Spas: Working Vacation

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Contrary to its serene setting within a sleepy agricultural valley outside San Diego, surrounded by oak, olive, and orange trees, the European-style Cal-a-Vie (Cal is short for California, and Vie is the French word for life) is not a place for relaxation—or presumably for romance: The spa has a one-person-per-room policy, hosting only 24 guests at a time. However, Cal-a-Vie will introduce you to, or reacquaint you with, healthy living, as you take predawn hikes in surrounding foothills and, under the guidance of a fitness instructor, push your muscles in the new 17,000-square-foot fitness facility, part of the spa’s recent $10 million expansion and renovation. (Golf is available at a nearby country club.) In the afternoon, you can collapse, sore and sweaty, in the property’s bathhouse for some down-to-basics pampering: no aura cleansings or chocolate pedicures, just tried-and-true massages, soaks, scrubs, and facials.

The chef, working with the staff dietitian, prepares healthy and surprisingly tasty dinner meals, which are served on tables adorned with white linen and candles while a fire crackles in the stone fireplace. If not for the evening’s attire—the gray sweat suits that the spa encourages guests to wear throughout their stays—you might feel as though you were being hosted in a stately manor. And in a sense, you are.

“We treat it like our second home,” says 50-year-old John Havens, who, with his wife, Terri, purchased the property five years ago. The couple, who comes from—and still has a home in—New Orleans, determined to buy the spa after visiting it three years earlier. While the Mediterranean-influenced architecture and lavender-scented hills reminded them of past trips to Provence and Tuscany, the interior’s stark decor, consisting of white walls and fluorescent lighting, left them contemplating other possibilities.

After making numerous buying trips to Paris, the couple furnished the spa with a cache of antiques that includes an Italian chandelier, which is suspended over the yoga studio, and a tapestry once given as a gift by Louis XVI to a visiting diplomat in the late 18th century. The tapestry hangs near a Steinway piano in a 2,000-square-foot grand room that hosts lectures by guest speakers.

New to the grounds is a 400-year-old chapel that Havens purchased from a Dijon, France, monastery and had shipped, block by block, to Cal-a-Vie. “I think of it as a really neat spiritual spot; maybe we’ll take the benches out and teach yoga, or bring in a speaker on healing,” he says.

“A lot of people come to Cal-a-Vie because there’s something going on with their lives,” continues Havens, “and they’re looking for answers.” For this reason, the spa has maintained its single-occupancy standard, which has been in place since it first opened 20 years ago. Havens confesses, however, that he and his wife did not adhere to the rule during their initial visit eight years ago. “I kept my clothes in my separate room and sneaked in to sleep in her room after two or three nights,” he says. It might be OK, then, to flout that gray-sweat-suit dress code as well.




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