Resort Review: Like Cher and Madonna, a one-word name suffices. Say "Rancho" in the spa world and the assumption is Rancho La Puerta. A first-class fitness and health spa mere miles from the U.S.'s southern border, it's in the town of Tecate at the base of 3,885-foot Mt. Kuchumaa - revered and named by Native Americans as "the exalted high place."
I'm fortunate. My spa experience is extensive, and in the past I had visited this Mexican Mecca. True, it was several years ago but my memory's verdict remained certain: I loved it.
This long-term affection was reinforced on the complimentary bus in route from San Diego's airport to the south-of-the-border retreat, little more than one hour away. Amid the anticipatory chatter of fellow spa-goers, there was a buzz - "2010 award," "number one in the reader's poll," "named the world's best" were repeated phrases, triggering a Pavlovian response.
Learning of its distinction as the "World's Best Destination Spa" (yet again), I recalled my previous experience: multitudinous hiking opportunities, delicious yet low-cal Mexican-Mediterranean cuisine (typically, an oxymoron), gracious grounds, countless fitness classes and nurturing body treatments. Unlike many of my past health haunts, it offered everything. Bottom line: If spas were high school students, Rancho La Puerta would be "Best All-Around."
They've thought of everything. If you have diet considerations, consider it done (tactfully and under the radar). Want to practice yoga? Several classes at several levels are available (all fitness sessions have one instructor/one observer to ensure you're doing it correctly). Interested in hiking? Two to seven mile treks range from meadow walks to mountain climbs - all are early morning (avoiding the heat of the day) and all are escorted (three expert guides serve as lead, middle and shepherd). Want to know how many steps you're walking? A personal (and, of course, complimentary) pedometer is in your room. Need a tote bag? It's provided. Forget your water bottle? You'll be given one with your name. Require medical attention? They have a nurse. And the truth about this paragraph: it could be longer.
Celebrating its 70th birthday, Rancho La Puerta represents a period of time when life wasn't defined by BlackBerrys and Bluetooths. Known as the first "eco-resort," its founder was the late holistic health and fitness expert Edmond Szekely who picked this setting after a worldwide search along latitude 33 for a spot with near perfect year-round climate, healthy soil for gardening and pure water. In keeping with family tradition, his wife Deborah (today 88 years old and still involved in maintaining Rancho's place at the top) founded the Golden Door.
Each Saturday marks the arrival of 125 guests (predominately women but definitely co-ed) to the 3,000 acres situated in an arena of meadows, hills and mountains and esthetically punctuated by koi ponds, scattered sculptures and a bevy of botanicals.
Connected by meandering brick pathways are private casita lodging, five hot tubs, four tennis courts, four pools, six aerobic gyms, men's and women's health centers and the dining hall, the true center of activity, whose evening bell signifies that "dinner is served." The layout - one that is initially confusing - soon lends itself to common sense with the assistance of directional arrows and generously-distributed maps.
Upgrades are everywhere but changes are subtle, thoughtful and once in place . . . appear as if they existed always. New since my visit is the Activity Pool (home to Hydro-Fit water workshops, offered only at this destination spa), Bar Method (a new-to-the-fitness-scene class also exclusive to Rancho), La Cocina que Canta cooking school and use of the exclusive Amala and Primavera skincare line.
And no fear, attention to personal detail is plentiful - your every wish is the staff's sincere command - from Mike and Jesús who developed the spa's Four Hands Massage . . . to Manuel (Rancho's Antonio Banderas) who teaches water fitness to salsa music . . . to Francisco who guides hikers (pausing even for Kodak moments).
Rewards vary - spiritual grounding, weight loss, lifestyle changes. But whatever one seeks, whatever one finds, the repeat factor is significant. There's a saying in Tecate: "If you drink Tecate water you leave, but you eventually come back no matter how long it takes you." Perhaps the expression explains why Bill and Connie (San Diego, CA) have returned 28 times, Lee and Judy (Horseshoe Bay, TX) made their 20th visit and Barbara traveled from Paris, France, to Rancho La Puerta.
~ Hiking. Hike at your level, but take advantage of the 25 miles of trails. Tip: Sign up for the organic garden hike. Your end-of-the-trail reward is a delicious breakfast in a hacienda amid Rancho's six-acre Tres Estrellas garden.
~ Craig Stuart's water workshops that utilize specialty underwater weights. Thought you should know: They're offered throughout the year, but he personally teaches the last two weeks in July.
~ Classes such as cooking, sculpting, jewelry making . . . anything in or out of your element.
~ An afternoon on the wooden swing beneath the signature green pepper tree.
~ The night of bingo (no, this is not a typo). Fitness director Barry Shingle makes it bawdy, bold and belly-laughing fun. Get there early; it's the hottest ticket in this tiny town. Note: Additional entertainment can be as prestigious as novelist Erica Jong, PBS commentator Bill Moyers, even Pulitzer-Prize winning poets such as Galway Kinnell.
~ Forged friendships. Though it changes from week to week, I designate the perk the best. For me, the highlight of this visit was two girlfriends from Boston, MA and a trio living in Portland, OR. Last time it was a Hollywood movie producer and his wife. Next it'll be someone different. And yes, there will be a next time.
Why? Its motto: Siempre Mejor. The translation is "always better." And Rancho La Puerta continues to improve, as I do with each visit.