Mexican spa promotes wellness

We were best friends, one turning 50, the other 60, and we decided to celebrate these significant milestones by indulging in a spa vacation. But what kind of spa?

Contemplating our navels while purging our pipes on a juice fast didn’t have much appeal. Nor did ‘taking the waters’ or being twitched with bare branches in the snowy mountains of Europe.

A facility where the week’s most taxing decision would be choosing between a facial, manicure or pedicure? Certainly not. No, this was to be a wellness week, a time to establish priorities for the next decade, a chance to revitalize not only the body but the mind and spirit as well.

Emphasis on fitness
Research narrowed our options but it was the glowing account of Rancho la Puerta by a friend who had visited several spas that clinched our choice.

“The emphasis is on fitness,” he said. “But it’s a nurturing, low-key kind of place where there’s never any pressure to do anything.”

In 1940, a tranquil plot of land nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula seemed the perfect location for a year-round spa to Edmond Szekely, 34, and his 17-yeaold bride, Deborah.

The primitive health camp they founded 70 kilometres southeast of San Diego was the first fitness spa in North America, and the life-enhancing exercise and nutrition ideas that Szekely introduced-far ahead of his time-caught on and eventually reshaped attitudes and activities on fitness and well-being.

Pick-up in San Diego
Today, 300 lushly landscaped acres form the core of the 3,000-acre ranch. Here, 150 guests-80 per cent women-come each week to launch an exercise program that will, for most, become addictive. They come to relax, to soothe their souls, to shake bad habits and, perhaps, to inch the belt in a notch or two.

Each Saturday, shuttle buses pick up guests at the San Diego airport for the hour’s drive to the ranch. Joan and I arrive with fellow tense, weary, stressed-out travellers and pass departing guests who seem to glow as they float onto the bus for their return trip to the airport. Would we, we wonder, look like them in a week’s time?

At the briefing for first-timers, Joe Sweeney, one of 16 handpicked fitness instructors-the best I’ve encountered anywhere-encourages us to try one of the daily hikes.

Activities for all
From a gentle meadow walk to a three, five, or seven-mile mountain hike to a challenging four-day extended program, there is one to suit the activity level of everybody.

“And you’ll get the most out of your week if, each day, you include one or two cardiovascular workouts, a strengthening class, one co-ordination class and a flexibility class. And, very important,” he adds, “take time to relax.”

For three hours each morning and again after lunch, the staff lays out a smorgasbord of classes from which guests pick.

“It’s all about balance, integration and harmony. You are responsible for your own choices,” says fitness director Phyllis Pilgrim.

Muscles shout out
That first day is as bewildering as the first day of high school as, map in hand, we try to find our way around a maze of paths to one of six gyms, a fully equipped weight room, three pools and two tennis courts.

In my freshman enthusiasm, I fill every period with an activity, while my buddy, Joan, wisely takes an hour to chill out with a book in a hammock.

By evening, muscles I didn’t know I owned are talking to me-make that shouting at me.

However, after 50 minutes on the massage table under the strong and caring hands of one of 30 locally trained masseuses, those same muscles are pacified. I decide to justify a daily massage as anything but excessive.

Many come back
By day two, feeling more energetic and relaxed than we have in ages, it’s understandable why more than 65 per cent of the guests, ranging in age from 20 to 80, are returnees-some for 20 and 30 times.

By the third day, we decide that this is the best present we could have given ourselves and agree that an annual visit will be our on-going wellness insurance. That was 14 years and 14 spa visits ago.

Our home for the week is a secluded redbrick hacienda tucked into its own garden. Both rustic and elegant, it has two bedroom alcoves off a sitting room complete with wood burning fireplace, cathedral ceiling and Mexican tile floors.

The sleeping areas are connected by a dressing room and bathroom. There’s a radio but, thankfully, no television and a phone for internal calls only. The front door opens to a breathtaking view of Mount Kuchamaa, the mountain that has been sacred to the original settlers, the Kumeyaay Indians.

Cutting edge programs
The fitness program, always evolving, continues to be cutting edge. High-impact aerobics gave way first to low-impact, then non-impact. Emphasis moved from running to walking.

Pilates replaced traditional crunches as the favoured way to strengthen abdominal muscles. Yoga and Tai Chi classes have become more prolific. So has the Inner Journey meditation class developed by Phyllis Pilgrim.

A walking labyrinth, designed after the one in Chartres Cathedral in France, now provides an idyllic setting for a walking meditation.

Personal services have expanded from basic massages and herbal wraps to include aromatherapy and seaweed wraps, reflexology treatments, hydrotherapy and sports massages.

My favourite is a 50-minute hot stone massage, where deep tissue massage is blended with long Swedish strokes using heated river stones.

Health eating attitudes
Attitudes to healthy eating have changed too. Fourteen years ago, people were more concerned with counting calories than they are now.

“Fortunately,” says Bill Wavrin, the large-as-life-chef who obviously enjoys eating, “a more realistic approach prevails today. We believe the key to healthy eating is not militantly calculating calories every time you take a bite. Rather, it has to do with the total amount of food consumed during the day.”

The spa’s modified vegetarian diet (fish is served three times a week) is low in fat and sodium, with no refined sugar or flour, and very high in carbohydrates. It’s based on approximately 1,400 calories a day and averages 18 per cent fat-that is, if you stick to a single serving on the regular menu. Second helpings are always available.

Most of the produce comes from the ranch’s six-acre organic garden. Buffet-style breakfasts and lunches are taken in the dining room or, weather permitting, outdoors. Four- course sit-down dinners are served in the dining room.

Early start to day
What has changed little over the years is the routine Joan and I developed for ourselves. Our day begins at 6 a.m. with a mountain hike of three or five miles.

We pack the morning and afternoon with a balance of classes, including one hour to check out the hammock and one for the obligatory massage and, like kids at camp, a lot of laughter. After-dinner lectures end promptly at 9 when, like everyone else, we collapse into bed.

“Since its beginning,” says fitness director Phyllis Pilgrim, “the ranch has espoused balance. It’s that all-too-rare harmony of mind, body and spirit. It’s an art. The art of life that lets you make the most of every day.”

This is the thought we carry with us each year as we float home.