ALL THE WOMEN were free, of course, to order from the regular menu. As the days progressed, and they got bolder, hungrier or less purposeful, they did. By Wednesday night one table had gone completely to hell, sharing a large carafe of white wine which accompanied an assortment of other forbidden treats including an ice cream sundae. And that was only the beginning of the Wednesday night debacle - the outbreak of "exhibition" dancing, the rushes on the orchestra leader, and so on.

Originally, it was to be a spartan - 900 calories a day - but elegant gustatory four days for 11 women in the midst of aged aristocratic splendor. The site was the very genteel grand-daddy of all resorts, the Homestead, on 17,000 acres in Hot Springs, Va. Between seasons, just after the skiers had left but before the conventioneers had arrived, our group - ages somewhere "between 40 and death" - would make up most of the resort's clientele.

Just as hundreds of career women and wealthy matrons have been doing in increasing numbers recently, they had come to a spa where, unabashedly, they would devote every waking hour to themselves, exclusively . . . to their muscles, flab, complexions, skin, minds and souls. One said, only half in jest, that she had "run away from home." Another, who had left her husband only once before in 30 years of marriage, came "because I have to have time to myself. I really don't think about anything but myself, which is unusual for me." That theme was to run through the conversations of the older women all week. The working women made no such excuses.

The spa was organized by a couple who run an exercise studio in Washington - quiet, pretty 57-year-old Alice Martin and her Cuban-born, Latin-tempered, hard-driving, non-stop-talking husband, 62-year-old Augusto.

It was Alice who reminded the women more than once that "self-interest is not selfishness. You are Number One." She said: "Remember, if you take care of yourself you can take better care of your family." The Calvinist ethic dies hard.

Alice, a living example of the benefits of exercise and "living right," went from a size 18 to an 8 under Augusto's tutelage after they met in California in 1970. Their Washington studio opened in 1972 and the roster of current and former students reads like a guest list at an embassy dinner party: Senatorial wives such as Mrs. John Heinz, Mrs. Fritz Hollings and Mrs. Charles Percy; the wife of the British ambassador, Margaret Jay; journalists such as Clare Crawford and Isabelle Shelton.

Not everyone, of course, was hot to jog and exercise; not everyone wanted to lose weight. They just wanted to "get away," to rest, to enjoy the massages, facials, mineral baths, saunas; listen to lectures, follow some of the diet and possibly attend one of the four daily exercise classes.

For dinner the women dress, but not quite like last year, according to two repeaters. "They wore gowns and jewels from here to there, " said one, indicating a sweep from neck to navel. The first night, the meal was served in the almost deserted winter dining room - plush, lit only by candles - by captains, busboys and waiters, almost as many as there were diners. There were flowers on each table, finger bowls, service plates and individual gold and white menus printed especially for the Martins' group each day.

Clear celery broth preceded thin, thin slices of veal scallopini and green noodles, a grilled tomato half topped with cheese and several asparagus tips. The watercress and Boston lettuce salad was dressed with what would become an all-too-familiar sight by Thursday, yogurt dressing - yogurt dressing with chives and without, with herbs and without. Dessert was lemon snow - 10 parts air and one part something else.

But there were temptations. The "relish girl" brought them. She's the one who passes the butter (no thank-you), the freshly baked warm rolls (no thank-you), the Roquefort, Russian and French dressings (no thank-you). And she titters as she serves: "Oh I could never do what you're doing." Which doesn't make it easier.

That was not only the trial. Those who sat at the table with Alena Passer (who gave the facials and who wasn't dieting) were the first to be aware of her predilection for beer when she ordered, in true Czech, her Pilsener glass. Actually the beer was not as difficult to resist as the sauerbraten she had one day for lunch, the chicken livers she ordered another, her steak and chocolate Bavarian for dinner.

But that was later, when we were really hungry.

After early morning exercise on Monday - one jogger (me), a couple of short distance walkers and one two-miler - it was time for (gasp!) weigh-in and measurement down at the spa, a quarter-mile trek from our rooms in the south wing at the opposite end of the 1,100-bed hotel. The mileage recorded on the pedometers the group wore as they went back and forth several times a day made them feel worthy and smug.

The spa, which built in the 19th century, has not been significantly refurbished in 25 years. The scale on which we were to be weighed made up for the unmemorable decor, however. It was capable of recording weights up to 400 pounds.

"You don't look like you weight that much."

I didn't think her hips were that much bigger than mine."

"Tuck it in! Tuck it in!"

Augusto talked about his four principles of health and fitness on Monday morning, too. It took about a day to tune into his thick accent, which was accompanied by expressive hand and body motions, especially when English failed him.

"Hexorcise. Our body was created for jumping here, there (demonstration), jumping from trees, not for sitting at desk, driving car.

"Breathe dipley good air (demonstration)"

But that first morning of exercise Augusto let everyone down easy. "Today I weel hexplain the hexorcises. Tomorrow we weel work." Even though the exercises were not difficult, the diehards could already be distinguished from "the others." The latter left after the first hour for facials, massages, saunas.

