Swimsuit models, top athletes and morphological oddballs alike are drawn in equal measure to Chiva Som, Thailand's holy grail of health retreats. That such opposites feel right at home here is a tribute to this pre-Sports Illustrated utopia. Since it's founding in 1995, Chiva Som has become the gold standard by which all destination spas are measured.
Serena Williams checked in just after her first Melbourne Open win. David and Victoria Beckham discovered Chiva Som and subsequently gabbed to their inner circle to go, post haste. (The resort was booked solid the following peak season.)
Jude Law and Hugh Grant also made a go of it - separately of course - checking their mobiles and monogrammed shirts at the door. Kate Moss, Kylie Minogue, Elle Macpherson, Elizabeth Hurley and Naomi Campbell resort to Chiva Som to keep trim for those midriff-revealing photo shoots. On the official testimonials page, Macpherson dubs it "Club Med for holistic junkies" while Hurley calls it a "ravishing health spa where you can lose weight, calm down and be pampered into oblivion."
Visiting the right spa at the right time has proven life-changing for me. Indeed, when my muffin top and buffalo-mozzarella bottom have me feeling vulnerable, the spa's mantra matters more than their menu. Sure, Chiva Som is the pièce de résistance of spa culture - but with only five nights at my disposal, can it really kick-start my body back into a bikini?
As the market in detox, de-stress and anti-aging rapidly expands, how could I be sure of the authenticity of the online buffet of spa escapes before pulling the trigger on a five-figure expense? The answer, aficionados say, is the resort's reputation. No other retreat is regarded with the same reverence as Chiva Som.
Nestled within seven acres of lush tropical gardens and pristine Hua Hin beachfront, the health resort offers just 58 rooms - many with spectacular views of the Gulf of Thailand. Beyond lies a sea so calm fishing boats barely need to drop anchor to hover above their lobster lures. Focusing on greater vitality, Chiva Som offers extensive fitness, spa and holistic health facilities. While the Fortune 500 set colonizes the beachfront pool, the bathing pavilion is a sea of bobbing ponytails.
On arrival I'm encouraged to slip into the provided Chiva Som "day pyjamas" - light-as-air cotton trousers and top, with a pair of bamboo flip-flops. Every stay starts with a meeting with your own health and wellness adviser. During this holistic consultation, your body measurements, weight and blood pressure are taken, along with a medical history. With a menu of more than 120 treatments, it's great to have a point person guide you through the benefits. I have my picture taken by the only non-contraband camera allowed on the property - the photographs are used to track your progress. (The strict no-photography rule protects the privacy of guests.) On my first night at the world's most exclusive health retreat, I'm too amped-up to sleep. I imagine tomorrow's pool scene: Argentine football players reclining recklessly in glowing white robes, Andy Roddick towelling off in the sunshine.
While I fail to spot any top seeds on deck the next morning, there's certainly enough eye candy to keep the scene interesting. I'm amazed at all the poolside scribbling that goes on in the Chiva Som diaries provided at check in. In the age of android phones, it's the most hand-to-paper action I've seen since taking the LSAT. These pilgrims are driven; personalized programs cover everything from weight management and smoking cessation to skin rejuvenation and anti-aging regimens. Despite the sophisticated medical services available, Chiva Som keeps the clinical vibe to a minimum - the pharmacy is more Whole Foods than Rexall and the physiotherapy suite? Cozy as a baby nursery. The retreat is the epitome of calm, cool and collected.
At first, I took the "cramming for exams" approach to my stay. What's my Heavy Metal Profile? When's Watsu class? How did I even function before Functional Insight Training? But after a tranquilizing Metabolic Breathing Class, I finally settle into the hushed serenity for which this retreat is so famous.
In my quest for a shapelier summer, I start my days with one-on-one Pilates on the Reformer - assisted by a trainer who tempers every motivating bark with his killer smile. Next up, a Boot Camp brisk enough to make an 18-year-old hyperventilate, where I faithfully muster 100 kicks and squat variations in an hour. By lunch I'm ravenous, foraging raw buckwheat "bread" and fresh coconut water. Surprisingly I feel more plucky than faint.
