Leave your stress behind in the city and say “aah,” at Rancho La Puerta.
Back in 1940, when Rancho La Puerta (or “the Ranch”) first welcomed guests in Tecate, Baja California, Mexico, it did so on a BYOT (bring your own tent) basis for $17.50 a week. For this, spa-goers enjoyed no running water, no electricity, no gym and no swimming pool. But its forward-thinking co-founders, professor Edmond Szekely and his wife, Deborah (who would go on to launch the legendary Golden Door solo), were motivated to open the world’s first fitness resort and spa—and did so, with a health camp of sorts, a place where people became one with nature, their food and themselves. Named Ranch of the Door for the two arching oak-tree “doors” that led to the original Rancho La Puerta campsite, this offering turned out to be the precursor to the modern- day destination spa concept.
Today, the still family-owned and operated Ranch hails as one of the top health and wellness spa destinations in North America and far beyond, nabbing No. 1 World’s Best Destination Spa honors from Travel + Leisure in 2013, as well as a long list of other accolades. Each week, up to 140 lucky guests experience its magic (three- and four-day programs also are offered, as well as a new Saturday at the Ranch experience). Eager to join their ranks, my brother Warren and I take the plunge, unplugging from the world to fully immerse in a full week of wellness.
Excited to break from our uberconnected orbits sans distractions and stress, we welcome the idea of bunking in a casita without Wi-Fi, and thus the temptation to log on (although the must-connect set can do so in the communal lounge, where Wi-Fi is available). And like all other deluxe casitas on-property, with private baths and terraces, ours is a TV-free zone—a revelation that fazes neither of us—and set amid a beautiful 3,000-acre desert oasis thriving with gardens, mountains and meadows. These vast and beautifully landscaped environs host sculptures, water features and three dozen hammocks for reflecting and relaxing.
En route to our casita (after a refreshingly breezy check-in), we transition to Ranch mode while breathing in delightfully fragrant aromas of artemisia and sage to the delight of our plummeting blood pressures. Inside the sanctuary, authentic Mexican design exudes an understated charm, with every comfort—two bedrooms, a living room, a small kitchen-like area and, our favorite feature, a huge terrace with chaise lounges overlooking Tecate Peak (the site of many popular Ranch hiking trails)—a welcome sight. The outdoor setting, which stimulates tranquility at every turn, is a peaceful place to unwind with an organic tea and the daily fruits left for us each day.
Our first meal at the Ranch—and all that follow—is resplendent with fruits and vegetables freshly plucked from Rancho Tres Estrellas, the Ranch’s 6-acre organic farm. Cuisine is semivegetarian, with lacto-ovo dishes also served. Superfresh seafood, culled from the port of Ensenada, Baja California, and hauled in from a local fisherman’s market, is often served in some delicious variation five times a week. And if eating gluten-free is a goal, it’s easily accommodated. Meals are served in an expansive indoor/outdoor dining room featuring traditional Mexican decor. Not only do we eat well at the Ranch, but also taste foods we may have decided years before we didn’t like for unknown reasons or would normally have shied away from otherwise. Clean yet creative, fresh dishes burst with bold flavors, and we really don’t miss meat at all; in fact, we feel lighter and better without it—along with its friends, processed foods and sugar (the latter is used sparingly). The sheer deliciousness of the food, and the fact that we’re never hungry, blows us away.
Naturally, we take advantage of the Ranch’s instructional kitchen, La Cocina Que Canta, home of Executive Chef Denise Roa, via the four-mile breakfast hike, which, midway, stops at the venue for a home-cooked breakfast followed by a garden tour with Head Gardener Salvador Tinajero, or a late-afternoon hands-on cooking class, which finds an intimate gathering of students preparing a fabulous meal alongside a renowned guest chef. We take several cooking courses during our stay in hopes of replicating some of these dishes at home. Ironically, while most guests with weight-loss goals reach them via healthy eating and increased activity at the Ranch, the resort does not consider itself a weight-loss facility. Its mission, rather, centers on helping others achieve overall health and well-being.
A major factor in this grand plan is exercise, with a fitness navigator willing to help guests make the most of their visit, during which they have the option of taking 70-plus fitness and mindfulness classes, lectures and lifestyle curriculum like arts and crafts. The Ranch also offers the most extensive on-site hiking program of any spa we’ve attended, with guided hikes of varying difficulty on more than 25 miles of wildlands trails. Knowing we’d like to try it all, we choose loosely guided plans of action focused on activities inaccessible at home. Think Feldenkrais, recreation off the radar in Atlanta, but intriguing all the same; tai chi and neuromuscular integrative action; and familiar fitness disciplines like yoga and stretch. Prior to classes—about five are offered every hour from 9am to 4pm each day—are the aforementioned hikes, which set off in the early-morning hours for perfect-temp treks. With approximately 20 full-time and guest instructors, the Ranch rolls out a full roster for all fitness abilities and various needs of renewal, whether a workout novice in need of flexibility or a disciplined disciple with a strict schedule. In fact, many classes are offered sequentially, assuring that guests become stronger and more skilled in several areas by week’s end.
