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Riviera Maya: a world-class destination

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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Early morning on Punta Brava Beach
Chocolate, in any form, is my weakness. It tempts me like a Siren calling to Ulysses. Most of the time, I try to keep my chocoholic addiction in line and choose to indulge in this ambrosia in moderation because it wreaks havoc on my waistline.

But recently, I found a healthier way to satisfy my fix. It was on a trip to Riviera Maya that I first heard of chocolate utilized in a spa treatment. Always willing to try anything when it comes to body treatments, I headed to the spa at the El Dorado Royale Spa Resort, my luxurious lodgings for the week, to experience this sensory treat.

After a coconut exfoliation scrub, my body was smothered with chocolate cream (the aroma was enough to send me into chocolate rehab!) and then tightly wrapped up in towels.

During the next 20 minutes, I received a facial and scalp massage, while waiting for the natural cacao to supposedly draw the impurities from my body. I remarked to the therapist that I felt like a bonbon, but as she spoke very little English, I don’t think my idea resonated.

After a thorough rinsing and a finishing massage, I emerged rejuvenated and glowing with baby soft skin. I realize that this treatment is no substitute for eating the rich confection, but it sure takes a close second, plus it’s calorie-free!

A Mayan chocolate body wrap was just the first of several novel experiences for me in Riviera Maya. I had never been to this part of Mexico before and when offered the opportunity to explore it, I eagerly accepted. I saw it as the perfect escape from enduring a third straight week of Seattle’s liquid sunshine.

Located south of Cancun in the far east of the Yucatan Peninsula, Riviera Maya spans 60 miles along the coast of Quintana Roo. This locale has become a popular destination over the years, as it offers tropical weather, warm hospitality, secluded white sand beaches and a unique culture. The area is particularly known for its diving and snorkeling because off the coast of Quintana Roo lies the second largest coral reef in the world, the Great Mayan Reef, which is home to over 5,000 species.

There are several eco-archaeological parks in the region, which provide prime opportunities for visitors to have unparalleled environmental experiences, and each beach is a paradise for water sports. At Maroma, rated the number one beach in the world by the Travel Channel, the activities range from deep sea fishing and scuba diving to speed boat racing and jet skiing. On land, visitors can ride ATVs through the jungle, take a horseback ride down the beach or simply soak up the dazzling rays. I ate the best fresh seafood ceviche here while sitting under a palapas (thatched hut) and listening to local musicians play traditional favorites.

At Xcaret, one of the eco-parks in the region, I had another first-time experience. Xcaret is all about water, preservation of the environment and cultural restoration. Here, you can see colorful macaws and flamingos, observe mammoth sea turtles and manatees, catch lazy crocodiles pretending to sleep in mangrove swamps and watch spider monkeys get into mischief, as well as explore a bat cave or even try to count the hundreds of iguanas that roam the park.

Water, in lagoons, pools, the bay and underground rivers, is definitely a featured attraction, but it’s the dolphin program that caught my attention. I had always wanted to swim with these playful creatures because they have fascinated me ever since I was a young girl. To be able to have an up-close and personal encounter with them exceeded all my expectations.

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Travel writer Deborah Stone gets a kiss from Fanny the bottle-nosed dolphin.
Maya and Fanny, two friendly mother and daughter bottle-nosed dolphins with that famous perpetual “smile,” swam around me, nudging me with their bodies and encouraging me to stroke them on their undersides. I was amazed at their muscular definition and at the silky smoothness of their skin. They also truly seemed to relish the human contact and socialization opportunity.

After the trainers gave the pair a number of tasks to do to demonstrate their keen intelligence, everyone in my group got the chance to have the dolphins take them for a ride. As I lay face down in the water, remembering to keep my body rigid, Fanny and Maya swam around to my rear and pushed against my feet, propelling me through and up out of the water. It was an exhilarating ride that was over way too soon. A final kiss and hug opportunity with Fanny was the icing on the cake for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Xcaret also offers visitors the essence of Mexico through its cultural programs. There’s a model Mayan village where you can watch local artisans working at their crafts and throughout the park, at various times of the day, opportunities abound to see performances of traditional dances and rituals. One of the most spectacular shows is the Papantla Flyers, an all-male group who perform a Mayan ritual dedicated to fertility and the sun god. As the Big Chief plays his reed flute and pounds his drums, four men, in colorful red and white clothing, climb up a tall pole and take their positions at its four corners.

