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The Cal-a-Vie Health Spa Luxury Resort and Retreat in the rolling hills outside San Diego, California

Image: Jeff Balke

It was maybe the most humbling moment of my time at Cal-a-Vie. Already having completed my two-mile morning walk and breakfasted on eggs and vegetables, I’d donned a yellow scarf dripping with coins, the better to move my hips during a 45-minute Zumba class. My husband was there beside me in his own scarf, which kept falling off his nonexistent hips. (Somehow, I’d convinced him to attend the class with me.) Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” was playing, and however much I didn’t want to like it, the beat was fun to dance to. I was hot pink, dripping with sweat, simultaneously enjoying myself, avoiding looking at the clock, and trying not to laugh at the hilariously ridiculous spectacle in the mirror. I looked outside, and there they were: the Fit Couple.

I knew a lot about this couple already. I’d noticed them on the first afternoon of our three-night stay. They were both insanely good-looking, the kind to make you do a double-take. She was in her mid-thirties, while he was about a decade older than her; it was her first marriage, his second; they’d recently moved to New York from Colorado but were buying a house in Connecticut; he owned his own company; they had two kids; she was doing the restricted 1,200-calorie-per-day program, although there was not an ounce of fat on her perfect body, and even then, she mostly skipped her tiny dessert. Also, unconfirmed, but 100 percent certain: They had athletic, mind-blowing sex, multiple times a day.

There I was in the air-conditioned Zumba room, close to death, and there they were outside the window, under the blinding California sun, doing rapid-fire burpees and sprints and flinging those exercise balls around in the air. Even from a distance, I could tell they’d barely broken a sweat. Their form, of course, was flawless. It would have been crushing, but these two beautiful creatures were such foreign beings already, I felt fascination more than anything, with only a touch of envy thrown in.

You may be wondering how I knew so much about these two. That’s the culture at Cal-a-Vie, an idyllic health spa now in its 30th year, located in the hills of Vista, between San Diego and LA, and owned by Houstonians John and Terri Havens. Three times a day, over a delicious, protein-packed repast—just enough to make you feel satisfied—you share a table with a few of the 30-or-so other guests staying there, nameplate in front of you, and you talk. Before and after your early-morning walk or hike, your pre-lunch dance, spin, Pilates or yoga classes, and your afternoon spa and salon treatments, you talk some more.

By the end, you know everybody. And if you don’t know their names, you’ve privately nicknamed them: the Fit Couple, the Diva, the Film Producer, the Houstonians (there were two other couples and a mother/daughter duo), the Women for Trump Lady (that the head of the Florida chapter was among us, we discovered via Google), the Lady Who Thinks My Name Is Mary (I actually knew her name, but she insisted I was Mary till the bitter end, even when my nameplate was right there in front of me).

All that talking, I found, serves a couple of purposes. One, you feel like you’re all in this together, which is nice. Two, you’re being watched. Didn’t get up at 6 a.m. for that hike? Skipped your morning classes? You’re going to have to answer for it come mealtime. Before Cal-a-Vie, the only spa I’d visited was Lake Austin Spa, where I spent a lovely weekend. There, nobody notices if you spend the afternoon napping, order two desserts, or have wine with dinner. At Cal-a-Vie, for better or worse, it will be noted. You’re not anonymous.

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Even on a 1,500-calorie plan, the food at Cal-a-Vie is anything but wanting.

Image: Jeff Balke

And so, you do it. You make the early walk and attend all your recommended classes; you eat the right number of calories (I chose the 1,500-calorie maintenance plan). You look forward to the afternoons, when it’s time for a daily massage plus facial, hydrotherapy, reflexology, maybe a manicure, all performed by the highly skilled staff. Then you go to bed early, exhausted. When you wake up, you’re not even sore, thanks to that massage.

