April 24, 2009

You can get a decent massage at pretty much any spa. But finding a state-of-the-art fitness spa-now there's the real rub.

You could close your eyes, wish upon a spa (spa light, spa bright, first spa I see tonight) and hope you land on a star, as opposed to, say, a cable-television satellite. Or you could do what smart women everywhere intent on maximizing their workout dollars have done for the past 19 years. You could listen to us and what we have to say about the fitness retreats.

In Shape's continued quest to get you to the best in spa treatments, we've seen it all and we'll share what we've learned with you.

From fly-by-nighters that crash, burn and leave huge craters in your pocketbook to steadfast planets that burn bright and true, revolving around predictable (but never boring) orbits, we really have seen it all.

This story is about our nine favorite fitness planets -- from destination spas like the Canyon Ranches (aka the twin suns of the spa universe) and Rancho La Puerta, the proverbial North Star, to resort spas like Ojai Valley Inn & Spa and The Spa at the Cloisters.

Besides those fitness retreats, we've also included the two diagnostic spas for you star-seekers looking to make major lifestyle changes.

(And to prove our telescopes are ever pointed skyward for signs of new life, we've even covered Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa, the most promising of the morning stars.)

From seaside retreats to desert oases, structured programs to do-your-own-things, all of these resort spas are shining stars offering all the points of light you'll need (see "How to Choose a Star Spa") to make your fitness wishes come true.

How to choose a star fitness spa

Your fitness spa offers the following points of light:

* A holistic health philosophy based on the best and latest fitness information.

* A preview interview/application (so you and the staff can customize your fitness program before you arrive).

* Experienced fitness professionals certified for the activities they teach (step, kickboxing, Pilates, etc.).

* Customized services and a high staff-to-guest ratio.

* The best and latest fitness equipment and programs.

* Low-fat spa cuisine (at least 1,800 calories daily), nutrition workshops/counseling, cooking demos, etc.

* Licensed, certified mind/body professionals.

* Lots of outdoor fitness options.

* Spa treatments (to motivate and inspire you).

* Post-spa follow-up and take-home materials.

* A high return rate (50-75 percent).

Keep reading for info about one of the best resort spas around!

[header = One of the best resort spas & fitness spa treatments: Ojai Valley Inn & Spa.]

Spa Resort # 1. Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, Ojai, Calif.

The magic is in the valley at this fitness spa!

This historic Spanish-style spa resort has been setting standards of elegance since the 1920s. Guest rooms have:

  • Fireplaces
  • Sofas
  • writing desks
  • marble bathrooms with Jacuzzi tubs
  • secluded balconies that open onto views of the soaring Sierra Madre

Meanwhile, the lavish grounds of the spa resort house:

  • a championship golf course
  • a tennis center
  • an 800-acre equestrian ranch with stables
  • trails that wind through live oak trees hanging with Spanish moss and into the adjacent Los Padres National Forest

With the completion of a 31,000-square-foot Mind/Body Center and fitness center in 1997, Ojai's proven it's not content to rest on its laurels -- or let you rest on yours. Stroll the herb-scented labyrinth into the center of yourself, do tai chi on the lawn, enjoy Aqua Toning in the new outdoor pool or a workout on Tectrix virtual-reality bikes in the jampacked, high-tech fitness center.

Not that everything's new at Ojai. Native Americans long have considered the Ojai Valley sacred, and many of the spa treatments revolve around these age-old rituals. Head for the Kuyam, an updated Chumash Indian sweat lodge, where you'll be coated with cleansing mud and herbs, then lay back and inhale lemon grass-infused steam. Or grab him for Petals, an oil massage ending with love affirmations under a shower of rose petals.

Details of the spa resort: From $518 per night, double occupancy. Includes lodging, fitness activities and two spa treatments per day per person. Meals are extra. Call (888) SPA-OJAI or (805) 646-5511 in Canada; or visit www.ojairesort.com.

Discover more about The Canyon Ranches, which features two different fitness retreats.

[header = Outstanding destination spa choices and fitness spa treatments in AZ and MA.]

Destination spa # 2. The Canyon Ranches: Tucson, Ariz., and The Berkshires, Mass.

Twin suns of fitness spas: from sage and cactus to manicured lawns and fountains

Whether you choose Tucson, a sage-scrubbed retreat of adobe casitas in the cactus-spiked Arizona desert, or the Berkshires, a Versailles-like sprawl of manicured lawns, gardens and fountains built around an 1897 mansion, choice is the byword at Canyon Ranch, the gold standard of fitness spas in the United States.

