Romance at Canyon Ranch; Michael Jackson’s Fat Suit

My bloke and I recently celebrated our sixth anniversary with a weekend package at Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires Health Resort. I was a virgin: It was my first time at a bona fide health spa. But that didn’t stop me from having lots of preconceived notions. En route to Lenox, Mass., my head was awhirl with fantabulosa, Baden-Baden-ish scenarios.

The archetypal spa of my imagination is a kaleidoscopic LeRoy Neiman palette-knife illustration (think Playboy magazine circa 1952): a palatial hive of intrigue and flesh where the fabulously rich make half-hearted attempts to withdraw from the excesses of their spectacularly self-indulgent lives. Celebrities and gouty industrialists (whatever happened to industrialists?) in toweling robes loll around making lascivious remarks to heavily maquillaged , compliant chippies in crisp uniforms with bust darts. Blubbery baronesses lie on slabs waiting to be beaten with twigs and then furiously rubbed with hot lard by sturdy Russian studs with flaring nostrils. In the evening, these blasé hedonists piddle away money at the roulette wheel, while suave croupiers with graying temples and no discernible personalities say “Faites vos jeux!” over and over again. The Spa experience has always been, at least in the windmills of my particular mind, one of decadent, betoweled glamour. I had no idea that a spa could be … er … wholesome.

A peasanty basket of bright green apples adorns the Canyon Ranch check-in desk–the first telltale sign of the relaxed, salubrious weekend to come. We are offered a calendar of events chockablock with disturbingly sensible and healthful activities. I note, to my relief, that we have arrived just in time to miss a lecture entitled “Building a Better You” in the Berkshire Room. The desk clerk assures me that there will be more opportunities to build a better me during our three-day weekend, and hands us matching unbleached-cotton logoed tote bags: “These bags will hold your necessities as you move about the spa during the day.”

We shuffle off to our rooms, feeling mildly dehumanized by this mandatory accessorization. Fellow tote-bag-carrying guests waft past us in their unstylishly comfortable ensembles. We get the general vibe: no Joan Collins types in toweling turbans and oversized eye wear, no minor royalty, no Plums and Lucys. There is something almost Heaven’s Gate about our fellow ranchers; remember the absence of fashion in the farewell videotapes made by those genderless, comet-bound cult members? The creamy rhubarb hues of our co-guests’ snuggly fleece separates blends hauntingly with the pinkish putties and putty-undertoned pinks of the décor.

We quickly forget that we are in Bellefontaine, a late-19th-century mansion built to emulate La Petite Trianon by the same architects who did the New York Public Library. We feel more as if we are in a West Texas community for chemically sensitive folk, like the Julianne Moore character in that fantastic movie, Safe . Inside our room, the watered-down Mario Buatta/Taos decor reeks of an untutored hand at work. Could the founder’s wife, Mrs. Zuckerman, have decorated the place herself? And who picked the art? Pouvons-nous parler? Everywhere I look, my eye falls upon feminist-themed, expressive sculptures. The chef d’oeuvre of the collection is , however, not a feminist piece, but a magnificently tragique Seward Johnson installation entitled Match Point : Two life-sized tennis players with gold faces and terry-cloth headbands–looking like an American sportswear version of Gilbert and George–argue about God knows what just outside the Health and Fitness Assessment Center. We deride this heinous installation with bitchy urbanity and shrieks of laughter, not knowing that by Sunday night we will be worshipping at its cast-bronze-sneakered feet, having cast aside our cynicism and–scruffed and buffed and two pounds lighter–experienced the most gorgeously renewing weekend of our entire lives.

1. The exercise classes. Overall rating: Fab.

I recommend Spinning, Boot Camp, Men’s Circuit Weights. Warning: Read the descriptions in your brochure to avoid non-challenging workouts. We rashly decided to take the Aqua Shape class, imagining a Busby Berkeley/synchro-swimming jamboree. After flailing giant foam noodles around a coldish pool for 50 minutes, we succeeded only in lowering the median age. Also highly recommended: any aerobic class taught by Shelly and Colleen. With the exception of one or two tricky steps, these gutsy gals teach old-school aerobics, and God love them for it: Jane Fonda is alive and well and living in Massachusetts.

For those of you who have never experienced aerobics à la Fonda, allow me to fill you in: Hanoi Jane’s magical workout never varied, thus allowing you to go on automatic pilot, daydream and generally enjoy your endorphins. This was before Janet Jackson/MTV choreography invaded exercise classes and made them hellishly complicated and humiliating. P.S.: If there is anyone in New York who teaches early- 80′s aerobics à la Fonda , e-mail me ASAP at sdoonan@aol.com.

2. Massages and beauty treatments. Overall rating: Beyond!

Best new treatment: a Canyon Ranch Stone Massage ($145), administered with great commitment by Sabi, using a pile of hot rocks and a vat of lavender oil. Warning: Keep your knickers on. I was told by my Jonny that “only really naff people wear panties for a massage.” Wrong! When the masseuse for my Euphoria skin treatment ($200) ascertained that I was sans foundation garments, she quickly handed me a pair of houndstooth, one-size-fits-most disposable boxer shorts. When I jumped into the plunge-pool, this massive paper garment ballooned monstrously, suggesting a collaboration between Pauline Trigère and Christian Lacroix.

3. The food. People raised in England before 1970–i.e., me–should never be consulted about culinary matters. Their palates were tainted by school dinners, tinned pilchards and beans on toast. Anything tastes good to us. For the record, I thought the food was spectacular. I arrived at this conclusion by auditing Jews–including my own Jew–who tucked uncomplainingly into every meal.

But it’s not the food or the stellar service or even the zillions of activities and treatments that make Canyon Ranch the perfect getaway for New Yorkers. It’s the total lack of grooviness, as epitomized by that gorgeous Seward Johnson sculpture. The lack of style scrutiny and the fact that nobody’s ever heard of Victor and Rolf enable one to remove one’s girdle (metaphorically and otherwise) without fear of reprisal. It’s a “safe space” for those needing a respite from the daily onslaught of hip in La Grande Pomme.

A typical three-night package for two costs approximately $1,300 a person and includes two complimentary treatments. Call 1-800-742-9000. Getting there: If you ask them to fax you directions, the trip should take just over two hours. We used mapquest.com and got there in just over four hours via side streets.

Talking of wholesome: As reported in the Nov. 28 edition of Britain’s The Sun (Madonna’s favorite daily–the one with the legendary bare-breasted wenches on Page 3), Michael Jackson habitually disguised himself in a fat suit and went door-to-door with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He derived enormous pleasure from encountering “wonderfully ordinary, and to me, magical, scenes of everyday life … kids playing Monopoly and grandmas baby-sitting.” Writer Dominic Mohan makes no mention of how the kids and grandmas felt about the obese Porcelana-user smiling enigmatically from the doorway. Do the words “abject terror” mean anything to you?