New England businessman Richard Downing has beaten both cancer and heart troubles. Now he wants to share his formula for wellness.
Downing owns the Stepping Stone Spa, an inn-style getaway on a mountain estate in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. Stepping Stone is the result of Downing's passion about, and research into, a healthy lifestyle. This little spa focuses on fitness training, organic food and the art and science of relaxation.
"These are the elements that create harmony of the mind, body and spirit and build the strength to stay strong," said Downing, who is in his late 70s. "The name Stepping Stone refers to taking steps to better health and an optimal life."
Downing leaves nothing to chance. He doesn't just ask the spa's chef to cook healthy cuisine, he produces it. The spa is part of a 300-hectare rural domain that includes Meadow View Farm, which grows organic vegetables and raises hormone-free, grass-fed Belted Galloway beef. Downing also uses his own fitness centre and spa. "I don't have a strict regimen, but I do exercise, and I probably need to do more."
However, for Downing, there is more than the physical side to maintaining good health. A devout Catholic, he attributes a lot of his recovery to faith. As a result, on his country estate he built the Chapel of the Holy Family, a mountain-top meditation centre with gardens, a mahogany library and a church-like space for prayer and renewal of wedding vows. Downing and his wife, Joan, also believe in maintaining close family ties. They have 14 grown children, 10 of them adopted, and more than 60 grandchildren.
"We stopped counting at 60," he said.
Many of the family members help run the various businesses. Downing's daughter Mary O'Reilly, husband, Jim, and son Dan look after the Wildflower Inn, a family resort with animals and wagon rides. One of Downing's sons, Steve, oversees Meadow View's 150 head of cattle. Another son, Paul, supervises the extensive gardens and greenhouses and gives tours of the barn. Don't miss his fascinating, scientific explanation of the nutritional value of low-cholesterol, lean beef and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid).
Stepping Stone has three guest rooms and one suite, each a blend of simplicity and luxury. The large spa lounge has handcrafted furniture and deep, downy sofas covered in natural fabrics.
Jennifer Kirchoff, director of Stepping Stone, oversees personal fitness training and such treatments as body wraps and salt scrubs. In keeping with the resort's family theme, Steeping Stone offers an infant massage that parents can give children and which is supposed to promote bonding and better sleep and reduce colic. For body therapy, Kirchoff recommends a neuro-muscular massage. For total relaxation, she suggests the three-hour Lovely Lavender Day, which combines a massage, facial and foot bath. Stepping Stone tries to promote wellness education, and guests are encouraged to take home exercise regimens and recipes.
An exceptional aspect of Stepping Stone is its cuisine. Chef Casey Graham works alone in the Garden Cafe's open kitchen, serving only three indoor tables and a few on the patio.
The menus embody Stepping Stone's style - small, simple, discreetly indulgent and healthy. Even the wine and beer are organic. Instead of sugar, guests use Rebiana, a zero-free sweetener made mainly from stevia, a South Amercian herb. And since the farm is right outside the window, you know the ingredients are fresh.
"I don't pick basil until someone orders a salad," Graham said. "Everything is local - meat, cheese, eggs, milled flour - except wild-caught Canadian haddock. And when we speak of seasonal vegetables, we mean harvested the same day. "
Graham also can tell you why each dish is good for you. A grilled sandwich of sweet poached pears and sharp Vermont cheddar has lycopene and fibre in the pears. Portabella mushrooms, layered with sun-dried tomatoes and cheese, have B vitamins and an immune-system booster. Quinoa grain, used in salads, is wheat-free and contains nine amino acids.
Graham prepares a few vegetarian dishes like tofu kebabs and warm polenta wedges with garlic, tomatoes and Parmesan. However, it's the Belted Galloway beef that plays a starring role at the Garden Cafe in shepherd's pie, meatloaf, hamburgers, roast beef and rib-eye steaks.
PBS will feature Stepping Stone and its cuisine on the Taste This TV show (the broadcast date has not been set). Kirchoff expects the spa to give cooking classes in fall.
IF YOU GO:
Stepping Stone Spa & Wellness Center, 1545 Darling Hill Rd., Lyndonville, 866-626-3104, www.steppingstonespa.com. The spa is open Monday to Saturday throughout the year.
Price: $185 for a deluxe room or $250 for a suite, for two, including breakfast. After Oct. 1, it's $125 to $199. Garden CafÉ serves lunch (under $10) Tuesday to Saturday and dinner (prix fixe, $35) Friday and Saturday. The cafÉ is closed November through May. Packages are available with spa services, golf, mountain-biking on extensive network of trails, and during winter, downhill or cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and sleigh rides.
For more information on other activities at the centre, go to www.meadow-view-farm.com (or phone 802-626-8855) and www.chapeloftheholyfamily.com (802-626-8855). For the Wildflower Inn, call 800-627-8310.
For more information about regional tourism: call 802-626-8511 or go to www.travelthekingdom.com.