With up to 40 fitness classes a day in football-field-sized fitness complexes housing everything from gyms and racquetball courts to yoga domes, the options here are endless – and you set the pace:

  • pedal your butt off in a Spinning class
  • take guided hikes
  • select from such esoteric offerings as qi gong, an ancient breathing practice
  • bliss out with spa treatments like Euphoria, a 100-minute total-body relaxing treatment

Instructors at Canyon Ranch bench press the highest credentials, while many of the chefs hail from the esteemed Culinary Institute of America. The destination spa offers more courses than your local community college, if the entertaining "Stir-Fry Madness" cooking class doesn't serve up a smile, the "Healing Heartache Through Humor" workshop will.

For major changes, enroll in Shape's own Body Positive workshops, or the Tucson campus' Life Enhancement Program, which includes a medical and fitness evaluation/testing, mind-body seminars, nutritional makeovers -- everything except a yummy new boyfriend.

Details of this destination spa: Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires: from $1,820 per person, double occupancy for four nights; Canyon Ranch Tucson: from $1,860 for four-night minimum stay. Includes meals, lodging, all activities and a selection of health and spa services. Call (800) 742-9000 or visit www.canyonranch.com.

Keep reading for info about more fantastic fitness spas, including one in sunny Tecate, Mexico.

[header = Fitness spa treatments with luxury digs at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate Mexico.]

Fitness retreats # 3. Rancho La Puerta, Tecate, Mexico

Luxuriate at the North star of the fitness spa galaxy.

In 1940, Edmond and Deborah Szekely founded North America's first fitness camp, a BYOT (bring your own tent) retreat nestled in the high desert and ringed by purple mountains. Guests came to commune with nature sans electricity and running water while learning what were then considered avant-garde fitness practices: yoga and guided meditation, plus low-fat vegetarian cuisine (which guests helped plant and pick when not milking the cows).

Today, you can leave your tent at home: The rancho's expanded into a 3,000-acre Mexican villa offering:

  • luxury digs (fireplaces, balconies, tile floors)
  • every imaginable amenity for fitness retreats:
  • sparkling pools
  • tennis courts
  • several indoor gyms
  • three open-air gyms with wood floors and mountain views

The fitness spa focuses on the Great Outdoors: interpretive hiking and climbing through sagebrush flats to Mount Ku-chumaa, long considered sacred to Native Americans. With a holy hill at its doorstep, Rancho's mind-body program is nothing if not inspired. Enjoy the Medicine Wheel and Spiral Dancing workshops, which build heart muscles while expanding your chakra, or The Inner Journey, a guided meditation.

While the Rancho still grows its own, it's come a long way from camp chow. Rancho's longtime chef, Bill Wavrin, remains a legend in his own lunch time, plucking stuff from the back 40 (and yes, you can still help pick) for use in gourmet fare like sweet potato souffles and chilled melon soups. He'll even share the recipes, also available in the spa's own cookbook.

Despite the buzz of activities, the Rancho remains a laid-back place where que sera sera is the modus operandi. Hike all day or spend it horizontal in a hammock -- no problema. But better book early. Only the bell tower in San Juan Capistrano has a higher return rate.

Details of this fitness spa: From $1,645 per person, double occupancy for one-week minimum stay Saturday to Saturday. Includes meals, lodging and all fitness classes and programs. Spa treatments extra. Call (800) 443-7565 or visit www.rancholapuerta.com.

The next of our recommended fitness retreats focuses on wellness. Check it out!

[header = Fitness spa treatments that focus on long-term healthy living and wellness.]

4. Cooper Wellness Program at Cooper Aerobics Center, Dallas

Guiding light of long-term healthy living fitness spa treatments

Don't be fooled by the serene woodland setting complete with duck pond. Cooper is a get-serious program – as serious as any of our recommended fitness retreats – for long-term healthy living, complete with a 40,000 square foot state-of-the-art fitness facility. Based on a complete fitness/medical assessment or (optional) thorough medical evaluation, a team of physicians, nutritionists and exercise technologists prescribes a fitness plan that's a perfect fit.

The staff's guiding light is Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., M.P.H., the "Father of Aerobics" himself. Count on cooking classes and lectures on things healthy -- including Motivation & Goal Setting, Managing Stress and Understanding Antioxidants -- plus exercise sessions applying state-of-the art equipment and techniques. After sweating the books and gym, opt for a massage, contouring seaweed wrap, facial or pedicure at the center's Mediterranean-style Day Spa. Then there's that lighted tennis court! You'll earn your rest at the on-site Guest Lodge, a colonnaded mansion featuring private balconies.

Details of this fitness spa: From $2,095 for 4-Day Wellness Retreat, including meals. Lodging and medical exam extra. Call (800) 444-5192 or (972) 386-4777; or visit www.cooperaerobics.com.

If you're a sun lover, then the next of our fitness retreats is for you!

