When my dear, longtime friend Deborah Szekely, founder of the world-renowned Rancho La Puerta Wellness Resort and Spa in Tecate, Baja California, Mexico, sent an invitation to her 100th birthday celebration, I booked my flight immediately.
For the occasion of Deborah’s birthday, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria proclaimed “Deborah Szekely Day” in honor of the health and wellness visionary, philanthropist, and community leader.
RANCHO LA PUERTA WELLNESS RESORT AND SPA
In 1940, Deborah Szekely (pronounced ZAY-kay), dubbed “the Godmother of Wellness,” together with her husband, Edmond Bordeaux Szekely, founded a rustic retreat they called Rancho La Puerta. There, they pioneered the balanced mind/body/spirit fitness movement. (She later founded the exclusive Japanese-inspired The Golden Door Spa in California.)
The motto of “The Ranch,” as we regular guests call it, is Siempre mejor (Spanish for “Always better”)—and it always is. Rancho La Puerta Fitness Resort and Spa has been voted the #1 International Destination Spa by Travel + Leisure magazine for the past three years, and Conde Nast Traveler has called it “Best in Mexico.”
How thrilling for Deborah to see what 80 years of dedication from herself and her family—who still own and operate The Ranch—has achieved.
THE RANCHO LOCATION
Rancho La Puerta is Mexico’s top destination spa and retreat. Tucked at the foot of Mt. Kuchamaa, a sacred mountain of the indigenous Kumeyaay Native American tribe, The Ranch is an hour’s drive from San Diego and just a 10-minute ride over Mexico’s northern border.
A spa break is a great way to physically and emotionally rejuvenate. For decades, guests have arrived at The Ranch to relax, refresh, renew, take mountain hikes, exercise, and enjoy the numerous wellness activities that are available from morning to night. Along with myriad opportunities to do your own thing during the day, The Ranch offers the conviviality of sharing dinner and stories in the evening.
RANCH GUESTS RETURN YEARLY
Accommodating up to 150 weekly guests, The Ranch boasts a return rate of over 85%, many of whom—men and women of all ages, mothers and daughters, couples and groups of friends—come year after year.
Some solo visitors see it as a safe haven where they can be alone or with others as they choose. The loyal staff of over 400—some of whom are 40-year veterans whose children and even grandchildren work at The Ranch—creates a “family” atmosphere where guests feel at home.
Luminary visitors have included Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, William Buckley, Milton Friedman, Bill Moyers, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The list is long and impressive!
A SPECTACULAR SETTING
The Ranch sits on 4,000 majestic acres with 40 miles of hiking trails, 32 acres of beautifully landscaped gardens, a six-acre organic farm, and La Cocina Que Canta (“The Kitchen that Sings”), a world-class cooking school, plus multiple spas, a library, a museum, and fitness facilities.
A HIKE TO START THE DAY
Many guests prioritizing fitness opt to begin the day with a guided hike on beautiful mountain trails. Their choices range from a simple meadow stroll and a silent Woodlands Meditation Hike to more challenging options such as an 8-mile trek or half-day hike high above the valley.
SO MANY ACTIVITIES TO CHOOSE FROM
At The Ranch, you create your own schedule. Dining? Fitness? Relaxation? Beauty Treatments? There is something for everyone and every mood.
The more than 75 indoor and outdoor activities include yoga, Pilates, tai chi, dance classes, Zumba, circuit training, HIIT, kettle ball, dancing, swimming, tennis, and pickle ball.
Scattered among the lush gardens are 86 tucked-away, spacious Spanish Colonial “casitas” (little cottages). The “Ranchera,” “Hacienda,” and “Villa” lodgings, of various sizes, locations, and layouts, feature spectacular views of the gardens and mountains.
The Ranch’s full-service spa offers a never-ending list of therapeutic and body rejuvenation treatments. The four health and beauty centers are an oasis of tranquility, with saunas, hot tubs, steam rooms, showers, private treatment rooms, and relaxation lounges.
Along with mani/pedis, hair, and makeup, the spa salon treatments include waxes, scalp treatments, a rosemary loofah salt glow, a Japanese restorative facial, herbal or seaweed wraps…all performed by skilled estheticians and therapists.
