Photo courtesy of Cal-a-Vie Health Spa

This Secluded Southern California Health Spa Feels Like an Elegant European Retreat

San Diego Epic Stays
by Molly O'Brien Sep 6, 2023

Embarking on a trip to Cal-a-Vie Health Spa in Vista, just north of San Diego, feels like visiting a French Provencal-style retreat. It’s nestled into 500 acres of scenic rolling California hillside like a well-being-focused cocoon, hidden away from the stresses of city life – and that’s its entire mission.

This intimate, 32-room resort combines European spa philosophies with California concepts of fitness, health, and nutrition, perfecting the balance of being relaxed — while never feeling deprived. The result is a perfectly rare original take on San Diego lodging.

Cal-a-Vie offers a range of packages that include food, spa treatments, wellness programming like meditations and lectures, and private upscale accommodations.

The week before arrival, someone from the property will reach out to each incoming guest and send over a survey asking what kind of experience they want during their stay. Whether it’s focusing on weight loss, fitness, nutrition, or mental well-being, each and every need can be accommodated. The team will then build a customized activity schedule for each guest every day based on their goals.

I visited the property on a “La Petite Package 3-night stay” package ($5.750), which included three meals per day, unlimited fitness classes, five spa services, a cooking demonstration, and access to wellness and nutrition seminars. If I were flying in, it also would’ve included roundtrip transportation to and from San Diego International Airport. Other packages include more or less, but this one is well-balanced and still offered plenty of downtime. Those who stay longer can immerse themselves deeper into the experience, but three days was a solid amount of time to familiarize myself with the property and its practices.

When I arrived, immediately upon climbing the grand steps and into the lobby, I felt like the health spa radiated an extremely luxurious but also impressively unpretentious atmosphere. I appreciated how everyone I encountered on-site, both guests and employees, seemed to be inexplicably naturally happy — but then, I realized I shouldn’t be surprised as we were surrounded by stunning, dopamine-inspiring landscapes basked in sunshine.

It was a perfect combination of elegance in the French decor and architecture, surrounded on the outside by iconic Southern California weather with acres of picturesque vineyards and rolling hills.

A (Flexible) daily schedule

pool at cal-a-vie health spa

Photo courtesy of Cal-a-Vie Health Spa

Each morning during breakfast, guests receive their individualized schedules for the day based on the questions they answered before check-in, which include a lineup of fitness classes, spa treatments, and wellness and meditation offerings.

The higher-intensity fitness classes like spin and barre tend to be in the morning, followed by a break during lunch and the option to attend an educational seminar after lunch. Then the rest of the day is usually taken up by scheduled spa treatments and other wellness classes like meditation and yoga.

You can choose to stick strictly to your schedule and take those classes you’ve been “assigned,” or if you’re more interested in one of the other classes being offered during the same time, you can hop into that one instead — it’s very flexible.

Nutrition is priority number one

plate of pasta at cal-a-vie health spa

Photo courtesy of Cal-a-Vie Health Spa

In between exercising and spa treatments, guests are fed three nutritional, thoughtfully planned meals. The executive chef and the on-site registered dietitian and nutritionist work together and collaborate to create dishes that are balanced and healthy. The dining team is very accommodating of dietary restrictions and works with guests to create a dietary plan that works for their individual goals.

For breakfast, I chose between a set lineup of healthy options, like oatmeal with egg whites and spinach or a turkey sausage omelet. Lunch and dinner were different each day, and were a surprise until the day’s menu was put out in the dining room during breakfast. Some examples of lunch and dinner included miso-glazed Chilean sea bass with a side of cauliflower rice and edamame or New York Strip Vera Cruz with a side of fingerling potatoes and broccolini.

Something that caught me off guard is that every lunch and dinner meal comes with (a healthy) dessert like chocolate avocado mousse or green tea sorbet with blueberries. You certainly won’t go hungry and my sweet tooth was always satisfied.

And since this property focuses heavily on balance and learning to nourish the body instead of denying it, on Friday evenings, there’s a hosted wine tasting at the Parish House, which is perched up on one of the hills overlooking the property, followed by a cooking demonstration with the chef who will teach guests how to make a tasty and nutritious meal (with a recipe book for guests to take and replicate the evening at home).

Throughout the day, if you’re still hungry (which can happen when you’re doing a spin class followed by a yoga class followed by a barre class), you can order a snack to your room. There are multiple healthy snack choices, including fruit, gluten-free cookies, and seasoned popcorn.

The property actually makes fitness fun

yoga class at cal-a-vie health spa

Photo courtesy of Cal-a-Vie Health Spa

Each morning, there’s a group “hike” and a morning “walk” at 6:30 a.m., led by on-site experts. The tranquil guided group hikes feel like a solid workout — and features a variety of terrain, depending on the day, with varying steepness. Trekkers will explore different routes on the 10 miles of trails scattered throughout the property’s spacious 300 acres.

The hikes range from roughly 2.5 miles to four miles in length. There’s also a morning walk, which is less intense and covers roughly two or three miles of ground through the golf course or neighborhood surrounding the area. It’s still a solid workout with less loose gravel and more solid ground.

Both of these activities feel like a great way to start the day by getting out into nature, getting the endorphins flowing and enjoying some social interaction.