The flyers, who are each tethered, leap off the platform and swing around the pole thirteen times (13 times four is 52 – the number of years in the pre-Hispanic cycle), descending lower and lower until they reach the ground.

At night, Xcaret comes alive with the Mexican Folkloric Ballet, a festive pageantry of music, song and dance representing the different states of Mexico.

On another day, I visited Xel Ha, a well-known water theme park in the region. Once again, I opted to try something new and this time, it was the Sea Trek. I liken this experience to taking a moon walk in a blue planet. Wearing a 60-pound space-age helmet, I descended, with the help of divers, to the bottom of the sea. The helmet provided a continuous flow of oxygen, allowing me to breathe normally underwater, while keeping my face and hair completely dry.

My group of six proceeded to walk along the sea floor, holding onto a handrail to guide our way, while we gazed in wonder at the sea life swimming around us. The divers brought stingray over for us to touch and pointed out various treasures in our midst.

A sucker fish sucked on the palm of my hand, while other little fish nibbled at my fingers. I felt like an undersea astronaut exploring a whole new world. Another memorable first!

Riviera Maya is also the site of several ancient Mayan ruins. Tulum, one of the more famous of these sites, is the only Mayan fortress built by the sea. This walled city was used by the Mayans as their port of entry for Caribbean goods and as an important ceremonial center.

To visit Tulum is to travel through a time machine. Walking around the temples and examining the frescoes depicting Mayan gods and symbols of nature’s fertility gives one the opportunity to learn more about pre-Hispanic life.

The buildings date back to A.D. 564 and at the highest point on the site, the Castillo, or castle, sits, commanding imposing views in every direction. Although visitors can wander around on their own, I highly suggest taking a tour to get the full historical background of this unique place.

Upon return to my hotel, I decided to check out some of the property’s on-site activities. A salsa dance class got my attention, as I saw it as a chance to put my two left feet in motion. If I had any hopes, though, of coming home and taking the salsa world by storm, they were quickly erased as soon as the lesson began.

Remembering the steps was a challenge in itself, especially for someone who is directionally dyslexic, but then the instructors encouraged everyone to “feel the music in your body and just let go.” Pandemonium in the form of a Latin mosh pit ensued, as people took the instructors’ words literally. I emerged black and blue, dripping in sweat, with the realization that perhaps the subtle nuances of this step had evaded me.

After that, I was perfectly happy lounging in a hammock on the resort’s picturesque Punta Brava Beach. And when my stomach began to grumble, I knew I could take my taste buds for a whirl at one of the hotel’s seven gourmet restaurants or head off the property to dine at the many choice eateries in the area. Riviera Maya is a world-class destination with top-rated hotels, offering a winning combination of history, natural beauty and exciting adventures. So, the next time my limbs begin to rust and moss has become a second skin, I’ll simply say “adios Seattle” and head to this south-of-the-border paradise.

Note: Although Hurricanes Emily and Wilma caused large scale destruction to parts of this region (particularly Cancun), massive efforts have been made to rebuild and at the time this writer visited the area, substantial signs of recovery could be seen. The Cancun Tourism Board expects most, if not all its hotel properties to be fully functioning by early spring.

Women’s ski camp boosts confidence, builds skill

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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Lone Mountain is the epitome of a grand western ranch
I’ve never considered myself very athletic. It’s not that I’m in poor shape. I discipline myself to workout on a regular basis and I’m always game to try new activities, but I’ve never quite found my inner athlete.

Being surrounded by competitive males in my family probably hasn’t helped. Whenever we engage in an active outdoor pursuit, I’m usually the one lagging behind, struggling to keep up with my clan. And when I wipe out or have one of those embarrassing moments that shows off my less-than-stellar coordination, I know I’ve just created another memorable “Mom story” that will be repeated ad nauseum.

I take my family’s good-natured ribbing in stride, realizing that I’m up against a tough audience who cuts me no slack. But every once in awhile, I wonder what it would be like to be with a warm and fuzzy group who won’t ridicule my feeble attempts or make fun of my tortoise pace.

Enter the women’s camp, a place where the female species can learn a new sport or improve upon their skills without worrying about how their male counterparts will view them.

In the past several years, these camps have been popping up all over the place, offering gals the chance to tackle everything from surfing to rock climbing, within some of the most scenic natural environments around the world. Most employ the attitude that women want to play hard during the day and relax in a comfy setting with all the amenities at night.

