North America's Best Budget Spas

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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/).

Deerfield Spa, in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, 1 1/2 hour from New York City, has rates of $1,000 to $1,160 per person double and $1,295 for single rooms. This is a large and sprawling country home on 12 acres of Pocono forest that offers comfortable air-conditioned rooms with private bath, several lounges, a heated outdoor pool and separate gym, carefully prepared meals averaging 1,000 calories daily, a small but caring staff of physical therapists, and a full-scale program of aerobics and body workouts, extensive hiking, swimming exercises, and yoga and relaxation techniques. Book and music libraries supplement a video collection for quiet evenings leading to an early bedtime. Mainly for women, but occasionally booked by men and couples, Deerfield is open from early-April to early-November only. For details, write or call Deerfield Spa, 650 Resica Falls Road, East Stroudsburg, PA 18301 (phone 570/223-0160, or toll free 800/852-4494, deerfieldspa.com/, email: deerspa@ptd.net.

One half-hour east of Hartford, The Spa at Grand Lake is no longer strictly a diet spa; while its nutrition and exercise programs can be tailored for weight-loss, visitors often come to de-stress and relax on the 75 acres of countryside. Included in your stay at Grand Lake are room, board, exercise classes, use of all facilities (which include an Olympic-sized swimming pool outdoors; a junior heated swimming pool indoors, jacuzzi, and sauna), plus a nightly half-hour massage. For those who want to shed a few pounds, meals can be portioned and calorie-counted, and a wide range of classes, from kickboxing to pilates to trail-hiking, are offered to complete the fitness package. Dinners are regularly served by candlelight and abide by the mantra of health: lots of veggies and low fat, low sugar, low salt. The spa is open April through December with the same rate all year. Prices bottom out at $1079 per week for standard double rooms. Singles pay $200 more in any season. For full rates and info, go to thespaatgrandlake.com/ or contact The Spa at Grand Lake, 1667 Exeter Road, Lebanon, CT 06249, phone 800/THE-SPA1 (843-7721) or 860/642-4306 e-mail spagrandlake@earthlink.net.

California and Utah

The Palms at Palm Springs, in Palm Springs, California, a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, has weekly rates from September to June of $1,113/week per person double (plus 14% service charge) with shared bath, $1,393 with private bath, and $1,750 for a single. As glamorous as you might wish, located in an area of elegant resorts, the Palms offers you a choice of 16 optional fitness classes a day in addition to meals limited to a spartan but well-balanced 1,000 calories per day, which virtually guarantees a daily weight loss of nearly a pound. Though it only barely fits within our budget standards, the Palms' desert mountainscape and good-quality lodgings make it a value. These prices also include two complimentary spa treatments (facial, massage, body wrap, or private fitness instruction). For details, contact The Palms at Palm Springs, 572 N. Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, CA 92262 (phone 800/753-PALM or 760/325-1111, email: info@palmsspa.com or Web: palmsspa.com/.

The Red Mountain Spa in Utah (southwest corner of the state, some 120 miles north of Las Vegas) is a collection of hotel rooms and high-end villas on the desert floor of red sandstone canyons. Also on the higher end of the budget scale (prices start at $1,645 per person per week in a double occupancy, and higher still for singles), yet remarkably well-equipped and with a serious approach to nutrition that for many results in permanent weight loss. "For the price we charge," says the institute's owner, "we are the number one fitness resort of the world." Amazingly enough, I have heard similar raves from several people who paid recent visits. Guests work out on the most modern sports equipment, swim in a large heated indoor pool, go on guided hikes or rock climb, engage in numerous exercise classes daily, eat meals designed to cut fat and cholesterol, and often experience dramatic reductions in blood pressure and clothing sizes. Contact Red Mountain Spa, 1275 East Red Mountain Circle, Ivins, Utah 84738, phone 800/407-3002. Web: redmountainspa.com/.

The Oaks at Ojai, 50 miles east of Santa Barbara, California. Sister spa to the renovating Palms at Palm Springs, The Oaks average $169 a night per person in double rooms to a stiff $309, all plus a 14 percent service charge, make this a high-end budget selection. Impressive in both its fervor and facilities, the rustic (beamed ceilings, stone fireplaces) but elegant Oaks is a fitting country-inn addition to the art colony town of Ojai, offering a remarkable program of nearly 16 daily exercise classes and lectures. Meals are frequently gourmet in quality, but made without salt, white sugar, or white flour and containing a total of only 1,000 calories daily. Equipment and exercise areas are of top quality, as is the large staff that attends to a varied clientele of both sexes and all ages. Weekly packages included two spa treatments per person in the rate (see above). For more information, contact The Oaks at Ojai, 122 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai, CA 93023 (phone 800/753-OAKS, oaksspa.com/).

