Fiona Duncan, The Daily Telegraph, May 17, 2013
Remember the days when you went to a luxurious hotel for a relaxing, restorative break and did absolutely nothing there but sleep late, read the paper over breakfast and go for a stroll around the grounds after lunch, followed by an afternoon nap and a hearty dinner?
Nowadays, we're not allowed just to flop. People are much more likely to regard spoiling country hotels as bases for activities such as walking, attending literary festivals or using the spa and sporting facilities, while the hotels themselves have had to become more inventive at finding ways to entice their restless, wannabe public.
We're used to cookery courses, yoga courses, tennis camps and art workshops, foraging for mushrooms, even, at chic Tresanton in Cornwall, learning to live with our bad backs.
But a boot camp? If ever there was a contradiction in terms, then surely "luxury hotel" and "boot camp" is that.
Curious to see why anybody in their right mind would want to spoil a perfectly nice stay in a luxury hotel with vigorous exercise, I checked in to Lime Wood Hotel in the New Forest for its two-and-a-half day "Sumptuous Forest Fit" programme.
OK, I admit it: the word "sumptuous" was the hook. Traditional military-style fitness boot camps can be ridiculously brutal, but this one isn't. It's for women only, limited to six participants (my group were in their forties and upwards) and tailored to the individual. It made realistic demands and was designed so that afterwards you could carry on the good work at home.
It also involved plenty of fresh air in the lovely surroundings, as well as a wide range of fitness routines, with different instructors adding variety. And there were plenty of treats, not least staying at Lime Wood itself.
A handsome, honey-stone Georgian house, Lime Wood received a major refurbishment and extension in 2009 to provide 19 bedrooms and an elegant spa, Herb House. The hotel is surrounded by and immediately accessible to the New Forest, 145 square miles of heath and woodland, not much changed since it was William the Conquerer's favourite hunting ground.
This was what was so enjoyable about our break: the mixture of good-for-you pain and you-deserve-it pleasure. On the first day, it was all pleasure: a fast-paced forest hike; yoga in the rooftop herb garden; a soothing hour-long massage or facial of our choice. We cycled for an hour on gravel tracks through the forest to lunch at Lime Wood's sister hotel at Brockenhurst, The Pig, and never saw a road till we arrived.
On day two, beginning at seven o'clock sharp, they stepped up the action and slipped in the knife. An exhausting but elating cycle of punishment and reward ensued. The meaning of words and phrases I hardly knew – spin, kettle bell, fit ball, aqua, power hike, gym technique, circuit training, sand-dune running – became all too apparent, but they were contrasted with the bliss of a deep-tissue massage and periods spent zoned out in the relaxation room, hot tub, sauna or hydrotherapy pool.
Most gruelling was the forest circuit training, during which innocent logs became huge weights to be squat lifted, picturesque bridges over streams the location for star jumps and push-ups and grassy clearings the scene of endless killer side lunges.
I must admit that I got off to a rocky start in the eyes of our kind and long-suffering course instructors. Emerging on day one from the basement changing room in my too-new fitness kit, the eternal slob in me spied a lift and decided to use it instead of the short flight of stairs to the ground floor. Unfortunately the lift doors opened to reveal the instructors, Dawn and John, who gasped audibly at my laziness. A moment worthy of Miranda Hart.
Luckily I wasn't the only bad girl. Lunch is provided in Raw & Cured, the spa's health food café, but dinner is your own affair, taken in Hartnett, Holder & Co, Lime Wood's gorgeous new restaurant where Angela Hartnett and Luke Holder's easy-going take on Italian/British home cooking is served. John, the nutritionist, advised on the best dishes to choose (no carbs at night is his golden rule), the chefs were primed to remove oil and butter for the boot camp girls and we solemnly promised not to drink alcohol.
Fat chance. Lorna and Annabel, glamorous but gung-ho, who had come as much for a catch-up as to reboot, disgraced themselves on the first night, confessing next morning not just to champagne, but pudding as well. The following evening, having thoroughly bonded, we all ate together, and were joined by John, who informed us that drinking a glass of wine is as fattening as eating a cheeseburger. And then one of us beckoned the sommelier and all was lost.
Forest circuit training aside, Lime Wood's course is more "forest fit" than traditional boot camp. It doesn't last long, and it was right for me. I could hardly walk afterwards, but I also felt rested, exercised, stretched, pampered, reinvigorated and well fed, with new friends, a new health regime and a better understanding of how to take care of myself. And I was persuaded that boot camps and hotels, like the rough with the smooth, are made to go together.
