|by Jeanne Lawrence
Tecate, Baja California, Mexico. Desperate for sun, a group of friends from New York and San Francisco and I fled to Tecate, Mexico and the legendary destination spa Rancho La Puerta (San Diego region), where we found perfect 70- and 80-degree days.
In these recessionary times, the “Bring a Friend” 50% discount was an extra enticement especially since at a destination spa like Rancho, the price includes lodging, activities, meals, classes, programs, and scheduled transportation—everything but spa services.
(Rancho will be offering a variety of specials through the end of the year.)
|Our group flew into San Diego Airport and headed to the historical Old Town State Historic Park for a quick lunch and tour before the hour-long, 45-mile bus trip through San Diego County on U.S. roads to Tecate.
We easily crossed the border into Mexico and were driven to the Ranch, four miles away, far from Tijuana both physically and spiritually.
|A Legendary Place
Rancho La Puerta –“The Ranch,” to initiates—was a pioneering force in the spa and fitness movement. It was founded in 1940 by Deborah Szekely (pronounced Say-kay) and her late husband Edmond Szekely, the Eastern European philosopher.
In 1958, she founded the exclusive Golden Door Spa, in Escondido, California, which set a new standard for luxury spas. Today the octogenarian Szekely, whose motto is “Siempre major” (always better), remains a powerhouse, putting younger people to shame with her energy and her schedule.
|I met her when I moved to La Jolla (San Diego) in the 1980s as a bride and was impressed by her energy. Manager of several thriving business, she was also a local cultural and political activist.
After a failed Congressional run in the l980s, at age 65, she went to Washington anyway to run the Inter-American Foundation, which supports self-help efforts throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
In the 1990s, she founded Eureka Communities, a national leadership-training program for CEOs of nonprofit organizations. Lately, she’s helped establish the New Americans Museum and Learning Center in San Diego, California.
|Something for Everyone
Rancho La Puerta is located at the base of rocky 3,885-foot Mt. Kuchuma, with 3,000 majestic acres, many preserved— a mystical spot for the Kumeyaay Indians.
The Szekely family still owns and operates the Ranch, with 400 longtime local staff members like concierge Manuelita China, a 50-year veteran, providing the service it has become famous for. Sarah Livia Brightwood, the Szekelys’ daughter, is president and landscape designer.
Like an adult summer camp, but far more comfortable, it offers myriad activities for every taste. And in the warm, intimate atmosphere, where the dress is casual and you don’t wear makeup, guests bond quickly during weeklong stays that begin each Saturday.
There are usually about 125 guests a varied group, mostly over 35, some with a companion and some solo.
|I stay in touch with many of the interesting people I’ve met in the course of the 30 years I’ve been going there. Like me, many guests – 55% – are return visitors.
Most come in search of fitness, weight loss, and pampering. Some come to hike and be in nature. And some come for meditation and solitude.
During my recent visit, the New York group included Central Park Conservancy board member Robyn Joseph, an enthusiastic first-time visitor and interior designer Stephanie Stokes, on her 14th trip to recharge her batteries and climb the mountain, sometimes twice a day.
|Arriving from San Francisco was Lisa Levinson, of Salesforce.com, and her aunt Bonnie Levinson, a former VP for Development at NY Public Library who went west to become Deputy Director of the SF Museum Modern Art, met her husband on her fourth day and became bi-costal.
Serendipitous networking often occurs. This time, for example, Bonnie read her play, “Whoops, I Forgot to Have Kids,” to a group in the garden. Afterwards, Stephanie put Bonnie on the phone with her New York producer friend, Frances Hill Barlow of Urban Stages, to brainstorm about a possible production.
|An Extraordinary Setting
Lined with olive groves, cactus, fragrant sage, lavender, lemon verbena, and rosemary, winding paths meander past swimming pools, tennis courts, gymnasiums, and a meditation labyrinth and offer a glimpse of quail, cottontails and birds.
Scattered amid the gardens are the guestrooms: 83 cozy yet spacious, rustic “casitas” (little houses). They’re Spanish Colonial design, made of brick and stucco with tile roofs and terracotta floors, wood-beamed ceilings, and arched windows.
