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The Ultimate Workout : Jane Fonda’s Spa Offers Rigorous Regimen for the Rich, but Its Twist Is It Also Stretches to Help the Poor

Times Staff Writer

The familiar voice on the answering machine is surprisingly friendly.

“Hello, this is Jane Fonda. Thank you for calling the Laurel Springs Retreat. I’m sorry that no one is available to speak with you at the moment, but I’m very pleased you called.”

Then why is it that, while making the drive to Santa Barbara, winding around the Santa Ynez Mountains and passing through the rustic gate of her ranch, you feel like a trespasser? What if, like Rupert Pupkin in the movie “The King of Comedy,” you’ve only imagined this personal invitation onto her property? When is someone going to scream, “Go away. Get lost. Scram !”?

But that won’t happen. Not if you’re one of the three to six people willing to pay $2,500 for the weeklong privilege of, if not actually rubbing shoulders with the 51-year-old Goddess of Good Health, then eating her recipes, hiking her trails and following her fitness-for-life philosophy as a guest at what could be the most exclusive spa in the world--her 160-acre home here.

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Sure, these days stars seem eager for entrepreneurship, owning as they do everything from restaurants (Tom Selleck) and clubs (Billy Idol) to even hairdressing salons (Mickey Rourke). And the undisputed queen of them all is Fonda, who with her best-selling workout videos, books and Beverly Hills studio, has made a bundle from her businesses.

But nearly all celebrities would draw the line at any venture that interfered with their personal privacy. Why didn’t Fonda?

“I didn’t do the retreat because I wanted to get rich off it,” she states firmly. “I knew that if people could receive information about exercise and nutrition in the personal way that I have, then their commitment to their health would be changed forever. And by taking people out of their environment and putting them in a very intense and private situation, which is also extremely peaceful and individualized, the experience is even more profound.

“So I thought, ‘I have this house. I have this ranch. Why don’t I try to make it available to other people?’ ”

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And why not also fund some social causes and get a tax write-off in the process.

According to Fonda, she and her estranged husband, Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), purchased the ranch in 1977 to start Camp Laurel Springs, their nonprofit summer facility for youngsters of different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds that includes a program for inner city kids from the Los Angeles Unified School District.

But the camp has become “increasingly difficult to fund” in recent years, maintains Fonda, who came up with the idea of underwriting it with a nonprofit enterprise in the form of a super-deluxe spa. It opened in November in the remote and remodeled redwood lodge known as the Hill House, which Fonda used to rent to singer Joe Cocker.

“Yes, the spa is expensive for most people,” concedes Fonda. “But the money goes for things they can also feel proud of.”

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According to Fonda’s projections, “depending how fast we can take off,” within two years the spa’s net proceeds, which go into the Temescal Foundation, will be enough not just to support the camp but also research in health, child development and education.

Punishment or Reward?

At first, the idea of spending the day at Fonda’s Laurel Springs Retreat sounds more like a punishment than a reward. No doubt, the superathlete, whose “feel the burn” philosophy has toned up and tuckered out men and women of all sizes and ages, would be expected to organize a regimen more fitting to a medieval torture chamber than a Xanadu of rest and relaxation.

And when reveille--in the form of a gentle wake-up call--comes at 6:15 a.m., your worst fears are confirmed. The very idea of calling it a retreat seems like a cruel joke.

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But the punch line is still to come--a voice explaining sweetly but insistently that the 3 1/2-mile hike will start in a matter of minutes and you’d better get downstairs pronto .

At any other resort, turning off the phone, jumping back into bed and catching a few more hours of sleep would hardly raise an eyebrow. And even if you did get up and go out, you could look forward after the hike to all those lovely beauty treatments like mud baths, manicures and makeup lessons that other spas offer. Not this one.

State-of-Art Gym

Instead, your reward consists of being led to a state-of-the-art gym, hooked up to a six-lead EKG machine and put on a treadmill by Dr. Daniel Kosich, the program director for Fonda’s Workout empire. He conducts a rigorous evaluation to assess your cardiovascular fitness, body fat composition, flexibility and muscle balance.

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And it’s not even 10 a.m. yet!

“The point of the treadmill is you’re going to learn how it feels to exercise at your optimum level,” Kosich tells his guinea pig, Los Angeles screenwriter Susan Lindau.

“It’s so wonderful--when it stops hurting,” she laughs after she finishes her Herculean effort and removes the electrodes. “But he said my fitness level was above average, and I’ve never been above average on anything in my life.”

With that, she went on yet another hike.

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In all honesty, life could be worse than to be coddled for a week in this Navajo and Nautilus Nirvana furnished cozily by Fonda with Los Angeles decorator Barbara Pohlman (they met through singer Linda Ronstadt)--sleeping on linens from the Ralph Lauren Home Collection, dining on Franciscan Desert Rose china, feeding on low-fat high-energy gourmet fare, exercising amid Rauschenberg lithographs and getting massaged before a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean and Channel Islands.

It’s almost enough to forget all the hiking, biking, twisting and turning that your personal trainer puts you through every day. But sharing the misery creates an atmosphere of instant intimacy, resulting in nighttime gab sessions in front of the 17-foot-high stone fireplace, or in the frothy hot tub under the stars.

