has an individually planned program and receives a daily in-room massage.
Details: Seven-day programs run throughout the year, with some men’s weeks and co-ed weeks offered. The rate is $8,850 and includes accommodations, meals, activities, workout clothing and robe, plus transportation from San Diego International Airport.

Golden Door, 777 Deer Springs Rd., San Marcos, 888.979.4585 :: goldendoor.com

Rancho La Puerta, Tecate, Baja

Rancho La Puerta isn’t actually in California, but it’s only three miles across the border and is a prime spot for Southern Californians in search of an off-the-grid wellness spa. In fact, Rancho La Puerta is the first true fitness resort and spa in North America, founded in 1940, and is still considered a leader in the fitness revolution. Set on 3,000 acres of gardens, mountains and meadows, the program seeks a mind, body and spirit balance. Participants can choose from three- to seven-day stays, with specialized men’s fitness, adventure and spa programming available. The resort was named Best Destination Spa in 2014 by Conde Nast Traveler.

The setting: Sage and artemisia scent the air, golden eagles and red-tailed hawks soar across the sky, and chaparral covers the rocky land in the broad valley where the spa is located. Mount Kuchumaa, at 3,885 feet, looms above the rancho, presenting a hiking challenge for guests. Accommodations are in individual casitas, which are decorated with Mexican folk art and handmade furniture and have private patios.

The program: While the resort officially considers its program to be a mix of food, nutrition, exercise, relaxation, education and expression, it doesn’t impose anything on guests. “The day’s choices are all yours to make,” says the handbook. Take a morning hike up Mount Kuchumaa or an easy meadow walk, then choose from instructor-led exercise classes. Or spend the day in a hammock reading.

Details: Rates range from $3,250 to $4,650 per person, depending on occupancy, accommodation type and time of year. Included are accommodations, vegetarian meals, activities and special presentations. Spa treatments, personal training sessions and cooking classes are extra.  

Rancho La Puerta, 24024 Humphries Road, Tecate, Baja, 800.443.7565 :: rancholapuerta.com

The Ranch Malibu

A Wall Street Journal reporter once called the luxury boot camp program at The Ranch Malibu “a starvation vacation.” Yes, it’s strict – no caffeine, alcohol, sugar, gluten, processed sugars, artificial sweeteners or meat. But it works, guests say. And they have the stats to prove it: lower cholesterol levels, significant weight loss, toned-up bodies and looser clothing. In addition, they learn to love vegetarian food, especially when it’s prepared the Ranch Malibu-style. Of course, great food isn’t the only plus at this rambling hillside property in the Santa Monica Mountains. The tough-love program doesn’t pull its punches; guests are required to hike four to five hours daily, in addition to participating in other workouts. The spa, which attracts a fair share of A-listers, is an A-lister itself, with top awards from Travel & Leisure and Lonely Planet.

The setting: Situated in a secluded valley, the Ranch Malibu is reminiscent of 1950s California circa, with eucalyptus, pepper and fig trees dotting the grounds. Buildings and cottages are designed with an earthy look that owner Alex Glasscock calls “monastery chic.” Guests have plenty of time to explore the wild places of Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area during their lengthy daily hikes.

The program: In addition to being limited to the Ranch’s 1,400-calorie-a-day diet, participants hike, do core and ab work, lift weights, participate in yoga sessions, have afternoon massages and take a daily nap.

Details: One-week minimum stay, $6,800. If you’re looking for a longer-range improvement plan, you can opt for the six-week program for $35,900. Included are accommodations, meals, cooking and nutrition classes, and activities.

The Ranch Malibu, 12220 Cotharin Road, Malibu, 888.777.2177 :: theranchmalibu.com

R4.0, Westlake Village

We realize not everyone can commit to a weeklong fitness break. And one Southern California program has realized that too. R4.0, based at the Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village, offers a four-day program, running from Thursday afternoon through Monday morning, so you can jump-start your fitness program with a long weekend break. An offshoot of the Ranch Malibu program, R4.0 is luxury boot camp held in conjunction with the California Health & Longevity Institute at the Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village. Like its sister program in Malibu, participants take part in eight hours a day of rigorous exercise, including four hours of mountain hiking every morning.

The setting: Guests stay at the Four Seasons Westlake Village, so if connectivity and other hotel amenities are important to you, they’re available. The Health & Longevity campus and the hotel share attractively landscaped grounds that include a large Japanese garden, which offers a tranquil setting.  

The program: After the lengthy – and often steep – morning hike, there are afternoon exercise classes and stretching, massages and cooking demonstrations. Institute personnel conduct fitness tests that measure oxygen consumption, body mass and cholesterol.  Meals are organic vegetarian cuisine.

Details: The Thursday-to-Sunday program is $4,100, including accommodations at the Four Seasons, activities, meals and massage.

R4.0, Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village, 2 Dole Drive, 888.777.2177 :: theranchmalibu.com/R4.0

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