By Janet Kelly
BLAME IT on my next-door neighbor—Monique Mead. A violinist and director of music entrepreneurship at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, for about two years she has been singing the praises of this “ranch” place I understood was somewhere just over the Mexican border, south of San Diego. A friend jokingly called it “Mexicish.”
Monique and I would have a conversation along these lines:
Me: I’m not sure a spa is my thing. I don’t even get massages or facials, and I’ve heard these places are chi-chi.
Monique: It’s not just a spa. You have pickle ball and tennis, classes in mat and machine Pilates; there’s yoga, swimming (four pools), sound healing and mountain hikes with spectacular scenery. Plus, lectures from experts in their fields and nightly concerts from all-star musicians. (Monique directs the ranch’s annual chamber music festival in February.) Nobody wears makeup or dresses up. Yoga pants are preferred attire.
Jim and I started to think the Ranch would be a welcome winter break and signed up last summer for the week of February 5 to 12. We did buy insurance in case we had to cancel for some reason, namely Covid 19—we hadn’t even heard of the Omicron variant. Luckily, by February, cases were going way down. In January we e-mailed copies of our vaccinations/booster cards and took antigen tests within 48 hours of our arrival and e-mailed them a photo of the results.
From the time we arrived at the San Diego Airport on Saturday, February 5, to when we left a week later, it was evident that Rancho La Puerta paid attention to every detail in its extremely organized operation. (As a former Apple exec we met at lunch told us later in the week, “Apple could learn from them.”)
A bus transported the roughly 30 of us who arrived that Saturday morning to within 100 feet of the Mexican border where we got off and walked our luggage to the crossing. The Ranch staff had the Mexican government forms we had filled out previously and showed them along with our passports at the border. We then walked through a turnstile and boarded a minivan for the 15-minute ride to the Ranch.
The setting is a picturesque valley at the base of Mount Kuchumaa, just below southern California in Baja. The 4,000 acres include 40 miles of hiking trails, 32 acres of landscaped gardens, fragrant with lavender, and an organic farm with a cooking school. Our first day we got a guided tour of the grounds and figured we’d know our way around by the following Friday. For the directionally challenged, the many signs helped.
A staff member placed our bags on a trolley and led us to our casita—Sol 3—a thoroughly inviting space with a wooden beam ceiling, a small, rustic living room, a bedroom with a king-size bed and a large bathroom—with a heater. Terra cotta flooring, colorful Mexican folk art on fabrics and tiled mirrors warm the interior as well as an adobe fireplace that was cleaned and restocked with wood after every use. While we were there, the temperature was cool in the morning and evening and warm midday.
I may not have heard of it, but the Rancho de la Puerta is one of the original health and fitness resorts, an early enthusiast of yoga, mindfulness and vegetarian diets.
Founded in 1940 by Hungarian philosopher Edmond Szekely and Deborah, his Brooklyn-born wife, the Ranch started out as a retreat where guests paid $17 a week to pitch their own tent and study with the “Professor” about the benefits of vegetarianism, interval fasting and exercise.
Deborah Szekely, who will turn 100 in May, still walks at least an hour a day, does Pilates twice a week and keeps a watch on her weight. Plus, she’s working on a memoir. The grande dame of the spa industry (she also founded the Golden Door, which she sold in 1998), she’s the quintessential example of how to live a healthy life. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, she said, “I’m a role model. If you do all these things — hey, you can be 99 and still be having fun.”
The cuisine has evolved from all vegetarian to include fish and seafood like halibut and salmon and shrimp. Breakfast is buffet style, with offerings from fruit and yogurt to scrambled eggs and beans, as well as delicious homemade bread. Vegetable tortillas and lush salads are the fare at the buffet-style lunch. At four-course dinners—which begin with soup and end with something sweet and a spicy tea—guests are invited to join other guests at community tables, and the result is interesting conversations—and even friendship. New Yorker Ronnie met fellow New Yorker Sally here several years ago. Sally had decided to return this week and convinced Ronnie to do likewise. It was Sally’s fifth trip, Ronnie’s 20th.
Among the highlights of my week were learning the rules (a puzzlement) of pickle ball in addition to improving my game through drills at clinics. Sound healing classes turned the volume down on my whirring thoughts, while lectures on diet, exercise and neuroplasticity brought me new awareness of the importance of good health. I’m probably spoiled forever by the woman who worked out the knots in my neck and back. But my favorite experience was a two-mile hike to the Ranch’s organic garden and cooking school, punctuated midway by a member of the Miro Quartet playing a lively fiddle tune and then a bountiful breakfast of scrambled eggs, black beans, salsa, seasonal fruit, buckwheat granola, strawberries and muffins. A concert by the members of the quartet, along with Monique on the violin and Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, topped off the morning’s pleasures with Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla’s “Bordel” (the tango originated in the brothels of Argentina) and “Cafe 1930,” ending with a rousing rendition of the tango song “Por una cabeza” from the 1992 movie Scent of a Woman.
I was thinking how I might incorporate some of what I’d experienced during the week to my daily life. And, what do you know, the last day of our stay, there was a talk called, “Take the Ranch Home.” I don’t grow my own vegetables nor could I commit to daily trips to fresh markets. But instead of meeting friends for lunch or dinner, I could consider meeting them for a walk instead. As someone who has been known to eat cookies for lunch, new habits are a good thing.
I’ve clearly drunk the Kool-Aid, er, the shot glass of turmeric, ginger and lemon juice served every morning at breakfast. Anyway, I now understand why so many guests choose to return so frequently; it’s no longer the mystery it was at the beginning of the week. Thank you, Monique, for the nudge.
For a weekly stay at the Ranch, prices have gone up considerably since 1940. During high season—February 25 to June 17, 2022—rates start at $5,000 per week (Saturday to Saturday) for a sole-occupancy Ranchero Solo and go to $6,500 per person, double occupancy, for the largest casita — Villa Cielo. For more information and availability, go to Rancho La Puerta.