HEALTHY FOOD TO SUIT EVERY PALATE
Breakfast and lunch buffets are served outside, weather permitting, or in the large, bustling Spanish Colonial dining hall, while the evening meal is a sit-down dinner with waiter service.
Guests can select low-fat, flavorful vegetarian or pescatarian selections. There are options to satisfy any type of dietary restriction, all of it organic, nourishing, satisfying—and delicious.
The Ranch has a six-acre organic farm where the gardeners grow crops for guests’ consumption using organic gardening techniques and environmental practices.
DEBORAH’S PATH TO RANCHO LA PUERTA
Deborah Shainman Szekely was born in Brooklyn, New York to immigrant parents. Her father was in the garment business and her mother a nurse and vice-president of The New York Vegetarian Society.
After the stock market crash of 1929, when Deborah was 8, her family escaped to Tahiti, where her father purchased a local coconut business, and her mother became a midwife. Deborah and her younger brother Joseph attended public school and learned to speak French.
During their five years in Tahiti, the family met the charismatic Hungarian Edmond Bordeaux Szekely. An author and philosopher known as “The Professor,” he wrote over 80 books. Edmond studied health practices of ancient civilizations such as the Mesopotamians and the Essenes. A natural-living enthusiast, he searched the world for the perfect climate.
A LIFE PARTNER: EDMOND SZEKELY
In 1939, at age 17, Deborah married Edmond Szekely. The following year, the couple opened their first health camp, an “eco” resort where The Ranch now sits. The pair had two children, Sarah Livia and the late Alexandre, who both became involved with The Ranch.
Deborah credits her husband with being her inspirational guru and mentor; she was the “worker bee.” “From age 18, I ran the day-to-day operations, making sure everyone was fed and housed,” she says. Apparently, physical work and keeping busy fosters longevity.
EXPANDING HER VISION: THE GOLDEN DOOR SPA
In the more than 40 years I’ve known her, Deborah has always had a project brewing, perhaps another of her secrets to long life. In 1958, she created something completely different from the rustic Rancho La Puerta—The Golden Door Spa, an exclusive Japanese-inspired property in Escondido, California that set a new standard for luxury spas.
In 1998, her son Alex sold The Golden Door to a corporation, but, thankfully, in 2012 it was purchased by a private owner, a long-time guest who loved “The Door” and who has poured millions into maintaining Deborah’s high standards.
A DIVERSITY OF INTERESTS AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS
In addition to running her spa businesses, Deborah has long been an activist, a philanthropist, and a visionary. She has served on countless boards, earned honorary doctorates, and received numerous accolades and awards for her devotion to community causes.
Among her extensive civic roles, she has been a U.S. delegate to UNESCO, is an inductee to the San Diego County Women’s Hall of Fame and co-founded the Commission Garcia Robles (a US-Mexico commission for educational and cultural exchange). In 1964, Deborah co-founded COMBO (Combined Arts and Education Council) of San Diego County that raised millions for local cultural groups.
Deborah also has been honored with a Civic Award from the League of Women Voters, named Humanitarian of the Year by the National Conference for Community and Justice, selected as “Mrs. San Diego” by the San Diego Rotary, and was recently named the first inductee to Spa Business’s new Spa and Wellness Hall of Fame (April 2022).
THE OLD GLOBE THEATRE
The Old Globe Theatre has been a vital part of Deborah’s life for over 70 years. Her involvement began in 1945 when a newspaper ad seeking volunteers for a new theater in Balboa Park caught her eye. Therein began her love affair with the theater and an enduring friendship with Craig Noel, the Globe’s founding director. She eventually served on its board of directors and is still an Emeritus director and season ticket holder.
One of Deborah’s proudest achievements was in 1978, when she co-chaired the campaign to raise $6.5 million ($25 million in today’s dollars) to rebuild The Globe Theatre after it was destroyed by arson. The new complex opened in 1982 and has become one of the nation’s leading regional theaters and continues to be a worldwide attraction.
