I may have made a terrible mistake. Walking briskly along the lantern lit path, I feel apprehension at the prospect of a four-mile mountain hike. It’s still dark and cold at 6:00 a.m. and a rooster crows in the distance. In the lounge, the scene looks like a TV commercial for The North Face, and I am intimidated. They’re drinking herbal tea, wearing water bottles, gloves and fanny packs and raring to go. But I am not what anyone would call the “outdoorsy type.” Can I keep up?
“Okay, let’s go” calls out our trail master. I can still change my mind, but the friendliness and enthusiasm of others is contagious, and I am all in. Breathe, just breathe. It gets easier as I adjust to the pace, and then my imagination is set free and a mind-body-spirit peacefulness kicks in and stays with me for most of the day.
My eyes light up at the vast breakfast buffet, all from the own organic gardens on the mountain—this really is instant farm-to-table. Gluten Free has its own space, and even the most obscure food allergy is given consideration by the kitchen. There are cooking classes for eager home-cooks.
Cactus blooms along the stone paths that lead to the gym and lounge buildings, and though I often take a wrong turn, it doesn’t matter. Here, at Rancho la Puerta on the Baja peninsula, the sun shines, the air is dry and fresh and I am feeling unusual pangs of joy. During the Sculpt and Strengthen class I sense that we all get a personal thrill in re-discovering muscles and testing physical abilities. But I know my limitations. I won’t be joining the Gyrokenises, The Bar Method, which is a fat burning interval training, Cardio Boxing or any of the other intense fitness classes today. I follow the signs to Oaktree, a theatre-like structure with a curved high-beamed ceiling for Sound Healing. Lying on a carpeted floor on Mexican blankets, eyes closed, we listen as crystal bowls emit pure sound waves that resonate throughout our body’s tissues and organs. These sounds and vibrations affect brain wave activity, causing the release of powerful neuro-hormones that suppress pain, heighten the immune system, and produce deep relaxation. I am enthralled.
I’m almost skipping along the path to my next class, Release and Mobilize. Here, tennis balls are used on specific trigger points and myofascial junctions with a goal of releasing muscle spasms and decreasing tightness. Programming Director, Barry Shingle and staff are all bright and witty, and can immediately read our faces and bodies and offer astute assistance.
I want to call my friends at home and share my excitement, but my cell phone is tucked into the whimsical cell phone sleeping bag they’ve provided, and using it outside is positively subversive. Oh, the pain of cell phone withdrawal. Never mind. I am here to live in the moment.
Decisions. Decisions. Every day there is a gold mine of activities that keeps us fulfilled, mind and body, dawn to dusk. An impressive roster of lecturers includes Jill Shlesinger, the Business Analyst on CBS News, who brilliantly addresses topics like “Get a Grip on Your Money,” and “Building a Financial Plan.” For those with an artistic bent: Sculpting Workshop with Jose Ignacio Castaneda. A fun workshop is Design Your Own Jewellery; techniques for watercolour painting and landscape sketching seem popular; and there is even a yarn-painting workshop. The daily presentations by Dr. Rubin Naiman, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist specializing in integrative approaches to sleep and dreams, are fascinating. “Most sleep struggles are rooted in a misinformed, myopic and overly medicalized posture toward sleep and dreams,” he says. You will want to know more.
For me, meal times are highlights. Breakfast and lunch buffets show off the creativity of nutritionists. Grains, pulses, fruits, vegetables and leafy greens are coaxed into many an imaginative mélange. Coriander, ginger, fresh tomato salsa and chia seeds are all added sparkle. Dressings for salads are lush and varied.
Dinner is served, and the four-course menu is always a hothouse of temptation. Exec Chef Denise Roa has injected tasteful originality into what is mostly vegetarian fare. Soups, like broccoli zinged with tarragon, are brilliant. One sense-striking salad is roasted pear and fennel with berries and caramelized pecans. My favourite main course is sea bass over sun-dried tomato polenta with capers and artichoke mustard sauce, until I taste the intense eggplant parmigiana with organic greens and mushroom Bolognese sauce. Dessert? Of course. Who would turn up their nose at lemon sage cheesecake? Each day’s menu is unique. Friday night, our sweet tooth gets a hug from glorious chocolate chip cookies still warm from the oven.
Vanity’s bonfires remain un-stoked at the Ranch. Diamonds are déclassé with workout clothes and Nikes. Many guests dress for the day at dawn. If the workouts have been extreme, at most it could mean a fresh T-shirt at dinner. First names are fine, and if there is networking going on it’s discreet. These guests are accomplished in their fields: judges, lawyers, doctors and CEOs. Sans Chanel, Gucci and the artistry of Clinique and Lancôme, the brash, the staid, the mellow and the über-cool are all of the same mind: happy to have left the tough decisions and stresses outside of the sculpted iron gates that swing open at the entrance.
By the second day I feel at home in Flore 1, my own little cottage, lounging quietly at dusk on my lovely patio. Cool nights, I light a fire in the pretty wood-burning, ceramic-tile fireplace. The Mexican embroidered linens are delightfully cozy and comforting. I haven’t gone to bed at 9:00 pm since I was in grade school.
By the third day, many of us are taking it easy after our overly enthusiastic beginning, enjoying the charm and the quiet forces of nature. The deep chairs and sofas in the lounges have attracted those who want to read. Poolside lounge chairs and hammocks are no longer empty, and in the swimming pools there are leisurely paddlers. I indulge in a bit of pampering with a luxurious hot stone massage at the Spa.
We must keep hydrated, and there are fresh juices like orange and mango aplenty. Red zinger is an acquired taste, with its beet and fruity tang, but I begin to crave it every day. Fresh ginger is sliced and ready for tea; caffeine-free, flavoured coffees are interesting, but the real coffee, the strong coffee, is the first carafe to need refilling.
A pre-dawn organic garden breakfast hike a few miles up the mountainside is on tap for the fourth day. There is pride in every seedling, every frond of aromatic herbs, and every root vegetable. Breakfast on the farm is an intimate liaison with nature. The arborist holds a small bouquet of bright flowers. “This is my breakfast on Thursdays,” he says, “with a glass of milk.” I visit the chickens pecking away in their own yard, and recall my own farm childhood, collecting eggs in my little apron.
Deborah Szekely, now a spry 93, and the Szekely family have harnessed the magic alchemy that this 600-acre, mountainous, boulder-strewn land exudes. It entices 65 percent of guests to return annually, many since the 1980s and ’90s. The mountain adds stature to this vast desert parkland that the Szekely’s came to in 1940. They called it The Essene School of Life, and the advertisement read: $17.50 a week, and bring your own tent. Today, the grounds have skillfully evolved to a perfectly balanced casualness with randomly placed, sensual sculptures of women in yoga positions. Gardeners are constantly trimming, planting, raking and always smiling as we pass.
After a long, deep, soul-searching breath, I admit it. I feel balanced, invigorated and energized. My mistake: that I was so late in discovering the desert magic of Rancho La Puerta.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.