Workout facilities are strategically placed throughout the property so that guests take the recommended number of daily steps (10,000, or roughly 4 miles). With a mind-body-spirit focus, some gyms forgo mirrors, and instead face mountain or arroyo views for quieter activities like meditation and yoga. Eleven other gyms host everything from dance to higher-impact sweat sessions. Among these is a weight-training gym with advanced equipment and a Pilates studio, but there’s also a running track, four lighted tennis courts, a volleyball and basketball court, and three swimming pools for popular aqua exercise. A large, quiet venue with a fireplace for talks and activities is among the most peaceful of all spots on-property.
In addition to standard classes, the Ranch themes many weeks, with specialties spanning the gamut from Pilates to nutrition and beyond. We come for Meditation Week—a practice normally foreign to the skeptical type-A mind, yet we find ourselves happily surprised at how much the practice resonates. With our plan of action in full swing, we also dive into classes like Release & Mobilize, Balance and Coordination and FoamRoller. All address that which is, shall we say, neglected, back home: balance, mobility, core and posture. Exposure to these and other classes makes us aware of our own strengths and weaknesses. Enlightenment is, like many things we experience at the Ranch, so beneficial. Credit is given to knowledgeable instructors, especially the nutrition experts, whose sobering reminders that we are living in a world of processed foods sheltered by society is tough love. Much of the information is horrifying, actually, but important to understand that it’s not only the contents of food, but also how to eat, and live, healthier. “Try to eat foods that your great-grandmother ate,” is a tip we heard numerous times, and though difficult to apply, it’s proved to be invaluable.
Before you think that the Ranch is only about hikes, workouts and wellness discussions, on-site to soothe sore muscles and take you to your relaxation Zen are skilled estheticians and therapists at its trio of spas—one for women, one for men, and one unisex. Once again, we employ a general rule of thumb to embrace treatments and methodologies that are signature to the Ranch, such as their Japanese Restorative Facial and Trigger-Point Healing Therapy. All have indoor/outdoor spaces in which to relax, plus calming steam rooms, whirlpools and saunas. Most of the therapists and estheticians are cross-trained in several disciplines. Aromatic, medicinal herbs and other healing plants grown in Rancho Tres Estrellas are used in treatments— the purity and essence of which is of the utmost importance and aid in balancing mind, body and spirit, supported by a menu of spa therapies featuring nine types of massage; body wraps (including the Ranch’s exclusive Herbal Wrap created by professor Edmond); body masks, polishes and showers; five types of facials; and full-salon services. Warren’s 90-minute healing therapy session focusing on his shoulder proves a great precursor to a later acupuncture session, not to mention a restorative facial, pedicure and sports massage. I enjoy much-needed tension-relieving bodywork, including reflexology, the 5 Elements body treatment and a custom aromatherapy massage.
And at a lecture given by Deborah, we learn what a true inspiration looks like. Now in her 90s, Deborah is a living testament to the benefits of leading a healthy lifestyle. “We provide the true luxury of time and space; that which is most lacking in today’s life,” she says. “Space to breathe freely, to relax and enjoy what will be the longer-living, younger life.” Not surprisingly, her pioneering husband laid the perfect foundation for just such an endeavor, as he directed and learned from natural-living experiments worldwide. Conversant in 17 languages and known internationally for his health and philosophical writings from the 1930s to the 1960s, the teachings of the late professor live on at the Ranch.
So does camaraderie among guests and instructors. So much so that any given week is likely to find 20 or more guests on their 10th trip to the Ranch, which speaks volumes. Predictably, our Ranch experience doesn’t end when the week does. Many classes are interactive. As part of the Taking the Ranch Home seminar, guests who discuss and jot down 30-day and six-month goals receive future reminders. Also offered is an online interactive program called The Ranch Circle, offering a wellness assessment, motivational emails and goal-tracking.
Enlightenment, exposure to new types of fitness and eating clean—one week at the Ranch is all we need to wake at dawn and start our day feeling great, healthy and ready to hike. Our workout regimens have hit new levels, and we enjoy beautiful, peaceful places to take breaks. And unplugging? Easy and liberating. It’s true that a health and wellness spa is life-changing. The Ranch experience offers guests a fresh and insightful perspective that impacts your life in so many ways: how you eat, exercise and achieve lasting well-being.