THE NEXT CHAPTERS
After founding and managing The Ranch and The Golden Door for years, Deborah was ready for something new. She says, “It all started when I was looking forward to my 60th birthday. I realized I had every bit as much energy as I did at 30 or 40. I had been in fitness forever, and I decided I wanted to do something totally different to challenge my mind, challenge my spirit.”
She went on, “You don’t feel like repeating yourself, and at 60 you have the opportunity to create a whole new life.” And she did: In 1982, Deborah ran for U.S. Congress. Though she did not win the election, she moved to Washington, D.C. anyway.
INTER-AMERICAN FOUNDATION (IAF)
Deborah spent the 1980s and 1990s in DC, where she was appointed by President Reagan to serve as president of the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) from 1984-1990. During her term, the agency distributed millions of dollars in grants to promote community-led development in Latin America and the Caribbean. Deborah calls it “one of the highlights of my life … a mind-expanding experience.”
LIFE IN WASHINGTON
While in D.C., Deborah discovered there was no training or basic reference manual for newly elected legislators. Aa a businesswoman who understood organization, in 1984 she conceived and produced “Setting Course: A Congressional Management Guide,” now in its 17th edition.
Living in Georgetown, she continued to lead an active life and remained involved in philanthropic causes, meeting politicians and luminaries along the way.
During this time, in 1991, Deborah founded Eureka Communities, a national training program for leaders and CEOs of nonprofit organizations. She served as president for 11 years, during which she raised over $14 million in donations.
NEW AMERICANS MUSEUM AND “ORDER OF THE AZTEC EAGLE”
After 20 years in Washington, and never content to stand still, in 2008, at age 79, when many have settled into retirement, Deborah launched The New Americans Museum & Immigration Learning Center at Liberty Station, a former naval base in San Diego. The museum educates young people on the myriad gifts that immigrants bring to the U.S. and fosters tolerance among all Americans.
In 2012, Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon awarded her the “Order of the Aztec Eagle,” the highest Mexican government decoration given to foreign nationals whose work or actions have benefited Mexico and Mexicans.
CELEBRATING HER 90th BIRTHDAY
In 2012, Deborah celebrated her 90th with family and friends at many parties in her honor, as usual—all well deserved. She has always cultivated friendships with the same enthusiasm that she cultivates her gardens; and even today she stresses the importance of having younger friends.
THE 100th BIRTHDAY – A THREE-DAY CELEBRATION
¡Feliz Cumpleaños, Deborah! This year she marked the big one—the 1-0-0! After 80 years of success and changing lives for the better at The Ranch, it was only fitting that Deborah celebrate her centennial birthday there. More than 1,700 guests arrived for the occasion, including family and friends from San Diego and around the world, local citizens and VIPs, and over 400 Ranch employees and their families.
The logistical planning for the party was perfection, and the kickoff evening flowed beautifully. Remarkably, while Deborah’s party was going on, The Ranch simultaneously provided the in-house guests with its signature first-class service it’s known for. It was brilliant!
DEBORAH’S GRAND PROMENADE ENTRANCE
Setting a festive party tone and escorted by her daughter Sarah Livia Brightwood Szekely, Deborah arrived with a procession of dancers in the tradition of the El Cervantino, a festival that takes place in the colonial city of Guanajuato, Mexico. The crowd greeted her enthusiastically.
The celebration drew a remarkable turnout. Deborah is revered for having given so much to the San Diego, Tecate, and other Mexican communities, that attendees were enthusiastic about celebrating this momentous birthday with her.
Many partygoers were Ranch employees and their families. Deborah treats her employees with such consideration, dignity, and respect that some have been happily on staff for 40 years.
A CELEBRATION OF LOCAL CULINARY TALENT
The festivities put a spotlight on Tecate chefs and restaurants. Many local restaurants, chefs, vineyards, and breweries participated in the celebration, serving up traditional Mexican snacks and desserts.
What a production! The guests were seated at round and high-top tables, and were served plate after plate of superb tapas, with wine from Barón Balché Auro Chardonnay and Adobe Guadalupe Miguel and Tempranillo. The ale by Tecate Lupita Pérez Brewing Brewery was so refreshing and tasty, I plan to track it down in NYC.
