For Relaxing the Body Or Revving It Up, Nothing Beats A Spa Vacation


October 18, 1992|By Elizabeth Large

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.

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