Spas take a hike

Hiking through forestFitness gets edge over pampering at resorts that emphasize hiking

RANGE PROVINCIAL PARK, British Columbia, Canada – After hours on the trail, scrambling over boulders in our steady climb toward Whitewater Mountain, we broke for lunch. Sitting atop a flat rock that doubled as my makeshift table, I cupped a warm mug of soup and paused to appreciate the scenery,

“It’s a pity you can’t see the mountain’s peak because of the cloud cover,” apologized Kirkland Shave, former Canadian park ranger, now hiking guide and general manager of Mountain Trek Fitness Retreat & Health Spa – my home for the week.

Then, as if on cue, the clouds parted and the sun shone on the freshly topped wedding cake-like mountain. Though only a moment, it was a magical one.

Sounding a bit like Sally Field, my thoughts traveled to my current hiking status.

“I’m a hiker, I’m really a hiker,” I silently exulted as I surveyed the terrain we traversed and reflected on my pre-hiking spa resume.

A regular walker (not hiker, there’s a difference) at home, my closet was filled with stiletto heels, not hiking boots. And as a spa veteran my experiences were numerous, but selections were predicated on the facility’s steam-and-cream treatments – not its activities.

That changed when I turned 39 (again), and despite my predisposition to pampering, the birthday present to myself was fitness. Thus, my North American hiking spa tour began.

Mountain Trek Fitness Retreat & Health Spa
Ainsworth Hot Springs, British Columbia

After an hourlong flight from Vancouver and another 90 minutes by car, I reached the “town” of Ainsworth Hot Springs (pop. 89) and found chaletlike digs.

In a cozy lounge area by a grand stone fireplace, several guests were singing along with a guitar when I arrived. My initial impression was “welcome.”

Immersion was immediate. Kinesiologist Don Carmichael conducted a body fitness/analysis assessment, we discussed goals and I was ready to hike toward them.

A 6 a.m. knock on my door began each day. It was followed by yoga in the serene window-lined studio (showcasing Kootenay Lake and the mountains beyond), a hearty low-caloric breakfast (like Northwest pancakes) and a 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. hike.

Hiking on a choice of 500 miles of wilderness trails was a key ingredient to this spa’s fitness plan, based on a highly structured, highly active daily regimen that has been designed to get you out and get you moving. Trails’ difficulty varied with their topography, ranging from moderate to extremely steep. And each morning SUVs headed in an assortment of directions, taking hikers (always accompanied by guides) to routes suited to their abilities.

Highlights were one-of-a-kind, made-in-Canada opportunities: spotting freshly imprinted moose tracks, sighting a bear and being the first to cross a newly constructed bridge over a rushing creek.

Dallasite Mark Hammerbeck came to Mountain Trek to get in touch with himself and nature. In the process, he quit smoking, shed pounds and dramatically reduced his blood pressure. But he said one of the most appreciated benefits was not hearing automobiles, airplanes or the doorbell.

Starting at $2760, FitPlan Plus (typically Friday to Friday) includes lodging, hiking program, meals, gym activities, daily laundry service, use of sweat suits, backpacks, three massages, body-composition analysis and a weight-loss meal plan. The hiking gear package is $280. Limit: 14 guests. Tip: Bring your swimsuit and enjoy Ainsworth Hot Springs’ renowned mineral waters (a five-minute walk from the lodge).

Contact: 1-800-661-5161; www.hiking.com.

New Life Hiking Spa,
Killington, Vt.

The scenery was pure New England: rolling hillsides dotted with old farmhouses, bed-and-breakfast inns and covered bridges. Nestled in this Norman Rockwell-like setting amid Vermont’s Green Mountains was the hiking-spa institution founded 27 years ago by fitness-and-nutrition expert and former chef Jimmy LeSage.

Named New Life because that’s what it hopes to give its guests, the spa is an off-ski-season, on-site program at The Inn of the Six Mountains resort.

Morning stretch class or qi gong started each day. In good weather, class is outdoors overlooking Killington Mountain. The remainder of the day was filled with chi kung, Pilates, yoga, water aerobics or sightseeing.

Rural Vermont was loaded with choices, such as touring Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory, visiting the Maple Syrup Museum and antiquing in nearby Woodstock. Evenings included activities such as cooking demonstrations and laughing class.

Mr. LeSage’s food training was evident in the cuisine – cinnamon raisin French toast, salmon en papillote and chocolate pie – served restaurant-style. Guidelines were simple: no sugar, no caffeine, no additives, no salt, no preservatives, no seconds.

But the core of the program was the daily three-hour hike that addressed every level of fitness: beginner (quaint countryside hikes), intermediate (trekking the Appalachian and Long Trails) and advanced (climbing some of the state’s highest peaks). At breakfast, the guides discussed the day’s options before hitting the trails.

“We use these mountains to gauge your progress,” said Mr. LeSage. And advancement from one level to the next by the end of a stay is not uncommon.

Five-day Jump Start Getaway at this seasonal spa (open from mid-May to mid-October) begins at $1075 and includes lodging; meals; one spa treatment; hiking and fitness program and use of gear. Limit: 35 guests. Tip: Visit during fall foliage.

Contact: 1-800-228-4676; (1-866-298-5433 off season); www.newlifehikingspa.com.

Rancho La Puerta
Tecate, Mexico

Rancho La Puerta view across rocky hillsFrom the moment of arrival, the spa’s Mexican influence was unmistakable. “Buenas dias, senora. May I escort you to your room,” the bellman asked. (Many staffers are fourth-generation workers at Rancho La Puerta).

Nurtured by founder and renowned spa maven Deborah Szekely, the ranch is as its brochure claims: “where the fitness revolution began in 1940.” The property’s layout was serene but expansive (designed for additional exercise, I learned).

It’s forever on the cutting edge, with over 60 fitness classes; low-fat, high-flavor Mexican-Mediterranean spa cuisine; men’s and women’s health centers; European spa treatments; Spanish lessons and guided hiking, a significant element in the ranch’s fitness program.

The ranch’s 3,000-acre wilderness reserve is at the base of the Kumeyaay Indians’spiritual mountain. Daily hikes through the area were varied. Among choices were the meditation scenic walk, rolling hills hike, fitness-walking workout and a five-mile advanced mountain hike.

My favorite: the organic breakfast hike, a 6:15 a.m. two-mile trek to Rancho Tres Estrella (the spa’s six-acre vegetable garden and fruit orchard) for a freshly cooked meal served in its welcoming breakfast kitchen.

Dallas resident Diane Dumas came to Rancho La Puerta for a jump-start and in the process became hooked on hiking.

“I’ve always done aerobics but I get bored easily, especially with exercise. Hiking created a diversion – I forgot I was exercising. And the lure of Mount Kuchumaa was magnetic.”

Her week at the Ranch led to a five-pound weight loss and a new exercise regimen.

The Saturday-to-Saturday program starts at $2080 and covers lodging, meals, all classes and hiking, use of facilities and evening programs.

Spa treatments are additional (in summer, some services may be included). Free bus transfers from San Diego International Airport. Limit: 160 guests. Tip: Don’t neglect your creative side. Go to a wreath-making class or an African dance workout.

Contact: 1-800-443-7565; www.rancholapuerta.com.

Former Dallas resident Cynthia Dial is a California freelance writer who lost 10 pounds and four inches during her fitness quest.

Hiker posting on rock at Ranch La Puerta