I have always wanted to be a better cross-country skier. Not having had any formal lessons, I never quite learned proper technique for this sport, yet I always managed to have fun while doing it and get a great total body workout in the process. But I longed to be a better and more efficient skier — one who was able to glide effortlessly down the trails and approach hills without dread.

The opportunity to improve my skills among a kinder, gentler audience presented itself in the form of Lone Mountain Ranch’s Women’s Nordic Camp. Just an hour south of Bozeman, Mont., in the shadow of Big Sky, is an enchanting enclave where escapism is at its best. Set on 160 pristine acres of Montana wilderness amid the Spanish Peak Range, Lone Mountain is the epitome of a grand western ranch complete with cozy lodgepole-pine cabins, massive stone fireplaces, elk antler chandeliers, log furnishings and Native American décor.

The place has a rich history and heritage of western hospitality. It was first homesteaded in 1915 and over the years it has served as a logging camp, a boys’ ranch and finally a guest ranch, which has been under the ownership of the Schaap family since 1977.

Lone Mountain is a ranch for all seasons with activities to satisfy the many outdoor passions of its guests. In the milder months, it’s a Mecca for hiking, horseback riding, fly fishing and whitewater rafting, but in the winter, when the area is blessed with a consistent snowfall, it’s a cross-country skier’s paradise. With over 80 professionally groomed kilometers of gently rolling meadows, exhilarating downhills and lung-clearing climbs, guests can find trails to match their ability levels and ski to their hearts’ content.

Three times a year, in December, January and March, the ranch offers a women’s camp focusing on boosting participants’ confidence on cross-country skis. Women of all ages come from around the country to take part in this experience, which emphasizes a positive, supportive learning environment.

Throughout the five-day, six-night camp, you get to ski with a staff of certified instructors who conduct all-day instructional sessions devoted to various aspects of the sport. You work on balance, control, speed, turns and negotiating hills, and are able to practice classic cross-country skiing, as well as get a taste of skate skiing.

In addition, you have the opportunity to try out new equipment and find the gear that fits you best. There are also opportunities to take a guided snowcoach tour into the interior of Yellowstone National Park (only 18 miles from the ranch) and go back-country skiing within the park. Yellowstone in the winter is magical and full of hidden wonders that summer visitors never see. Deep snow clings to every surface and geysers erupt into azure skies, with animals posing around every corner. It’s breathtaking. And snowcoaches are the best way to see these marvels.

The climate-controlled, fully enclosed vehicles are equipped with caterpillar treads that offer visitors a comfortable and convenient method of experiencing this majestic natural playground.

Back at the lodge, evenings are spent leisurely listening to live music in the Horsefly Saloon, while sipping on such tasty libations as Mama Viv’s Hot Buttered Rum, or attending various presentations (slide shows and naturalist lectures about the area, ski tuning methods) in the B-K Guest Lounge.

There’s even a sleigh ride dinner that takes guests through the snow-covered pines to a lovely, lantern-lit cabin in the woods. There you’ll get prime rib cooked the old-fashioned way on a century-old wood-burning stove and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to hear Walkin’ Jim Stoltz sing and tell stories of his extensive wilderness experience. This memorable evening truly encapsulates the romance of the West.

When you’re feeling a bit sore from all the skiing, head for the outdoor hot tub where you can soak under the stars. There’s also a massage therapist available to soothe those aching muscles (the Feel Good Feet Treats massage is true bliss!), as well as on-site yoga classes.

For sustenance, you won’t get the proverbial ranch-style meals of baked beans and BBQ. Instead, you’ll savor creatively prepared gourmet fare in a handsome log dining lodge amid the ambiance of a roaring fire.

One night there was a choice of bison flank steak or salmon with spinach in a puffed pastry, accompanied by oven roasted potatoes, parsnips and rutabagas, and topped off with huckleberry baked Alaska.

A trailside lunch another day consisted of shrimp and veggie kebobs, marinated teriyaki ginger beef, salads and homemade peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies. My appetite was enormous after skiing all day and I ate heartily, knowing that it was easy to torch the calories with all the exercise I was doing.

