Lisa Dobloug's Florida Spa Leaves the Rich Happier and Lighter (in the Wallet)

updated 05/17/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/17/1982 01:00AM

The scene is Dantesque. Bodies, swathed in towels, lie lifeless on bare pallets. Others grunt and strain in the grip of fiendish aluminum devices that resemble medieval torture racks. Heads bob in steaming water. Blasts of hot air roil from sealed chambers. Pungent vapors of eucalyptus, chamomile and avocado oil hang in the air. Everywhere is heard the music of Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow.

What terrible sins are being expiated here? Simply the excess we call modern life. This is the Inter-Continental Hotel and Spa at Bonaventure in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the newest, trendiest and one of the most expensive health resorts in the country. A week of aerobic dancing, tuna-and-lettuce lunches and skin-smoothing massages with sandpaperlike loofah mitts may or may not reduce your waistline, but it will surely lighten your wallet by as much as $2,354.

"The spa will be the vacation of the '80s," predicts Lisa Dobloug, 43, the cheerful and intimidatingly healthy mistress of Bonaventure. "Women are trying to be superwomen today, and it's bound to take its toll. A spa is not just a luxury anymore. It's a necessary part of our life-style."

After 20 years of working at such posh fitness factories as California's Golden Door, the Greenhouse in Texas and the Spa at Palm-Aire (Fla.), Dobloug knows what she's talking about. Dobloug (pronounced duh-blowg) has helped shape up such famous frames as Elizabeth Taylor ("She wasn't difficult"), Margaux Hemingway, Carrie Fisher and Phyllis George. "Celebrities generate good publicity," she concedes, "but it's the little lady from Idaho who is really the most important customer."

Upon arrival, guests (the spa can accommodate a total of 75 women and 55 men) receive a comprehensive medical checkup (a doctor and nurse are on staff), plus body massages, hair and skin treatments, herbal wraps, Swiss showers, saunas and Turkish baths. There are complete and separate facilities for men and women, although women constitute 75 percent of Dobloug's clientele. A Bonaventure day begins at 7:15 with a brisk walk followed by vigorous, no-nonsense classes in fitness, stretching, aerobic dance, fencing and hydrotherapy. This program, along with a 900-calorie-a-day food plan that is low in salt, fat, sugar and cholesterol and eliminates caffeine and red meat, usually results in a weight loss of one pound a day (amounting to a rough average of $336 per pound).

Since its opening in January, Dobloug's spa has attracted guests from as far away as Colombia and Germany. They are drawn by the luxurious facilities—outdoor exercise pools, Paramount gyms, hot and cold plunge pools, individual whirlpool baths, tennis and racquetball courts. Then, too, there are the coddling of a 50-member staff (the touring tennis pro is Brian Gottfried) and, finally, the results. "I only lost three and a half pounds in eight days," says Hannelore Fleming from Flint, Mich., "but my waist is four and a half inches smaller." One of Dobloug's first clients was actress Jennifer O'Neill, who had never been to a spa before. After a one-week stay O'Neill pronounced the facilities "excellent. It's a nice way to pamper yourself. I'd definitely go back."

Of course, the best advertisement for the spa is Dobloug. The daughter of a Norwegian dairy farmer, Lisa (her real name is Astrid Elisabeth) grew up in a small town north of Oslo. She is an avid skier, and her love of the outdoors led her to major in physical education, along with English and psychology, at Norway's Hamar College. At 24, after teaching phys ed for two years at the local high school, she came to the U.S. on an exchange program and landed a job at a California boarding school. Dobloug remembers that as her "angry year," during which she ate macaroni and became a "graham cracker addict. I must've gained 20 pounds." A chance meeting with Anne-Marie Bennstrom, then director of the swanky Golden Door, changed all that. Bennstrom hired Dobloug as a teacher but promoted her to assistant director within six months.

After nearly three years at the Golden Door, Lisa moved on to the Greenhouse as program director. In 1970 she was hired away by the then brand-new Spa at Palm-Aire. Two years ago she left to open her own place, the Saga Club, in Washington, D.C. She now spends two days a week in Washington and the rest of her time at Bonaventure. As a result, Dobloug has 18-hour days and a nonexistent social life. "Having been single all my life," she admits, "the job is always ahead, and it is hard to maintain friendships that need to be nurtured." She also finds her male contemporaries are sometimes threatened by her accomplishments and therefore enjoys being with younger men who "have the courage to be emotional and deal with me as a woman."

If she inspires fear in some men, Dobloug provokes envy in most women. "I have a normal body," protests the 5'8", 135-pound Dobloug. "I'm strong because I work at it. I have to eat little and work hard to maintain my weight. That's why I can relate to my guests."

Dobloug is realistic about just how much a visit to Bonaventure can accomplish. "What's more important is what happens after people leave here," she says. "It's getting back to basics, and you don't need a $40 million resort for that."

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