ESCONDIDO, California There is one thing in life that I truly regret. When I was growing up in the American Middle West in the 1950s, girls did not sweat. We couldn't even dream of being jocks or playing on a team. Girls could swim and they could ice skate. There were no other options.
In high school, ''gym'' happened about once a week and was limited to wimpy calisthenics, a trampoline or volley ball, all supervised by ill-tempered, unattractive, overweight women. So much for role models.
But around 1968, at the urging of a male friend who had just returned from a life-changing Outward Bound program, I bought a pair of high-top boy's basketball shoes (no Reeboks, no Nikes back then) and began to jog. Over the years I ran a few mini marathons, working my way up to an easy, hourlong run several times a week. Most of the time, I loved every minute of it. (During one difficult period in my life I truly believed that if I ran five miles before 9 in the morning, nothing bad could happen to me the rest of the day. And it usually didn't.)
But as happens with age, what worked for me in my twenties, thirties and forties did not work in my fifties. It was as if the hour-long runs counted not at all. I tried running longer and more often, but the numbers on the scale went up and my spirits went down.
Then a friend suggested a group birthday present for a friend who has everything. A week at the legendary Golden Door north of San Diego, known for transforming bodies of the stars and putting the words ''spa cuisine'' into our mouths. And since we didn't want the birthday girl to go alone, three of us would join her.
For most of my life the very idea of a spa (remember when we called them fat farms and weight-loss clinics?) appealed to me about as much as a root canal. I am not into fluff and pampering, wasn't interested in looking at two naked carrots on my plate for lunch, surrounded by snotty people who all looked like Cindy Crawford in spandex. I've never been into massages, body wraps, facials or, God forbid, aerobics classes.
But there was one detail that did appeal: For seven full days no chef would present me a well-meaning glass of champagne, an ''extra'' tasting of foie gras, a third or fourth chocolate dessert, another pour of bubbly, a final sip of eau-de-vie.
Those naked carrots were beginning to look good. the reality As it turns out, there were no Cindy Crawfords, just 40 women, ranging in age from 23 to 80, lawyers and corporate presidents, mothers and daughters, a chef, a New York agent, a mom whose kids asked if she was going to have all her fat taken out of her and, yes, a dentist who specializes in root canals.
In a given day at the Japanese-garden-filled spa, I spent a good six hours exercising, beginning with strenuous sunrise mountain hikes, followed by private tennis, swimming and jogging lessons, multiple meetings with Mike, my personal trainer and new best friend, grueling workouts on every kind of machine designed to strengthen every body part, stretch classes and back care and posture classes, strength training and aqua dumbbells, body sculpting and toning. After that, the gal who used to turn her nose up at massages, now craved her daily hourlong rubdown, soothing facials, hair treatments, manicures, pedicures and, the best of all, an almond oil-sea salt ''glow.''
Fitted with a heart-beat monitor to see how hard I was working and how hard I had to work to be truly fit, I quickly learned what most women discover. We women think we work harder than we really do. So all those hourlong runs were just not strenuous enough, long enough or frequent enough to offset the extra portions of foie gras, chocolate cake and champagne.
So Mike took me aside and set up a personal program, with realistic goals and endless encouragement for getting and staying as fit and healthy as possible. On my return to Paris, a treadmill was in order (to fill in on all those rainy days when jogging is simply not a reality), as well as a gym membership, for twice-weekly stretch sessions to balance the cardio-training on the track and the machine. (Now, I suddenly have two personal trainers, one in each country, one in each language.)
Back at the Door, when our bodies weren't in constant motion, we were eating. At snack, lunch and dinner time, sheeplike behavior took over, and we lunged for the gloriously arranged bowls of fresh fruits and vegetables set before us. (When you check into the Golden Door you meet with a fitness instructor and together determine how intensely you want to work out and how much or little you want to eat. I voted for a lot of workout and a little bit of food.)
Even with the lightest food allotment, I felt I was eating all day long. Upon return from our hikes, breakfast appeared on a lovely tray delivered to our spacious private rooms. Overlooking a bubbling Japanese fountain, I feasted (on various days) on a single poached egg with a thin slice of whole wheat toast, mixed fruit with low-fat cottage cheese sprinkled with almond granola and raisins, a sprouted bagel boat filled with pineapple-ricotta cheese.
And there was fruit, fruit, fruit. I think in one week I ate more raw fruit than I had in the previous year, and I rediscovered the perfect fast food, the banana. - EACH day we were allowed to choose from two or three entrees for lunch and dinner and were amazed by the Belgian chef Michel Stroot's ability to transform healthy and wholesome ingredients into dishes that were beautiful, delicious and, most of all, satisfying. From the Golden Door's organic vegetable garden and surrounding groves of kiwis, avocados, oranges and lemons, we were served food that was pure, unfussy and nourishing to body and soul.
At appetizer time, we had Stroot's ingenious baked pita chips dipped into a spicy, lightened hummus spread. Marvelous frittatas were filled with an appealing mixture of spinach and artichokes, potatoes and basil, tomatoes and feta cheese. Chicken breasts were baked and sauced with a tangy mustard sauce, paired with garden-fresh green beans and garlic mashed potatoes.
Even welcome slices of duck breast arrived in a fine raspberry sauce. I also found that the Golden Door becomes addictive. One woman had been there 35 times. Mothers and daughters make it an annual family outing. Another woman, defeated by her doctors' inability to find a cause for her sore legs, checked in for three weeks and somehow solved the problem with lots of exercise and the healthy diet. But not everyone comes to lose weight. Many of the women were already perfectly fit, and
Others came for the spiritual side of the program. Some, recovering from cancer or from a death in the family, found solace in meditation and thoughtful walks through the Golden Door's labyrinth. There were many things I did not do, like tai chi and yoga, cardio box and Thai box, country dancing, belly-dancing, fencing, dumbbells, fitball and meditation. But I'm signed up for a repeat visit, now that I am six kilograms lighter and counting.
The Golden Door
P.O. Box 463077
Escondido, California, 92046-3077
tel: (1-800) 424-0777 or (1-760) 744-5777
fax: (1-760) 471-2393.
All-inclusive weekly fee is $5,375. The Golden Door was created by women and for women, but occasional men's and co-ed weeks are offered.