New Life Hiking Spa:
A Place to Recharge, Renew, and Reflect
By Kathy Chin Leong
This is a story about a dream.
In 1978, Jimmy LeSage dreamt of opening a destination spa in Vermont with an emphasis on hiking. With gumption and a few dollars in his pocket, the former counselor and chef made it materialize. New Life Hiking Spa bucked the trend of others that obsessed over calorie counts and promised dramatic weight loss after a week's stay. While exercise and good nutrition sound like reasonable aims today, throughout the first two decades, the business had to face criticism for not being like other spas that focused on starvation and fad diets, or others that set up their guests in five-star luxury quarters.
According to Jimmy, "The first year we had 12 people. Then the second year we had 25, and it just grew." Now, more than 35 years later, New Life Hiking Spa, housed in a mountain hideaway based in Killington, Vermont, continues to thrive on rave reviews and boasts a high 40 to 50 percent return rate. With Jimmy running the program and his wife Kathleen handling the marketing and public relations, New Life is a well-honed machine with an excellent three-pronged program that focuses on hiking, Chinese medicine and bodywork, and nutritious eating. Classes include tai chi, quixong exercise, Q and A with the chef, and a visit to the local market to understand how to shop for nutritious foods.
New Life is a proven wellness destination that helps guests move toward an improved lifestyle among like-minded individuals. The 19-week season begins in mid-May and ends in late September before it gets too cold. Only 50 people can book at a time, so you never feel lost in a crowd or find that too many people are cramping your space. A five or ten night Jump Start Getaway runs $249 single occupancy. But if you stay 11 nights or more, you pay $239 per night. Go double occupancy, and save $20 each night.
Jimmy and Kathleen recommend guests stay at least a week to get the most out of the program. You get three meals daily, all the fitness classes your body can handle, daily hikes, and a movie after dinner. One of the best features of the program is the fact you get a massage for every three days you book. Hence, this spa is one of the best values you'll ever get anywhere.
New Life Hiking Spa takes over the Inn of the Six Mountains, a traditional ski lodge with stone fireplaces, an indoor and outdoor swimming pool, a giant tent used for exercise classes, a sit down restaurant for meals, and lots of sitting areas and couches for reading that long delayed novel and relaxation. Outdoor fire pits and seats also make this a charming spot as you inhale views of the mountains and trees of Killington.
There is no separate spa facility, so regular hotel rooms are turned into treatment rooms. In terms of the bedrooms, they are dated, but clean, functional, and comfortable. Everyone gets a room with a private bathroom, flat screen TV and DVD player, wireless Internet, coffee maker, phone, a tiny refrigerator, and a good bed with extra blankets. Decor is colonial-esque with dark wood furniture and gold-colored brass handles on the armoires. My room came with a floral bedspread with tiny flowers and pinkish wallpaper, also with tiny flowers.
While this is not advertised as "camp" per se, it really is, in the best sense, without the pillow fights, canoe races, and water bucket-above-the-doorjam pranks. Even Jimmy agrees. "People come here to hike and get a jump start on healthy habits. No one is here to stay in their room all day," he says. "It is like camp, and people love it."
The hikes are incredibly scenic and beautiful. Separated into beginner, intermediate, and advanced hikes, the trails never disappointed once. On the paths, you see a variety of scenes: barns, ancient cemetaries, ponds, waterfalls, and more.
While I never attended overnight camps as a kid, I got a taste of what it would be like to live in the same building with the same people for a week, do activities with the same people, and eat three meals a day with the same group. Unlike other spas I had visited, this one exemplified a true sense of acceptance and camaraderie right away. When I sat down for my first meal, my table mates were enthusiastic, eager to ask where everyone was from, how long it took to get here, and what they were looking forward to doing during the week.
The social aspect of this spa is a highlight. I met people I plan to stay in touch with over email and future visits. One was a pediatric cardiologist from Nashville. Another was a Boston mom of three adopted Russian children. I was delighted to chat with the female CEO of an aquarium from Seward, Alaska. A science teacher from Ohio drove over 15 hours to get here. The lawyer from Washington D.C. was a hoot, especially when she got aggressive playing Bingo one evening. Several campers flew in from Ottawa, Canada.
Many people come by themselves for different reasons. One woman said she often travels solo because her husand cannot get away from work. "I 'm glad I came alone," she confided. "I don't want to worry if my companion is having a good time or not." One fellow who told me not to interview or photograph him is a regular attendee. He knew all the staff on a first name basis. I was surprised that he would be on his cell phone during the hikes and working on his laptopl during the free time. "I can't trust anybody to run my business, so I have to be available," he said.
Dining hours are set at specific times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You inevitably sit with some of the same folks. There is no dining solo. During meals, individual personalities would emerge - the talkers, the listeners, the political pundits, the world travelers, the foodies. It would be amusing to see how certain people would click and how certain ones obviously didn't. Particular topics just polarized guests (Obamacare, anyone?) and I am glad I was not at the table when one woman left dinner early when the subject of who should pay for Obamacare got too heated. I found the odd mix of strangers thrown together in the woods of Vermont quite the sociology study.
