Kicking pandemic pounds to the curb at Cal-A-Vie Health Spa

A visit to the SoCal retreat is the perfect antidote to COVID-related stress

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With vaccines becoming more readily available to the population, pent up demand has resulted in revenge travel planning.

For many of us, the lockdown caused a carte blanche ticket for eating and drinking. Bread machines were suddenly sold out everywhere — I too bought one — while yeast became a black-market commodity.

When yeast reached $25 online for a few tablespoons and then unavailable altogether, I met someone at the post office parking lot to make a dead drop purchase. Sad but true.

For those that ventured masked and gloved to supermarkets, especially in the pandemic’s early days, the wine and spirits aisle often resembled opening day at the Kentucky Derby.

The result of all this eating and drinking, not to mention epic binge watching? For many, bad habits and a quarantine 15 of unwanted excess.

Even before the pandemic, interest in wellness travel and retreats had been growing. The best ones offer a variety of healthy activities, relevant educational experiences and spa treatments. The glue that holds the best experience together is inspired, nutritious, low-calorie, delicious food.

Calling all Francophiles

The antidote to the pandemic-inspired stressful excess? A sojourn at Cal-A-Vie Health Spa in Vista, located in north San Diego County. Perched on an idyllic, private hillside location, Cal-A-Vie is seven miles from the ocean with nearly perfect year-round weather. cal-a-vie.com

Turning onto historic Route 395, emerald-colored trees overtook the landscape and my breathing shifted. Another turn onto Spa Haven’s Way and Cal-A-Vie’s sun-splashed 220 acres came into full view. The panorama is complete with French countryside lavender bushes, grapevines, plentiful bird life and scampering bunny rabbits.

Morning hikes offer ethereal views. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Morning hikes offer ethereal views. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Having lived and worked in France, for a fleeting moment I panicked, thinking I’d forgotten my passport, then remembered I hadn’t actually crossed the pond to get here, just the 405.

Several buildings on the property originally hailed from Provençe and were shipped and beautifully reconstructed and resurrected stone by stone, including a glorious 400-year-old Dijon Carmelite Chapel Meditation Center now also used as a yoga pavilion. The hilltop 18th century Parish House is used for tasting estate wines while L’Orangerie is used as a grand reception hall.

The 18th century Carmelite Chapel was shipped from Dijon and reconstructed at Cal-A-Vie stone by stone. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The 18th century Carmelite Chapel was shipped from Dijon and reconstructed at Cal-A-Vie stone by stone. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Owners Terri and John Havens bought Cal-A-Vie just over 20 years ago. During that time they have expanded its original concept creating a truly unique space in an utterly magical setting.

Each of Cal-A-Vie’s 32 spacious suites is decorated in subdued, calming hues and is one-of-a-kind, housing European antiques collected from the owners’ travels. Room keys are not provided. It’s liberatingly one less thing to be concerned about while there. The in-room digital safe easily fit my laptop, spare phone and wallet.

Walls have textured Venetian plaster and the king-sized bed was dream come true for the troubled sleepers among us. Luscious memory foam mattresses, divine Frette linens and down comforters made Technicolor dreams a reality. Bathrooms contained all needed amenities.

Villa rooms at Cal-A-Vie espouse Southern France. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Villa rooms at Cal-A-Vie espouse Southern France. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Scheduling bliss

Shortly after my arrival I met with the scheduler. We discussed what types of activities I enjoyed – hiking, cardio, yoga – and whether I wanted 1,200 calories per day for reduction or 1,500 for maintenance. A better person than I would’ve requested 1,200. Thinking I would starve I briefly considered saying an additional person was in my room so I could get 3,000 calories a day!

Nothing could have been further from the truth. I’ve rarely been so satiated in my life. Under the direction of talented executive chef Christopher R. House, food takes on an enchanted otherworldly universe. Clearly portion control was key, but taste was never sacrificed, and delicious multi-course meals were always beautiful enough for Gourmet Magazine covers.

Selections for breakfast included a divine Eggs Benedict that substituted sweet potato patties for English muffins – the best non-bread ever – and roasted yellow pepper hollandaise. Though admittedly suspect sounding at first blush, it was far better than actual hollandaise, sans guilt.

Cal-A-Vie’s delicious Eggs Benedict is made with sweet potato patties and roasted yellow pepper hollandaise sauce. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Cal-A-Vie’s delicious Eggs Benedict is made with sweet potato patties and roasted yellow pepper hollandaise sauce. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Inspired lunches offered Kanpachi kebabs, taco bowls, turkey burgers, pizzas and colorful salads. Dinners included beef tenderloin, roasted chicken on harissa spaghetti squash, rack of lamb and by far, the most divine braised vin rouge short ribs I’ve ever tasted. Every meal had dizzyingly delightful desserts.

Not comprehending how this was possible, all while keeping guests’ food issues straight, I toured the kitchen. There a massive television screen hung with every guest’s name, desired caloric intake, likes, dislikes, allergies, sensitivities, etc. This was a delectable decathlon equivalent to an Olympic-level culinary juggling act. Chef House won the gold. Hands down.

Executive chef Christopher R. House gives a cooking demonstration of his memorable vin rouge braised short ribs at L’Orangerie. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Executive chef Christopher R. House gives a cooking demonstration of his memorable vin rouge braised short ribs at L’Orangerie. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Classes for all levels, spa treatments for all tastes

The variety of exercise classes was impressive. Guests could partake in as many or as few as the mood struck. There was no judgment and no obligations. There were 20 choices a day including: Cardio, Bodyworks, Yoga, Pilates, Barre, Stretch, TRX, Zumba, spin and weight-training classes, all in various studios containing state-of-the-art equipment.

I attended four classes daily, all taught by highly trained and motivated instructors. Another highlight was the daily 6:45 a.m. three- to four-mile hike. Wild lilac and blooming jasmine coupled with an abundance of bluebirds made serenity possible despite the derrière-burning inclines.

Aqua circuit classes were taught in a sublime 90-degree pool. Up the hill an Olympic-sized 50-meter-laned pool is kept at 80 degrees.

The piece-de-resistance is the skill of the spa’s massage therapists, and the extent of the available options. In addition to the usual deep tissue, shiatsu and reflexology treatments, there’s an extensive menu of less common massage and beauty treatments, scrubs, wraps, and vino therapies for every conceivable taste or body ache. No small wonder Conde Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice voted Cal-A-Vie into the “Top Ten Best Spas in the World” in 2020.

Cal-A-Vie offers made-to-order sunsets outside the 18th century Parish House, where estate wines are tasted. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Cal-A-Vie offers made-to-order sunsets outside the 18th century Parish House, where estate wines are tasted. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Given how much exercise I had done over my five-day stay at Cal-A-Vie, it was the adept massage therapists that ensured I departed without a single sore muscle. I also felt significantly taller. My well-being had been jump-started, I was more at peace and generally felt more present. Happily too, I lost three pounds.

The pandemic has been for so many, myself included, a nearly continuous assault on our collective consciousness, not to mention our minds and bodies.

Cal-A-Vie’s determined focus on health and wellness, combined with its Provençal sense of style, place, comfort and delicious, expertly prepared farm-to-table food by a passionate chef at the helm, renders Cal-A-Vie a picture-perfect post-pandemic paradise.

Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney and the author of the award-winning travel memoir, “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight” and can be reached at www.vagabondlawyer.com. This establishment hosted the journalist, but content was not reviewed by them prior to publication and is solely the author’s opinion.

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