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Spa Review: Rancho La Puerta in Baja California

I couldn’t wait to share my review of Rancho La Puerta destination spa with Vacation Gals’ readers. I actually wrote this on my plane rides home this weekend. I hope I captured the essence of this special place while memories were still fresh!

I doubt there’s one mom on the face of this earth who couldn’t benefit from a short break from mothering duties. I’m a huge proponent of taking time for yourself daily, to do something just for you — whether it’s 20 minutes to meditate, and hour of exercise or a lengthy bubble bath in the evening.

I also think solo trips or girlfriend getaways are the best ways to break away from routine, get outta town and do something that’s super fun — all in an effort to recharge those mom batteries and return to the homefront feeling refreshed, recharged and ready to take on the world (or at least deal with the laundry, lunchboxes and litter box).

I was fortunate last week to take what I think is the ultimate in re-energizing vacations: a full week at Rancho La Puerta destination spa in Tecate, Baja California. This was an early 40th birthday present from my ultra-generous mother — and I couldn’t think of anyone better to spend the week with.

After all, Mom and I are cut from the same cloth — we both enjoy the benefits of eating well, exercise and pampering spa treatments. Not all of my friends would be game to spend six nights in a gated community just south of the border: no shopping, no sightseeing, no “adventure.” Just a whole bunch of time for introspection and relaxation. For us, it was the best way to spend the week away from the responsibilities of “real life.”

With origins dating back to 1940, Rancho La Puerta bills itself as the “original destination spa.” (Learn more about the spa’s fascinating history on its website.) Over the course of several decades, it’s perfected the overall “spa experience.” In fact, “the Ranch” highly encourages guests to book a week’s stay to “fully achieve and maintain the magic of Rancho La Puerta.” I totally agree.

When you arrive at the Ranch with dozens of other guests on Saturday, you are uptight, stressed-out strangers. As the week unfolds, everyone grows less tense and friendlier. By the time you leave the following Saturday, you’re a relaxed, blissed-out family. Really.

Relationships develop with the guests you see regularly in exercise classes, around the communal dining tables and on the hiking trail. The casual conversations I had with new acquaintances were so enlightening; many I met were so open with their own personal challenges and struggles and reasons for spending a week at the Ranch. We all shared and learned from one another.

But making connections with like-minded guests is just one of the highlights of a week’s stay at Rancho La Puerta. Here are a few others:

The to-die-for gourmet cuisine. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks are included in the price of your stay, and menus follow a vegetarian diet, with one seafood entree usually offered at dinner. But we’re not talking carrot sticks and cottage cheese here, folks. The organic cuisine is out of this world. Think Mexican Enchiladas, Grilled Nopal (cactus) Salad, Spicy Beans and Sesame Mole (pictured at right); Roasted Garden Vegetables with Gorgonzola Cheese, Tomato Coulis and Sprouts; or Florentine Lasagna with Basil Sauce, Steamed Asparagus and Roasted Eggplant.

Portions aren’t skimpy, and you can always ask for a side of cottage cheese, bread and butter, or seconds of anything if you’re starving. I had a few contraband Clif bars in my room for hunger pains around 3 p.m., but you can usually find fruit, smoothies or raw veggies in the communal lounge. Speaking of contraband, wine is only served twice a week. You are welcome to bring alcohol to consume in your room.

The wide range of exercise and movement classes. This is where Rancho La Puerta shines. Multiple classes are offered daily at 9, 10 and 11 a.m., then again at 2, 3 and 4 p.m. And I’m talking everything from yoga, Pilates and aqua aerobics to strength training and treadmill trekking to the far-out Gyrokenesis, Cardio Drumming and Release & Mobilize, where you roll around on tennis balls to give yourself a deep-tissue massage. (I took this class three times and absolutely LOVED it.) Indeed, some classes are designed to get your heart pumping, while others are focused on stretching and gentle movement.

