1. I am by no means a spa aficionado. But I've heard enough to know that there is no better way to kick-start a weight-loss routine than a trip to a spa. So when I finally decided to get serious about dropping a few pounds before bikini season passed me by (yet again), I chose Cal-a-Vie.

Tucked away in a sleepy San Diego suburb called Vista, the spa lies smack in the middle of 200 verdant acres of hills, valleys and canyons, high among olive trees, towering oaks and fragrant flowering gardens. Only the haunting howl of coyotes and an audibly blissful family of frogs pierce the silence.

With a maximum of 24 guests at any given time, Cal-a-Vie has earned its distinction as the smallest luxury spa in the United States. The rustic country architecture and furnishings feel very south-of-France.

Up with the birds for a heart-rate-monitor-chirping hike

Whether you have fallen off the weight-loss wagon, taken a detour or simply need a new direction, Cal-a-Vie will put you squarely back on track. An extensive questionnaire helps the spa staff gauge individual health and fitness levels, and allows them to custom tailor an exercise, weight-loss or healthy-living program for you.

The food is nutrient-dense, mostly organic (often with spa-grown herbs and vegetables), lowfat and exploding with wonderful flavors.

Early morning hikes in the spa's backyard canyon are de rigueur. My heart-rate monitor chirped away as I headed for the crest, and I was rewarded by a stunning (if distant) view of the Pacific Ocean and neighboring farmland. Springtime trails are messy, so the housekeeping staff graciously cleans your mud-caked hiking boots each afternoon.

Four hours of workouts were available every day -- from cardio kickboxing to water volleyball to body contouring to yoga. Being in good shape, I chose to do all four classes most days. The upside to all this activity? Weight loss, baby, weight loss. While there, I dropped nearly an inch of flab!

Getting my just dessert -- and more

When I wasn't working up a sweat or exercising my muscles, I pampered them with spa treatments. I didn't feel the least bit guilty soaking in a bubbling hydrotherapy bath overlooking a gorgeous mountain vista, or receiving an aromatherapy facial in a heated, overstuffed recliner -- it was all included in the price. Plus, I discovered I was eating less but not feeling deprived -- in fact, I actually made peace with smaller portions, thanks to Cal-a-Vie's dramatically artful gourmet meals.

Oatmeal or kasha with currants and fresh fruit made for tasty breakfast fare, but one morning I craved protein and was cheerfully brought a plate full of scrambled eggs upon request.

White terry-cloth robes dotted the lunchtime tables as women in sandals, faces flushed, relaxed over a mindful midday meal. Black bean soup with a confetti of chopped tomatoes, a corn tortilla, half a papaya, two strawberries and some blueberries really was enough.

Dinner was another matter. Though all the guests had the same size vine-ripened tomato with fresh basil and mozzarella appetizer, I was jealous of my neighbor, who was not on the low-calorie diet plan and got twice the portion of grilled halibut I did. I was particularly envious when her dessert arrived -- huge, juicy strawberries dipped in gooey chocolate sauce. Since I had checked the "no sugar" box on my questionnaire, I had to "settle" for a deliciously sweet strawberry purée. No sacrifice there -- in fact, my neighbor was soon eyeing my dessert! I was even more delighted to learn I could get the recipe for that (and everything else I had enjoyed) by purchasing the spa's self-published cookbook: The Cal-a-Vie's Gourmet Spa Cookery: Recipes for Health and Wellness ($23 at the spa or online at

The evening health and fitness sessions were educational -- the nutrition seminar was so detailed it should qualify for college credit. But for me, the highlight was a hands-on cooking demonstration by head chef Steve Pernetti.

I wanted to extend my stay (one woman was there for a month), but my budget just said no. I was leaving with less than I arrived with, and that was a good thing: I lost weight in only four days and, more important, dropped half an inch off my waist and arms, and a quarter-inch off my hips. Can't wait to try on my bikini.

Details The spa offers many customized and personalized meal plans. Meals are served in elegant sit-down style; all food is low in fat, salt and sugar; organic produce and meats are served whenever possible. Fruit, raw or grilled veggies and a hot tomato-juice beverage are served as snacks. Coffee is available, as is specially seasoned, air-popped popcorn.

Four-night "La Petite Spa week" stay includes nine spa treatments plus all meals, accommodations and fitness classes; $3,495 single occupancy only. (Double occupancy is not available; all guests, including couples who come together, stay in their own separate cottages.)