[header = Fitness spa treatments and Zen meditation in a sun-kissed oasis in Arizona.]

Spa Resort # 5. Miraval, Tucson, Ariz.

Sun-kissed oasis and Zen meditation at your spa resort

White adobe-style casitas sparkle in the sun; waterfalls and reflecting ponds flow past towering saguaro cactuses in meditation gardens. "Life in Balance" is the theme here and everything, from the fitness to the pampering, espouses the Zen concept of mindfulness.

This can mean balancing atop a 25-foot pole strapped to a harness before taking the Quantum Leap, aimed at building trust and overcoming fear, or improving energy circulation via the Zero Balancing treatment. Or get "balanced" by a horse who's smarter than Mr. Ed. As you groom him during Equine Experience, he responds with behavior that sheds light on your true nature.

Other balancing acts at this fitness spa include guided meditative hikes and trail rides into the rugged foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

You can also enjoy customized fitness programs in a gleaming fitness facility with a six-lane lap pool, and personal consultations with fitness instructors, nutritionists or golf pros.

Afterward, quiet your soul with a hot-stone massage, sand painting or Native American storytelling, then savor low-fat spa cuisine (papaya and ricotta cheese pancakes; grape leaves stuffed with grilled salmon and sea scallops) served in two elegant restaurants overlooking the star-spangled desert.

Details of this spa resort: From $365 per night, double occupancy. Includes meals, lodging, activities and one treatment. Call (800) 825-4000 or visit www.miravalresort.com.

If you love communing with Mother Nature, then you'll love this next spa resort.

[header = Enjoy your fitness spa treatments in the beauty of Mother Nature's back yard.]

Spa resort # 6. Birdwing Spa, Litchfield, Minn.

The new Mother Nature takes over at this outdoor-focused fitness spa.

Birdwing is a nature lover's feast: 300 acres ablaze with fall color and brown beavers by the waters of Star Lake on a migration route of white pelicans. Settle in and you'll be snug as an iridescent dragonfly in the vintage red barn. All 14 rooms are country fresh, many with lake views. Screeching owls provide your wake-up call while the owners, Richard and Elisabeth Carlson, a registered nurse, along with the fitness and pampering staff (the majority of whom have been here for years), provide customized service.

Programs at this fitness spa revolve around the outdoors and change with the seasons.

Spring through fall, you can canoe/kayak or swim in the lake, enjoy guided picnic hikes through falling leaves or cycle the region's beautiful back roads, then drop by the spa for a talk on herbs or enjoy treatments like the Algae Body Wrap, reminiscent of the lake weed out your back door. In winter, when Jack Frost blankets the region with tons of snow, you can enjoy ice skating, Nordic skiing and snowshoeing across frozen lakes and 12 miles of groomed trails.

As for the fare, it doesn't get any fresher (you're in the Corn Belt, remember?). A registered dietitian works to design a personalized menu based on color-balanced spa cuisine. Every meal includes four -- green spinach, orange chicken, red potatoes, and a yellow-lemon parfait for dessert, for example. The body treatments are equally earthy: a Purifying Herbal Wrap of rosemary, ginger root and eucalyptus or aromatherapy with juniper or geranium. Or celebrate the new millennium with a Champagne Facial. Cheers!

Details of this spa resort: From $1,200 per person, double occupancy for a five-day Ultimate Birdwing Spa Escape. Includes meals, lodging, a daily treatment, unlimited classes. Call (320) 693-6064 or visit www.birdwingspa.com.

Our next spa resort recommendation will take you to brand new heights!

[header = Enjoy your fitness spa treatments at new heights at The Next Level Spa.]

Spa resort # 7. Take Fitness Spa Treatments to New Heights at The Next Level Spa, The Peaks at Telluride, Colo.

Spa fitness treatments lift you up where you belong

As the name implies, The Next Level Spa aims to elevate you to new fitness heights -- beginning with the altitude. Perched at 9,000 feet beneath gunmetal mountains, the o.m. (operating mantra) here could be "climb every mountain" as nearly everything (including you) goes up-up-up. Not for nothing is your cushy "spa room" equipped with foot massagers, scent diffusers and soothing bath salts.

Enjoy these activities at The Next Level Spa resort:

  1. hike out the back door to the Judd Wiebe Trail, a spiraling, cliff-hanging quad burner that begins at 10,000 feet
  2. take your bike on the town chairlift for a high-altitude spin that makes the earthbound versions look tame
  3. brave white-water rafting, horseback riding or rock climbing
  4. perfect your swing (golf, tennis) or your cast (fly fishing)
  5. tackle the snowbound slopes by ski, snowshoe or snowboard
  6. perfect your figure eight on the lake

Inside the fitness center, Next Level's Climbing Clinics will rope you into the thrills of rock climbing and prepare you for a gasp-invoking scramble to the top of 14,000-foot Mount Wilson. Or learn to maximize your moves through Cardio Coaching. A fitness expert places sensors on your body and interprets the readings as you exercise.