The cost of a Forest Fit Boot Camp at Lime Wood, Lyndhurst, Hampshire, is £1,395 for single occupancy and £1,095pp for double occupancy. This includes the two-and-a half-day course, two nights' accommodation, full use of the spa facilities, all food and soft drinks.
The courses start on the last Monday of each month (023 8028 7177; limewood.co.uk) .
When you're choosing a boot camp, opt for one that is gender-specific; women's fitness requirements are very different from those of men.
You are likely to get better results at a bespoke boot camp, where your personal needs and abilities are considered, and where the instructors arm you with nutritional advice and a fitness regime that you can continue to follow when you get home.
Avoid boot camps that advertise weight loss but don't include a proper diet plan. Ditto camps with unrealistic workouts that will be hard to maintain.
Make sure your instructor is qualified and that you talk on the phone before signing up; he or she should ask you detailed questions about your goals and your current fitness levels.
Ten more boot camps at home and abroad
At Clumber Park Hotel and Spa in Sherwood Forest, boot camps are all about the outdoors. Aimed at individuals, couples and groups, they include a rigorous but fun daily schedule of fitness training, activities and healthy eating, with an Army-accredited assault course, daily runs, forest circuit training, body conditioning and hikes through the countryside. From £59.50 per person per day (boot camp only), or £249 for a two-night, all-inclusive break (01623 835333; clumberparkhotel.com ).
Specifically for weight loss, Champneys offers bespoke luxury boot camps during which the average reduction is 5lb 3oz and inches off waist and hips. From £350pp for two nights, including all meals and treatments (0843 316 2222; champneys.com ).
Exercise sessions are led by British Military Physical Training instructors at Prestige Boot Camps courses, which run in Suffolk, Devon, Spain and London. Workshops on nutrition, motivation and cookery are included, and there are women-only and mixed courses. From £995 a week, all-inclusive (0117 973 1213, prestigebootcamp.com ).
Dynamic yoga, coastal hikes, Tai Chi, cycling, surfing and kayaking can all be part of the regime at Yeotown ( yeotown.com ), a chic farmhouse retreat in Devon, plus deep-tissue massage and meditation. There are also talks on nutrition and a Yeobaby option, helping new mothers get back into shape. From £1,250pp for three days, including all meals, accommodation, activities and treatments.
More affordable are Reboot fitness and weight-loss camps, run from an attractive rectory near the Dorset coast, where a five-day camp costs from £495, staying in a shared room (of up to four people), £595 in a double room, all meals included. A typical day includes circuits, a sea swim (optional), boxing, yoga, massage, and nutritional workshops. You get a total of 25 sessions over five days (01202 313667, rebootdorset.com ).
Réserve Ramatuelle, between the sea and the hills on the Côte d'Azur, has a range of bespoke programmes that mix fitness, diet and therapeutic treatments. From £928 for a four-day, three-night course; accommodation costs from about £426 a night for a double (0033 494 449444; lareserve-ramatuelle.com ).
Fitscape breaks offer five one-hour activity sessions a day, based at a converted monastery near Gaucin in Spain (there are also camps in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco, and in the Italian Dolomites). Workouts range from cardio and core fitness to mountain hikes and boxercise sessions. Food is healthy and appealing. Seven nights from £1,395pp, full board, including flights, activities and excursions (020 8968 0501, fitscape.co.uk) .
Great for a sunny spring or autumn break, the Anassa and Almyra hotels in Cyprus offer Extraordinary Active Holidays designed to kick-start your fitness training. Long (and hilly) bike rides, sea swimming, and running through the Akamas National Park are supervised by triathlete Kypros Nicolaou. From £1,278 per person for a week's training; accommodation from £183pp a night at Anassa (breakfast only), £85 at Almyra ( thanoshotels.com ).
Moinhos Velhos Retreat in Portugal specialises in weight loss through juice fasting and detox (and yes, that does include the dreaded intestinal cleansing). This is not for the faint-hearted, but the idea is to purify body and spirit, so yoga, meditation and complementary therapies are part of the programme. From about £1,375pp for seven days ( moinhos-velhos.com ).
Adventures in the Alps runs various hard-core fitness and activity breaks, including triathlon camps, pilates and walking breaks and a Running Made Easy week for novices, all based in a comfortable chalet above Lake Annecy in France. From £1,200 per person, including training, full board, massage, transfers and use of spa ( adventuresinthealps.com )