It used to be you would go on vacation, lie in the sun, drink too much and eat too much. You came back with a bad sunburn and five extra pounds that it would take you the next few weeks to diet off.
Somewhere along the way Americans realized that this wasn't the best way to recover from the stress of a strenuous job or a hectic family life. In the '80s, the concept of spa vacations -- a catchall term for vacations where you come back feeling better, not worse -- really took off. Resorts and retreats sprang up everywhere, and an American Health Gallup survey suggests that now one in three of us considers health facilities when planning a trip.
In other words, people don't need to be sold on the virtues of a spa vacation anymore. What they need is help in getting the most out of their experience.
The most important thing you can do to make sure you have successful spa vacation is to pick the right place. It seems obvious, but it's not as easy as it sounds. There are now hundreds of spas and resorts with spa facilities in the United States alone -- and that doesn't count spa cruises. The good news is there's bound to be the perfect spa for you. But with so many to choose from, you may have trouble finding it.
Do your research. Don't pick a place just because a friend recommended it or it's close by. People go to spas for luxury pampering, fitness conditioning, mineral waters, weight loss, behavior modification, holistic health and much more -- and very few spas are all things to all people. Do you want a place that regiments every moment of your day? Or a resort that offers aerobic classes and massage therapy but also tennis courts and golf courses? Or do you just want to veg out?
A resort like Nemacolin Woodlands in Pennsylvania prides itself on being extremely well-rounded, offering something for everyone -- the fitness buff and the person who wants to be pampered. "But we're not geared to a really structured program," says Susan Brewer, the spa's executive director, so she steered a prospective client who wanted to lose a fast 50 pounds elsewhere.
A good place to start your search for the right spa is your localibrary or bookstore. Health and travel magazines regularly run articles on the newest spas. And you'll be surprised at the number of books you'll find on the subject. (Fodor's "Healthy Escapes" is a good, comprehensive one; but there are many others.)
Travel agencies aren't always the best source of information, although accommodating agents will, of course, be glad to do some research for you. Barbara Resnick, manager of Towson Travel, admits that she doesn't get a lot of calls for spa vacations -- not that people aren't taking them, but they tend to call the resorts directly.
One possibility might be to join a group-sponsored trip. Thescan be good bargains with extras you might not be able to get if you're on your own. For instance, Diversions Inc. in Pikesville offers custom-designed package trips to spas. Owner Lenny Shapiro feels strongly that "you should go with a group. We're able to negotiate more exciting options."
But if groups aren't for you, your best bet may be a matching service like Spa Finders in New York. "If you think any spa will do for you," warns Frank van Putten, president of the company, "you may be in for a nasty surprise." To avoid such surprises, Spa Finders publishes a catalog listing more than 200 spas. It costs $4.95, which is refundable if you book a vacation through the service. Spa Finders has an 800 number [(800)-255-7727], which you can call to get the catalog or simply to talk to an agent about finding the right spa.
Then call the spa's 800 number with a list of questions about the program, philosophy, accommodations and whatever else concerns you before you commit yourself.
Once you've settled on the virtuous vacation of your dreams, there's more you can do to get the most out of your stay -- unless you've chosen a pampering resort. In that case, all you'll have to do is lie back and enjoy the massages and make-overs.
But most spas demand a little something from their clients. And people going to a spa to lose weight or get fitter have a tendency to overdo. You don't want to spend your vacation recovering from the first day or two.
It isn't easy to prepare for a spa vacation. As Frieda Eisenkraft, owner of Deerfield Manor Spa in Pennsylvania, points out, "Most people come to a spa to make their entrance into exercise or diet. They want to begin when they get here. Some who want to lose weight even have a last big meal the night before they arrive!"
But if you have a regular fitness routine, keep it up. If you do nothing, start walking at least a couple of weeks before you go. Brisk walking is an important part of most fitness programs. You should also check with your doctor if you're not in shape and plan to have a strenuous (for you) week at the spa, or if you'll be in a weight-loss program.
You may also want to change your diet gradually -- even if you don't want to start dieting -- by increasing the amount of fruits, vegetables and complex carbohydrates you eat; by drinking at least eight glasses of water a day, and by cutting out caffeinated drinks. Your body will have an easier time adjusting to spa menus.
Finally, Sue Goldstein, author of "The Underground Shopper's Guide to Health and Fitness," recommends preparing your house before you leave home. Get rid of junk and fattening food, so you won't be tempted to fall off the wagon once you've lost those five pounds or tightened up those thighs.
If you aren't able to -- or don't want to -- travel a long way for a spa vacation, here's a listing of spas in our area:
Bally's Park Place Casino Hotel & Tower, Park Place and the Boardwalk, Atlantic City, N.J. 08401-6709. (609) 340-4600. Here you can gamble, get pampered and get fit. Prices for two- and five-night packages at the Spa at Bally's range from $395 to $995.
Coolfont Resort & Conference Center, Route 1, Box 710, Berkeley Springs, W.Va. 25411. (800) 296-8768. Coolfont's Spectrum Spa offers four- to six-night spa retreats, fitness weekends, massage workshops and smoking-cessation programs. Rates for six nights are $800-$845 per person, double occupancy, $920-$980 single occupancy.
The Country Inn, 207 S. Washington St., Berkeley Springs, W.Va. 25411. (304) 258-2210. The Renaissance Spa offers midweek-only spa packages, which include lodging, breakfast and dinner, whirlpool and massage or facial for $110 per person per night, double occupancy, $134 single occupancy.
Deerfield Manor Spa, R.D. No. 1 (Route 402) East Stroudsburg, Pa. 18301, (800) 852-4494. The emphasis is on weight-reduction and fitness at this small, comfortable spa, known for its friendly atmosphere and reasonable rates. Limited to 33 guests, it's a good introduction to spa-vacationing. A week's stay costs from $699 to $999, depending on accommodations.
The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. 24986. (800) 624-6070. The emphasis is on pampering rather than a structured program for diet or fitness. Rates for two- and five-day packages range from $950 to $2,150 per person, double or single occupancy.
The Homestead, Hot Springs, Va. 24445. (800) 336-5771. The Homestead offers no spa packages as such, but its spa services are extensive. Sauna, steam, aerobics classes and the fitness center are complimentary to hotel guests; salon services and massage therapy are extra.
Nemacolin Woodlands, Route 40 East, P.O. Box 188, Village of Farmington, Pa. 15437. (800) 422-2736. The Woodlands Spa has extensive fitness and pampering programs; it's also a first-class resort offering everything from golf to scavenger hunts. Spa rates range from $163 for "A Day of Indulgence" up to $1,719 for "The Ultimate Spa Experience."