Even mind-body programs of the resort spa aim to levitate you to another astral plane.

Enjoy sunrise yoga in a window-walled studio; take a Native American-inspired vision quest; zone in with Zen golf or Alpine Stretch and Meditation Hikes with qi gong.

You'll feel like a natural woman after spa treatments like La'Stone, a massage using heated river rocks. Or enjoy steamy scented soaks in a Native American Kiva, Alpine Aromatherapy Massage, and Exfoliation with pine-scented clay. While there are plenty of starry-eyed options (astrology workshops, etc.), the spa's core program revolves around no-nonsense programs and seminars (Eating Healthy in a Restaurant, etc.) aimed at keeping you at that next level long after you leave. Who sez what goes up must come down?

Details of this spa resort: From $2,048 per person, double occupancy for a minimum four-night stay. Includes all meals, three fitness spa treatments per person, unlimited fitness classes, and Next Level Workshops. Call (800) SPA-KIVA or visit www.grandbay.com.

Like the sea? Then you'll love the review of the next of our fitness retreats!

[header = Choose the grand dame of fitness spa treatments: the Sea Island Spa resort.]

Spa resort # 8. Sea Island Spa, The Cloister, Sea Island, Ga.

Grand dame of fitness spa treatments

Sea scrubs and leisurely beach strolls are what you'd expect at this grand old seaside resort in southern Georgia, set amid rolling green lawns and manicured gardens. But that's just the frosting on the tea cakes. Imagine:

  • hiking
  • cycling
  • galloping along windswept beaches
  • canoeing through a sea of waving grass
  • kayaking aquamarine waves,
  • pedaling to nostalgic beach towns with old-time boardwalks, historic lighthouses and quaint cottages (mansions to the rest of us) that look like they're on loan from The Great Gatsby
  • settling into a cabana on the resort's sugary sands for a day of unhurried beach bumming/aerobicizing and water sports, from swimming and snorkeling to scuba diving

As for structured fitness, Sea Isle offers some of the best fitness spa facilities and programs south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Each guest is assigned a spa resort concierge to match fitness interests with goals and receives a binder of personally designed information -- from a quick-count calorie sheet to stretching diagrams for at-home workouts -- to take with her. And the fitness options are endless. Learn scuba or tennis, take Pilates, enjoy tai chi on the sands or "get OUT," a workout using elements on the beach.

When it comes to pampering, those Southerners really know how to spoil a girl. Enjoy a personalized aromatherapy session; seaside journaling, a one-on-one writing-therapy course designed to release the sea currents within you; or go swimming in the open sea with dolphins. Sea Island may be the only spa on earth offering world-renowned skeet shooting, so as long as you're here, why not fire away? A total (and civilized -- you shoot at clay disks, not birds) blast, it's an incredibly creative way to relieve stress.

Details of this spa resort: From $1,825 per person, double occupancy for five-night minimum Signature Spa Experience. Includes meals, lodging, use of all facilities and classes, wellness lectures and a raft of spa treatments. Call (800) SEA-ISLAND or visit www.seaisland.com.

Hit a home run with our final fitness spa recommendation!

[header = Fitness spa treatments: hit a home run at Duke University Medical Center.]

Fitness spa # 9. Duke Diet & Fitness Center at Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C.

This spa resort is designed for home runs!

Housed in a modern building set beneath towering trees (guest lodging is in homey houses with porches), Duke feels more like a college campus than a medical resort. Catering to those seeking a serious fitness makeover, it promotes a no-nonsense approach to getting -- and staying -- in shape.

Like the nearby "Bull Durham" ball field of Hollywood movie fame, Duke covers all the bases: exercise, nutrition, psychology and medical testing. Up-to-date diagnostic tools customize a goal-oriented, reality-grounded regimen for everyone. The program's strong medical component plus its fully credentialed staff boost its credibility to darn near the stratosphere.

Round out your schedule of exercise, lectures and personal and group counseling with let-your-hair-down evening and weekend activities, from line dancing to cheering sports events. So those healthy habits picked up at the center don't high-tail it once you're home, an optional Aftercare Program offers a motivational newsletter and phone sessions.

Details of this fitness spa resort: From $3,895 for one-week program, includes meals and all testing and activities. Call (800) 235-3853 or (919) 660-6712; or visit www.dfc.mc.duke.edu.

Choose Shape for all your information about the fitness spa treatments that you'll love!