Starting hike at Rancho La Puerta

Sis, tired, hungry and totally disgruntled from her flight (plane was overbooked, no hot water was available ergo no coffee, endless delays at the airport, etc.) met me at Rancho La Puerto’s lobby. Within minutes our luggage was whisked into our spacious villa while we were whisked into the dining room where we promptly filled up at the bountiful buffet of healthy fruits and veggies straight from the Ranch’s organic garden.

By the end of lunch, Sis’s frown lines looked like she just received two shots of botox.

Rancho La Puerta was founded by Deborah Szekely and her prophetic husband, Edmond, (a Hungarian scholar, philosopher and natural-living experimenter) in 1940. The family-owned and operated Ranch has always been at this location– although there have been quite a few changes since the “good old days” when it was priced at $17.50 a week and BYOT: bring your own tent!

The Ranch in 1940. You've come a long way, baby.

From the get-go, the founder’s mission was to “make healthy people healthier so they could change the world”. Refreshing and wise, The Ranch’s emphasis is on health, not calorie count, weight loss, or looking younger. Pure air, the ever-changing beauty of the desert valley, challenging mountain hikes, naturally grown farm-fresh food, abundant sunlight, along with Deborah’s “always changing” motto all combine to make a healthy tonic providing incomparable peace and contentment.

In fact, the whole week we never heard a single word of discontent (a major miracle in the spa world) from the other dressed-down guests. While who did what/when/and where was not given much notice, I did find out (hey, a girl needs to do a little sleuthing for her story) that our group of approximately 125 guests, was composed of roughly 25% men, including some of the most mannerly, good guys I’ve met in some time. Our guests included four female judges (from all over the country, who made this their “Annual Girls Getaway”) a psychologist who specialized in the area of Sleep and Dreams, a man who married and divorced another man, a leading designer of wedding veils and her sister the CEO of several successful businesses, a loyal ranch devotee who, at age 79, was celebrating her 45th visit. This gaggle of sisters, brothers, singles, mother-and-daughters, couples and longtime friends all found what they needed at the Ranch.

However, what really makes the Ranch extra special is the incredibly happy, sweet, gracious, impeccably trained staff who exceeded our every expectation (and believe me, my sister “expects”). Such warm professionalism is just one of the reasons Rancho la Puerta was named “World’s Best Destination Spa” in 2010 by readers of Travel + Leisure magazine.

When I asked our hiking guide, Ernesto, what he liked best at the ranch, he looked around at the breathtaking mountains surrounding us, and thoughtfully replied, “Well, I would have to say, EVERYTHING, because if you take anything away it just wouldn’t be The Ranch.”

Just one part of the organic garden

Clearly, Enrique, the Head Landscaper feels the same way– he’s been at the Ranch for over 25 years. Responsible for acres of property, along with a staff of 22 gardeners, Enrique oversees 200 flower and plant species, all of which were selected for their capacity to thrive in the Baja Sur climate along with their ability to “just say no” to chemical dependency, pesticides and insects.

And then there is Joe Sweeney, Fitness Counselor, Hike Leader, Bird Walk Maven and one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met, who’s been at the ranch for about 30 years! Oh, I forgot to add that he also has written a dynamite lil’ book, “I KNOW I SHOULD EXERCISE, BUT…7 Steps To Removing Your “But” From Exercise.” Available on Amazon and no, I’m not getting a commission. He welcomes all the newbies at a group lunch where he helpfully highlights the not-to-be-missed activities offered during the week.

• Hiking: Every morning began pre-crack of dawn, when Sis and I took a heart-pumping (sometimes downright “pounding”) 3 to 7 mile hike returning for a well-deserved buffet breakfast. At home, I usually gulp down a Sbux non-fat latte for brekkie, here I blithely piled my tray with a scoop of steaming hot oatmeal topped with a spoonful of homemade marmalade, a piece of the scrumpy orange toast, a kaleidoscope of fresh fruit AND whatever the hot entrée of the days was-for example, poached eggs over spinach that I would cover with assorted fresh salsas.
The dining staff always went above and beyond to make certain that they adhered to all personal food preferences . . . case in point, they always put out three pots of coffee: Decaf, Strong and Stronger and a pitcher of hot steamed milk.

