Marie Manchester was flying to her weight-loss spa in Palm Springs when she broke down and ate a pack of M&M's.
"I just needed it," says the 47-year-old Seattle woman, whose bout with the scales has turned her into a fitness spa hopper in search of a body fix.
She's been pampered, exercised and deprived of sweets at spas from La Costa to Miami, Houston to Sonoma County. At the Palms, in Palm Springs, she just lost eight pounds in seven days.
"They're all about the same," she says, rating the Palms "friendly" on her mental tally.
But look closer and you'll find fitness resorts in a competitive dash to deliver the latest body wisdom to an increasingly aware public. In Southern California, home of about a dozen such spas, a peat moss mud bath, a seaweed body wrap and underwater body massage are among the newest treatments given.
Some spas even offer psychic readings. At La Costa, outside Carlsbad, Joan Magner attempts to read the future for spa-goers.
"They want to know: 'Will I lose weight?' " Magner says. "In most instances, the answer is: 'Sure.' "
Though spas pitch diverse methods for rejuvenating body and soul, they form a consensus behind two conservative trends. Most are phasing out high-impact aerobic exercise for less-strenuous workouts. And most insist patrons eat more than in the past, claiming a dieter will lose at least as much weight on 1,000 calories a day as on 600 or 700 calories.
The spas also see their focus changing from simple pampering or weight loss to the young-urbanite goals of stress reduction and "creating a balance."
Actress Linda Gray, who recently spent a $3,000 week at Cal-a-Vie fitness spa outside San Diego, says she uses spa time to "re-evaluate priorities.
"I'm very inner , and I needed to get in touch with myself," she says, recalling her routine at Cal-a-Vie: "They work your behind off until lunch, then you get things like hydrotherapy baths, seaweed wraps and aroma-therapy massage--so that by dinner, you're a total noodle."
"Am I coherent?" asks another Cal-a-Vie visitor, limp after a massage. Designer D. N. Evans of Newport Beach says she takes a spa vacation "instead of having a nervous breakdown."
Spas differ most over questions of comfort versus asceticism, coddling versus boot camp.
Two Bunch Palms in Desert Hot Springs goes for the coddling--at $90 to $350 a night. Clients are plied by strong Swedish or pressure-point shiatsu massages, rocked and shaken by Trager massages and soaked in hot springs.
There are no exercise classes, and tennis courts are used "maybe once a month," says co-director Dana Smith. The latest Two Bunch treatment is a green clay body rejuvenator, which visitors are urged to save until last "as icing on the cake."
At the Golden Door, a $3,000-a-week retreat outside Escondido, the philosophy is exercise "from dawn until dusk," says director Annharriet Buck. The staff muffles that blow by referring to a workout as "movement" and with constant doting.
Despite the niceties, Buck, a psychologist, calls a week at the Golden Door a "stripping process" aimed at "changing lives." The spa increased its spiritual bent two years ago with its Inner Door program, a series of lectures for spa-goers exploring intuition, "mind fitness" and "the magic side of ourselves."
The Ashram in Calabasas, at $1,600 a week, doesn't try to mask its grueling intent.
"We give suffering," director Anne Marie Bengstrom says. "The results are terrific. A man loses 12 to 14 pounds in a week, and a woman loses 8 to 10 pounds."
The program--a Spartan diet and intense exercise--has changed little in a dozen years, except for a growing emphasis on tai chi and long hikes, she says. A typical day means yoga, weightlifting, aerobics, water exercises, hours of hiking and a massage.
"We tell them: 'You need to come here and suffer because you feel you don't deserve to love yourself until you suffer.'
"We ask them 'Why?' And 'When are you going to stop doing that to yourself?' " Bengstrom says.
"State of the art" at the Palms means dropping almost all high-impact aerobic exercise for less-bouncy sessions and using giant rubber bands, weighted balls or water for resistance.
"The next big movement in conditioning will be body contouring through aerobics," says owner Sheila Cluff, referring to wrist-weight-aided aerobic sessions.
Cluff, who also owns the Oaks in Ojai, says European massages and spa treatments are gaining favor with guests, who no longer consider that realm "decadent."
Since opening 15 months ago, Cal-a-Vie in Vista has introduced
two European treatments to visitors. Spokesman Ann Reis describes "hydrotherapy" as an underwater massage that stimulates the lymphatic system. With a new seaweed wrap, patrons are "painted" with a green seaweed paste, then wrapped in a thermal metallic blanket. Part of the two-hour detoxifying treatment is to listen to "sea music" on headphones, she says.