Spa Vacations
By Ann Nelson



I am sitting in my house alone, a month after my mother died, trying to collect my thoughts. Since I lost my dad about two and a half years ago, I am now officially “an orphan”. I feel unsettled and restless, a bit “off center”. What am I supposed to do now? Taking care of my parents has been a major focus in my life for the last eight years.

The idea of a spa vacation had occurred to me before, but was never a priority. Now I craved the idea of being totally pampered, massaged and coddled. After a little research, I found I was not alone.

More people than ever before are seeking the comfort and solace a spa offers. Since 9/11, bookings at many spas have risen as much as 25%. These tranquil retreats offer many benefits, among them renewed energy and increased mental focus.

Spas typically offer a chance to gear down and de-stress. The result is to feel stronger, and better able to handle stress.

The thought of conquering rugged hills on a morning hike, or learning Feldenkrais is an exhilarating thought. I now realize that I am the only one in charge of my life, and the fact that I won’t live forever has truly “hit home”. More that ever, I want to fill my life with meaning, substance and challenge.

One of the major challenges in planning a spa vacation is simply deciding where to go. Your budget may also be an important consideration. Since I decided to drive to my destination, choices were limited to short distances from San Diego. I visited four different spas, and will give you a brief account of each.

Deciding to go to this destination spa was an easy choice to make. It is uniquely situated at the base of Mount Kuchumaa, a little over an hour’s drive from San Diego, in Tecate, Mexico. The grounds are filled with lush greenery, red and yellow flowers and wonderful smells. A huge organic garden supplies many of the ingredients for their scrumptious meals.

The heart and soul of Rancho La Puerta is based on the life principles of its founder, Deborah Szekely. She and her late husband also founded the Golden Door. Deborah, an 85-year-old dynamo, says “It’s easy to play so many roles that you’re just not there. You won’t find yourself unless you look and listen. The goal is to look at yourself and find time for yourself.” The key, Deborah says, is to create a balance in life.

In addition to the physical aspect, there is a spiritual aspect at this spa that is comforting and soothing. It’s easy to get lost in the 3,000 acres of valleys and mountainsides surrounding this place. I stayed in one of the eighty casitas that dot the landscape. My casita created a private paradise with its wrap-around stone and terracotta tile patio, huge wooden beam ceiling and a lovely old fireplace.

Rancho La Puerta offers endless choices of ways to spend the day. Boxing, stretching, dancing, jewelry making, and hiking in the meadows and foothills, are just a few possibilities. A full spectrum of classes and treatments are offered here.

The next spas I visited were in Ojai, just a 90-minute drive north of Los Angeles. The town of Ojai is nothing short of a pleasant surprise from the “busting-at-the-seams” cities and towns of Southern California. The Chumash Indians lived in this valley over 1,000 years ago. It is the perfect place to spend time relaxing at a spa.

Spending time at The Ojai Valley Inn And Spa with my friend Stacey was invigorating and magical. Newly renovated and recently featured in Architectural Digest, the inn, much like Ojai, is charming and unpretentious. After a leisurely breakfast in our room, we began our first day with a Kuyam treatment.

Neither of us had ever heard of this before and wanted to try something new. The Kuyam is a combination of healing methods from many cultures and combines mud therapy, wet and dry heat therapy, inhalation therapy and guided meditation. This is a perfect treatment for relaxing and detoxifying the body.

Later in the day, I discovered that the Inn even offers horse-back riding only a few miles away. My fear of horses has been with me for over 30 years, and I was determined to conquer this. The astute staff at The Ranch picked up on my fear, and paired me up with a gentle, loving horse. We spent a wonderful afternoon together riding along the trails in the rolling hills and open meadows of the Ojai countryside.

Stacey and I spent time taking long walks, riding our bikes to town, lounging on our private veranda overlooking the golf course, and having luscious dinners on the outdoor terrace at The Oak Grill. The highlight at the end of the day was the sheer joy we felt by taking in the “Pink Moment”, when the last rays of light illuminate the Topa Topa bluffs with a vibrant glow of lavender and pink. The view from our little spot at the Oak Grill terrace was a perfect one.

Just down the street, in the middle of town, is the other spa in Ojai. One of the best features of The Oaks is the 1,000-calorie-a-day menu. It is very easy to lose weight here. This place is not luxurious or surrounded by spacious grounds, but it is reasonably priced and offers excellent and unique programs. The Sexuality Secrets Weekend is so popular it was featured in The Wall Street Journal. This class aims to raise your sexual self esteem and increase the connection between sexuality and spirituality.

Mother-Daughter Specials and Father’s Day Specials offer up to a 50% discount off the program rate for your guest. The Bring-a-Friend special offers substantial discounts as well. Heaven and Earth Weekend features astrologist Alex Bunshaft. This fun and enlightening weekend covers topics we all want to know about: love, career and life patterns.

The last spa I checked out was The Montage Resort and Spa in Laguna Beach. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, my friend Laurie and I headed up the coast with the goal of enhancing our knowledge of wine. The Montage offers a Sunday afternoon wine tasting session and we didn’t want to miss it. After our “educational session”, we checked in, and found our room to be magnificent, with a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean.

If you want to treat yourself to pure luxury, work out in a glass-walled fitness center overlooking the ocean, and sleep on 400 thread-count sheets, this place is hard to beat!   

Spending the better part of the next day at the 20,000 square foot spa simply gave me the feeling of floating on air, especially after experiencing “Surrender”, Montage’s signature treatment. This two-hour personalized experience is individually designed.

The session begins with a brief discussion of your lifestyle and personal needs. Treatments might include aromatherapy, reflexology, massage, or hydrotherapy. Candles are lit, and soft music may be playing in the background.

The impressive Montage restaurants have been featured in Bon Appetit and Food Arts Magazine. James Boyce, formerly the head chef at The Phoenician, prepares Nantucket Bay scallops in Noilly Prat butter with toasted California macadamia nuts, as well as grilled tenderloin vintage beef, with Idaho potato cake, asparagus and maitake mushrooms. The Loft is another great restaurant located on the property. Chef John Cuevas prepared a dinner for Laurie and me that is truly one of the most memorable meals I have ever had!

Spending time at a spa is the perfect way to revitalize your body and mind. I found spending a couple of days focusing on relaxation and health can truly renew your energy and your spirit.
Ann Nelson is a freelance writer, presently residing in San Diego, CA.

Rancho La Puerta - Rates: Start at  $2,080 weekly, depending on the season. All meals included. Rating:  Conde Nast Traveler Gold List. Phone (800) 443-7565, or
Ojai Valley Inn & Spa - Rates: Range from $400-$550 a night, depending on the season. Rating:  Conde Nast Traveler Gold List. Phone (800) 422-6524, or
The Oaks at Ojai - Rates: Start at $169.00 a night, mid-week. All meals included. “Most Affordable Spa”  Spa Finder  Magazine. Phone (800) 753-6257, or
Montage Resort & Spa - Rates: Start at $595.00 a night, depending on the season. Rating:  Five Star rating - Mobil Travel Guide. Phone (888) 715-6700, or

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