Mealtimes presented a great opportunity to compare ski experiences with the other women in my group. The seven of us formed one close-knit bond, as we shared everything from our triumphs and upsets on the trails to the best types of clothing to layer for insulation against the cold. Most of all, we laughed. The fact that we came from different parts of the country, with varying backgrounds, and had never met before, meant little. The common link was our shared passion for skiing and more importantly, the fact that we were all women.

While skiing, we gave each other support and encouragement to meet new challenges and surmount both mental and physical obstacles.

The Lone Mountain ski staff, a gung-ho group of young, athletic men and women were equally supportive, as well as highly enthusiastic about their jobs. They were positive, upbeat and genuine individuals with a wealth of knowledge about the sport. And they definitely knew how to use humor as an effective instructional tool!

After learning and practicing everything from the easiest way to put on skis to the most effective way to navigate hills, I felt so much more in control out on the trails and was actually able to loosen up and develop a comfortable rhythm to my glide.

All of this knowledge and experience, however, did not come pain free and though I sustained several colorful bruises in the process, I wore these badges of courage with pride.

There were times when I thought I couldn’t go up another hill because my quads were screaming and every other part of my body was crying “uncle.” And there were other moments when I stood at the top of a steep, winding hill trying to work up the guts to head down, knowing there was an excellent chance I would wipe out along the way. But when I took those not-so-graceful tumbles, no one made fun of me.

Instead, they encouraged me to get right back up and ready myself for the next challenge. And so I persevered and when I triumphed, after banishing my insecurities and fears, I had six other women to help me celebrate my accomplishments. I basked within the glow of this positive environment, which not only boosted my self-confidence, but opened the door to my inner athlete.

Rewind Langley style

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Inn_at_Langley_Whidbey_Island_001It’s only a 20-minute ferry ride from Seattle, but Whidbey Island feels worlds away. This place of towering trees and sparkling coves, set between the Cascade Mountains to the east and the Olympics to the west, is an ideal all-season getaway. Treasures abound in each nook and cranny of this special haven and discovering them is part of the fun.

I’ve enjoyed exploring this island over the years and have made numerous visits to its charming, picturesque waterfront towns.

Of these, Langley shines the brightest. This gem on the southern end of Whidbey is a quaint, visitor-oriented community with a thriving arts scene, great restaurants and an eclectic array of shops. Many artists make their home here and their creativity adds a colorful, dynamic flair to the town. You can see it in the galleries and in the distinctive handmade items that are featured in the distinctive stores and boutiques. And you can even experience it live at one of the many dance, music or theatre performances held at the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts. This rich culture dominates and it is what continues to inspire folks with unique talents and backgrounds to make their homes here.

Langley’s vibrant arts scene, however, is not the only reason to visit this pint-size village. Come for the peace and serenity, the languid pace of life and the opportunities the area offers to appreciate the great outdoors.

You can walk the shoreline, look for resident populations of bald eagles, herons and sea lions, spot migrating gray whales or a pod of orcas feeding in the waters off the island, ride your bike down quiet country roads or simply sit and do nothing except gaze out over the sea from your deck chair or waterfront- view room.

The island boasts the highest density of bed & breakfast inns in Washington, which means you have a wide range of accommodations from which to choose.

Inn_at_Langley_Whidbey_Island_003I recommend taking refuge at the intimate Inn at Langley. Built into a bluff overlooking the Saratoga Passage, the inn offers guests a ringside seat to the ebb and flow of the tides, the parade of boats that pass by and the endless sights and sounds of the wildlife that frolic in and around their marine playground.

Each one of the 26 guest rooms and cottages has a panoramic 180-degree waterfront view, as well as a whirl-bath jetted tub that faces the sea. From your own private deck, you can watch the sun rise above the mountains on the mainland and set over the Passage. And if it’s a tad bit chilly for an outdoor seat, cozy up to the fireplace and watch Mother Nature in all her glory through the room’s floor-to-ceiling windows. When you get hungry, there are plenty of options.

For a real treat, try the Inn’s special six-course dinner (served weekends only). Chef Matt Costello orchestrates this unique gourmand dining experience in The Chef’s Kitchen. Each menu presents the freshest selections that the region has to offer, with special attention paid to local foods of the island and the Northwest. Dishes change continually to reflect the seasons.

Diners have a front and center view of Costello in action, as he whips up his magic in the open kitchen setting.

Take a walk around town and check out Langley’s historic buildings and pocket parks by the beach. Make sure to stop in at Chocolate Flower Farm’s The Garden Shed. It’s one of my favorite places for distinctive gifts with a "chocolate twist."