For more information, call (760) 945-2055 or log on to

2. Mountain Trek: hike more, weigh less

You'll lose weight the scenic way at this beautiful mountain retreat perched on a wooded bluff overlooking Kootenay Lake in Ainsworth Hot Springs, British Columbia.

Mountain Trek's seven-day "FitPlan Weight Loss" program combines firm-up hikes to alpine meadows, crystal lakes and glaciers with personalized fitness, kayaking and yoga -- plus lowfat cuisine that revolves around chicken, fish and locally grown organic produce. Meal plans provide 1,600-2,000 calories with 20 percent of calories from fat, but you can have as much healthy food as you want (but no caffeine!).

After a hearty breakfast (homemade banana pancakes with fruit sauce), you hike to hot springs, meadows and peaks and stop to enjoy a gourmet brown-bag lunch (pita sandwiches, tabbouleh, fresh salad, etc.).

Back at the spa, relax with yoga, Pilates, massage, or a soak in the resort's Jacuzzi. Mountain Trek's four-course gourmet dinners feature dishes like spiced yam soup, spinach salad and chili-rubbed halibut with rice pilaf, plus the spa's homemade "Nice-Cream," a frozen treat made from frozen bananas, strawberries and raspberries that's your reward for a hike well done.

Details "FitPlan Weight Loss" seven-night program, from $2,130 (U.S.), includes meals, lodging, all activities, fitness evaluation and three massages. Call (800) 661-5161 or go to -- Carole Jacobs

3. Canyon Ranch: the grand dame of total fitness

With campuses in Massachusetts (Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires) and Tucson, Ariz. (Canyon Ranch Health Resort), Canyon Ranch offers more than 50 fat-blasting and muscle-toning fitness classes daily, plus outdoor sports galore: hiking, mountain biking and tennis.

From personalized programs to fitness, nutrition and mind-body evaluations, they've got every inch of you covered. The spa's lowfat, low-salt menu includes calorie, fat and fiber counts so you can keep track of your daily intake.

Choose activities and treatments ranging from a cool-breeze-freeze skin treatment to a class in mapping your self-esteem.

Details Four-night summer sampler includes meals, spa facilities and fitness classes, plus one spa and sports service (Pilates, fitness evaluations, a session with a personal trainer, etc.); from $1,600, double occupancy. Call (800) 742-9000 or visit -- S.R.S.

4. Green Valley Spa: fitness on the rocks

Stunning red rock canyons, part of nearby Zion National Park, rim the Green Valley Spa in Utah's high desert. Get moving with a morning hike, then select from more than 100 weekly exercise classes.

Or try an unconventional spa treatment such as a cinnamon-sugar facial or Native American butterfly wrap.

All meals are served family style, with a carb or protein emphasis at breakfast. Lunch is the chef's choice; dinner always offers three selections of vegetarian, fish or fowl and red-meat entrees. Desserts are low in processed sugar, and there is coffee if you desire it, with lots of fruit and vegetables for snacking.

Details Four-night stay includes four spa treatments, all meals, fitness classes and resort facilities; from $2,100, double occupancy. Call (800) 237-1068 (in Utah, call 435-628-8060) or log on to --S.R.S.

The Oaks at Ojai: weight loss on a budget

Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to spend a fortune to get leaner. The Oaks spa in Ojai, an hour and a half north of Los Angeles, is one place where you'll spend more calories than dollars. The Oaks offers up to 18 fitness classes a day -- from yoga and exercise-ball strength training to body sculpting and total-body stretch. Power walk through the quaint village of Ojai -- an artists' hangout -- or hike, bike or in-line skate a paved trail that winds from the mountains to the sea. The fare revolves around fresh produce, whole grains, seafood and poultry made with fresh seasonings and no added sugar or salt.

Coffee and tea are available, plus fruit for snacking.

Individual nutrition and fitness consultations are available, plus lots of pampering. Don't miss the Hot River Rock massage, a 50-minute body treatment that combines hot and slightly chilled rocks to loosen and relax every inch of your body. Or try the new Acupuncture Massage with licensed acupuncture therapist Kris Dutter.

Details Four-night stay includes lodging, meals and all fitness classes; spa treatments are extra; from $600 per person double occupancy. Call (800) 753-6257 or go to -- Tajinder Reyatt