No surprise, we’ve already been back to the Ranch—just one step closer to joining the 10-times club.
Weeklong packages from approximately $3,150 per person for double occupancy include round-trip complimentary transportation from the San Diego airport, meals, accommodations and classes. Special rates and packages occasionally offered.
• Consider a casita in the Flores West section of the property so you’re close to everything.
• Sign up for the signature breakfast hike and any other classes with a first-day size limit.
• Never miss the daily fruit smoothie at 2:45 in the afternoon (or chocolate chip cookies at lunch on Friday—they’re healthy and delicious).
• Schedule spa treatments in the evening to allow more time for daytime classes. They book fast, so don’t delay.
• Catch breakfast at the Villas pool for made-to-order omelets.
• For dinner, order a combo meal and enjoy a taste of both entrees (two options are offered nightly). You can always order steamed vegetables for the table, and gluten-free muffins are available upon request. If you need to leave to make a spa appointment before dessert, request it to be delivered to your casita, which makes for the perfect night cap.
• They serve beer at the special dinner on the last night. Just ask!
Essential Rancho La Puerta
• Meet the fitness navigator. When scheduling your time, using this resource is a must to create the best possible experience at the Ranch.
• Ranch orientation and tour. Get to know the sprawling surroundings before venturing out solo.
• Eat clean cuisine. Food is mostly vegetarian—but all fresh and delicious.
• Fit-Check class. Test balance, flexibility, endurance, stamina and core strength in this back-to-basics class that also happens to be fun.
• How to take the ranch home. Learn the tricks to incorporating Ranch rules into your daily life.
• One-on-ones. Nothing like a little one-on-one training to jump-start a lagging learning curve. We opted for yoga—and were not disappointed.
• Fitness fun. The sheer variety of exercise classes on offer makes it possible to stay motivated.
• Near-perfect weather. Warm and dry, with some showers and cooler nights in winter, and warm with very low humidity and no rain in summer, make for remarkably mild climes.
• Hands-on cooking class. Cook alongside a visiting chef, stealing taste-great secrets along the way.
• Start your day with a hike. Treks travel from 1 to 7 miles. Winning, hands-down, is the popular 4-mile organic breakfast hike, featuring a mild saunter and a hearty, satiating organic breakfast at La Cocina Que Canta, followed by a garden tour with Head Gardener Salvador Tinajero.
• The spa. Comprised of three different buildings, this oasis of calm offer a wide array of treatments applied in quiet, tranquil settings.
• A change of scenery. With 150 acres (think of it as 1 acre per guest) of Mediterranean-style gardens, native trees, olive groves, ponds and fountains, lush is taken to a new level.
• Since I’m a regular at the gym, I passed on general cardio and weight classes to focus on specialty classes like TRX—but the kid in me could not resist the obstacle course!
• Crystal Bowls, meditation with sound, is awesome. And, thanks to my first meditation class being taught by a fellow type-A personality, I decided if he could do it, so could I! By my fourth inner- self class, I figured out how to let go and couldn’t wait to immerse myself in total escape. Lying on the floor in a cathedral listening to the healing sounds emitting from crystal bowls set my mind on a beautiful, soothing trip.
• The Japanese Facial utilizes Japanese massage techniques to help erase lines and wrinkles—my face looked better to me!
• The 90-minute healing therapy session got the kinks out of my shoulders!
• Tennis clinic: It had been about 20 years since I played, and now I’m in the market for a racquet and can’t wait to join a tennis club.
• Bingo with Barry: Barry Shingle, activities director, creates an unforgettable bingo experience.
• Relaxing in Zen areas around the Ranch, especially the lounge and activities pool with surreal mountain vistas, is delightful.
• Nutritional lectures ranging from Nutrition: Protein—How Much Is Enough? to Lighten Up: Role of Calorie Restriction, Juice Fasting & Inner Cleansing on Health & Longevity are insightful.
• Reflexology rocks!
• 5 Elements body treatment helped to balance and restore the Qi (vital) energy in my mind and body.
• Custom aromatherapy massage: It doesn’t get any better than this for a relaxing evening massage.
• Stretch class: Boy, did I need it.
• The variety of organically sourced aromatherapy products from German-based Amala and Primavera at the spa, including lavender room spray and roll-on, which help me relax whenever and wherever I travel.
• Playing tennis and spending quality with my brother
The Ranch provides round-trip transfers via a luxury coach from the San Diego International Airport.
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