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COVER STORY : What Price Beauty? : Upscale Spas Entice Weary Souls, Bodies

September 13, 1990|PAULA M. JHUNG

Three thousand, seven hundred and fifty dollars can buy a bit of luxury in North County: a three-karat diamond tennis bracelet from Jessop's, a hot pink jet ski from Encinitas Jet Ski, a silk and wool Bokara from Far Away Oriental Rugs.

It can also buy seven days of pummeling, polishing and pampering at one of three North County fitness spas.

Not your average gym-Jacuzzi-juice bars, mind you, but three of the top-rated spas in the world; where the rich, powerful and famous fine-tune their bodies and balance their psyches, and where many of the guests visit two or three times a year.

What motivates someone to spend up to $12,000 to shape up and stress down? Take a peek.


Situated on a secluded 177 acres in northern Escondido, the Japanese-style complex is nestled in the shade of hills, orchards and oaks. Guests pass through a gilded portal over a wooden footbridge and enter a world of shoji screens, koi ponds and meditative peace.

Each of the 39 guests is housed in a spacious but almost Spartan room that has a private garden, moon-viewing deck and a closet filled with exercise attire and kimonos. Pools, tennis courts and various pavilions give the feeling of summer camp for the emperor's children.

The day begins with a sunrise hike up the mountain or a more moderate garden walk, followed by breakfast in bed, served on a flower-bedecked tray. A fan-shaped card sits on the tray, detailing the day's activities based on the guest's fitness level.

There are no decisions to be made about what to wear, eat or do here. When you check-in, you can check your brain at the door. Although you won't need much brain power, you'll need all you have in brawn.

A typical day includes an hour of tai chi, followed by an hour of Da Vinci exercise (known outside Shangri-La as aerobics) followed by one-on-one weight training, jazz or tap dancing, yoga, and perhaps a game of water volleyball after lunch. To avoid aerobic overload, exercise is interspersed with more relaxing pursuits: facials, herbal wraps, body scrubs, massages, aromatherpay, make-up lessons, manicures and pedicures. Everything for the body-beautiful, short of plastic surgery.

There aren't many sumo-sized bodies under those kimonos. Most guests are within 10 to 25 pounds of their ideal weight. "We try to discourage the truly obese," director Judy Bird said. "Or at least encourage them to lose a few pounds before they arrive. We want everyone to feel successful. If someone cannot participate in at least half of the program, they are not going to enjoy that success."

The daily caloric intake ranges from 900 and 1,300 calories for those who want to lose weight, and more for those who want to maintain and build muscle. While portions may vary, no one seems to covet their neighbor's food.

"We're sneaky about adding and subtracting calories," said Bird. "The chef may vary the amount of dressing on the salads or sauce on the entrees, but each plate is so beautifully arranged, it's hard to detect the difference."

Meals are heavy in home-grown vegetables and fruits and light in fat, sugar, sodium and cholesterol. Eighty percent of the produce is grown chemical free on the property, the rest is supplemented by surrounding farms. Chef Tracy Ritter often can be found picking her way through the gardens and orchards, planning meals around fruits and vegetables at their peak.

On a mid-summer day, guests dined on a breakfast of fresh strawberries, an orange-oat-bran muffin and wheat germ. Lunch by the pool consisted of a vegetable roll with seven grains and sesame snow peas. Dinner in the dining room was a salad consisting of four kinds of lettuce with roasted beets, 10-flavor grilled chicken, lemon chive rice and mixed beans. For dessert, an apple-berry terrine.

Low-calorie hors d'oeuvres and fruit juice "cocktails" precede dinner. After dinner are self-improvement sessions on nutrition, mid-life crisis, career change and the like. Then, a dip in the hot tub. A massage sends you to sleep with dreams, perhaps, of Famous Amos or the Colonel.

Who frequents the Golden Door? When general manager Rachel Caldwell began working at the spa 30 years ago, the standard guest was a fiftyish overweight socialite, and often the wife of "somebody."

Today, she said, the typical female guest is forty-something, slimmer and very up-to-date on health and fitness. "She keeps us on our toes," said Caldwell. "We have to stay one step ahead of her." The '90s guest is also apt to be an entrepreneur or a professional woman, someone who tries to do it all, balancing family and career.

While women make up the majority of the guests, men also visit the spa. Five weeks out of the year are given over to couples, and eight exclusively to men.

During men's week, guests become part of what is loosely referred to as the "Billionaire Boy's Club," where moguls work off their corporate buns, network with other big-wigs, and give into the pleasures of facials and deep-tissue massage.

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