By the end of the week, people definitely had opinions about others, and the gossiping whispers would begin to leak out like water dripping from the crevice of a dam. A few souls would win the Miss Congeniality contest and draw campers to them while others would be avoided like the West Nile virus.
I kept referring to this place as the "Hiking Spa", but soon realized everyone was calling it "New Life." I soon understand why. By going hiking each day for three hours on the beginning, intermediate, or advanced hikes, eating a healthy 1,600 calories a day with no junk food or processed fats or sugar, and attending seminars on Chinese medicine and healthy cooking, you learn you CAN adopt new life patterns.
One of the most amazing people I met on the trip was a fellow I'll call Tom from Connecticut. He was here against his will, and his wife had signed him up for the full 11-days. Tom, a smoker and a drinker, admitted freely that he wanted to turn around and go home in the middle of his drive to the inn, but said he would give this place a try.
Each day Tom would make fun of the food. He would pick at the salad, staring at the ingredients as if the kitchen staff had sabotaged it with foreign substances. He would stare incredulously at the peach cobbler and ask what was on the top. When we told him it was oatmeal and granola, he scraped if off and ate the peaches. Another day we had a green salad for lunch with a bean salad on the side. He commented, "What? A salad with a side salad?" and shook his head. Poor Tom never heard of foods such as chick peas, kale, quinoa or couscous, and stared at the rest of us as if we were speaking another language. Immediately when he was done eating (or shall I say nibbling?), he would excuse himself from the table while the rest of us gabbed on.
We waxed poetic on how we cooked with these trendy ingredients. As for me, I found the meals just fine. It was portioned well, and I licked my plate clean at every meal. I was tempted to ask others, "Say, would you like to give me your dinosaur kale leaf if you aren't going to eat it?" The tilapia, steak, turkey, chicken breast were farm fresh, cooked with no-salt seasonings and sauces, mostly without oil or dairy. A soup or salad, the entree, and dessert would round out every dinner. Of course, desserts were low calorie, and I was fascinated by the pureed frozen banana that tasted like a regular sorbet. That was one of my favorites. Other nights the desserts included a wedge of carrot cake with no frosting and a small peach crepe with raspberry sauce.
Tom started to open up one day when I asked him how he liked his morning hike. He said, "I loved it!" I was shocked to hear Mr. Grumpy be so positive. After all, he had just told our table of women that he had some "choice words" for his wife when he got home. Tom also remarked that he would get revenge on her by sending her to a working dude ranch. I really hoped that this trip would not cause a rift in his marriage as I assumed that his wife wanted him to simply adopt some healthy habits.
Well, by the end of the week, Tom seemed to eek out more smiles and cracked jokes. He even asked the newbie campers about themselves and took interest in them. We encouraged Tom with quips such as "You look great" and "You did awesome on the trail", knowing that he was unfamiliar with the world of hiking, fitness and yoga classes.
I am already an avid hiker, and each day I was happy to tackle intermediate and advanced trails which were excellent challenges for me in terms of the steepness and duration. Each hike is about 4-6 miles and last two to three hours. Several hikes take you on the famous Appalachian Trail where you can also see the A.T. wooden bunk-bed hiking huts where people spend the night for free.
Jimmy says they have a menu of some 25 hikes, and you will win no matter which one you try. "There are no ugly hikes," he emphasizes. All the guides are upbeat and supportive. They divide into teams, some leading the fast walkers in the front and others joyfully creeping along with the slowpokes like me in the back. I crossed over rocky streams (and sometimes plunged in), walked past waterfalls and patches of leftover winter snow, scaled impossible hills with gnarly tree roots erupting like fingers from the ground; I was in my element. I am in utter worship of God whenever I am on a hike, and to be on these green trails greeted by daffodils and red trilliums was pure bliss. To be able to scale Killington Mountain and Pico Pass was also a personal triumph.
On my last morning, I approached my friends to say goodbye as they congregated in the carport waiting to hear the hike descriptions. I took photos with the ladies I had grown attached to such as Deb the children's heart doctor, Sabra the teacher from Ohio, Katherine the mom of three, Diane the solo traveler. I walked up to Tom who was finishing up a smoke. I didn't hear any more rumors of him leaving early, so I assumed he would be staying the entire time. "This has been pretty good. It was better than I thought," he told me with a half smile. I asked him what he was going to tell his wife when he got home. "I'm going to tell her thank you."
And with that, I had to look away because I wa getting a tad teary eyed. It had a been an invigorating week of hiking and connecting with new friends and losing at Bingo and munching salads with a side salad and learning how to take my own wellness to the next level. Flying back to San Francisco International Airport, I thought about the people I met and our combined struggles of stress, relationships, and that darned weight dilemma. I hope someday I will find out if my comrades decided to seriously adopt the wellness principles of New Life. And I hope, more than anything, that Tom told his wife, "Thank you."
New Like Hiking Spa
Inn of the Six Mountains
Rates run $219 to $259 depending on single or double occupancy and length of stay.
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