Eating is a ritual here, and for many the dining is a main draw. The award-winning international spa cuisine is detoxifying, fat and salt-free and as tempting as it is tasty. The kitchen team spends their days devising low-fat ways of producing chocolate cake and ice cream, to much applause and gastric fawning. Many ingredients are homegrown in Chiva Som's organic gardens. Once a week the retreat hosts a party for which they transform the terrace into an Asian night market. I browse savoury stalls heaped with big bowls of fish in fragrant broth, beautiful salads of mango, tamarind and herbs. I tuck into a bespoke Thai omelette - no grease, just full flavour and pillowy softness. For all of us soloists, Chiva Som hosts a communal dining table, which has led to everything from holiday home-swapping to a wedding in Sonoma. Tonight, a day trader with a body and a boom not unlike Tony Soprano declares his monogamy with the freshly caught monkfish in cilantro broth.
As I sit with bowel-obsessed billionaires tracking their every "movement" to celiac sufferers who just want to be understood, I sense what Chiva Som means to the digestively challenged - it's a place of profound healing, the name itself a reverent hymn. Disciples learn that everything is interconnected, and this is what makes this wholesome temple so sacred among the spa-faithful. Chiva Som's star treatment is a deep stomach massage - a prelude to the sultan of all spa treatments, colonic hydrotherapy. But not to worry, we're way beyond rubber tubes and metal buckets here. The colonic room manages a sophisticated yet cozy vibe. To say that Chiva Som is full of poo-fanatics is an understatement. Here, fecal matter floats as the reigning lingua franca, often called "brown gold." Here, "Good movement today?" is as valid a greeting as "Good morning!"
On day three, I take a measurement of my waist, hips and thighs. Surprisingly, I've lost an inch off my waist and a cool one and a half inches off my hips. My thighs are a half-inch slimmer too. While I'm realistic enough to wager much of this loss as the byproduct of reduced calorie intake and daily steam-room sessions, I'm encouraged by the progress. After reading my body composition analysis, my wellness adviser recommends taking up more weight-bearing exercise. Later on at the gym, my trainer corrects my form as I lunge across the floor with weights in both hands.
And for those moments when the Great Summer Slim Down starts to get a bit much, rest assured, Chiva Som offers some of the most indulgent, ritualistic rubdowns in Asia. Every stay comes with one daily massage. As dusk sets, I drift in and out of steam and sauna until my masseuse fetches me for my massage.
After a particularly gruelling Abs, Butt and Thighs class, I'm ready for the most gluttonous spa treatment on the Harry Potter-thick menu - South Indian Body Pampering. Drawing cues from healing practices in Kerala andfeaturing not two but three synchronized therapists, this is Chiva Som's most over-the-top experience. Two women massage warm aromatic oils into my body while a third simultaneously sprinkles powdered ayurvedic herbs, resulting in a full body exfoliation. I'm spa-struck: Every delicious stroke is multiplied by three. It's more thigh stroking and back tickling that I can possibly bear. Steamed herb-infused towels encourage circulation, detoxification and a profound sense of relaxation. This is the kind of psyche-lifting treatment whose benefits cannot be measured with an EEG or a stopwatch.
On day five, my tummy feels light as air after a week in herbivore mode. Previously tight clothing fits better and my skin is positively radiant. I've reached my goal of getting back into my bikini, just in time for beach season. More significantly, my time here has not merely been about getting fit; I've also achieved the most meaningful mental and physical health of my life. Optimism and respect permeate everyday life here, sparking enlightened new possibilities of how to live. Whatever your definition of "getting fit for summer" - from getting your thyroid back on track to getting your thighs bikini-ready - Chiva Som gets you there safely and mindfully.
Chiva Som International Health Resort at 73/4 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Thailand; 66-32-536-536; chivasom.com
Special to The Globe and Mail
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