There are several home-like choices, each with a private garden entrance and a patio, and many with a wood-stocked fireplace requiring only the touch of a match to provide welcome glow. In the minibar, there’s only fresh fruit
Szekely’s eye for detail and individual touches are evident, from the original, indigenous art in the guestrooms to the commissioned works in public areas, some by Mexican sculptor Francisco Zuniga.
|A Hike to Start the Day
Rancho guests traditionally begin the day with a guided early morning hike. The options include a simple meadow stroll and a silent Woodlands Meditation Hike as well as more challenging choices, such as a 5.5-mile trek or half-day hike on the lower slopes of the mountain. All offer spectacular views.
Though I was exhausted after my first mountain hike, I continued to hike every day. What better cardio exercise than following the beautiful trails in glorious surroundings, and how better to justify the relaxing massage that followed?
|Many Ways to Pass Your Days
In 19 light-filled studios, Rancho La Puerta offers over 75 mind, body, and spirit classes such as yoga, Pilates, Feldenkrais, strength training, NIA, aerobic dancing (giggling included), plus tennis and more.
The four pools (including a heated outdoor pool cleaned by oxygen instead of chlorine) are appealing for water aerobics, swimming lessons, or relaxing with a good book by the pool.
Instead of exercising, you might choose a class in sculpting, painting, sketching, improvisational comedy, photography, or Spanish. There are informational lectures on topics such as the history of Mexico and nutrition. The latter might include such topics as “Carbs: Fuel or Fat Maker?” and “Fats: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
|Or you could go to the Health Center to enjoy the whirlpool, sauna, or steam, or to indulge in a treatment. A variety of facials, wraps, and massages are offered.
Or you could walk the labyrinth or retreat to solitude.
The appeal of the Ranch is that it offers myriad opportunities to do your own thing during the day plus the conviviality of sharing dinner and stories in the evening.
There are also nightly after-dinner movies and one-hour lectures by visiting luminaries such as Bill Moyers, Madeline Albright, and Ruth Wertheimer. Most of us turned in by 9 p.m. so we could be up early the next morning.
|Satisfying Your Hunger
Each morning a breakfast buffet is served in the large, rustic Spanish colonial dining hall. Weather permitting, you can also dine outside. Lunches are also buffet style, though dinners are served.
You’re offered low-fat, high-flavor vegetarian selections or “modified vegetarian cuisine” that includes fish. The produce comes from the Ranch’s own organic farm nearby.
The food is tempting and memorable, yet most people managed to stick to 1200 to 1400 calories a day, and thanks to being physically active, lose a couple of pounds or more. We rewarded ourselves late in the week when the chef brought around a basket of fresh chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies at lunchtime.
|For a change of venue at lunch or dinner midweek, you can go to the 4,500-square-foot La Cocina Que Canta (The Kitchen That Sings), the Ranch cooking school that opened in 2007 and is under Brightwood’s wing.
Salvador Tinajero, a 30-year employee, is in charge of the organic gardens, where you begin by picking the produce you’ll be preparing. Resident chef Ana Lorena Najar directed our group in creating the French Flavors menu: Onion Soup, Endive and Grape Salad, Asparagus Salad, Roasted Vegetables with Honey and Balsamic, Poached Wild Salmon, Exotic Mushrooms and Spinach Beggars, finished with Orange Sorbet with Honey Yogurt and Pistachios — accompanied by wine. It was bountiful, savory, and even low in calories (!)
We all rushed to buy "Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta: Recipes from the World-Famous Spa,” determined to make these nutritious, enjoyable meals back home.
|You’ll Want to Come Back
At week’s end we felt wonderful – stronger, healthier and happier. To console ourselves about having to leave, we vowed to return soon.
“Our wish is a life of health, fulfillment, and peace of mind. This joyful rediscovery is our gift to you,” says Szekely. And it definitely is!
|* New York-based Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in Shanghai and San Francisco, and wherever else she finds a good story.|