The pristine facilities. The 3,300-acre grounds are beautifully landscaped. Accommodations are in charming, freestanding, garden-level casitas decorated in folksy Mexican style, set amid gorgeous desert gardens and joined by winding brick pathways. Beautiful sculptures adorn the grounds, which include three pools, a jogging track around grape trees, tennis courts and a basketball court. Brightly colored wooden signs and arrows direct you where to go. We couldn’t get over how absolutely clean everything was and how discreet the groundskeepers were. No loud conversations anywhere; clearly the ultra-friendly staff has been trained to maintain a peaceful environment.

The fabulous hiking program. A number of hiking trails meander through the hills surrounding the 3,885-foot, sacred Mt. Kuchumaa, which looms over the Ranch. Every morning, guests can choose from among a number of guided hikes, ranging from mellow 2-mile nature walks to more grueling, 7-mile treks. My favorites were the 3.5-mile Pilgrim and Professor’s trails, and a true highlight was the four-mile (round-trip) gentle hike to the Ranch’s organic garden, Tres Estrellas. Here, we met one of the head gardeners, who shared his passion for organic farming. We also enjoyed a wonderful meal in the kitchen that serves as a learning center for the new cooking school, Cocina Que Canta, the “kitchen that sings.” For an additional fee, guests can take cooking lessons here during their stay; my mom and I opted out, but I’m told they were great.

The spa treatments. Admittedly, the spa facilities at the Ranch are a bit rustic. Don’t expect marble bathrooms or high-end appointments here. In fact, I got frustrated at the adjustable showerheads that wouldn’t stay in place; they kept falling and bonking me in the head — I think they’re built for shorter people.

That said, if you take the rustic charm with a grain of salt, visiting the spas (there are three separate buildings), is certainly a treat. You can steam and sauna to your heart’s content, and treatments are reasonably priced, in comparison to urban spas. I thoroughly indulged, and got rubbed down four of the six days I was there: a sports massage, a deep-tissue massage, a healing massage (trigger-point therapy) and a relaxation massage. Each was different… and perfect.

The overall variety of things to do. Rancho La Puerta draws all types of people. I met a couple who took every single challenging exercise class and went on all the rigorous hikes; seemed their motive was to indulge in their passion for exercise. Other guests were there simply to chill out — to take some mellow stretching and toning classes, and spend most of their time in the sauna or by the Jacuzzi. You could go to the Ranch and not set foot in an exercise room and instead spend time attending lectures (I was partial to “Sex after 40″ by the visiting sex educator), going on bird walks and sampling art classes. Or you could pick and choose from all of the above.

That’s the beauty of the Ranch — only you set your agenda. And that agenda might change day to day, hour by hour. You really don’t have to be anywhere at any time (unless you’ve booked a spa treatment), so if you want to blow off Circuit Training one day to loll by the pool, the power is yours to do just that!

I could likely write a book, not just a blog post, about Rancho La Puerta — but honestly, this is one place you really need to visit in order to truly “get it.” Given the economy, and some vacant rooms, the Ranch is offering a handful of specials this year. First, room rates were not increased in 2009; the 2008 prices remain. “Bring a Friend” weeks allow you to pay for one week, while the other guest in your same room gets 50 percent off. Other specials include spa credits for Villa bookings and a fourth friend in a Villa quad stays for free. Call 877-440-7772 for details

If you’re considering booking a stay here, and have questions about the spa, don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments. I’ll happily answer them, all the while remembering my amazing time here.

5 Responses to “Spa Review: Rancho La Puerta in Baja California”

  1. 1
    Katherine Campbell says:

    Tomatoes are always present as garden vegetables because they are easy to grow.,*;

  2. 2
    Bath Towels ` says:

    the garden vegetables that we put at home are usually cabbages and tomatoes:.~

  3. 3
    Electric Switch : says:

    the best garden vegetables are cucumber, tomato and also cabbages because they are really easy to grow-*’

  4. 4
    Pine Wardrobe says:

    tomatoes are really great for gardening. they are the best garden vegetables out there `’`

  5. 5

    […] Another luxury wellness retreat that travel journalist Kara Williams describes as the “ultimate in  ultimate in re-energizing vacations” is Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Baja California. Either one (and I am sure there are […]

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