I embarked on the group hike, and even though it was initially tough to set a 6 a.m. alarm, once I got to the meeting point where the guides had coffee waiting for us with a side of sunny enthusiasm, it was worth it.

In addition to the nature hikes, there are more than 160 group fitness classes hosted on-site, and each day there’s a different lineup of classes. Some of my favorite classes I got to experience were trapeze yoga, spinning, vinyasa yoga, and barre — but other cool classes on the schedule I would’ve hopped into if I’d had more time, like “face yoga,” and belly dancing. There’s also a set of low-resistance aquatics classes offered in one of the property’s two pools like “Poolates” (like Pilates — but in a pool) and Aqua jogging.

Those who want a private session can sign up for their own personal one-on-one class. And those who are especially interested in learning more about their body composition or recovery time can set up a fitness assessment for an extra fee — the resort boasts technology like the Bod Pod, metabolic rate testing, 3D body scans, and even cryotherapy sessions.

In addition to the group classes, there are multiple tennis and pickleball courts to play on. And the an adjoining Vista Valley Country Club hosts an 18-hole golf course that has the same French Provencal feeling as Cal-a-Vie Health Spa, including a lineup of antiques. Cal-a-Vie guests can sign up for golf experiences for an extra fee.

Mindfulness meditations and contemplations

meditation class at cal-a-vie health spa

Photo courtesy of Cal-a-Vie Health Spa

This property realizes health isn’t just about proper fitness and nutrition — it’s also about taking care of the mind and the spirit. There are nearly two dozen types of yoga classes offered on-site and various meditation classes aimed at focusing on breathwork and achieving balance.

There’s a labyrinth for those who want a space for quiet reflection, guided pranayama classes to learn how to calm the mind and focus, and crystal sound baths for deep relaxation and inner healing. There’s also a high-tech observatory on-site, which welcomes guest presenters to teach guests about the daytime and nighttime sky.

Those who want an acupuncture treatment can do so for an extra fee or try any of the “wellness injections” like “The Energizer Bunny,” which boosts the body with a double dose of B vitamins, or the “Stress ‘B’ Gone,” which combats the effects of stress.

For my mindfulness experiences, I enjoyed taking the “5 Love Languages” class, which helped me and my significant other learn about each other’s love languages and how to be better partners. I also enjoyed the “Love Letter Meditation” experience, where we wrote a love letter to anyone in our lives who needed it (including ourselves, if that was who needed some extra love) and actually had us mail it to that person from the property.

Rest, recuperation and reflexology

After a morning of working out the body and mind, it’s time to enjoy the spa. The spa is a stunning recreation of a European bathhouse, outfitted with relaxing lounge chairs, plenty of tea, and natural light streaming in through the windows of the community waiting room.

There are dozens of different types of spa treatments ranging from massages to facials, reflexology, and many more unique self-care services. One special experience the property hosts is Vinotherapie — a product line and set of treatments formulated with extracts from the spa’s very own harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot grapes. These treatments are dedicated to using the antioxidant-rich derivatives taken directly from the on-site vineyard’s wine-making process like grape skins, seeds, and pulp — all of which contain numerous elements to enhance skin and health, like vitamins C and E to strengthen collagen and increase elasticity and firmness.

In addition to the spa, there’s a dedicated salon with treatments ranging from hair to scalp, brow, and lash services and nail polish touch-ups. What impressed me most is the unfathomable amount of technology this property has to offer unique wellness treatments, like LED light therapy, Oxygen Infusion treatments, which rejuvenate the skin and reduce lines, and even eyelash extensions and teeth whitening.

For an extra fee, guests can also have extra blood tests done on-site to determine food sensitivities or hormonal imbalances. The registered dietitian will go through the results and help process the findings, as well as create a plan to heal the body (whether that’s dietary modifications or trying to eliminate common toxins from everyday life like ingredients used in cheap sunscreen or plastic bags).

Sleep like a queen

room at cal-a-vie health spa

Photo courtesy of Cal-a-Vie Health Spa

After a full day of exercise, eating, and spa treatments, guests retire to relax in one of the 32 spacious, French-inspired private villas outfitted with a cozy king-sized bed (which certainly feels fit for royalty).

There are no televisions in the villas because it’s meant to be a place to reconnect internally and reflect upon the day — without technology. My favorite part of the guest rooms was actually in the bathrooms, where the towel warmers and soaking tubs felt divine after a day of intense physical activity and deep tissue massaging.

When I first arrived, there was a paper on my bed with a list of each guest’s first name and the destination they came from, so we could get to know each other when we hiked together and sat down at meals together. The social bonds formed in these group settings are also beneficial for personal wellness and feeling fulfilled.

It felt like a transformative experience to be living on-site at Cal-a-Vie. A high percentage of the guests I spoke with were visiting for their second or third time, and came from international destinations as far as Thailand or Germany, or from cities across America like Florida, Arkansas, and New York.

Visiting Cal-a-Vie means having an opportunity to reconnect internally and meet a community of like-minded wellness-oriented people in an environment dedicated to healing.

You take the tools you learned throughout your visit including practicing mindfulness, learning the benefits of an active lifestyle, and cultivating a strong social community — and apply them to everyday life in the outside world (while hoping to someday return).

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