Sharing Secrets

Suddenly, complete strangers are telling each other the gory details of a failed marriage, or showing off the cottage-cheese-like cellulite on their thighs, or gossiping about the latest promotions and demotions in The Industry.

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Because of Fonda’s other career as an actress, the spa gets its fair share of show business managers, agents, studio executives and, of course, celebrities.

Howard Rollins, Sharon Gless, Melanie Griffith and Ally Sheedy have visited. But there also have been civilians like the three housewives from Dayton, Ohio, who stumbled onto a brief blurb about the spa in USA Today and immediately sent in their deposits.

No matter who’s who and who’s not, they all seem to get infected with farm fever after just a few days at the ranch.

Soon, like in one of those old episodes of “Green Acres,” everyone is on a first-name basis with pigs Rosy and Rita, goose Newton, Rosemary the lamb and Rene the cow. (One guest even became so attached to the resident dog that she followed him down a steep path during a morning hike and ended up breaking her arm.)

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While California, and especially Southern California, has a disproportionately greater number of spas than the rest of the country, due to both the gentleness of its weather and the body-consciousness of its residents, Fonda’s spa has generated more than average curiosity. For instance, the June issue of House and Garden magazine featured a cover article on the retreat, complete with achingly beautiful pictures of its inside and out.

Next Door to Fonda House

The reason, no doubt, is that the spa just happens to be right next door to Fonda’s own modest farmhouse.

And while she’s only an infrequent visitor to the ranch, given her movie schedule and other activities, Fonda is a presence nevertheless--from the pictures of her in the spa’s brochures and recipe collection, to the Adirondack furniture and folksy objets d’art that she personally picked out for the lodge quarters, to the Jane Fonda Workout T-shirts, towels and water bottles on sale in the workout center.

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As a result, the unspoken but clear message of the retreat is: Live like Fonda, eat like Fonda, work out like Fonda, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll end up looking like Fonda.

Yeah, right .

But guests have other reasons in mind for coming. When Lindau, a regular at Fonda’s Beverly Hills studio, first heard about the spa, “I decided to do it there and then,” she recalls. “And once I set aside the shock of spending the money, I decided that the place was perfect. Because it would get me not just physically fit, but also psychically fit. And that’s what I’m really focusing on. My objective here is to do inner and outer work.”

Fonda maintains that her retreat fills a vacuum within the industry--somewhere between the “boot camp approach” and the “pampering places with herbal wraps and manicures.” What it’s not, she emphasizes, is a “reducing factory where you can lose 10 pounds in one week.”

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Health in the Long Term

Instead, her spa’s schedule is designed to teach guests how to make the “long-term investment in their health” through activities that she herself likes to do--hiking, biking, aerobics and weight training in a program of cross-training that “helps relieve boredom"--as well as a series of nutritional classes, biochemistry lectures and cooking lessons.

“The spa is probably a good reflection of Jane’s philosophy that fitness is achieved over the course of a long period of time and that you should try to be a healthier person as you get older,” says Kosich, an expert in exercise physiology and nutrition who was hired two years ago, soon after Fonda came under fire from the medical profession for pushing high-impact aerobics on the population.

But what comes as something of a surprise, considering Fonda’s reputation for fanaticism when it comes to exercise, is that she puts a premium on down time as well.

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That’s why the “Blue” bedroom has a window seat for reading, the “Green” bedroom a bathtub with a 180-degree view of the mountains and the “Red” bedroom a private sun deck, or why guests can zone out in front of the video entertainment center or lose themselves in the library books about fantasy and fairy tales. Or why extra care is given to such small niceties as garden roses in the bud vase by each bed or home-grown pansies on the plates at meals.

Or why the peacefulness of the place is as soothing as it is eerie. The quietude at night is so complete that you can actually hear the moths fluttering against the window screens.

“To be able to relax is really critical,” explains Kosich. “So if you have the opportunity to come to a place like this where the ambiance and the environment helps modify stress, then you have a major advantage in becoming fit.”

Energy Equations

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That night, over a 1,200-calorie dinner of eggplant soup, stone grain rolls and mock Cobb salad (made with fruits and vegetables instead of blue cheese and bacon), you listen intently while Kosich launches into an elaborate 90-minute discussion of things you never heard of: set-point theories, basal metabolic rates and energy balancing equations.

Somehow it all sinks in--to the point where you can intelligently respond to Kosich’s quizzing. “What is the number of calories in a gram of fat?” (Nine.) “What are the waste products of aerobic exercise?” (Water and CO2.)

But, more important, you vow to hike four miles every day and never eat another candy bar for as long as you live.

“Do you think we can go over this again in the morning when I’ll be fresher?” begs Lindau, who is yawning uncontrollably. “But, then, you’re probably going to take me on an eight-mile hike in the morning, instead.”

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“Not that far,” Kosich replies, grinning.

“See, what’d I tell you,” Lindau whispers conspiratorially. “These guys are trying to kill us.”

“But,” concludes Kosich, “that’s what you came here for.”

With that, it’s lights out. That is, until 6:15 a.m.

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