The 100th birthday celebration was a family affair. The children of Ranch employees were entertained with a carnival and invited to play games and feast on Mexican street corn, pizza, and the best churros I’ve ever tasted.
“Seeing the staff together,” Deborah says, “I marvel at how much The Ranch has grown and the staff has grown and prospered. Great-grandchildren follow in the footsteps of their great-grandmothers and great grandfathers here.”
CUTTING THE CAKE
A cherished birthday celebration—a day to laugh, love, and enjoy life and wishes from your family and friends—would not be complete without a birthday cake-cutting. And for a 100th birthday, the cake itself had to be truly special.
SPEECHES AND ENTERTAINMENT
Entertainment and speeches capped off the night’s festivities. Those who wanted to honor and praise Señora Deborah lined up to personally extend their best wishes.
THE GRAND FINALE
As the sun set, dessert was served; and after congratulatory speeches, Deborah took the stage to convey her thanks for the magical evening. The festivities then concluded with a fireworks show before guests headed home, still feeling buoyant in the afterglow of the grand fiesta!
DAY TWO: LAS MAÑANITAS, A BIRTHDAY TRADITION
The next morning on Deborah’s actual birthday, she was treated to another birthday tradition called Las Mañanitas—a serenade by a mariachi band to herald the day’s celebrations.
Ranch staff and friends gathered at dawn to wish her a happy birthday. What a great way to start the day and begin the next year! After hugs, kisses, and an exchange of well wishes, everyone clamored for a picture with Deborah, and she happily obliged. It felt like one big happy family celebration—which of course it was.
HOW IT FEELS TO BE 100, A TALK BY DEBORAH
During the weekend, Ranch guests packed the Oak Tree Pavilion to listen to Deborah’s inspiring thoughts on “How it Feels to be 100” and share in her wisdom. This was the latest in Deborah’s 40-year tradition of weekly lectures at The Ranch, and every seat was filled.
SHARING THE CONTENT OF 100 LESSONS FROM A GRASSHOPPER
In her talk, Deborah referred to her new book, 100 Lessons from a Grasshopper, which was published on the occasion of her 100th birthday. The title comes from her late husband, who referred to her as having a “grasshopper mind”—hopping from one idea to the next and from one task to the next without stopping. The book gathers quips, gems, and humorous sayings from Deborah’s many talks and lectures, affectionately known as “Deborah-isms.”
“CREATIVE SPIRIT” SARAH LIVIA BRIGHTWOOD SZEKELY
During the lecture, Deborah credited her artistic daughter and current Rancho La Puerta president Sarah Livia with many major new developments at The Ranch starting in the 1980s. Deborah called Sarah Livia The Ranch’s “true North Star.” She clearly shares her mother’s passion for this special place.
“I was pleased, of course, that Sarah Livia decided to follow in my footsteps. It was simply natural for her to take over the presidency. The future of The Ranch is in her hands,” Deborah said, “and she’s doing a marvelous job.”
THE RANCH RESIDENCES
Over the years, I’ve marveled at how Deborah always has a future project in mind and never runs out of ideas. As I said earlier, I think that’s what keeps her energized. At l00, she continues to work with Sarah Livia to plan The Ranch’s future.
For years, the duo envisioned a sustainably conscious residential wellness community on the property. And now, Rancho La Puerta’s $80 million Wellness Residence Club is under construction.
A FINAL MESSAGE TO HER BIRTHDAY CELEBRANTS
“Godmother of Wellness” Deborah Szekely is a Renaissance woman who lives life to the fullest. At 100, she is still active and healthy, walking a mile daily, attending theater and the symphony, dining out with friends, and traveling. She still goes to The Ranch weekly and spends two days there, holding court and lecturing on the principles of living a longer, healthier life.
“Thank you—my best teachers, my guests,” Deborah concluded at her birthday lecture. “You bring the world to my door every week. You have made all this possible. Thank you. Thank you!”
And she left everyone with this final advice: “Keep on hopping. Your life will be more enjoyable and never boring.”
That’s Deborah—gracious and inspiring as ever! We’re all looking forward to celebrating her 101st.
Photos by Jeanne Lawrence and courtesy Rancho La Puerta and The Golden Door.