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I'm Paying to Be Abused? Really? A Sweaty Look at Luxury Health-Fitness Retreats

I'm Paying to Be Abused? Really? A Sweaty Look at Luxury Health-Fitness Retreats

There's a new breed of spas that will kick you you-know-what (Photo: Thinkstock)

There’s something undeniably masochistic about going to a place where the third day is known as Toxic Tuesday, because all the guests feel so rotten. Basically, you’re paying — often a lot — to be pushed with your own interests at heart. But on Toxic Tuesday, or Wacky Wednesday, at today’s new generation of luxury health retreats, it sometimes just feels like you’re paying to be abused. And at the time you wonder why you did it.


The menu at the Pearl Laguna (Photo: Facebook)

I’ve just finished my third of these fitness-and-weight-loss programs, which probably says something about me. To paraphrase the Peace Corps motto, they’re the toughest vacations I’ll ever love: four-hour hikes, minimal food, hours in the gym. And I’m not alone. Repeat guests, here for their annual tune-up or their attempt to beat last year’s mileage record, make up a big portion of the clientele. Perhaps they’re among the few who can get past the intimidation factor.

views from Ranch at Live Oak

You’re exhausted but at least the views are nice (Photo: Mountain Trek/Facebook)

Places such as the Ranch at Live Oak in Malibu, Mountain Trek in remote British Columbia, and the more yoga-centric Pearl in Laguna Beach aren’t spas. Besides serving healthy food (in rather different portions), encouraging exercise (to a rather different degree), and giving guests massages, they bear little resemblance to spas such as Canyon Ranch and Miraval, where the goal is generally just finding yourself in the desert.

Related: What Really Happens at Bikini Bootcamp?


Yoga on the beach

Yoga on the beach (Photo: The Pearl/Facebook)

These weeklong retreats owe more to The Ashram, the famous celebrity magnet spa in Calabasas, Calif., where the accommodations and experience are notoriously spartan — with shared bathrooms and all. It’s said to be difficult and uncomfortable, but it’s also a magnet for overachievers who are unable to get rid of their spare tire on their own or who just need a break from it all, and choose to pay someone to abuse them in order to help them lose the weight or the stress.

 hikes at Ranch at Live Oak Malibu

You’ll get your fill of hikes at Ranch at Live Oak (Photo: Facebook)

My first foray into this culture was Malibu’s Ranch at Live Oak. The guides pick up guests in Los Angeles, and trepidation sets in on the bus ride to the north. They send you a four-week plan for breaking your bad habits (sugar, diet soda, caffeine, booze) and even call to remind you to follow it, but no one seems to do so. If we had enough willpower to do that ourselves, we wouldn’t have to pay people. Fears are confirmed during the first of six daily 12-mile hikes: The snack is four almonds and two cashews. Guests have been known to vomit — especially if they’re in the throes of caffeine or Diet Coke withdrawal — but are forced to keep going. A woman there during my week barely managed to eat, because her migraines were so bad.

 But the euphoria and giddiness kick in around Thursday. The last two days you might as well be flying instead of hiking. And everyone felt amazing when it was done, possibly because it was done. One guest said to an old friend, “This is the first time I’ve seen your cheekbones in years.” I looked years younger and felt healthy and strong.

 Malibu Ranch at Live Oak

Intense workouts are part of the routine at Ranch (Photo: Ranch at Live Oak/Facebook)

The Ranch experience is brutal, especially the strict vegetarian diet and 5:30 a.m. wake-up calls for sunrise yoga, but most of us found it worth it. Admittedly, there’s a small clientele for that, which is one reason the Ranch launched a less rigorous four-day program at the Four Seasons Westlake Village, with bigger portions of vegetables and a more optional attitude toward fitness classes. I was pleased with my results there but found the program less satisfying than the original.

I didn’t have that problem with Mountain Trek in remote British Columbia a couple of weeks ago, even though the program is a bit easier to endure. You get to eat meat. Our first hiking snack was 10 almonds, two cashews, a pecan, and a nectarine. But they still wake you up for yoga and push you hard on the hiking trail and in a cardio gym class after dinner.

Mountain Trek

Mountain Trek: Meat is allowed (Photo: Mountain Trek)

It was challenging. I missed chocolate and wine. And the guests during my week changed the name to Troublesome Tuesday after five of the 16 of us were injured, badly bitten by mosquitoes, or overwhelmed by the heat.

luxury hiking with Mountain Trek

Mountain Trek is so much more than “Luxury Hiking” (Photo: Mountain Trek)

Going into Mountain Trek, some guests had no idea what they were getting into; several had booked after doing an online search for “luxury hiking trip,” and one was so unaware of the coming rigors that he drank a bottle of wine the night before and a liter of Diet Pepsi on the bus ride from Spokane. But by the end of the program, everyone in my group ended up drinking the ginger-lemon detox water (Kool-Aid, of course, being banned for many reasons). Even before the final weigh-in, in which guests lost as much as ten pounds, they’d become converts to the clean, healthy, active lifestyle, asking for recipes and filling out their take-home plans for life change.

Related: WAY More than Dumbbells in a Gym: FitnessBrands Are Expanding for Travelers

Ranch at Live Oak

Core class at The Ranch at Live Oak (Photo: Facebook)

The I picked up some easy fixes that will make me healthier. But for me the real payoff comes from having endured something most people are intimidated by, like climbing a mountain or running a marathon (undertakings many of us at these places have done). I have the satisfaction of knowing I hiked 65 kilometers at Mountain Trek and about as many miles at the Ranch, while living on 1,200 calories a day and enjoying none of my vices. That’s an accomplishment.

Strength training at Mountain Trek

Strength training at Mountain Trek (Photo: Mountain Trek)

But the cosmetic rewards count, too. After the Ranch, I had to buy new pants, which still fit long after I left. I wore them until an injury kept me off my feet for three months earlier this year. After Mountain Trek, I’m back in my skinny jeans. 

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