Overweight as she was, Karen Newman was the most agile, the most limber. She could kick higher and bend lower than anyone else besides the instructors, but she also puffed louder and longer. She was determined, a determination which began a year ago with the liquid protein diet and a loss of 25 pounds. Off and on she's been going to the Martins' classes.

"Past 40 a woman becomes motivated and I'm 43. You look in the mirror and say, "My God, how did it happen?"

In four and a half days Karen lost 4 inches and 4 1/2 pounds.

By Tuesday, the huffing and puffing grew heavier, the squeaks of pain more frequent. Crumpled bodies littered the floor. Augusto showed no mercy.

At one point an exhausted exerciser, possibly in the belief that she could divert Augusto's attention, however briefly, asked "Is there any exercise for which sex is a good subsitute?"

Nonplussed only momentarily, he said, "You can't have much sex unless you are in good shape." And then it was back to the exercises.

"Completely straight the body. UP, up, straighter your knee. More, more.Magnifico," says Augusto jsut as the legs collapse.

If Augusto ever has heart it's only because Alice forces him to stop. "That's enough, Augusto. Do the facial exercises now."

At least they don't hurt. You just look funny.

Tuesday seemed a down day for many. "I don't think I want to see another lettuce leaf."

"I was thinking of taping Augusto's mouth shut this morning."

"I tried to sneak a Danish to my room," Rhoda Bortman said, "but someone stopped me."

But on that day the Homestead doctor congratulated the group for being "in the forefront of medical thinking" - preventive health.

"It's high time," said Dr. James Harnsberger, "we got around to prevention because we've been going hell bent towards destruction."

Positive reinforcement that taking care of self is socially and morally acceptable, not self-indulgent.

And there were, in the afternood, water exercises in the ancient but handsome pool which is enclosed by vaulted windows and an ornate lattice roof, to relax aching muscles, maybe a massage. Then you could have tea in the stately "Great Hall," where the two fireplaces are kept blazing night and day. The columned 240-by-50-foot foyer with a few places in America where a string ensemble plays at tea time. There was something ludicrous about the group, dressed in blue and yellow warm-up suits, being served tea by waitresses in white organdy-trimmed black uniforms and little maid's caps.

Although a few people did not appear for exercise class Tuesday afternoon, it took until Wednesday for the "girls to let off steam," as Alice so nicely put it.

Something happened to Augusto on Wednesday, too. Blame it on the language barrier: the waiter was from one of the Carribean islands, Augusto from Cuba and somehow or other he ended up with a sandwich of ham, melted cheese, turkey and mayonnaise for lunch. Rather than send it back, he ate it. "I felt so bad," he said but then something snapped. He ordered bluberry pie a la mode with powdered sugar. Everyone stood around him as he ate it and hissed. He ate it anyway.

It was just the beginning.

Several people had more than one glass of wine during the cocktail hour; four fo them went on to two more glasses each at dinner plus the forbidden desserts. Their strength obviously renewed by so much quick energy, they and several others had no intention of going to bed. The bar beckoned. More wine was ordered and then D'Anne Coulter, who studied to be a dancer before she became the Martins' assistant, took to the dance floor with one of the other women, a former Charleston champion.

This put the orchestra leader in a state of shock. Two women putting on an "exhibition" on an empty dance floor. The music stopped, abruptly. "You cannot dance without another couple on the floor," Walter, the orchestra leader, announced. "Exhibition dancing," he said, "is not allowed."

"Are you calling me an exhibitionist?" D'Anne shot back. But Walter had the last word, at least for the moment, since he controlled the music.

But he could control it only so long. There were several other people in the bar and soon Walter had to play again. A "legitimate" couple or two approahed the floor. Up shot D'Anne and several reinforcements. Walter was outnumbered. During the break two of the musicians came over to find out who the "exhibitionists" were. One man, in the advance party for the 300-plus Rotarians who were to arrive the next day, came over twice to ask who the group was. "He probably thinks this is a lesbian convention," someone said.

The group decided to serenade Walter when he came back from his break: "Walter, Walter, lead me to the altar and I'll show you my tattoo." Walter gave in and played the requested Charleston.

Women's lib had arrived, however briefly, at the Homestead.

Thursday, the last full day, ended with a banquet in a private dining room. The menu, typical of any formal banquet, proved too much for everyone who had spent the previous three days shrinking her stomach. Even Alena couldn't finish her meal.

On Friday morning the results were in: total weight loss 19 pounds; total inches trimmed 22 1/2. Karen Newman was the champion. The cost for the four and a half days was $585 including the bus, one spa activity (massages cost $11) and a warm-up suit. What it paid for was itemized with elegance in a poem each spa-goer found on her pillow the first night:

Forget the meetings, meals and menu.

Join us in a change of venue.

Close your eyes, relax and see

That this is the hour of 'I love me.'