Ahhhhh ... the Spa!

By Miller, Holly | The Saturday Evening Post, January-February 1997 | Go to article overview

Ahhhhh ... the Spa!


Miller, Holly, The Saturday Evening Post


What better way to shape up for 1997 than to steal away to a sunny spot for a crash course in exercise and nutrition.

Over bowls of steamy oatmeal and cups of herbal tea, the breakfast guests gather to indulge in a favorite get-acquainted exercise: trading tales of tofu, treadmills, and treatments. These are veteran spagoers, assembled to sample the offerings of a recently renovated bit of heaven appropriately named Shangri-La. Their heads nod knowledgeably as each takes a turn describing the agony of caffeine withdrawal, the ecstasy of emerging "clean," and the challenge of staying that way after reentry into a world of temptations. Laughter erupts when someone revives the old story of comedian Buddy Hackett and his habit of inviting fellow spa guests to his suite at another familiar watering hole. Hackett's attraction? Partly his wit and partly his ability to smuggle in pizza after hours.

"You can eat almost as much as you want here," assures Leo Dahlmanns, co-owner with his wife, Deborah, of Shangri-La Historic Inn, Resort and Spa in Bonita Springs, Florida. In case the guests missed the operative word in his message, he repeats it: "... almost as much as you want."

Just as the Shangri-La is rebuilding its facilitiesQQerman-born Dahlmanns calls the construction zone of his property "East Berlin"-so is it revamping its image. Before the Dahlmanns duo bought the historic landmark four years ago, it was a natural health institute that featured a no-frills regimen and spartan cuisine embraced by a clientele in search of a hard cure. Guests didn't talk at the table because they concentrated on chewing the day's vegetable. "One food at a meal is the ideal" was the mantra, and mixing certain fruits with certain vegetables was unthinkable. Proper digestion was the goal, and patrons subscribed to the belief that no pain meant no gain--or no loss, if weight was the issue.

"Too dogmatic" was Deborah's and Leo's assessment when they studied the former program and began their multimillion-dollar overhaul of the regimen and the facilities. They noted that guests often left the "old" Shangri-La with good intentions to continue the rigid diet at home, but would return the next year with all their bad habits intact. "Either they weren't listening to the rules, or they were cheating because the diet was too difficult, or it wasn't working," concluded Leo.

He and his wife had a better idea. The "new" Shangri-La would offer four dining options: the improved natural hygiene program for the hard core who want only raw fruits and vegetables followed by chasers of water; the gourmet natural juice program for persons determined to shed pounds safely and fast; the gourmet vegetarian program that includes no animal products such as milk or eggs; and the gourmet spa cuisine that offers a la carte menus with free-range poultry and fresh fish. Overseeing the diverse options is Chef Henry Williams, a culinary artist who puts in 12-hour days developing menus, consulting with guests, and offering recipes during group cooking demonstrations and one-on-one consultations.

"Some people phone ahead and plan their week's food," says Williams. "And some like to keep in touch after they go home. Just the other day a woman called me from Alaska to ask for a certain pasta recipe that she had sampled while she was here."

He is a chef with no secrets to keep but lots of tricks to share. He enjoys offering guests simple techniques they can try to add zest to bland-but-healthy entrees. A cookbook is in the works and will contain his most popular dishes, as well as his tips on seasoning veggies with herbs rather than salt and creating "alternative" salad dressings with citrus juices rather than oils. Until the book is published, guests who compliment him on specific menu items had better have pen and paper handy.

"You like the granola?" he says, accepting an early-morning accolade. "You can make it at home. …

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