MY WEEKEND AT RANCHO LA PUERTA FITNESS RESORT & SPA
“I’m a spa person,” Melinda Holland told me last night. “And this is the best spa I’ve ever been to.” It was my last night at Rancho La Puerta, a health and fitness spa in Tecate, Mexico, and Melinda and I were sitting next to each other at the diner table with about eight other people. Rancho La Puerta is just across the border about 45 minutes by car south of San Diego. Melinda, a Bar Method student from Chicago, and her husband Michael, parents of three small kids, are currently spending the week there. “The hikes are extraordinary,” Melinda went on. “The service is excellent, and everyone’s so nice.”
I confess that when I walked up to the Rancho La Puerta’s reception desk this weekend to sign in, I was thinking to myself how not a spa person I am. “Spas are so isolating,” I grumbled to myself. “I’d rather vacation in a foreign city and go exploring.” I also didn’t want to starve. A year ago I’d spent one night at Rancho, and I remembered that the food was delicious and satisfying, but somehow there were very few calories in it. In two days I’d lost two pounds, which I know is the general idea, but I’m already thin enough thank you. This time while still at the airport I grabbed a few giant cookies and hid them in my bag.
The reason I was at Rancho was to help launch the new Bar Method class schedule there. The brainchild of the program is Mark Fleischman co-director of the Southern California studios (his wife Mimi, my sister, directs them). Mark is a long-time Rancho visitor and a big fan of its hikes, food and friendly ambiance. This first week of the program the classes are being taught by Catherine Wendel, co-owner of the three Bar Method studios in and around Chicago. Mimi and Mark had asked me to kick off the week by teaching the first class, and I agreed. (Click here to find out how my sister Mimi and I first discovered Lotte Berk Method
in the early 1980's.)
Rancho La Puerta sits 1,600 feet above the ocean on 3,000 acres of meadows, hills and valleys. There are about 80 Spanish-style free-standing “casas” for guests with fireplaces, little kitchens and hotel-style service. Guests enjoy the use of four pools, five beauty/fitness centers, five hot tubs, twelve exercise/fitness rooms, casas that serve as lounges or wireless internet areas, a cooking school and
indoor/outdoor meditation sites. What’s both charming and frustrating about this village-sized hodgepodge is that the buildings are organized in a maddeningly illogical network of bricked paths leading hither and yon, sort of like a Medieval city. Wooden post signs stacked six high and pointing in multiple directions have an other-worldly effect – like any moment you’ll run into Dorothy and her companions dancing down the yellow brick road. Granted there are maps posted here and there. Even so, my sister and I (who also had our moments) ran across more than one hopelessly lost female guest. The men seemed to have no such trouble.
The other unusual thing about Rancho La Puerta was what made me fall totally in love with the place. On this particular week there were 149 guests from 20 states and Canada, five of whom I already knew. By the time I left, I felt like all these people were my friends. At Rancho you sit with your fellow guests at meals, hike with them starting at 6:15 am if you can get up that early, and attend a wide choice of exercise classes with them. Then you might swim with them, play tennis, learn Spanish, cooking, meditation or photography and then pass them in the corridors while you’re on your way to get a massage. As you navigate through your choice of activities, your enjoyment of the people you’re with becomes part of the experience. This Rancho-style bonding is different from the way it happens at school or camp. It’s more like, well, exploring a foreign city with a bunch of fellow travelers. It’s relaxed, but the experience is complex enough to satisfy an adventurer’s spirit.
I have to add that if I had wanted to lose weight, Rancho would certainly a great place to do it. I ate my two over-sized cookies, and I had seconds at every meal. Even so I lost two pounds during my two-day visit. It’s also a great place to thoroughly enjoy connecting with people just as people. By the time you leave, you feel kind of like you’ve rediscovered your humanity. I arrived reluctant to enlist fully in the spa experience, and I left wishing I could stay. Rancho has one of the highest guest return rates around. It certainly has me looking forward to my next visit.