Dinner is served with infinite care at the Buchinger Clinic in Marbella, Spain. Fresh flowers grace the tables, the silver glistens, the linen is a cheery yellow and the meal, if that's the word for it, arrives in a little basket: one slice of melon, three parts of an orange, 10 grapes and a fig. Guest Nela Rubinstein, 78, eyes the fruity combination suspiciously and moans, "Somebody stole my plum!"

Rubinstein, the renowned hostess, cookbook author and widow of piano maestro Arthur Rubinstein, is just kidding. This is her third stay at the jet-set spa on the Costa del Sol, so she knows that what she sees is all there is. "You must eat it slowly, my dear, and after, there is herbal tea," advises proprietress Maria Buchinger Wilhelmi. Obediently, Rubinstein cuts each morsel into tiny pieces to savor every bite, as well she might. Tomorrow she starts fasting seriously.

At Buchinger it's what you don't eat that counts. The operating principle here regards fasting as a self-cleansing process that rids the body of accumulated toxins. The idea is sufficiently convincing to attract a clientele that includes Christina Onassis, Sean Connery and the entire Spanish royal family, each of whom pays $150 per day for the privilege of voluntary starvation over a minimum of 12 days. Some regulars return yearly for what they call their "maintenance holiday."

Perhaps half of those who check in have weight loss in mind. Another 30 percent come because they believe fasting is beneficial in treating health problems ranging from high cholesterol to hepatitis, pectoral angina, arthritis, diabetes and infertility. A few clients, often in their 20s, enroll to shake their alcohol and tobacco habits, both no-no's on the premises. There is a five-month waiting list for admission.

Upon arrival each guest is examined by a house doctor, with a nutritionist-dietician on hand to confer. After two days of eating nothing but fruits, the patients face the dreaded purge brought on by the intake of an Epsom salts mixture. Once that's over with, Buchinger veterans agree, the hunger pangs stop despite a meager daily diet of herbal tea for breakfast, vegetable broth with vitamin and mineral supplements at lunch, more herbal tea with a teaspoon of honey for snack and a fruit juice for supper. Everyone also quaffs at least three bottles of mineral water daily, whether or not there is anything to wash down.

By day five most patients are pattering around light-headedly on a euphoric high. "When you are fasting, your emotions come to the surface," claims author Xaviera Hollander of The Happy Hooker fame and a 10-visit Buchinger vet. "You cry at anything. It's like recharging your batteries, though you don't feel like sex. But don't worry," Hollander adds, "that comes back the first day of re-adaptation."

Since food obviously isn't what Buchinger clients pay for, it must be the facilities and services, and both are first-rate. Guests are housed in a hacienda-style complex; they can stroll a palm-studded garden or swim and loll around an Olympic-size pool. Doctors and nurses hover about all morning weighing guests and taking their blood pressure. Afternoons are taken up with yoga and exercise classes, tennis, thermal massages, mud packs, acupuncture and organized tours for sightseeing and bullfights. A solicitous staff of 85 pampers the guests, who number no more than 75 at any one time.

Overseeing everything is the omnipresent Maria Wilhelmi, the clinic's 70-year-old, German-born majordomo. Her father, Otto, was a doctor in the West German Navy until arthritis crippled him after World War I. Dr. Buchinger followed the advice of a fellow doctor, and after fasting 19 days he found the use of his limbs restored. Impressed, he started treating his own patients through fasting and established a clinic near his Hannover home in West Germany. Maria, the youngest of his four children, began assisting him as his secretary.

"If you leave the body to itself, it cures itself," maintains Maria. "All other medicine has side effects; this has none." In 1953 she and her husband, Helmut Wilhelmi, established another clinic at West Germany's Lake Constance, and in 1973 they expanded to Spain. After her father's death, Maria took over the family enterprise, working with her husband until he died last year. Today her son, Raymond Wilhelmi, runs the Lake Constance clinic with his wife and sister Maike, while her daughter Jutta and son-in-law Claus Rohrer assist her at Marbella.

As den mother to her wealthy clients, Maria is something of a disciplinarian. "Famous people are capricious," she says. "They sit in their room and smoke, and we tell them it's their last cigarette or they're out." But even Maria was nonplussed when Christina Onassis arrived in 1983, preceded by 24 suitcases full of essentials. The petulant heiress moved into a suite with an entourage of more than a half-dozen friends and found fasting unattractive. The local newspapers told of how she sneaked out at night (Buchinger's gates close at 2 a.m.) and headed for the discos and how she kept her private jet available to suit her weekend whims. Appalled by such unseemly publicity, Maria invited Onassis never to return.

But back she came in 1984, eager to trim her 200-plus pounds before her wedding that March to Thierry Roussel, and Maria relented. This time it was a different Christina who came with just her nanny, who avoided everyone and took her non-meals in her room. She dropped 30 pounds in three weeks and still made it to the church on time.

For all the monitoring, Buchinger is no prison; cheating can be easy. Nela Rubinstein, for example, could slip away to her own Marbella home nearby to gorge herself shamelessly. "I never did," she says. "I just ate the clinic's soup. Somehow it is so cleverly done, I simply was not hungry." Actor Sean Connery found the going harder. "I enjoy eating and drinking too much," he confesses. "I did lose 14 pounds in a week, but once was enough."

Most Buchinger clients, however, are repeaters, and the regulars joke that the broth must be drugged. But clearly the reason lies elsewhere. "I started out skeptical about this place," says William Liebig, president of a New Jersey-based medical supply firm, "but this is a real diversion, and it's refreshing." Adds his wife, Suzanne, "Here they work on the inner as well as outer person. The weight loss isn't that important. It's the total relaxation of mind and soul that's the real drawing card."

  • Contributors:
  • Pamela Andriotakis.