Mexico

Rio Caliente, Mexico: In the valley of a remote pine forest about an hour by taxi from the airport of Guadalajara, Rio Caliente is Mexico's holistic-health-inclined, yoga-oriented, New Age-style spa and mineral hot springs. Guests--who represent a broad range of ages, backgrounds and interests--"take the waters" in one of four heavily salted (of lithium and selenium) and mineral-rich pools or in a natural steam room; alternate between meditation, yoga, tai-chi, aquatic and non-impact aerobics, or hiking; and consume a slimming, vegetarian diet low in sodium and fat. Rio Caliente offers various forms of both swedish and regular massages. Bear in mind that the social program and setting are not for swingers or other standard resort types; that children under 16 are not admitted; and that a pervasive, stress-free hush prevails over the 30 acres of stunning terrain, in a constantly moderate climate. For all this, you pay only $128 or so dollars a day for room (based on double occupancy, $152 for a single) and all three meals, and a remarkable $49 for each one-hour massage, $16 for detoxifying mudwraps. Request bookings or brochures from Spa Vacations Ltd., P.O. Box 897, Millbrae, CA 94030 (phone 800/200-2927), e-mail: RioCal@aol.com, riocaliente.com/.

Ixtapan, Mexico: The closest Mexican equivalent to our own luxury spas, the large (250 suites) and well-equipped Ixtapan Resort Hotel and Spa takes pains to limit its spa guests to 1,100 calories a day of well-prepared diet meals. On the all-inclusive, Sunday-to-Sunday spa program costing only $120 per person per night single occupancy, and $150 double, guests take a daily morning walk followed by aquatic exercise, steam bath and daily massage, facial, and gymnastics. Then, three times a week, and also included in the price, they receive mudwraps and loofa baths, hair treatment, manicures, and pedicures, yoga, and swedish massages, staying all the while in attractive junior suites that would cost far more in the U.S. Don't confuse this location with Ixtapa on the Pacific coast; this is near Ixtapan de la Sal, south of Mexico City, and also near the silver-producing city of Taxco. For brochures or bookings, call 800/638-7950 or visit spamexico.com/.

Avandaro Golf and Spa Resort: In the Sierra Madre mountains, near the colonial town of Valle de Bravo, it takes a rather relaxed approach to health, favoring rest over exercise (though there's plenty of the latter, together with tennis courts, pool, golf, sailing, and horseback riding), massage over treadmills. And there are jacuzzis everywhere, saunas and steam rooms, high-pressure massage showers, and high quality accommodations that feature working fireplaces in each room. The "Spa Sampler," a six-night, seven-day program includes accomodations, all meals, seven spa admissions, three massages and a variety of spa treatments, costing $2050 in a double or $1430 in a single. Contact the resort's U.S. representative, Great Spas of the World for reservations 800/SPA-TIME or 212/889-8170 (or visit greatspas.com/).

Villa Bejar, Mexico: On the shores of Lake Tequesquitengo, rather quiet and serene during the week, lively and active with the start-up of a floating discotheque on weekends; it is a superb spa and a fine value, with extensive and up-to-the-minute, computerized exercise machines. Depending on the package, Bejar guests will receive a facial diagnosis, six body massages, one deep cleansing facial and one "hydrating" facial, a reflexology treatment, mud or seaweed wrap, and of course unlimited visits to the resort's spa, which comes with Evian showers, hydro-pool, saunas, jacuzzis and assorted other treatments. All for around $874 (double), $1078 (single), based on a six-day stay including full board as well. Again, bookings can be made through Great Spas of the World at 800-SPA-TIME or visit greatspas.com/.

To find other low cost spas, a booking specialist

A glossy four-color publication called Spa Finder ($19 for a one-year subscription) is currently enabling a narrow segment of the public (those who know about it) to enjoy wholesome spa vacations here in the United States at a fraction of the cost that others incur. It achieves that feat simply by revealing the existence of a broad range of spas heretofore known only to spa-lovers residing in the immediate vicinity.

A remarkable product of nationwide research, presented with glamorous flair but punctilious attention to detail (prices to the penny, seasons, facilities), it claims to contain listings and descriptions of all major U.S. spas, bar none, alerting us to underutilized facilities that have long catered to a purely local clientele. Included are places with all the features and facilities of the big-name resorts--Jacuzzis and rubdown tables, saunas, aerobics, and scientifically measured meals--but at rates as low as $525 a week for room, all meals, and all traditional spa treatments and programs. Some of the establishments in it are making their first appearance before a nationwide audience.

(Spa Finder also lists and describes the higher-priced varieties, of course, but proudly claims to be the first such publication to gather particulars on every one in every price range, in a widely dispersed activity.)

To subscribe, visit Spa Finders on the Web at spafinder.com/, or call 212/924-6800. Packages and airfares can also be arranged at a reduced price.

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