At a Glance
An exceptional spa retreat in the California mountains near San Diego, Cal-a-Vie offers top-notch service, excellent classes and superb food in an elegant, intimate setting. With a delightfully warm ambiance, guests are encouraged to push their limits in a safe, supportive atmosphere.
From above, Cal-A-Vie resembles a quaint Provençal village, as a cluster of peach stucco buildings tucked into a hillside amid birch trees. The 32 guest rooms are spread among Mediterranean-style cottages gathered around a central pool area. Decorated in a soft palette of gold and taupe, rooms are spacious and supremely comfortable, with Frette linens, billowing duvets, large bathrooms with double sinks, soaking tubs and a private sitting area (either a balcony or terrace).
A short walk away are the spa, salon, dining room, boutique and Green Room, a gathering place to relax with a cup of tea or afternoon fruit smoothie. Across a wooden bridge are tennis courts, a larger pool and the gym pavilion with multiple studios for Pilates, weights, treadmills, TRX, spinning and the like (there is also a golf course nearby). Part of the property’s charm is its intimate size which imparts a real sense of privacy and seclusion; there are no more than 40 guests at a time with no outside visitors, rooms are left unlocked and many guests walk around in robes and slippers.
Guests elect either the three-, four- or seven-night package, which is all inclusive, so there is never anything to sign while you are there (tips are paid all at once at the end). At the beginning of your stay, you meet with a specialist to discuss your goals and preferences and to choose a daily calorie count (most people choose 1,200, but 1,500 and even 1,800 are also possible). All activities at Cal-a-Vie are optional and can be catered to your own level, allowing your stay to be as rigorous or relaxing as you please.
Days at Cal-a-Vie begin with a 6:30 am three- or four-mile hike through the 200-acre property and beautiful surrounding mountains. Guests can go at their own pace with up to five accompanying guides. Then it's time for breakfast—perhaps an omelet with avocado or yogurt with granola and berries. Meals are served family-style at shared tables, which makes it easy to get to know the other guests during your stay (there is typically a mix of couples, mother/daughter duos and guests traveling solo). The furnishings throughout the property are elegant, but the ambiance is warm and casual, with most guests wearing workout clothes all day (including at dinner).
The food, under executive chef Curtis Cooke, is incredibly fresh, delicious and satisfying. Our group often commented how surprised we were that we never felt hungry. Plates are individually prepared in accordance with your chosen calorie count, so you can relax and eat everything you are given, knowing it is accounted for as part of your daily goal. A typical dinner might be seared snapper with a garlic-tomato sauce served over fava beans and wild rice with pine nuts. Miraculously, the chef found a way to honor our calorie counts and still offer us a few divine bites of dessert after dinner: a tiny ramekin of strawberry rhubarb crisp or one perfect spoonful of homemade chocolate ice cream, for instance. One of the benefits of calorie reduction is that we all treated our food with respect and gratitude—savoring each bite and making mealtimes a real treat.
At breakfast, each guest is given their suggested daily schedule along with the list of classes offered that day. There are about ten different 45-minute class options each hour (between 9am and 1pm), and at any given slot you can choose to skip or swap in something different according to your mood. Classes are quite small, so you receive a lot of individual attention from the instructors, who are uniformly excellent.
After lunch, which is served al fresco on the patio under the trees by a stream, the afternoons are devoted to spa treatments. Usually guests have a massage every day plus an additional treatment, such as a facial, mani/pedi or reflexology. The staff members are extremely warm, caring and skilled, and with a staggeringly high staff-to-guest ratio of 5:1, you feel very pampered. During my massage, the therapist heated my robe in the sauna so it was warm and toasty by the time I finished my treatment. Housekeeping attended to my room multiple times a day, did my laundry, and even cleaned my hiking boots.
A few minutes walk up the hill is one of the most delightful areas of the property. Texan owners Terri and John Havens are Francophiles who have lavished the resort over the years with hand-selected antiques and tapestries. The most impressive addition, however, is the chapel on the hilltop. Originally constructed in the 17th century in Dijon, France, it was demolished in the 1980s. Terri Havens had each stone numbered and imported then meticulously reassembled the entire building at Cal-a-Vie, where the chapel now serves as a particularly memorable setting for yoga classes and guided meditation.
The chapel is connected to a second stone building, L'Orangerie, by an exquisite garden of lime green boxwood parterres spilling over with white roses and lavender. Paths meander past sculptures, topiaries, a windmill and a gurgling marble fountain to a bench with sweeping views. I was so enchanted with the peace and loveliness of this hilltop that I walked there multiple times a day to take photographs of the flowers and views in different lights. One night, we were treated to a cooking demonstration and dinner in L'Orangerie, followed by a jazz duo performing a private concert for us in the chapel, which was lit with dozens of candles. It is moments like these that make Cal-a-Vie so magical, unique and unforgettable.
The Spa Diet
The cuisine is mostly fresh produce and lean proteins, but also includes a small amount of carbs and dessert. Coffee is allowed. There is a mid-morning snack of grilled vegetables, raw nuts and tomato soup and a mid-afternoon fruit smoothie. Wine is permitted in your room upon request.
See a slideshow of Cal-a-Vie.
Read Eliza's Just Back From... Cal-a-Vie, which compares it to other top destination spas.
Who Should Stay
For anyone looking to be rejuvenated or to kick start a healthier life in a secluded and restful spot will appreciate the kind, gentle guidance. All fitness levels are welcomed and accommodated. The crowd is coed but tends to be mostly women.
Who Should Not Stay
While it offers plenty of intense classes and aerobic challenges, Cal-a-Vie would not be a good fit for someone looking for a highly controlled boot-camp-type spa experience. No one is going to force you to hike or stop you if you get ravenous and want to ask the kitchen for an extra smoothie after breakfast.
Cal-a-Vie is a 90-minute drive from San Diego airport or two hours from Los Angeles.
Written by Eliza Harris