After 24 hours of this routine, I started to feel fantastic. After 48, I was borderline euphoric, a complete convert. Let’s remember this exercise routine, I said. Let’s buy that cookbook. I was with Oprah, who’d famously visited the spa and stolen the chef—the bright, expertly prepared lean meats, fish, veggies, smoothies and house-made teas made me forget my usual cravings. I started to refer to this amazing, new (for me), California-centric, health-conscious lifestyle as Cal-a-Vie life. Let’s keep Cal-a-Vie life going forever.

I’ll admit that on the last morning, I was both sad and happy to go—sad that such an inspiring experience was over, happy that I was free, and that my time as Mary was over. Walking to breakfast, we ran into one of the Houstonians. Drenched in sweat and red-faced, he’d just been on a group hike with the Fit Couple. They’d bounded up the mountains like gazelles, he told us, leaving behind everyone, including the super-in-shape instructor who was supposed to stay at the front of the pack. The instructor, we learned, had ended up bent over, panting, saying I don’t understand. We didn’t voice it, but I think this piece of information made us all feel a tiny better about ourselves. The Fit Couple—they were gorgeous freaks.

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Soak up the California sun at one of Cal-a-Vie's pools.

Image: Jeff Balke

The Houston Connection

Terri and John Havens moved to Houston from New Orleans after Katrina. They were regulars at Cal-a-Vie before buying the place, which is now celebrating its 30th anniversary, in 2000. The couple visits the spa during the summers and a few other times a year, but Terri mostly runs it from her home in River Oaks. A bit more about Cal-a-Vie, in her own words: 

On why they bought it:

“When we first got there—this was 20-something years ago—John said, ‘I think health and wellness is the future, and I think we should try and invest in this.’ At the time nobody knew what spas were. There were no day spas, or hotels with massages and facials.” 

On the food:

“You find out that on 1,200 or 1,500 calories, you can totally be satisfied if you eat organic, whole foods. It’s just an awakening to what’s out there. It’s easy to do once you are shown how to do it.”

On the comradery:

“We want it to be like you’ve gone away to somebody’s guest house for the weekend, that type of feel. You don’t feel intimidated. You feel comfortable. By the end, you want to meet back with the same people who were there, at the same time next year. We have a 65 percent return rate, which is unheard of.”

On the no-wine-unless-you-buy-for-the-whole-table policy:

“In general, we don’t want to promote drinking while you’re there. But we totally want to do whatever makes you happy. In the past when people wanted to have a glass of wine and we were providing it, the other guests were like, ‘um excuse me.’ That’s how that evolved, that you can’t drink it in front of them without offering it to them too.”

On Houstonians and Cal-a-Vie:

“I have three kids in school in Texas, and in each one of those classes there’s 200 parents. I’m talking about it constantly, and we do programs with the schools to help them raise money; we donate Cal-a-Vie trips. The word gets out. The number one place guests come from is New York, number two is LA, and number three is Houston.”

On the secret, spicy room-service popcorn:

“People who have been there before know the ins and and outs. They get a banana before the hike, a banana and a muffin delivered to their room. You find out all the little tricks. But, yes, the popcorn is amazing. There’s this secret spice that the chef puts on top. Sometimes we have movie night; that’s how they know about it, everybody’s like licking their plates. So because we’ll do whatever you ask for, they know they don’t have to wait for movie night." 

On the 400-year-old chapel, brought over piece by piece from Dijon, France:

“The chapel was falling apart; it was a pile of rocks. We flew an architect there to see if we could put the rocks back together at Cal-a-Vie. He spoke to a guy and wrote it all on a piece of paper, and he marked every stone, and then he just put it back together. Everything is original except the stained glass. He had to rebuild it earthquake-proof. It has no electricity. The floors are original. It has perfect acoustics, so we bring musicians in. We have yoga and meditation in there.” 

On the celebrities who’ve come through:

“When I left this week Kirstie Alley was checking in. We have celebrities every single week, whether it’s the CEO of a company or a movie star or a director, because of our proximity to LA. They love it because of how small it is. They don’t want 300 people gawking at them. Billy Crystal was just there a couple weeks ago; Chevy Chase was there. I’m just thinking of this year. I mean, Robin Williams came many times. They all love it.”

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