The Washington Times - August 9, 2009, 06:13PM

by Linda Mensinga

Visiting southern California’s Cal-a-Vie spa is the great way to escape the stresses of work and responsibilities and emerge feeling better,stronger and healthier.


Cal A Vie, Vista,CAFitness instructors will show you cardio, strength and stretching moves. Therapists will pamper your face, scalp and body with gentle moves. Classes, lectures, massages and delicious guilt-free food make this vacation truly rejuvenating.

My anti-oxidant massage in the hands of Susan Price, Assistant Manager for Body Department, was a complete pleasure. Every stroke gave me a sense of well-being, warmth and comfort. Every drop of the signature Olavie Body and Massage Oil soaked into my skin.

Susie has been in body work for18 years as a second career after toiling in the computer industry and now trains other therapists. When she receives massages or treatments during travel or from job applicants, she makes mental notes about which moves feel good and has incorporated those into her own technique.

Relaxation and undiluted contentment result.

The one-week cost of just under $8000 is pricey but includes everything-personal planner, food, classes and 2 spa treatments a day. Comparing the all-inclusive program to the $400 room rate at a 4- or 5-star hotel, puts the charge into some perspective.

Marketing director Dana Higgins said many women are executives or own their own businesses. Others are full-time moms who need a break. Some save up especially for the week and treat themselves. Petite weeks of 3- or 4-day visits can be arranged for those who simply do not have the time. However those guests usually say when they return, they will stay for an entire week.

Cal A Vie, Vista,CAYearly occupancy runs an enviable 85%. Most guests arrive with a couple of goals in mind, the top two being weight loss and stress reduction. Others simply want a getaway or are regular spa goers that love the TLC they get at a spa. Some are moms needing a break or a group for a girlfriends vacation. Celebrities have graced the spa with their presence.

“Their issues are the same as everyone else’s,” Susan commented. She did not share names or details. Celebrities Kirstie Alley, Oprah Winfrey, Julia Roberts, Claire Danes, Tim Daly, Ricki Lake and Paula Abdul have been guests at Cal a vie. “Kirstie Alley likes the privacy and lack of pressure,” Dana said.

With a guest return rate of 50%, marketing or specials might seem unnecessary. But Dana and her colleagues keep things interesting with a number of theme weeks.

Culinary Week would be my first choice as long as samples are provided. Women’s Beauty Week teaches “beauty secrets from the experts who work with the A-list crowd.” Taking good notes that week might qualify you for the next reality show, say the Real Housewives of Boise.

Or try Graphology with Lena Rivkin MFA to get a “unique and powerful window in the psyche,” and learn everything your handwriting reveals that you didn’t already know about yourself. When guests arrive they meet with a spa planner who coordinates their whole week of classes and treatments. They also receive a fitness evaluation and wellness profile. A daily weigh-in every morning before breakfast becomes a motivating factor.

“We’re not a boot camp. No one will get you out of bed. We’ll push only if you ask us,” said Dana Higgins marketing director for Cal-a-Vie. But an individualized daily schedule of classes and treatments is given to guests. Most fitness classes are scheduled in the morning, four hours worth, with afternoons reserved for massages, facials and other treatments. This allows guests to simply show up without making phone calls for appointments or planning a balance of strength, stretching and aerobic workouts.

“After a couple of days, guests get spa brain,” Dana said. Fitness classes include some tried and true such as kick-boxing, interval weight training circuit, spinning or step. Other have esoteric titles such as BOSU, NIA(Neuromuscular Integrative Action),Metabolic Magic or Zumba. Afternoons, between spa appointments can be spent in Vinyasa flow yoga, Heart opening yoga, hip opening yoga and restorative yoga.

“Guests usually want to try everything,” said Susan Price. Popular treatments include the bamboo massage, done with bamboo sticks and oil; hot stone massage, magnet therapy, reflexology, facials and hydrotherapy. A contouring wrap, green tea wrap and silhouette wrap offer other experiences.