And if you’re a bibliophile, you’re in luck. Langley boasts four bookstores, including two that specialize in rare books (Gregor Rare Books and Lowry-James). Other interesting shops to peek into include Music for the Eyes, a "museum" of textiles collected from around the world by former diplomats for the State Department;

Museo, a contemporary fine art gallery that showcases island and regional artwork; Virginia’s Antiques and Gifts; and The Star Store, an eclectic country mercantile.

To prevent you from shopping ‘til you drop, grab nourishment at one of the many cafes in town. I’m partial to The Café Langley for Mediterranean cuisine, The Fish Bowl for fresh seafood, Langley Village Bakery for everything from warm blueberry muffins to vegetarian pizza and Useless Bay Coffee Company for great coffee, scones and breakfast paninis.

Wander back to The Inn at Langley, and remember, you’re on island time.

If you go:

The Inn at Langley: www.innatlangley.com

Langley tourist information: www.visitlangley.com

Whidbey Island information: www.whidbeycamanoislands.com

 

Rough it — but in a refined way at Paws Up

  • Written by Deborah Stone
 

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After an active day exploring the wilderness playground, head to Spa Town to soothe your tired muscles. Courtesy photo.
In my household, preparing for a camping trip usually involves a flurry of intense activity, from finding the necessary equipment somewhere in the depths of our overflowing garage to methodically checking off all the to-do items on an extensive 10-page list. Then there’s the meticulous packing and re-packing regimen to fit everything in our car.

As we head out, looking like the Joad family with all our earthly belongings strapped to the top of our vehicle, our neighbors line the streets waving goodbye, believing we are off on a grand year-long adventure. Little do they know, we’ll be back in two days. But, yes, it will be an adventure.

We’ll arrive and begin to set up the tent, which typically spurs a heated discussion and the eventual discovery that we’re missing a pole. After my husband concocts something to use from one of our hiking sticks, we proceed to unload everything and then it’s time to start a fire and prepare dinner.

Between swatting at hungry mosquitoes and staving off smoke inhalation, we manage to eat our charred, overcooked meal sometime before midnight. We crawl into our sleeping bags, blurry eyed and exhausted.

But, a blissful night’s sleep is not on the agenda. Rowdy campers nearby begin a karaoke contest. And then we hear that all-too familiar hissing sound, which is coming from the hole in our air mattress – the same hole that we forgot to patch from the last time we went camping.

To top it off, it starts to rain and our tent begins to leak right above our heads. As I lie there like a prisoner undergoing Chinese water torture, I fantasize about a different type of camping.

In my fantasy, I’m lying upon a feather bed draped in 300-thread-count Egyptian silk sheets, while being lulled gently to sleep by the soothing sounds of a nearby river. I’m cozy and dry, yet the great outdoors is right outside my door.

And when I’m hungry, I head for a nearby dining pavilion to enjoy a delicious gourmet meal. A khaki-clad camping butler is at my beck and call and tends to all the details, from providing wine service to arranging a day of exciting adventures. And every evening ends with a ready-made bonfire and a nightly S’mores fest.

It’s a fantasy that can become reality when you visit The Resort at Paws Up, a luxury ranch set along the Blackfoot River in Montana’s pristine wilderness. This grand enclave is a mecca for adrenaline junkies who love the outdoors, but appreciate a high level of comfort and personal service. The resort’s digs range from tastefully appointed, lodge-style private homes to a renovated, historic 1908 farmhouse.

There’s also the Bunkhouse, a former hayloft which is now a six-bed retreat. But, the most unique abodes are found at Tent City and River Camp, where "glamping" has been perfected. Here you can camp in five-star style in your own 270-square-foot, canvas-walled platform tent, complete with king-sized bed, fine linens, electricity, spacious deck, private master bathroom, housekeeping and butler service, gourmet fare and more.

At River Camp, the newer of the two sites, six such structures sit on the banks of the majestic Blackfoot River.

Roughing it in these accommodations means plush pile rugs, fluffy, terry-cloth robes, elk-antler bedside lamps, western artwork adorning the walls and electric blankets and space heaters to take the chill off the night air. Private bathrooms located nearby come equipped with steam showers and heated slate floors.

It’s easy to while away your day in this spectacular setting, doing nothing but simply sitting by the river watching a resident bald eagle family in action.

