POMPANO BEACH — We're on the roof of a beach hotel that looks like a cruise ship, its angled bow jutting toward the Atlantic Ocean. Puffy clouds dot the sky, and a pleasant breeze cools the morning air. So serene.
"KICK! KICK! KICK!" bellows our leader, thrusting her sneakered foot sideways and up to shoulder height, in time to the beat pulsing from an iPod. "Hands up! Protect your face! Visualize someone you want to HIT!''
We're sweating. We're kicking. We're visualizing. Oh, yes, we are visualizing.
This is cardio kickboxing, the second of what will be five hours of exercise in one day at the Bella Boot Camp, part of the Bella Vita Retreat at Ocean Sands Resort & Spa in Pompano Beach, north of Fort Lauderdale. Between beach runs, cardio, Pilates, weight lifting and yoga come healthy meals, spa treatments and powerful camaraderie among the boot campers, here to lose weight or get fit, mind and body.
Bella Boot Camp is intense, but it's an example of the trend toward spa and wellness getaways that offer more than beauty treatments. Bella and another South Florida retreat we visited on a recent weekend, the Red Door Lifestyle Spa in Weston, have offerings for men and couples, but most of the clientele are women.
Spa and wellness trips are a huge part of another major travel trend, the so-called "girlfriends getaway." The number of women-only travel companies has more than quadrupled since 2000, offering everything from yoga retreats in Aspen to knitting trips to Scotland. There's
even a new show devoted to the trend, All-Girl Getaways, on the Fine Living Network.
The beauty — pun intended — of spa and fitness trips is that they can be accomplished across town, across the state or across the world. Even if your budget is stretched, you might be able to swing a nearby spa day without staying at the hotel.
Wherever you go, it's worth your time to research not only your destination, but also to decide what you want to get out of your getaway.
Day 1: Boot Camp
After scoping out the possibilities via the Internet and telephone, my friend Wilma and I decided on a two-day, two-stop tour in South Florida. Driveable, but far enough to feel like a real getaway.
Web sites such as About.com and Spafinder.com, as well as a recent article in Oxygen magazine on the nation's "best fat-blasting resorts,'' directed us to the Bella Vita Retreat and its Bella Boot Camp.
The retreat resides in the 89-room Ocean Sands Resort & Spa, which in addition to spa and gym facilities, boasts an ocean view from each room, a lovely pool and good food, both healthy and indulgent. All handy if your travel partner can't seem to equate "boot camp'' and "vacation.''
Wilma strolled the beach, enjoyed a pedicure in a spa with an ocean view, took a nap and caught up with her magazines in a suite with two balconies and 180-degree views of the Atlantic.
She slept through the start of my boot camp day: a 7 a.m. Pilates class. Although there were five campers in residence, only two were in class, the rest preferring beach walks or sleep.
What a difference from the jam-packed classes at my local gym. Our teacher, Felicity, gently and promptly corrected our form, explaining each stretching and strengthening move.
After an hour, I felt taller. Three days later, I could still feel my abs every time I sneezed.
Next up was breakfast in the sunny dining room. Told we were boot campers, the waitress snatched away the regular menus in mock horror. No eggs Benedict for us. But the poached egg, whole wheat toast and fresh fruit left us feeling virtuous as no Hollandaise ever could.
The real killer of the day was two hours on the hotel roof with the deceptively gentle-looking Camille. For the hour of cardio kickboxing there were only two of us — me and Aya Imaida, 37, a Japanese TV reporter who told me later she'd gained 20 pounds since starting a stint in Washington, D.C. I couldn't see where she was hiding it.
After we'd kicked, punched and jogged our way through an hour, two more campers joined us for an hour of core-strengthening exercises on those big inflatable balls.
A shower and change of clothes later, we headed to the poolside bar for our calorie-counted spa lunches. Bridget McNamara, 57, from St. Lucia, was spending a week here with her friend Elizabeth Minors, 58, of Antigua. They've been taking fitness vacations, usually in England, away from their careers in the travel industry for years.
