Just Back From

Just Back From... Cal-a-Vie Spa

At Indagare, we believe in transformative travel; our motto is that travel is not just where you go but how the journey shapes you. Travel can sometimes be a way to try on a new life and a different way of being or even just develop a new habit. (I started daily meditation while in India and still practice.) But even though the best travel is transforming, not many people expect it from a typical trip as a matter of course. Spas are unusual in that respect because they are places most people go hoping and firmly expecting to change for the better. Often, they go in times of transition, to make a new start or to heal from an injury, physical or emotional. Plenty of spas are very pleasant, relaxing and pampering experiences, of course. But life changing in the way people wish for? Well, it has to be a very powerful and unique place for that to actually happen: a place with dedicated, skilled practitioners who deeply believe in what they are doing; a place where the spirit is addressed along with the body; a place of natural beauty with isolation from distractions; a small retreat with a high staff-to-guest ratio where significant attention is paid to each individual. These are attributes that all the best-in-class destination spas share. But from there, approaches differ.

The Golden Door set the standard for luxury destination spas when it opened in 1958 with its Japanese gardens, labyrinths and focus on peaceful introspection. An emphasis on spirituality distinguishes long-time Indagare favorite Mii Amo, known for its extraordinary healers and psychics (ask our founder Melissa Biggs Bradley for her top therapists). The Ashram and The Ranch at Live Oak developed a cult following for their boot camp approach: cell phones are confiscated upon arrival; coffee and sugar are forbidden; the diet is strict and the exercise schedule is rigid and intense. Last week, I stayed at Cal-a-Vie Spa in Vista, California, for a four-night program and found my personal sweet spot: an intimate oasis that is gracious, elegant, relaxed, warm, soulful and rigorous, but never rigid. And yes, I feel transformed.

Confession: I arrived more apprehensive than excited. I was worried that the spa diet would be boring (I envisioned a lot of steamed vegetables), and that calorie deprivation would make me grumpy, lightheaded and constantly hungry. I was intimidated by the exercise schedule, which is basically back-to-back events starting with a 6:30 am three-mile hike before breakfast—not what I am used to as a working mom. I wondered if it would be awkward that I was traveling alone. I didn't think I could exercise so intensely for so long and then wake up the next day and do it again. I definitely didn't buy that I could feel satisfied on a reduced-calorie diet. If I am honest with myself, I would say I wanted results but wasn’t so keen on having to work for them.

Luckily, Cal-a-Vie makes an ambitious program so enjoyable that it eases you in the gentlest possible way into a different lifestyle. The food is incredibly fresh, delicious and satisfying. We got carefully balanced, full, proper meals with dessert. (Calories had been counted for us according to our stated preferences, so we could eat everything we were given; if dessert was offered, we knew it was within our daily limit.) I usually got hungry mid-afternoon, but there was always a fruit smoothie to tide me over until dinner. The classes were fantastic and very small; most had no more than three or four people, so it felt almost private, with lots of individual attention from the instructors. The surrounding landscape was so beautiful that hiking and exploring was a joy. Everything was optional and could be done at our own pace, so there was never any pressure to perform at a particular level. Afternoons were spent being pampered with spa treatments, so we always had something to look forward to. Meals are served family style, so I got to know all the other guests and by the end of my stay had made many new friends.

We were all on a high at meal-time. (One of the benefits of calorie reduction is that whatever food you do get, you treat with the utmost respect and gratitude, savoring each bite.) Most of us had tried multiple destination spas and we often discussed what made this experience so special and different. Part of it is that the atmosphere is so safe and nurturing that we all felt brave enough to push our limits. Two phrases were repeated over and over: "I discovered I could do so much more than I thought" and "Wow, you really realize how much we eat normally that we don't actually need.” Overall, it was a paradigm shift that went something like this: This healthy, fit life you want? Here is what it looks and feels like. It’s right here and you’re ready for it right now. Here is your road map.

How did I change? On a practical level, Cal-a-Vie’s excellent instructors gave me a lot of tools. The Executive Chef, Curtis Cooke, performed thoughtful cooking lessons and sent us away with a packet of recipes to help us eat better, fresher, healthier food. The amazing guided meditation classes gave me a new approach to meditation. I adored the intense “tread and shed” interval-training workout on the treadmill and will definitely be repeating it on my own. The weight-training and yoga instructors spent time making key adjustments to my form that will probably save me from future injury. The spa treatments got me so relaxed. I did in fact lose pounds and inches, which I am grateful for, but the biggest change was in my very stubborn mindset. It turns out: (1) I have a much higher tolerance for intense exercise than I expected. (2) A reduced-calorie diet doesn't have to be gimmicky or punitive to be effective; it can include coffee, snacks, carbs and dessert (just not a lot). (3) That soaring, high-energy feeling I had when I was 20? I can still feel that way.

I told my new friend John, a five-time repeat guest, that compared to other spas I had tried, Cal-a-Vie really hit my sweet spot. “But don’t you see?” he replied. “It’s all of our sweet spots. Look at our group. We are all different ages, backgrounds, fitness levels and personality types. And yet for each of us, it is a perfectly tailored experience.” As we left, he was signing up for visit number six.

Published onMay 5, 2016

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