Alicia Stevens has nothing against a good piña colada. But when the 30-year-old yogi entrepreneur imagined the vacation she always dreamed of, she thought wellness.
Stevens is among a growing number of Florida fitness experts who have designed vacation packages for the tourists who crave more from their time off than simply laying around on a beach. Her Sarasota Flow into Fullness Retreat program features sunrise yoga, meditation, a cooking class, a writing workshop – as well as seaside pleasure.
"It will be more than going to the beach and checking out," Stevens said. "You'll be checking out of life, but checking into yourself. I want people to explore parts of themselves they haven't looked at yet."
Stevens' inaugural yoga retreat, in December at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Sarasota, is among the first of the season's flurry of fitness vacation options. The state known for vast beaches and massive theme parks is increasingly offering more alternatives for people who would rather have a downward dog than a beachside umbrella drink.
From St. Augustine to Key West, several luxury resorts and small business operators are offering packages that include daily exercise, yoga and meditation. Activities range from hardcore boot camps to aromatherapy workshops – all in a quest to tap into a global market of health-conscious people who are put off by all-you-can-eat buffets.
Prices range from $1,500 to $6,000 a week, accommodations and (health) food included.
A 2010 Stanford Research Institute study estimated that wellness tourism is a growing $106 billion industry. While many countries are gaining reputations as destinations for medical tourism, the study said the global market for wellness tourism was twice as big.
The International Spa Professionals Association says the number of spas worldwide grew from 5,700 to 19,900 in the past decade, an indicator that fitness has become an important choice for vacationers.
"People don't want to go home from vacation feeling worse than when they arrived, or feeling that they need a vacation from their vacation," said Margot Rutigliano, founder of the Bella Boot Camp, a fitness retreat at the Marriott Hotel in Delray Beach. "The active fitness vacation is really gaining speed. It's great for women and groups of women. We have a lot of couples do it together."
Beginning every Monday, Thursday and Saturday, the Bella Boot Camp includes daily beach boot camp classes, core balance exercises, mixed in with kickboxing, belly dancing and yoga. A good five hours a day of workouts, it also offers personal trainers and a spa treatment.
"It's all about working at your own level," Rutigliano said. "We just encourage people to challenge themselves."
Although fitness retreats are open to anyone, experts acknowledge that most people who attend usually already live active lives. Many people who are looking to shed a few pounds choose fitness retreats, but those who need to drop large amounts of weight are often steered to weight loss camps, which offer more counseling, said Getaway Fitness' Maria Walker.
Most of her clients are women in their '30s to '50s. The retreats, she said, often appeal to single travelers who enjoy the camaraderie of a group-style vacation but couldn't convince anyone to come along.
The retreats are usually limited to under a dozen participants.
"Some people say fitness and vacation are an oxymoron," Walker said. "I like to call it a 'fitness adventure.' It's a great experience to discover fun things in Florida and get a great workout."
Getaway Fitness, which takes place year-round at the Loews Don CeSar Hotel in St. Pete Beach, offers a structured routine from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., whereas fitness destinations such as Canyon Ranch in Miami Beach allow guests to pick among a large array of exercise classes and set their own schedule.
Participants pay $3,395 for a week (based on single occupancy), spending full days with a personal trainer. The company also offers "Girlfriend Fitness Getaways" restricted to women.
"A lot of people are looking for ways to kick off a new workout routine or are feeling bored with their workouts," Walker said.
The most popular season: right after Jan. 1, when the northeast cold sets in and extra holiday pounds clash with New Years resolutions.
But not every wellness retreat features such rigorous exercise.
In Key West, the creator of the popular Yoga on the Beach has partnered with nutritionist Donna Shields and aromatherapy expert Katie Haley for a "girlfriend getaway" weekend. The $550 retreat features morning yoga and sessions on both local botany and healthy eating.
"It seems there's a vast number of people who have money to spend, and they want an education-type vacation; they want to learn something new and not just to go to the spa," said Yoga on the Beach founder Nancy Curran, whose Key West Wellness Retreats are scheduled for January, May and November 2012.
"A lot of people are doing yoga now, and they want to do it while they are on vacation," she said. "They're so happy to do their yoga practice, and then go to the beach and have that piña colada."
This story was first published on VISITFLORIDA.com