San Francisco Social Diary: Recharging at Rancho La Puerta

Most of the facilities and lodgings are sprinkled amidst world-class gardens at Rancho la Puerta.

Most of the facilities and lodgings at Rancho La Puerta are sprinkled amidst world-class gardens.

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.

At a destination spa like Rancho, the price includes lodging, activities, meals, classes, programs, and scheduled transportation—everything but spa services.

First Stop: Old Town, San Diego

We flew to San Diego Airport and headed to Old Town State Historic Park.

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 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.

New Yorker Robyn Joseph tours Old Town State Historic Park before the drive to Rancho La Puerta in Mexico.

Views of historic Old Town.

Lunch at Old Town Cafe with hand-made tortillas.

Rancho La Puerta: A Legendary Place

Rancho La Puerta, now located in Tecate, Mexico—“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 Deborah, whose motto is “Siempre major” (always better), remains a powerhouse, putting younger people to shame with her energy and busy schedule.

Message of the day.

I met Deborah 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 1980s, 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.

Founder Deborah Szekely has been actively involved since 1940.

Sarah Livia Brightwood, Deborah’s daughter, is president and landscape designer.

Something for Everyone

Rancho La Puerta’s 3,000 majestic acres are located at the base of rocky 3,885-foot Mt. Kuchumaa, a National Historic Site with and 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, mostly over 35, some with a companion and some solo.

So you don’t become lost.

One of the original Ranch buildings.

There are many Ranch paths with stunning moutain views and lovely gardens for strolling.

There are many Ranch paths with stunning moutain views and lovely gardens for strolling.

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.

The Lounge where you can read, enjoy the fire, and meet your friends.

Arriving from San Francisco was Lisa Levinson, of, and her aunt Bonnie Levinson, a former VP for Development at the NY Public Library who went west to become Deputy Director of the SF Museum of Modern Art.

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.

Dinner is seated but still casual.

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 glimpses 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.

Our rooms are Casitas (little houses) surrounded by quiet and nature.

Our rooms are Casitas (little houses) surrounded by quiet and nature.

Map of the property—with its 3,000 majestic acres.

Garden paths lined with sage, lavender, lemon verbena, and rosemary.

Art and sculpture dot the landscape.

Art and sculpture dot the landscape.

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 is there than following the beautiful trails in glorious surroundings, and how better to justify the relaxing massage that followed?

Early morning mountain guided hikes for all levels.

Hiking up Mt. Kuchumaa.

Take the road less traveled.

Incredible rock formations.

Hikers enjoy these lovely Mexican vistas.

After the hike, go for a plunge in the secluded Villa Pool.

A fish pond for quiet contemplation.

Newfound friends gather around for the reading.

Bonnie Levinson reads her play, “Whoops, I Forgot to Have Kids.”

Head gardener Salvador Tinajero gathers vegetables from the garden.

Watching the morning fog lift is mesmerizing.

Watching the morning fog lift is mesmerizing.

Join the crowd for breakfast. Inset: A hearty but healthy breakfast is served.

Many Ways to Pass Your Days

In 19 light-filled studios, Rancho La Puerta offers more than 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 water.

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.”

Yoga classes are offered at every level.

Choose from more than 75 classes—this one is a hula hoop dance class.

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.

A new addition is the chlorine-free fitness pool.

A new addition is the chlorine-free fitness pool.

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 1,200 to 1,400 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.

Time for breakfast in the dining hall.

Fresh-squeezed juices for breakfast.

Enjoying breakfast on the terrace.

Take a look at what’s for dinner.

More dining spots in the gardens.

Lots of choices at the Sunday brunch.

New Yorker Stephanie Stokes lunches al fresco.

Lisa Levinson finds some quiet time to relax after lunch.

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.

The new La Cocina Que Canta Cooking School.

The new La Cocina Que Canta Cooking School.

We pick our own vegetables from the Ranch’s organic farm for dinner.

A roaring fire greets us at the cooking school.

Cooking classes are available at lunch and dinner.

Fresh asparagus with hard-boiled eggs.

Everyone pitches in.

The cookbook for healthy and delicious recipes.

Ready for the buffet dinner we prepared.

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!


Photography by Jeanne Lawrence. Some photos courtesy Rancho la Puerta.

Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in New York, Shanghai, and San Francisco, and wherever else she finds a good story.

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