Or lazing on your deck, reading a book and sipping a cold one. But, most folks come to Paws Up because they have a healthy appetite for wilderness adventures.

Outdoor enthusiasts rejoice upon learning they have nearly 40,000 acres, over 120 trails and 10 miles of the Blackfoot River to explore. They salivate at the menu of activities offered, including horseback riding, fly fishing, hiking, mountain biking, river rafting, ATV touring, rock climbing, special kids’ discovery programs and my personal favorite, sporting clays.

Having never held a gun before, I approached this activity with great apprehension.

I didn’t want to embarrass myself, but knowing that I have a built-in klutz gene, I was prepared for the worst. It was a welcome surprise to discover that not only was I able to hit a number of the clays (once I could actually follow their trajectory patterns), but that I felt empowered by the sport. It was both fun and satisfying in ways I never imagined.

"Just call me Annie Oakley," I said to everyone who would listen to me as I waxed poetic about my experience.

After a full day of playing in the Rockies, many folks opt to head for Spa Town, a cluster of 11 oversized canvas structures nestled at the edge of a sage meadow with expansive, Big Sky Country vistas – the same legendary landscape that once inspired awe in Lewis and Clark. A winding boardwalk takes you to the privacy of your own treatment tent, where a talented massage therapist performs one of the many healing treatments available to soothe sore muscles. And when your stomach grumbles from all the activity and fresh air, take heart in knowing that food is always close at hand.

Meal time is a treat for the senses at Paws Up. The resort prides itself on creating sumptuous five-star cuisine that utilizes fresh, local ingredients from Montana’s agricultural bounty. You might start out the morning with huckleberry French toast and hand-made sausage.

As the sun sets, you’ll feast on specialties such as Rocky Mountain trout sautéed with fresh herbs or grilled elk loin in a mustard demi glace. There are also weekly wine tastings, cooking demonstrations, themed dinners, lavish barbeques and chuck wagon cookouts.

The Resort at Paws Up is the ultimate remedy for urban stress. It’s a wilderness sanctuary with the power to regenerate and revitalize the body, mind and spirit. And it sure beats the heck out of camping the old fashioned way!

If you go:

The Resort at Paws Up is located in Greenough, Montana, about 35 minutes from Missoula. Accommodation and full board packages start at $725 per couple; two night minimum. For more information: www.pawsup.com or 800/473-0601.

Rancho La Puerta: a balance of body/mind/spirit

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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Artwork abounds at the Ranch with bronze sculptures dotting the lush landscape. Photo by Deborah Stone
There’s a reason why people return again and again to Rancho La Puerta. It’s because they get what they need from this place, whether it’s the chance to reward themselves with some long-awaited R&R, find the space for personal introspection or seize the opportunity to recharge their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

The Ranch has stood the test of time and veteran alumni, many with dozens of stays under their belts, are testament of its enduring appeal and ability to provide something for everyone.

Located on the Baja Peninsula, in Tecate, Mexico, just 40 miles southeast of San Diego, the Ranch is recognized as the first and oldest fitness destination spa in North America.

Founded in 1940 by owner Deborah Szekely and her now-deceased husband, Edmond Szekely, the Ranch was created “to make healthy people healthier,” and it was based upon the principle that both the body and the mind must be exercised in order for this goal to be accomplished.

What has long attracted guests to the Ranch is its ease and warmth, along with a low-key, casual atmosphere, which makes everyone feel immediately comfortable. Perhaps the tone was set many years ago when the founders had the idea to help people get out of their daily ruts and invited guests to bring $17.50 and their own tent for a stay at a new type of health camp.

From these humble beginnings, the Ranch grew and gradually evolved into a top-rated modern spa, which has continued to garner worldwide recognition and awards for its innovative design, extensive menu of fitness classes, delicious organic cuisine and environmental-friendly practices.

What strikes most guests when they arrive at the Ranch is its setting. The place sits in the midst of the high desert on 150 lushly landscaped acres, with lovely mountain vistas. Meandering brick walkways take you through a flower-filled, Eden-like oasis with intoxicating scents and dazzling colors. There are olive groves, ponds and fountains and placed discreetly around the grounds are beautiful bronze sculptures and other outdoor art installations.

