North America's Best Budget Spas

Plus four other high-quality, low-cost spas in Mexico

Why pay $4,000 a week when all you receive at lunch are a carrot-raisin salad and a tiny baked apple? When the "program" consists of your own physical exertions in jogging, bending, stretching, and leaping? When "optional entertainment" consists of a five-mile hike along mountain trails that are free of charge to all?

Too many Americans have been discouraged from booking a spa vacation by the frightening rates of the famous resorts--the only ones of which you hear. At the elegant Golden Door and Canyon Ranch, at Cal-A-Vie and Doral's Saturnia, prices do indeed often start at $4,000 for a week and quickly climb from there. Even at the several well-known "budget" versions of the glitzy names (Rancho La Puerta, Heartwood), weekly rates average $2,000 to $4,000 to which a hefty airfare need be added.

Unadvertised, and largely unknown outside their immediate areas, are at least 30 locally marketed spas in every region of the nation that, in my opinion, will provide you with the very same reductions of weight and stress, the very same toning of muscles and spirit, for under $1,300 a week, and often for considerably less than that.

They deserve to be better known. For as modest as they may look, these spas provide the very same well-planned meals totaling 900 to 1,200 calories per day, the same hyperactive regimen of group aerobics and individual workouts, the same walks in the open country air, the same instruction in proper nutrition and behavior modification.

The best establishments I've found are listed below. Unless otherwise noted, the rates cited are for a full seven-day stay in establishments with active programs of exercise and instruction, and serving nothing other than low-calorie meals. Below the American spas, we've included a section on low-cost spas in Mexico. Ground costs at these foreign spas can often be even cheaper than in the States, but be sure to factor in the additional costs of airfare before booking.

Southern spas

Tennessee Fitness Spa, near Waynesboro, Tennessee, is surely the cheapest of all, and yet one of the best. The site: an attractive, hilly, woodsy setting in western Tennessee, 95 miles southwest of Nashville, where it runs you ragged with morning-till-night exercise sessions, water "aerobics" in the pool, and fast-striding hikes designed for a rather youthful clientele, though offered to persons of all ages. And it provides precisely the same sort of program for which other ritzier spas charge $2,000 and $3,000 a week. But the Tennessee Fitness Spa charges as little as $700 per person for a week in a quad room (including all meals and exercise classes), $815 per person in a double  -- and the two-story, motel-like lodgings are tastefully decorated, comfortable and scrupulously clean. On my own recent visit to it I found it supplied good value for the money and excellent program of fitness classes. Though the food was not delicious, it was certainly limited in calories. Contact Tennessee Fitness Spa, 299 Natural Bridge Park Road, Waynesboro, TN 38485, phone 800/235-8365, e-mail shaw@netease.net; website tfspa.com/.

Runner-up in terms of cost: Regency House Natural Health Spa. The strict "vegan-vegetarian" menu here pretty much says it all: this place prides itself on coaching guests in the rules of healthy living. A cheerful, 60-room spa, it focuses on the "big picture," gearing its programs towards anyone looking for long-term lifestyle changes in weight control, nutrition, and fitness. You'll start your day with a brisk "walk for health" along the beachfront of this South Florida spa. A rigorous schedule of aerobics and health lectures follows in the afternoon. Workout programs range from aquatic activities in the pool and ocean (weather permitting) to "basic training boot camp" to evening dance classes. Yoga and meditation classes are held just before dinner. During the off-season (June 1 to October 5), a week in a standard double room starts at $995 per person (singles pay $200 more); from December to April, the peak of the year prices average $1,295/person for the same room. Your stay at the spa includes three meals daily, all lectures and activities, as well as two spa services. For information or reservations, contact Regency House Natural Health Spa, 2000 South Ocean Drive, Hallandale Beach, Florida 33009, phone 800/454-0003 or 954/454-2220.View the Web site at regencyhealthspa.com/.

East coast spas

The New Age Health Spa, of Neversink, New York (in the Catskill Mountains), 2 1/2 hours by car from New York City. Though innovative and open-minded, it is no more "New Age" than many other classic spas I've visited, and it is scarcely different from other, far more expensive resorts. The facilities are extensive (indoor and outdoor pool, whirlpool, well-equipped exercise rooms, saunas, etc.), meals are high quality but meant to ensure weight loss, rooms are rustic and plain but entirely pleasant, management is passionate (not to say fanatical) about current-day theories of good nutrition (low fat, low sodium, low calorie) and exercise, and the setting -- on a hillside overlooking a vast expanse of other rolling green hills -- is as awesome as you'd wish. New Age has gotten more expensive over the years, now starting at $194/night per person. But for the quality of the program, this small splurge should be worth it. For further details, contact the New Age Health Spa, Route 55, Neversink, NY 12765 (phone 800/682-4348, newagehealthspa.com/).

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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