"Not necessarily to lose weight,'' explained the slender Bridget, "but for 'me' time. It's selfish and quite essential, I think.''
Both women praised the facilities, instruction and healthy-but-delicious food at Bella Boot Camp, and said they'd recommend it to others. But they'd prefer a place with fewer distractions — they skipped a few classes to go shopping.
Joy Hepburn, 45, a massage therapist from New Jersey with three sons, came to boot camp on her own. "When I go away with friends or family, I spend all my time taking care of them. This is a vacation I can go on alone, and meet a group of really cool, interesting women.''
All five of us were in the gym for the final two classes of the day, weight training followed by the most rigorous stretching routine I had never imagined.
"We're really not about spa, we're about fitness,'' retreat director Margot Rutigliano, 32, explained to me earlier in the day. "We added the spa component in because it's beneficial for muscle relaxation and stress reduction. Our focus is to get people to move.''
Last year, 350 people came through the boot camp program, which is limited to 10 a week, she said. Many campers stay a week or two (a woman can expect to lose 3 to 7 pounds in a week, depending on her weight and dedication). But I found a shorter visit can jump-start a lagging fitness routine. After five hours of exercise in one day, an hour a day at home looks entirely reasonable.
Like all our instructors, Rutigliano, 32, is fit, but not a stick figure.
"You need to be healthy and strong,'' she said, "not skinny."
Day 2: Pure pampering
Our next stop was the Hyatt Regency Bonaventure in Weston, home of the Red Door Lifestyle Spa. The hotel and spa got a $110-million facelift a few years ago, and it shows.
Overwhelmed by the dozens of spa treatments at the Red Door (phyto-organic hydrating wrap, anyone?), we went for the half-day Signature Spa Experience. We started at 10 a.m., and figured we'd get on the road home to St. Petersburg by early afternoon.
At 48,000 square feet, this is the largest Red Door spa in Elizabeth Arden's chain of 31 day and resort spas. You can get lost here, and we were grateful for the many black-uniformed attendants patiently guiding us around. Yet it manages to feel intimate and posh, with an Asian aesthetic.
Newcomers should stick with basic treatments to start, and then branch out, advises sales and marketing manager Melissa Fronstin.
"I think people first and foremost do come for the pampering, but it's really all about wellness,'' she said. The Red Door does offer fitness classes, on land and in the pool, but we managed to overlook that, heading directly to the changing room, lavish showers and plush white robes. We lounged in a sky-lighted tea room to await our treatments.
First up was the massage. I climbed up on the (heated) table and told my therapist I'd had a tough workout. So she concentrated her considerable efforts where I needed them most, upping the pressure when I requested it. The aromatherapy oils she used— I detected lavender, cloves and who knows what else — helped me relax even more, as did the many hot towels she draped across me as she worked. In an hour, Nicole had ironed out shoulder knots and a lower-back ache I'd considered permanent residents of my body.
Normally I like spa treatments that don't involve talking. But when I met the aesthetician who would do my facial, I wanted information. Her skin was simply magnificent — and she's got 20 years on me. Barbara worked for an hour, steaming, cleaning, masking, massaging, assuring me I was really in fine shape, but yes, there were a few little things I could be doing.
Skin plumped and glowing, it was off to a manicure in the salon, which had the atmosphere of a slumber party. We'd landed in the midst of a half-dozen local women getting gorgeous for a big night out, and their festive mood was infectious. The half-day ended with a makeup lesson. Our teachers were paragons of patience, as two women peered over the shoulder of a friend, declaring that no, that eye shadow shade just wasn't doing quite what it should. (To my surprise, there was no pressure to buy products; what the therapists recommend is discreetly placed in a basket at the front desk, where you are free to ignore it or splurge madly.)
Our only complaint was that we tried to cram too much into our half-day. We got off schedule when some of our services ran a bit overtime, and couldn't have the leisurely poolside lunch or soak in the tempting spa tub we'd hoped for. Lesson learned for our next visit.
Charlotte Sutton can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8425.