Pockets of serenity, in the form of small meditative gardens and contemplative bowers, are tucked among the rooms, gyms, pools and villas that spread out over the expansive property. And towering above it all is Mt. Kuchumaa, emitting a spiritual force and mystical energy that native tribes viewed as essential to well-being.

A south-of-the-border charm prevails throughout the Ranch and dominates its décor, from stucco walls and wood-beamed ceilings, to Tecate tile floors and colorful displays of Mexican folk art. This theme can also be found within elements of the cuisine, which is primarily vegetarian and features an abundance of organic fruits and vegetables. Meals at the Ranch are served buffet style for breakfast and lunch; whereas, dinners are a sit-down affair with wait staff in attendance. The food is tasty and inventive, with plenty of choices to appeal to even the pickiest of eaters. I ate like a horse while I was at the Ranch because I was hungry from all the exercise I was getting each day. And I never worried about what I was eating because I knew it was healthy and packed a nutritious punch. I took note of all the ways veggies could be used and prepared and realized that there is more edible plant life than I knew existed.

During my stay at the Ranch, I would begin each day at dawn by lacing up my hiking boots and joining a guided group hike around the surrounding wilderness reserve area.

The Ranch is well-known for its hiking program and offers options for all skill levels, ranging from rigorous five-mile mountain climbs to moderate two-mile walks over rolling hills.

Desiring a challenge, I often chose the kick-butt hikes, which not only gave me an excellent early morning work-out, but also a real sense of accomplishment. And the breathtaking views from the various vistas served as daily inspiration.

Guests at the Ranch are fortunate to have over 70 different indoor and outdoor, multi-leveled, instructor-led classes from which to choose. Some are active and others lean towards being contemplative and spiritually-focused. I aimed at achieving a balance of both.

And as I had felt stuck in a fitness rut before coming, I also sought to try some new and different activities, such as African and hip-hop dance, to spice up my regimen.

One afternoon, I headed to the pool for an Aqua Plus class, while another time, I checked out the Ranch’s labyrinth, a replica of the famous floor labyrinth laid in Chartres Cathedral in the early 13th century. Unlike mazes, which confuse participants with various deceptive elements, labyrinths are made of paths which you walk continuously and meditatively toward the center, then back out again.

They are a powerful metaphor for life’s journey and they are often used to help lead individuals towards inner serenity and self-knowledge.

As I walked the classic11-circuit design, I tried to concentrate on letting go of all the details of my life and to open myself to the experience. It was a wonderful opportunity to quiet my often too-busy mind.

There’s a non-competitive atmosphere at the Ranch, which promotes camaraderie and support among guests. No one acts like a diva and there are no fitness warriors who are out to show they are the fastest, the strongest or the most flexible athletes.

Well-trained and certified instructors provide encouragement and positive feedback, while helping participants improve their skills. They are upbeat, knowledgeable and truly interested in sharing their expertise with others. But they will caution you not to overdo it during your stay. The temptation is to try to do everything, which is impossible, and those who attempt this feat usually end up painfully sore and unable to enjoy their experience.

I found that it was important to intersperse bouts of activity with periods of rest. And when it was time to relax, I often headed to a lounge chair by the pool or to one of the many hammocks strewn around the property. Of course, I was also a frequent visitor to the several heath sanctuaries on the property, where I received an array of rejuvenating treatments.

The Ranch’s menu of spa services is extensive and many of the products used in the treatments contain herbal ingredients that come from the Ranch’s organic farm, Tres Estrellas.

Located just a few miles north of the Ranch, Tres Estrellas comprises five acres and produces most of the fresh vegetables for the Ranch’s kitchen.

Guests can sign up for a breakfast hike to the farm, which includes a tour of the gardens. It’s definitely one of the most popular activities and a must-do experience, in my opinion.

The combination of an early morning invigorating walk, followed by a sumptuous breakfast served al fresco, is truly a sensory delight.

Tres Estrellas is also the site of the Ranch’s new cooking school and culinary center, La Cocina Que Canta (The Kitchen That Sings). Opportunities for life-changing learning abound at this spa. In addition to all the daytime activities, there are nightly lectures by renowned guest speakers, musical performances and workshops in aromatherapy, prayer arrow affirmations, star gazing, jewelry-making, watercolor painting and more. Rancho La Puerta is a special haven that provides individuals with the luxury of time and space to find a balance between body, mind and spirit. I, too, can now proudly add my name to the vast number of devotees of this unique destination spa