We were rewarded with dessert every night

• Fitness Classes: While some guests opted to read, lounge, or chat, just walking the winding grounds of The Ranch to get to meals and spa appointments can easily tote up to three miles a day- all part of the clever master plan. Sis and I sampled a wide variety of fitness classes. She went the stretch and Yoga route, while I steered toward the strength training/ cardio path.
Standouts among the gifted instructors included Diane, an attractive, 70-something, who teaches Yoga in an easy to follow yet challenging format. Heartthrob, Manuel, the King of Fiery Latin Dance had Sis and I howling with laughter as we tried to match our hip swivels to his. Kevin, who I swear has negative percent body fat, graciously let me take the “For Men Only” weight training class. We learned in Roberto’s drum class that banging on drums can be an invigorating, stress releaser for even the most rhythmically challenged. The one and only, Yuichi, had us high-kicking around the gym like we were trying out for a B’way chorus line. Who would have guessed that John, the steel limbed, ex-military fighter pilot, would lead such an amazing zen-stretch class? We never had time for sand volley ball, the Olympic swimming pool for aquatics, or the clay sculpting class, but heard others raving about them.

Yuichi showing us some B'way moves

• Accomodations: We absolutely loved our casita. The décor was comfy chic, filled with a happy riot of color from the museum-quality, local folk art that adorned the walls. Other nice touches were the cathedral wood-beamed ceiling, a welcoming stone fireplace with a big bin of wood at the ready, a double bathroom lined with handcrafted Tecate tiles, more closet space than I have at home, a small kitchen filled with fresh fruit, coffee and assorted teas and a private patio overlooking Mt. Kuchumaa.

Such a happy room

• Lectures: DO NOT MISS the evening lecture by Deborah, The Ranch’s guiding light and a woman of extraordinary accomplishment. This 88 year-young visionary, chose the topic “Time and Choice” for her inspiring chat.

She makes it simple. “When you put your head on the pillow at night and can say to yourself “wow, I had a good day today”, you’ve used your time in a meaningful manner.”
She went on to divulge one of her secrets for staying healthy and fit in later years.
“As most people grow older, they become less active and more sedentary,” Deborah chortled. “I’m just the opposite. I add more exercise every year. I’ll be turning 90 soon and really enjoy my life and want to keep living it, so for my next birthday present I’m looking for a good tai-chi class to add to my regime.”

Deborah Szekely

One afternoon we heard Alex Von Bidder, co-owner of the famed Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan, read aloud from his delightful children’s book (co-authored with designer Leslie McGuirk) where his alter-ego, a chocolate Labrador puppy named Wiggens learns about manners. A great stocking stuffer for many adults I know.

• Cooking: an all-time favorite activity was the “off campus,” hands-on cooking class at La Cucina que Canta, the “kitchen that sings”. Built in 2008 this stunningly attractive Cooking School and Culinary Center came to be because guests kept asking Deborah “teach them how to cook and eat in a healthier manner”. The guest chef/instructors change weekly. We scored with the talented, charming Dahlia Hass, chef/caterer/author and a renowned cooking teacher from Hawaii, who effortlessly taught twelve of us how to prepare an Island dinner using the organic fruits and veggies grown on the Ranch. Picking edible flower blossoms, pristine Kale leaves, baby lettuces and pinching off fresh herbs from the backyard gave “grocery shopping” a whole new meaning. I couldn’t believe it when Sis, who can count the number of meals (healthy or otherwise) she’s prepared on one hand, told me that she couldn’t wait to make the Spa Shrimp Dumplings in Swiss Chard Wrappers for her fam when she gets home.

Cooking Class

• Spa Treatments: Absolute perfection! Try an in-room treatment (a lovely option at night when all you have to do is roll from the massage table into your comfy bed for a blissful night’s sleep) or trundle over to one of the three Health and Beauty Sanctuaries, the massages are an integral part of The Ranch’s wellness philosophy “aiming at achieving a deeper balance of mind/body/spirit health.” All I know is they sure as heck made me a happy camper. Although their signature treatment is a stress-melting Hot Riverstone Massage (uber-relaxing) my Two Hands-down fave was for the Four-Hand Massage, sensitively synchronized by Mike and Jesus, two gentle giants whose silken- catcher’s mitt sized hands glided up and down my body like ocean waves. Priceless.
Hot Riverstone Massage

As I sadly packed my bag to come home, I flashed back to Deborah’s fireside chat. She actually twinkled at the end when she told us that she “follows a personal North Star that guides her to lead a life where she can make a difference.” At Rancho La Puerta she has done exactly that– offering lucky guests a life-changing stay at her personal very blue heaven!

Week-long packages start at $2,985 per person for a double occupancy room, a price that includes accommodations, all meals, a wide array of fitness classes, use of all facilities, daily learning workshops and seminars, nightly entertainment, and complimentary scheduled transportation to and from the San Diego airport. The Ranch is just a short hop across the border.
For more information go to Rancho La Puerta website.