It's my first day at the New Life Hiking Spa in Vermont's Green Mountains, and I'm on Wheelerville Road, a gravelly back trail favored for biking. I, however, am on foot (in my trusty Vasque hiking shoes), accompanied by a small contingent of other New Lifers—among them two genial sisters from Tunisia, three Chinese-American ladies from Boston who are chatting in Mandarin and several cheerful guides. Their easygoing company, the daisies and buttercups lining the road, and the nearby babbling brook and sugar maples would be pleasure enough on this warm, sunny morning. But then suddenly a brown, red and black Admiral butterfly swarms into view and decides to encircle me—as it will do for much of our march—and I'm in quiet ecstasy, feeling blessed.
That butterfly hike is one of the many planned and unplanned perks at New Life, which Rand McNally rates as one of the three best U.S. summer stays for 2015. It's among the top 10 in SpaFinder's Reader's Choice awards. And Yankee Magazine has named it this year's Best Place to Rejuvenate. So you're probably thinking "luxury retreat"—and you're wrong. New Life, widely praised for its hiking program, is an unpretentious, budget-priced outlier operation that descends on a Mendon ski resort during the idle summer months. There's nothing slick or cookie-cutter about this non-regimented, pace-yourself little place (accommodating up to 50 guests), where the hiking guides double as dining room servers, the evening fare—like Sunday Bingo—can be decidedly hokey, and the catch-as-catch-can interior décor is ski-bum-Versailles.
But as Wendy, a fellow hiker who tells me she's been to numerous high-end spas, puts it, "You can come here 10 times versus once at a luxury resort." Indeed, New Life's low prices (starting at an all-inclusive $265 per night) are the reason 70 percent of its guests (including many returnees) choose to attend, according to its feisty, no-nonsense owner, Jimmy LeSage.
Plus, you can bring your dog—though not on hikes.
New Life got its start in 1978, just as American fitness resorts were gaining momentum with their extensive exercise programs—which often centered on indoor group aerobics. Mega-spas like Canyon Ranch, Golden Door and, more recently, The Biggest Losers led the pack for many years. But today, as spa-goers favor outdoor adventure and explorations over factory-size movement classes, those big-name retreats have lost their allure. Not so the more intimate New Life, whose moment, it seems, is now. From the outset, its unwavering focus has been on hiking—which today is the adventure activity of choice. Plus, it's always offered afternoon yoga (these days an American exercise essential) as well as sensible, fad-free meals favored by weight-losers.
Despite its name, New Life is not New Agey or doctrinaire. There's no proselytizing. The guests come here for the rigors and delights of reconnoitering through centuries-old forests and winding snowshoe trails, passing the occasional beaver or otter, sometimes crossing muddy bear tracks—and, if they're extremely fortunate, being escorted along the way by a butterfly.
The Hiking Routes. The roster includes 21 hikes. One starts directly from the hotel; while the others are within a 20-minute van drive. Starter-level routes are on dirt or gravel roads and easily traversed trails and meadows, with occasional uphill climbs, while the intermediate and expert hikes—up Killington Peak, Vermont's second highest summit, for one, and onto the Appalachian and Long Trails or on Nordic ski trails—are rated as challenging. These can be steep, bramble-filled and dotted with tree stumps. One picturesque intermediate route, to Plymouth Notch, goes past Calvin Coolidge's homestead and stops to visit a cheese factory. Another, a climb up Mount Tom in the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park, with its numerous zig-zag switchbacks and mountaintop view of the picture-postcard village of Woodstock, was modeled on Baden Baden's vintage cardio-fitness routes. A 19th-century abolitionist enclave with a free African-American community, and later a private Rockefeller preserve, Woodstock is where all the hikes converge once a week for a picnic lunch followed by a wander around the gift shops, country store and tempting ice cream parlor.
The Hiking Guides. These 15 locals are New Life's sine qua non. They know every inch of the terrain and are caring, attentive and sensitive to their hikers' needs. "They're great at helping you without giving you too much of a crutch," says Ivy, a retired finance controller who's been back four times.
The Guests. This is a true destination retreat. The attendees, mostly over 40, come from all over the world—Greeks, Fijians, lots of Canadians and, once, Nigerian royalty. They're penny-pinching millionaires and hard-working careerists. They're from big cities and small towns, from red states and blue. About half are more or less flabby, the other half awesomely toned and fit. And together, conscious, I suspect, of the populist fees they're paying, they establish a hail-fellow-well-met camaraderie that's just about non-existent at any luxury spa. Some come in couples, but a great many arrive solo and immediately feel welcome. The majority are women, but a growing number of men are showing up, as well. Their occupations run the gamut—a former NFL player, a Middle Eastern hypnotherapist, a Chilean newscaster, a Supreme Court justice, a court reporter, a figure skating star, an SCTV comedienne, a modeling agency booker, a fragrance smeller, a university dean, many, many writers, an epidemiologist, a priest, a Washington Post editor, an anesthesiologist, a corrections facility nurse, an infamous New York madam. One of New Life's pleasures, says Ivy, is discovering the diversity of the other guests' backgrounds.
The Exercise Classes. Starting with early-morning stretch and Qi Gong, they tend to be easygoing. Afternoon sessions include yoga (definitely not the fast-paced ashtanga variety), weight training, core conditioning, mat Pilates, zumba, fit ball, water aerobics and kayaking.
Massage: It's world-class, as gentle or intense as you like, ranging from Swedish and Deep Tissue to Ohashi (focused on acupuncture meridians), Hot Stone, Reflexology and Thai. For pampering, facials and Chinese Herbal Body Exfoliation are offered.
The Food. About 1,600 calories a day—needed for the strenuous hikes. Low-carb, prepared with fresh ingredients, it's good, moderately filling and sometimes outstanding—like the breakfast quiches, stuffed portabella mushrooms, shrimp stir-fry, and the peach and cherry compote.
The Lodgings. After 24 years at a nearby ski lodge, New Life moved this year to the sprawling Cortina Inn, outside Rutland. A bit ramshackle, the now Wi-Fi–connected premises display an eclectic assortment of furnishings: plush velvet bergère armchairs, vintage snowshoes tacked onto a wall, a wooden woodpecker totem, a chandelier-lit former banquet room that's now an exercise arena. The guest rooms (many opening onto a long terrace) are spare and quiet, the beds exceedingly comfortable. And then there's the indoor swimming pool and (wildly popular) hot tub, whose unexpected domed ceiling conjures up images of a Turkish hammam. Out back is a rolling lawn with a gazebo, pond and wooden chairs.
Shopping Getaways. Yes, sometimes I need to take a break from the hiking and hit the stores. Some favorites: Shackleton Thomas Furniture & Pottery in nearby Bridgewater; just to its west across U.S. 4, a cluttered, utterly awesome nameless junk shop; Elevation Clothing in Woodstock, for Vermont-designed Ibex fitness wear; and, for knitters, Green Mountain Yarn, outside Rutland, featuring locally grown and spun sheep's wool.
The Fees. They range from $265/night, single occupancy, for a two- to four-night stay to $225/night, double occupancy, for 11 nights. Some guests stay even longer. Check the website, where frequent specials are offered. Corporate wellness retreats are also available.