I have always loved Anne Morrow Lindbergh's "Gift From the Sea," with its gentle account of a woman's need to withdraw from everyday pace to gain perspective and refresh her spirit -- so she can go on giving again.

But I never felt I had given quite enough to justify a solitary vacation by the shore. Nor was I famous enough to write a book about it afterward.

And yet, with the heightened rhythms of Washington life, with the cacophonous sound of too many melodies, too many responsibilities, too many pressures, the dream lingered on. And the book remained on the night table.

Now there is a kind of gift -- for a price -- from the sea. For women who feel the need to strengthen the soul (and shape up the body), the Slender Shore diet, health, and exercise spa is offered at Sea Colony in Bethany Beach.

The spa, directed by two Chevy Chase women, Lotte Wolfe and Rosanne Ellenbogen, consists of weeklong getaway sessions in the fall and the spring for a cost -- although not cheap, still moderate by health spa standards -- of about $500. Groups of 10-14 women work to minimize the excess poundage through diet and exercise and to address the issues which put the weight there in the first place.

"It's easier to diet at a place like Slender Shore," says Wolfe, who based the program on her own successful dieting experience, "because we offer group support in a calm, relaxed and elegant atmosphere."

They also offer an iron hand when it comes to flagging will power.

"You're not hungry," pronounced tall, slim and quite formidable Wolfe, during one of my more difficult moments. "You're just experiencing a new, healthy feeling, and purifying your body."

In addition to some new semantics (the all-day fast is defined as a "liquid diet" because it includes juices, broths and grapefruit-juice gazpacho), the spa offers philosophical approaches.

Fasting, for example, will not cause you to self-destruct (although fear of same and an overdose of diet soda kept me up most of one night). "Getting away" is not just a luxury. It is something "positive and constructive" a woman can do for herself and her self-image. It's a delusion that you can't wait to get home and start overeating again.

And you are not just gaining a diet. You are, according to Ellenbogen, "losing a bad self-image."

"Many women confuse their personalities with their cooking and food-providing functions," she told an evening discussion group over ice water and a strawberry. "They need to develop a new sense of identify which won't justify all that nibbling and that overinvolvement with food."

The spa, I discovered in a delightful five-day on-site investigation, offers an ideal background for a peaceful reexamination of one's identity -- foodwise and otherwise.

It also offers a chance to truly relax, to escape the cooking and home-management responsibilities that continue, for most women, right through the weekends and so-called "family vacations."

The setting -- the surf, quiet country roads for biking and (diet) picnicking -- and the luxurious condominium accommodations add to the sense of being pampered. So does the dietary gourmet fare which Wolfe and Ellenbogen prepare themselves, perfectly, down to each just-crunchy-enough asparagus, each juicy papaya.

The diet plan, based on the popular book "The Nine-Day Wonder Diet" by Dr. Seymour Isenberg and Dr. L.M. Elting (St. Martin's Press and Dell paperbacks) promises a loss of 8 to 15 pounds (and predicts a better sex life). Designed to rid the body of salt (which retains water) and other impurities, it proposes a program of foods calculated to make you feel fit and lose weight.

Featured in the diet, as adapted by the spa staff, are lots of fresh artichokes, asparagus, melons, berries, beef, fish, chicken, shellfish, an inexorable flow of water (made more palatable by the addition of ice, a lime and a strawberry), two fast ("liquid diet") days and NO SALT.

There also are lots of instructions and healthy examples of "how to eat" such as: slowly (who wouldn't, when presented with smaller, though lucious portions), by chewing carefully, and by enjoying food's texture and color. And by talking to your tablemate.

In addition to a daily visible loss of weight, and a growing sense of relaxation, there were other surprises. Like an afternoon picnic of fresh fruits and berries (200 calories), served by the sea, after an optional seven-mile bike ride.

And there was an orgy of a dinner at Phillips Crab House in Ocean City, where 13 squealing women (My God, we get all this! ) were served giant trays of: a whole lobster, king crab legs, stone crab claws, a whole red crab, shrimp, clams, oysters, 4 ounces of white wine and salad with lemon. No bread and butter. Total calories: 250. Only 250!

Which proved the point. If you choose right, you can eat and not get fat. (But you have to take control of your own food intake back home.) The exercise program also was laced with edicts of "individual responsibiltiy" and "thinking about what you are doing."

Fitness director Karen Diamond, who runs the Figure Factory in Bethesda and Georgetown, told us "throw out everything you have ever been told about posture -- that stuff about sucking tummies in, tucking bottoms under, flattening spines against the wall."

All those actions, she maintains, distort the "shape God gave us," producing pain and funny lumps from muscles used incorrectly. To "resculpture the body" and eliminate pain, we would have to "start all over." We'd have to learn to "realign body connections" and alter movement patterns "24 hours a day."

To get the change started, we compared our sad structures with the "proper" alignment patterns demonstrated by Georgie, Karen's model skeleton. Then we crawled, stretched, rocked, and searched our posteriors for a pair of "sitz bones" in an effort to undo years of improper body movement.

Underscoring the need for "a constant awareness of dynamic alignment," instructor Ellen Barlow adapted each general instruction to individual problem areas, on long beach hikes, bike rides, and in class.

At week's end, I was tanned, 6 pounds thinner, and significantly less bulgy. Most important, I was determined to remain aware of the state of mind that permitted me to accept the changes in the first place.

I -- and I think many women -- need the peace, the separation from the daily round, to enable us to focus on a private identity for a sense of strength and self-control.

I found those gifts alone at the edge of the blackening surf at night. And on leisurely bicycle jaunts along brown Delaware roads, where double-winged dragonflies flitted among the honeysuckle vines.

And when lying on my striped exercise mat, after a picnic by the sea.