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19.11.17

Sunday Times Travel reviews fitscape

Give yourself a head start by booking a holiday where you can shape up in the sun by Paul Croughton

What do you think when you see a mountain? If you think things like “Cor, that’s high”, or “I wonder if there’s a lift?”, or, at a push, “That would make a lovely day’s walk if we took it nice and slow”, then congratulations. You are perfectly normal.

If you think, “I bet I can make a bunch of people run up there, at 7am tomorrow, before breakfast”, then you could be a fitness instructor on a Fitscape holiday. Or you could if you can make them laugh while they’re doing it.

Fitscape is the new (well-toned) arm of The Healthy Holiday Company, which has been sending people away on yoga and spa breaks for seven years, but wanted an option for those who fancied something a bit more lively than a few downward dogs and a nice lie-down.

Which I did, so off I went — to a fabulous little terracotta kasbah at the top of the Ourika Valley, in the Atlas Mountains.

On the flight over, I eyed the rest of the passengers with suspicion. Which of these were my fellow Fitscapers? Because, of course, that is your main concern: am I going to be surrounded by a bunch of semi-pro gym rats who spend every waking hour wrapped around a weights bench or running a marathon on the way to work? Answer: no.

On arrival, we looked a perfectly acceptable cross section of humanity — apart from one of the trainers, George, who was 6in taller and 8in wider than all of us. And so he should be. Rule one: never trust a puny trainer.

So far, so good, and it got better. Catherine, one of the Fitscape founders, who was to be our host, introduced herself by assuring us that this was no military boot camp. This is your holiday, she said, do as little or as much as you like. If you want to ignore the schedule and spend all day by the pool eating cake and drinking wine, fill your boots. Smashing girl, Catherine.

This really is a fine take on the fitness break. And not just because you can drink. (Beer and wine were available: it is a hotel, after all.) More because the answer to your other question is, no, you’re not fed on lettuce leaves.

There are fat camps out there whose aim is weight loss through misery, but this is not one of them. Our chef, Michael, was a big lad (rule two: never trust a skinny chef) who made big, beautiful food. We’ll come back to the food, though, mainly because that’s just what we did all week, again and again and again.

The schedule was like George — worryingly filled out. It began with a half-hour run up a mountain before breakfast, followed a few hours later by 30 minutes of cardio circuits — two minutes each of skipping, shuttle runs, step-ups, burpees (essentially lying down and jumping up again, quickly and often), and something called spotty dogs, which involved alpine skiing on the spot, without skis.

Then, as we stood there, perspiring, waiting patiently for a nurse to arrive with oxygen, we were launched into half an hour’s strength circuits with resistance bands, which we stretched and pulled to induce extreme pain from all over. And then another 30 minutes of abs, of which the only positive thing to report was that some of it was lying down. Then stretching. Then lunch. Then a rest. Then the pool.

Despite it being at least 30 degrees everywhere else, in the pool it was the Arctic. George and his amiable accomplice, Tom, seemed not to mind the cold — but then they weren’t in it. The rest of us splashed around like seals in the midst of an orca attack, mainly to get the blood to the ends of our limbs, while we performed a number of aqua-aerobic exercises and had a game of water polo.

Then towels. Then rest. Then boxercise. For an hour. Boxers, I discovered, aren’t fit by accident. It was during all this that I had a further revelation. I don’t know what personal trainers earn, but it clearly isn’t much — neither George nor Tom, for example, could afford a watch that worked.

They would start us off on a particularly vigorous exercise and, after a while, shout out encouragingly “Just 30 seconds more...”, but then stare at their timepieces, oblivious to the passing minutes, before finally shouting: “...28, 29, 30, excellent work, people.” Catherine, do us all a favour and buy your team a decent stopwatch. Please.

The strange thing about all this torture was that it was fun. We developed the exercise equivalent of Stockholm syndrome, so that no matter how many times we were instructed to punch or crunch, we giggled like idiots and did it again.

Next I had an hour’s personal training, one-on-one, with George. Sobbing at the feet of a 17st Goliath while he shouts “You can do it, big man” at the broken wimp in front of him is an unusual experience, but I think it was educational for both of us. And then dinner. Which brings us to the food. We had five meals daily (pre-breakfast, breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner) and it was only the occasional distraction of the odd press-up that stopped this becoming Fatscape. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t healthy. It was. It’s just that if you have three helpings of everything at every meal (at the encouragement of the trainers, I might add), you’re going to end up a bloater whatever you’re eating.

My notes from one lunch list home-made hummus, tzatziki, baba ghanoush, chicken kebabs, sweet potato wedges, turkey and mango rissoles, tomato salad, falafel and char-grilled veg. At 4pm, there was fresh mint tea and fresh-from-the-oven cake. Did I mention that this wasn’t boot camp? So, you’re thinking, what’s the point of all this gluttony if you’re there to be healthy? Well, that’s the thing. Given the choice of doing as little or as much as you want, most of us did nearly everything. Which was a lot. Thirty-six sessions of exercise in six days, to be precise.

When we weren’t doing that lot, there was a massage therapist on hand to take care of the relaxing. Hermione was a bit of a hippie (her words), with magic hands (my words), and had her table set up in a peaceful corner overlooking the mountains. It was beautiful, especially as the sun set, the stars shone and her whale music honked away in the background.

I was particularly impressed by how profoundly she was getting lost in the moment on one occasion — while she was rubbing away, I could feel her panting wetly in my ear. It was only when I felt a tongue on my face that I thought this was perhaps a hippie moment too far, so I opened my eyes to see Hermione working assiduously on my legs and the kasbah’s dog affectionately licking my cheek.

At the end of the week, we repeated the fitness tests we had recorded at the beginning. Everybody had improved significantly, some staggeringly so. So we celebrated with a round of muffins. It’s not often that you get the chance to spend a week doing very little other than thinking about your body and health, and working towards improving both. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

If you get the chance to do it over a lunch of hummus, chicken kebabs and falafel, served by a smiling trainer in the Atlas Mountains, grasp it with both hands. Just make sure his watch is working first.

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