One convenience is a continuous supply of sweats, t-shirts and shorts so no one has to launder or re-wear sweaty workout clothes. However daily laundry service is included for those who do bring their own. Sweats are considered acceptable dinner attire. Evening activities include cooking demos, lectures or entertainment. Most guests head for bed around 9:00 PM ready for sleep.

As a destination spa, Cal-a-Vie draws from New York, Texas, Washington DC, Chicago and San Francisco. The majority are women but couples or small groups also book spa weeks.

“Every department has guest survey goal of 93%. The staff to guest ratio is 5 to 1,” said Dana, “We anticipate and meet any wish or need the guest may have. We accommodate all requests down to the color of the bedding. A return guest mentioned she preferred the lighter color bedspread/pillows she had on her last visit. Housekeeping looked up the room she had before and changed out the bedding to match while she was at lunch,” Dana said.

Cal A Vie, Vista,CA, Chef JasonFood requests are also accommodated by Executive Chef Jason Graham. The day I visited over half of the guests had some sort of special request. A dot on their place card signals the server.

“Anything from gluten-free, vegan, no nuts or seeds or other allergies,” Dana said. Chef Jason adds, “Dairy free is a big one. We use soy or rice milk. Or a shellfish allergy. Some are just preferences. They dislike bell pepper, beets or oranges.”

Guests get 3 meals and 2 snacks daily. Graham calls his cuisine fine dining with natural food. He goes to local farmers’ markets two times a week and picks up the freshest and most flavorful produce.

“We feature one vegetable every night. It might be baby green zucchini, saffron cauliflower coulis on halibut or giant baby yellow squash. It’s never just a medley,” he said. “I love food and try new things at home. I taste a dish somewhere and then decide how to make it with less fat and calories,” he explained.

Recently he tried a turkey soup he plans to re-make. He serves salads for lunch but only every couple of days. Pizza, turkey burgers and sweet potato fries make the menu other days.

“Otherwise people would think we only serve rabbit food,” he said. “And after 4 hours of exercise they are hungry.”

Dinner is the biggest meal of the day and might be leek soup with a crab and corn cake; beef tenderloin with marinated tomatoes, artichokes and roasted potatoes; and chocolate tasting for dessert. Bread and butter are not served.

Chef Jason uses only agave, maple syrup or stevia as sweeteners; instead of butter, Earth Balance. He keeps the daily count of 1200 calories by controlling portion size and the amount of fat.

Cal A Vie, Vista,CA“People generally rave and love the food. We make them feel good because they are working hard,” he said.

Guest favorites include Thai lobster and scallop curry; a crispy salmon bento box and spaghetti and meatballs. A recent creation for dessert was caramelized pineapple, candied fennel, cara cara oranges with homemade soy coconut ice cream.

Another hit was a plate of seasonal fruit with a small scoop of strawberry ice cream surrounded by plums, nectarines, cassava melons and local organic mulberries. How does peach and cherry cobbler or peanut butter ice cream sound?

Dinners are more elaborate and served in courses. A first course of leek soup and west coast crab and corn cake; an entrée of roasted natural angus beef tenderloin, marinated tomatoes, organic green beans, artichokes and roasted potatoes; followed by a chocolate tasting for dessert were served recently.

The executive chef confessed he has his own issues with food. He loves it. He compared his weight to a roller coaster at times and late night eating can be his downfall.

“I find my wife’s food stashes,” he admitted. Cookies and pizza are his go-to cravings. He somehow finds time to work out before or after his 12-hour days.

Jason looks forward to improvements being made. A building project in construction is a reception hall for weddings with a demonstration kitchen steps away from the chapel. An organic garden just above his kitchen will supply herbs, vegetables and fruit eventually.

“I gave a list to the gardeners on what to plant,” he said.

The only time I felt neglected was waiting in vain for my iced tea to be refilled. My other personal preference would be the addition of docent tours as an activity. Beautiful antiques appear everywhere–garden pots, tapestries, tile, furniture and chandeliers–collected by the owners on their yearly sojourns to France. Some way to inform guests about their origin and history would be appreciated. A slide show, brochure or information on the website would all work.


Cal-a-Vie, The Spa Havens

29402 Spa Havens Way

Vista, CA 92804 760-945-2055