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The Spa Solution : Relief for the stressed-out, from low-cost to luxury : New Mexico: Southwestern style, with no pressure

July 14, 1991|BETH ANN KRIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Krier is a staff writer for The Times' View Section who also writes the weekly Hot to Shop column. and

GALISTEO, N.M. — They don't force you to rise at dawn to huff your way up the nearest mountain, while you pretend that crisp air, vigorous exercise and harsh morning light actually thrill you.

You don't necessarily have to give up your chateaubriand and Cabernet Sauvignon to stay on your diet.

And should you want to be downright anti-social, it's totally OK if you want to pass on aqua aerobics and hide in your room listening to Public Enemy tapes.

Vista Clara is my kind of health spa. Even smoking is sanctioned there, as long as it's done outside and not in the retreat's gracious adobe structures, which rest quietly in the foothills of New Mexico's Sangre de Christo Mountains in Galisteo, 22 miles south of Santa Fe.

They are truly dedicated at Vista Clara Spa and Health Retreat--dedicated to allowing each guest to follow his or her own inner wisdom regarding personal health routines. But get this: There is so much unconditional acceptance of and allowance for individual preferences that visitors tend to drop all their resistance to "the program."

Most want to jump in with authentic enthusiasm, eating the delicious low-fat concoctions that masquerade as regular food. They want to move intensely, pumping and sweating in back-to-back exercise classes. Many even want to get up at the crack of dawn to experience that suddenly beautiful, beckoning mountain ridge.

At least I did. And I am a tough sell when it comes to anything remotely resembling sacrifice. I spent the last three days of 1990 at Vista Clara, not knowing before I went if I'd like it. I'd heard encouraging things about it through the grapevine--that its nouvelle Southwestern cuisine was as good as it was gorgeous, that American Indian practices such as Indian dancing and instruction on how to use a medicine wheel were an optional part of the program, and that the accommodations were exquisite. But I still feared that I would somehow be coerced into dragging my completely California-ized bones through the freezing snow on a stupid, let's-watch-the-sunrise mountain hike.

Opened about a year ago, Vista Clara was created by Chris and Carmen Partridge. He's a 50-year-old real estate developer and she's a 48-year-old sculptor. They fled New York City in 1986 and moved to Galisteo, expecting to retire there. But the area energized them so much that they decided to create an entirely new career. "We found it so naturally peaceful and healing here, we thought 'Let's share it,' " says Chris Partridge.

On 80 pristine acres of land, they installed state-of-the-art fixtures and amenities in an existing 150-year-old adobe pueblo. They had new buildings created that were designed to be stylistically indistinguishable from the adobe or complementary to it. The spacious guest rooms are sparsely but serenely furnished with handmade, Santa Fe-style furniture and Persian rugs. Hand-painted Mexican tiles adorn the thoroughly modern bathrooms.

In the therapy center, nine-nozzle showers compete for attention with reflexology treatments. And in an authentic American Indian kiva, a round temple built deep into the earth, exercise sessions are held, as are rock-climbing classes that utilize a specially built training wall.

Because the Partridges have many American Indian friends and wanted the retreat's programs and facilities to reflect that which is indigenous to the area, there are also four teepees on the property. They were created by a Sioux living in the Dakotas and were ceremonially installed on the Vista Clara land by a Shoshone friend of the Partridges.

Not many visitors do it, but there is the option of sleeping out in one of the teepees. Guests are far more likely to spend time at Vista Clara learning about American Indianfolklore. On Wednesdays, Julie Rivers, a white woman who has lived with American Indians, arrives to teach guests how to create medicine bags, leads Indian dancing sessions and lectures on the earth's natural forces. Rivers also presides at a traditional sweat lodge purification ritual for anybody who's up to it (almost everyone is).

Outside of standard low-impact aerobic and stretch classes, not much of anything at Vista Clara is predictable spa fare. For those who are not enamored of American Indian practices, there's a weekly visit from Richard Patton, better known as "The Mountain Man." Patton holds a Ph.D. in animal nutrition and works as a consultant to major ranches and zoos throughout the country, but as a part-time hobby he takes people out into the wilderness. At Vista Clara, he rides up on a horse and strides into the pueblo wearing authentic 1840s costume.

Then he joins the guests as hors d'oeuvres are served before dinner. "He gives a talk about the settling of Santa Fe, about the traits it took to conquer the wilderness and how those traits are alive and well within each of us," says Chris Partridge. "He does his talk and then rides off like the Lone Ranger."

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