LEISURE

The fitness quest

A modern spa is much more than a ‘fat farm’

BARBARA WICKENS October 17 1988
LEISURE

The fitness quest

A modern spa is much more than a ‘fat farm’

BARBARA WICKENS October 17 1988

The fitness quest

LEISURE

A modern spa is much more than a ‘fat farm’

As chairman and president of The Hume Group Ltd., a Torontobased financial services and publishing firm, Ron Hume says that he is often too busy with frequent business trips and too many working lunches to get enough exercise. When he does get a break, Hume, like a growing number of North Americans, opts for a weeklong visit to a spa—a resort where the emphasis is firmly on good health. Hume has made two visits in the past 2Vi years to Canyon Ranch, near Tucson, Ariz. There, guests can start the day with a six-kilometre hike in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, choose from a variety of exercise classes and treatments such as facials or massage, and select meals from a low-calorie menu plan featuring dishes such as warm scallop salad with a raspberry vinegar-walnut oil dressing. The results, Hume said, were worth the effort: “It is like attaching jumper cables when your battery is run down.”

There was a time when spas were dismissed by critics as summer camps for the rich or “fat farms” for the obese. But spas have evolved with the fitness boom of the

past decade to become popular vacation destinations. An estimated five million people visited spas in Canada, the United States and Mexico last year—a 1,000-per-cent increase since the early 1980s. And spas are no longer preserves of the wealthy. While some charge guests as much as $3,500 a week, others offer a week of accommodation, food and fitness for a more modest $300.

But until recently, one problem for Canadian spa enthusiasts was the small number of resorts on their own soil. Since 1983, Torontonians have had the Schömberg Health Spa &

Retreat, 30 km north of the city, which serves a dozen guests at a time. In British Columbia, The Hills Health and Guest Ranch, 460 km northeast of Vancouver, has been open to about 80 guests at a time since 1985. Now, in response to the growing popularity of health and fitness resorts, developers are planning a new genera-

tion of spas across Canada, particularly in Ontario and the Maritimes. These include the Prince Edward Island Resort near Millvale, P.E.I., and Mabou West, on Cape Breton Island, as well as a project that will create Canada’s largest and most luxurious spa—the King Ranch, a $38-million health spa and fitness resort near Toronto, designed by architect Arthur Erickson.

When it opens, a year from now, King Ranch will offer guests a healthy regimen on 177 acres of rolling countryside in King Township, a 20minute drive from Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport. That means, according to King Ranch presu ident Adam Koffler, that the 2 spa will be within two hours’

1 flying time of a market of « about 100 million people.

2 Koffler—whose father, Murray, a tounder of Shoppers Drug Mart, is the chairman of the board of King Ranch—said that he does not expect the Canadian climate to be a problem. “Our research, conducted with current spa-goers in New York, Chicago and Toronto, showed us that, of all the reasons people go to a spa, weather was the least important. People are more concerned about the spa program, the food and accessibility.”

Those have been the basic requirements for spas throughout their long history. The word “spa” is taken from the town of that name in Belgium, where the waters from the local mineral springs—believed to be therapeutic—were popular with royalty, including the 17th-century Russian czar Peter the Great. Bathing in or drinking the water from mineral springs for therapeutic purposes has been traced back to at least the fifth century BC, when hot z springs on Greece’s Aegean g islands served as clinics, s The Romans spread the g practice throughout Europe, ^ and some well-preserved “ Roman spas still exist, in£ eluding those in Bath, Enogland, and Baden, i Switzerland.

5 In North America, few spas are located near springs, but most have borrowed the ancient concept of offering healthy recreation in pleasant surroundings. Anne Harding, president of International Spa Corp. and author of the travel guide, Resort to Fitness, said that, although the emphasis is different at each spa, health resorts focus on four main elements: exercise, proper nutri-

tion, pampering (mainly by massage) and stress management. Added Harding: “The idea is to show you how good you can feel so that you will have the motivation to continue with your new healthy habits once you get back home.”

In fact, during a typical week at a spa, it is not unusual for guests to report that they do not feel well by the second or third day. With alcohol and caffeine generally off limits and opportunities for smoking severely curtailed— most spas allow smoking in only a few designated areas, if at all—many people experience withdrawal symptoms.

According to Harding, this is when a pampering facial or massage feels more like a necessity than a luxury. One popular treatment is called herbal wrap, a process that involves wrapping the subject in hot sheets soaked in herbs.

Advocates of wrapping claim that it helps rid the body of toxins.

Nutrition also plays an important role in spa life. Spagoers are typically restricted to a 1,000to 1,200-calorie-aday diet—a small bag of potato chips alone has more than 300 calories—that is high in fibre and carbohydrates, but low in sugar, salt and fats. While the portions can look meagre—especially for those attending spas that are attached to larger resorts where other diners eat in the same room and order from ordinary menus—spa food has become so popular that several spa-style cookbooks are readily available. But most people adjust to a spa diet and exercise routine in about five days. Then, says Harding, “people say they feel a real shift in their energy levels.”

In the past, the majority of spa-goers have been women.

Now, many spa operators report that growing numbers of men are checking in. Canyon Ranch owner Mel Zuckerman, for one, said that, on average, about 40 per cent of his guests are men, up from five per cent when he opened his spa nine years ago. That is partly the result of an increased number of programs designed to appeal to male guests, including physical activities such as basketball and programs such as MindFitness, which uses advanced

electronic feedback equipment to relax the mind.

While modern spas have attracted a dedicated following, some critics claim that a spa vacation can be a waste of both time and money. Marcia McClung, 45, senior vicepresident of the Toronto-based marketing firm Arts and Communications Counselors,

who has taken four spa vacations in the past eight years, says that it is important for people to know exactly what they want from a spa and to choose the right one. She added that spa-goers must be realistic about what they can accomplish in a week. Said McClung: “Part of the secret of enjoying a spa vacation is not expecting that it is going to change your life. You cannot undo 20 years of bad living.” Zuckerman of Canyon Ranch—where prices start at $1,600 for a weeklong stay— agrees. “If you go back home and just do what you did before that got you so out of shape, it is the most expensive seven days of your life,” says Zuckerman.

When it opens for business, Ontario’s King Ranch will offer traditional spa facilities on a grandiose modern scale. One of the most spectacular features will be an enclosed 200-m track that begins in the resort’s main building, then loops through the nearby woods. Other facilities at the the resort—it will accommodate 180 guests at rates ranging from about $1,500 to $2,500 a week—will include a nonalcoholic bar, serving bottled spring and mineral waters from around the world, and a private theatre that will show the latest movies, under an agreement with Cineplex Odeon.

In the Maritimes, at least two developments are in the planning stages. Michael and Linda Schuman of Charlottetown plan to build the $4-million Prince Edward Island Resort on 160 acres of former dairy farmland near Millvale, P.E.I. Financed so far by private investors, the resort will accommodate up to 40 guests. Hotel owner Charles MacDonald is chairman of a group of 38 investors that plans to start construction of Mabou West on Cape Breton Island in the new year. There, up to 100 guests will pay as much as $175 a night for facilities including ski trails and a 65-acre golf course. Says MacDonald: “Right now, you cannot keep up with the demand for spa facilities. It is what people are into these days.” The growing desire to get into shape is changing the shape of vacations.

BARBARA WICKENS