By Joe Alexander
Rancho la Puerta is not only the oldest spa in North America, it is arguably the best. Located 45 miles from San Diego in pastoral Tecate, Mexico, it attracts Madonna, Governor Jerry Brown, Kate Winslet, Arianna Huffington, Claudia Schiffer, Bill Moyers, Alicia Silverstone, Erica Jong and Oprah Winfrey. Ricki Lake, who utilized the resort’s popular Bar Method classes to train for her appearance on Dancing with the Stars was at the resort in September getting in shape for a new project. Her weeklong schedule included classes in Pilates, yoga, Tai Chi and meditation. There are also art lessons and cooking classes by renowned visiting chefs.
Edmond & Deborah Szekely founded Rancho la Puerta in 1940 and it was quickly discovered by Hollywood luminaries including Burt Lancaster, Kim Novak, Bill Holden and the writer Aldous Huxley. What began as a tiny camp built in the shadow of historic Mt. Kuchumaa is now a luxurious, state of the art facility nestled amidst lush flora and vegetable gardens created by Deborah’s daughter, landscape designer Sarah Szekely Brightwood. The ranch’s fields of yellow black-eyed Susans, cactus patches, beds of white irises, orange lilies and red roses that line the winding brick paths, vineyards and koi ponds are breathtaking. Nicknamed “Rancho“ by the procession of returning guests, it limits itself to 140 people a week. It’s here, Deborah’s hoping to encourage the next generation of “health nuts”- a favorite descriptor for people like herself who “read labels, go to farmer’s markets, participate in a community garden or has a garden, and are active in taking responsibility for their own health.” Szekely is now an indefatigable and spritely 91-year-old example of healthy living. Deborah is a widely referred to as “The Mother of the Modern Spa Movement” and is one of the country’s leading wellness crusaders, “Delight in the little things in nature and in life—I think it’s hard to be truly healthy without that. Thinking out of the box, seeing, being aware and enjoying the little things, this is what is so important.”
Born in Far Rockaway Beach, Brooklyn, Szekely’s fascination with beautiful landscapes was developed at an early age when her family moved to Tahiti during the early 1930s to escape the Depression. “We were the only Americans on the island other than the governor who had two boys,” she remembers. Her mother, Rebecca Shainman, was the Vice President of the New York Vegetarian Society in 1926 and set the family’s course for healthful eating. “In those days they called it ‘fruitarian’ because we ate everything raw.” Szekely met her husband, Edmond, just after finishing high school and the couple married when she was 17. “He had never bought a train ticket, he never learned to type, he never learned to drive because he said that it interfered with the life of the mind. He was totally impractical but marvelous and charismatic,” she says of their first meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico when Edmond, the head of the British International Health and Education Center in Surrey, England, was on leave to write two books on Mexico. “Everybody thought he was wonderful so I thought he was too. The minute he walked into a room, some way or another the energy of the room changed.”
Together the couple opened Rancho la Puerta, which today runs $3,000 a person per week; however their first summer health camp in Tecate was more humble—$17.50 per week and bring your own tent. “It was years before we could buy property and it was little by little by little that we assembled the land,” she says of Rancho’s property that now spans 3,000 acres—2,000 of which can never be developed and includes the famed Mt. Kuchumaa, where Szekely’s late husband and son, Alex, are now buried. “When we got here, we heard some weird stories that it’s a sacred mountain and my husband said, ‘Oh, it’s just folklore,’ but after we’d been here a few years, they had a major pow-wow on the mountain and tribes came from all over the United States. I know that we’re here because we were meant to be here. I really believe that and the reason Rancho la Puerta is so successful is because we’re on the path that we’re supposed to be on.”
Now in her ninth decade, Szekely is today setting up programs to ensure her mindful message lives on. Rancho La Puerta is now under the direction of her daughter, Sarah Livia Brightwood, and Szekely is building a Super PAC to further encourage wellness legislation and strengthen the current Farm Bill. (wellnesswarrior.org) “I want people in Congress to look at the alternatives before they make their decisions and where they lead to and what it’ll be like in 10 years, 20 years,” advises Szekely. “They’re making decisions for us that, for the moment, sound good. But then where are they going to go? I’m building for the future.” Yet with all her ambition and vigor, Szekely is realistic about that future. “I’m not going to say I’m going to do this for the next five or 10 years because I’m 91 and I’d be an idiot,” she laughs. “I’m trying to build something for the wellness people. I want the wellness establishment to have a voice.” •
Rancho La Puerta