By Greg Niemann
The bucolic border village of Tecate may be home to the famous brewery, but it’s the Rancho La Puerta spa that really put Tecate on the map. I had the opportunity to tour the expansive grounds earlier this summer and they did not disappoint. La Puerta means “door” or “gate” in Spanish and beautiful bronze gates introduce guests to the 300 serene acres in the hills near the international border. A large parking lot and an employee checklist at the adjacent gatehouse gave testimony that this gringo fitness mecca provided employment to over 100 local residents.
While the fitness trainers were mostly Americans, all the other employees from groundskeepers to cooks to gift shop workers were local Mexicans. Most of the 160 weekly spa guests arrive via shuttle bus. It’s busy too as Rancho La Puerta fills up 52 weeks a year. I noted that the guests that week came from 27 different U.S. states, Canada and the District of Columbia.
After displaying my credentials, I was pointed in the direction of the administration building and walked up the road. What a setting! The buildings are all but lost among mature oaks and shrubs and boulders. I was allowed to wander at will and quickly and willingly became lost in the enchanting grounds.
On the slopes of Tecate Peak, called Mount Kuchumaa by the indigenous tribes, the 75 guest casitas in several different villages are well interspersed with nature. The casitas are little Mexican Colonial homes each with fireplaces and private patios and garden sheltered by foliage. Small pools and hot tubs are strategically placed.
I walked past four tennis courts and a volleyball court on my way to meet the fitness director, whose comfortable office was anticlimactic after wandering through the grounds. At the south pool a workout session was underway and a fitness instructor was cajoling her charges in aquatic exercises.
The pool is surrounded by several community buildings, including a health center complete with beauty salon and skin care center, several gyms and weight rooms, a small market, a men’s center, concierge’s office, lounge, and a library.
The scent of herbs and flowers
Wandering the well-maintained paths of La Puerta, I was most impressed with the olfactory impression. The overwhelming scent of sage, herbs and flowers was more welcome than the visual pleasant and beautiful harmony of setting with the hillside. I was set free to poke my head into gyms and common buildings. There were small groups here and there with trainers, practicing yoga, or deep breathing, or stretching, or engaged in more vigorous aerobics.
There was another large pool, several gyms, an oval track bordered with rose bushes and grapevines rather than turf, ponds, marshes, statuary and trails. The ornate dining room reminded me of one I’d seen in a Spanish castle. The entire feeling of beauty and serenity at La Puerta left a lingering impression.
To the guests who arrive at La Puerta each week, the idyllic grounds are secondary to a regimen that will rejuvenate them and help them with their personal fitness goals.
Rancho La Puerta was established in 1940 by the Hungarian-born Professor Edmond Szekely and his 17-year-old Brooklyn-born bride Deborah. For $10.00 a month they rented an old one-room stable building in the middle of a vineyard called Rancho La Puerta and began to preach the philosophy of healthful living.
They originally called the enterprise The Essene Science of Life and charged $17.50 a week for their followers to pitch their tents on the site and share in the west coast’s first organic vegetable garden and the bounty of goat cheese and milk. Added to this was whole grain bread from wheat the Szekelys grew and germinated, and wild-sage honey.
The guests helped milk goats
In the early years all the guests pitched in with chores like gathering firewood and tending the goats. By 1950 the initial rate had escalated to $25.00, but the 35 or so guests no longer had to milk the goats. Even though the Szekelys’ fitness concept was decades before it achieved popularity in the United States, post-war affluence helped it prosper. By 1955 the Essene had retaken the name of the original rancho and had added a pool, library, and the dining room.
Early on, many people looked at the concept as a “fat farm” where weight reduction was the sole objective, and women were the only guests. Since more Americans have gotten health and fitness conscious, Rancho La Puerta attracts both men and women and overall health, good diet and fitness are stressed versus a one-time weight reduction program.
By 1958, the Szekelys had been approached by many of their graduates who were prominent directors, producers and actors in Hollywood and who wanted a little more privacy and intimacy than was possible in Tecate. They found a location in San Marcos, California and opened The Golden Door, a sister fitness resort.
From the early days, they offered stimulating seminars and presentations and in 1960 the noted author Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) was one of many luminaries who gave a symposium.
Guest list is a Who’s Who
The guest list at both spas over the years could resemble a “Who’s Who” but the management does not like to invade their privacy by mentioning it. That’s the attraction. Often people at Rancho La Puerta will find Hollywood celebrities in their midst, but others would not be aware of it. It is known that when “Titanic” was being filmed a little over an hour away in Rosarito Beach, actress Kate Winslett spent time at Rancho La Puerta.
The 2016 weekly rates, from Saturday to Saturday (7 nights), pretty much preclude all but more affluent people to partake in the hedonistic week. Double occupancy, per person, runs from $3,750 to $4,650 during the season. Single occupancy rates go from $3,750 to $4,200. Special summer rates and shorter (3 or 4 night) stays are offered.
The rates include a comprehensive hiking program on 3,000 acres of natural terrain, the skilled training staff, 50 different fitness classes (five choices every hour), all gourmet meals plus beverages and snacks, cooking demonstrations, evening lectures and movies, tennis, volleyball and basketball, 10 gyms, three swimming pools, and separate mens’ and womens’ health centers with steam rooms, whirlpools and saunas. Extras would include massages, facials, body wraps, manicures and other specific offerings. Round-trip transportation between San Diego Airport and Rancho La Puerta is also included.
The menu is mostly home grown from the organic vegetable garden and is considered a modified lacto-ova-vegetarian (fish twice weekly). The la nouvelle cuisine menus of Rancho La Puerta and its sister spa, The Golden Door, inspired the term “spa cuisine.”
The founding philosopher Edmond Szekely died in 1979 but the philosophy lives on. Deborah, now over 92, still lectures weekly. Son Alex, the guiding force during the 1980s and 1990s, passed away in 2002. Szekely’s daughter Sarah Livia, is President and is responsible for much of the current success of the world class resort spas.
The legendary spa is going strong and continues to garner awards in 2015. TripAdvisor has given Rancho La Puerta a Certificate of Excellence and as of July 2015 the 194 reviewers overwhelmingly gave it five stars. It’s been a big summer for Rancho La Puerta as well. In July they celebrated their 75th Birthday, and the August 2015 issue of “Travel & Leisure” named its annual World’s Best Awards, designating The Golden Door and the Rancho La Puerta as Number One and Number Two in the Top Destination Spas Overall.
Visit the Rancho La Puerta website
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