Go Take A Hike And A Massage, And Yoga, And...

When my co-workers heard I would be visiting two spas in the Southwest, all I got were jokes about mud baths and pedicures. Instead, I found myself struggling through 6 a.m. yoga classes that were warm-ups for brisk, steep mountain hikes.

The `90s version of the spa vacation--more like a fitness holiday than the fat-farm pampering of yore--isn't for the fainthearted. Sure, you can loll around the pool waiting for a massage. But if that's all you want, why pay Rancho La Puerta $1,200 to $1,900 a week or Canyon Ranch $2,210 to $2,590?

Truth be told, invigorating yoga stretches in front of a crackling fire are a nice way to start the day at Rancho La Puerta (800 443-7565). Then, it's up Mount Kuchumaa with a band of friendly hikers to enjoy the fresh desert air and the wide vista of rocky slopes.

HAPPY CAMPERS. Breakfast in the Rancho's Spanish-style dining hall is a smorgasbord of cereals, fresh-baked bread, fruit, and granola. The first of the day's five exercise classes begins soon after: choose anything from aerobics and weight lifting to tennis and swimming.

Everyone arrives on Saturday at the Rancho, on the outskirts of Tecate, Mexico, about an hour southeast of San Diego. Some 150 guests go through group orientation, sign up for classes in healthful cooking, Indian lore, or self-defense, and dine together at large tables. The atmosphere is friendly and camp-like; many people come back the same week every year.

Although the Rancho's older rooms are spartan, its new villas boast wood-beamed ceilings and Mexican-tiled baths. The far-flung villas give visitors a sense of privacy amid stunning landscaping.

Rancho La Puerta stresses a spiritual approach to fitness that emphasizes the mind's role in maintaining a healthy body. Well-taught sessions in yoga, t'ai chi ch'uan, and meditation are part of the spa's "fitness buffet."

Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Ariz. (and in the Northeast in Lenox, Mass.), covers a lot more ground than Rancho La Puerta. The resort (800 742-9000) offers a huge assortment of classes dealing with executive stress, sleep disorders, crafts, and astrology--though often at stiff additional fees. It also has programs for quitting smoking or losing weight, and it's involved in longevity research. Like Rancho La Puerta, Canyon Ranch wants visitors to adopt healthier habits of eating, exercising, and relaxing.

Canyon Ranch offers its 285 guests lots of one-on-one guidance: consultations with a nurse and program coordinator, and 15-minute private consultations including body-fat analysis and nutrition and exercise advice. The rooms, in small, one-story buildings, are hotel-like.

No, they don't starve you here. The food is light and low fat and includes salad and pasta bars. One woman's Tucson relatives offered to meet her at Canyon Ranch's front gate with a pitcher of margaritas if she got desperate. No booze is served at the ranch, but the woman relaxed after she got a second dessert on her first night.

One of Canyon Ranch's biggest draws is hiking. Each morning, the ranch shuttles guests to trails chosen to suit the weather conditions and fitness level of the hikers.

The ranch also provides mountain bikes and guides for strenuous but scenic rides through nearby Sabino Canyon. Tennis, squash, and racquetball are available, too, along with dozens of exercise classes.

SYBARITIC MENU. Of course, after a day of intense exercise, even my puritan conscience is convinced that I'm entitled to a bit of pampering. Canyon Ranch offers a great choice of sybaritic pleasures: massages, facials, mud baths, and wraps.

As an aromatherapist rubs me with scented oil in a dimly lit room where New Age music plays softly, I sink into a supple stupor. This is, after all, what the spa experience is all about.

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