Paying for a Chance To Suffer in Silence

The day at Body & Soul experience starts at 6:30 a.m. sharp, with a rap on the door. The snooze button is not an option; by 7 o'clock guests are panting on floor mats, limbs pretzeled into positions usually favored by those extracting confessions. Next up: "breakfast"—a nanoportion of, say, porridge and prunes with plain decaf tea (no sugar or milk). Then it's off to the hills for a half day's forced march, spelled by a microlunch, and on to other strenuous activities like kayaking and mountain biking till dusk. By the next morning, guests will ache in places they never knew existed. And after spending five days and $2,500 at this radical fitness retreat in rural Ireland, aficionados swear, they'll be asking for more.

No one would mistake a stay at Body & Soul for a relaxing holiday. But lying around is the last thing many of today's discerning travelers have in mind. "The era of sitting by the pool with cocktails and cooking in the sun is gone," says Aidan Boyle, the owner and chief taskmaster of Body & Soul, which is attracting a steady stream of elite international health fiends. "People want something more for their holidays, and to do that they have to get up off their arses."

It's hard to say exactly when, but at some point in the past few years the concept of vacation as the working warrior's repose took a hairpin turn. Forget facials and a rubdown on some lonely patch of paradise; now some of the most demanding travelers want a getaway that takes them not just beyond the madding crowds but to the end of their own tether. "People who have everything in this life want to try everything, too, even putting themselves through hell," says Julio Aramberri, a scholar of travel and tourism at Drexel University in Pennsylvania. Whether it's spending a chilly night in an ice hotel, slashing calories to refugee-camp proportions, going cold turkey from caffeine and booze or battling a storm in a sea kayak, more and more travelers want nothing more than to suffer through their holidays. "Is it fun?" says Lili, an executive at Credit Suisse in New York and a devotee of Body & Soul, who asked to be identified only by her first name. "Some people I talk to say it sounds more like jail. I think it's great."

The badge of a deluxe deprivation holiday is not a suntan, a hangover and peace of mind; it's a shrunken waist, blistered soles and new fluency in self-castigation. SpaFinder, a New York-based clearinghouse for health tourists, has identified "luxury detox boot camp" travel as one of the hottest trends in the hospitality industry. Extreme fitness and detoxification spas, where guests undergo rugged workout regimens while forsaking sweets, alcohol, meat and often dairy products, represent some 5 percent of the $60 billion-a-year spa industry, says SpaFinder president Susie Ellis. And industry analysts expect that number to grow. "Travelers are tired of overeating, drinking and partying too much," says Ellis. "They've got their wealth and now they want their health."

From Turkey's storied Roxelana Baths to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, retreats for healing and spiritual renewal are as old as civilization itself, of course. But the healing was easy. "The premier resort of frivolity and fashion" was the teaser for Bath, England, the classic spa resort town. Most people in the industry date the rise of a more austere sensibility to The Ashram, a radical fitness retreat in California's Palo Alto Mountains that debuted in 1974 with a grueling weight-loss and workout routine. Since then, the concept has gone viral, with thousands of imitators spreading around the globe. SpaFinder's listings alone include 272 separate fitness vacations, and Boyle says Body & Soul has to constantly innovate to keep up with the competition. "There are loads more operators these days," he says. "The business has grown hugely in the last five years."

Spartan vacations that challenge one's survival skills without emptying one's wallet, like Outward Bound, have been around for decades, of course. So have spas like Canyon Ranch, where luxurious asceticism is an option. What's new is the concept of mandatory high-end deprivation. "In the past, weight-loss retreats tended to be, well, granola and not much else," says Ellis. "Now people are realizing that we can have high thread-count sheets and still go for detox and a rigorous workout program."

The rise of a restless affluent class, led by retiring baby boomers searching for meaning, has only hastened the trend. The toniest spas now compete to serve a sophisticated regimen, including nutrition "re-education," power yoga, spectacular mountain hikes and personal trainers to squire guests through the feng shui gym or a session of Zen archery. Body & Soul offers a rugged menu of yoga, kayaking and hiking, plus sessions of "life counseling" to "help people get back in the driver's seat of their lives," says Boyle. At all of them, talented chefs perform the daily miracle of making joyless dietetic fare (low salt, no meat, no dairy, no sugar) palatable.

No one seems to do upmarket deprivation better than the Russians, where one tour operator sponsors "confidence building" tours for tenderfoots, who pay a bundle to be ordered around by former Marines and Special Forces veterans of the war in Chechnya. Another caters exclusively to the ultrarich, offering corporate high-rollers a chance to take a break from the ennui of the golden life by dressing in rags and panhandling in some of Moscow's meanest streets. Who signs on for this experience at $3,000 a day? "The oligarchs love it!" says Sergei Kniazev, head of the Kniazev Event Agency, which runs the "bum tours." Founded four years ago, Kniazev says his business is now at its peak, with eight to 12 rich Russians asking for a tour each weekend.

Deprivation does not come cheap. Prices of the more conventional boot-camp vacations range from $300 to $500 a day. (A week at the Golden Door, with its intense fitness program, in Escondido, California, runs a bracing $7,995.) Just why well-heeled travelers are willing to pay five-star rates to run themselves ragged while consuming fewer calories than a supermodel is a mystery for a thousand eggheads. To some industry analysts, travelers see their leisure time as an existential antidote to the modern-day pandemic of stress, sedentariness and overnourishment. In this sense, the detox spa is the new monastery, a retreat to nurture the body and spirit by eschewing all temptations and getting in touch with that inner Rocky.

But for others, beating oneself up on holiday may not be so different from everyday life. Many of the extreme-fitness tourists have pressure-cooker jobs in banks or the corporate jungle, where competition is fierce, the hours interminable and office politics treacherous. Knowingly or not, they play the same way they work. "Most of these folks are masochists anyway," says Vince Wolfington, former chairman of the World Travel & Tourism Council. "They all have the fancy cars and expensive boats. So what else can you do? Killing yourself on holiday is a kind of cachet for the wealthy. It's a mark that a person has arrived."

Body & Soul's Boyle sees things a little differently. "A lot of people come because they are frustrated in their careers and in life and looking for something," he says. "They feel they are neglecting their bodies and want to prove to themselves they can still make it." But making it, he hastens to warn, does not come with room service. "You aren't going to get healthy with just facials and body rubs. But if you get off your ass and walk five miles—now that could be the start of something life-changing."

Lili learned the hard way. One afternoon in Brazil, where Boyle once ran a bikini boot camp, she found herself in a sea kayak, battling headwinds and whitecaps in the teeth of a nasty Atlantic storm. So she doubled down and just kept on paddling "through the pain" to land. "My whole body ached and I was exhausted but exhilarated as well," she says. "It showed me I can do anything if I put my mind to it. All you have to do is believe in yourself." And in the strict taskmasters who are taking your money.