Return to the Ranch

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THE FIRST THING I DID when I got to my casita at Rancho La Puerta last month was take off my clothes. All of them. Outside. That’s how private the patio was at my villa-for-a-week, below, at the 70+-year-old wellness resort in Baja California. I lowered a chaise and stretched out flat on my back, staring into the cloud-swirled blue sky like the kid in the opening shot of Boyhood. I smelled bougainvillea, heard distant traffic on the Tecate-Tijuana Highway. My long day of travel, and my real life in New York City, receded. A formation of turkey vultures soared above, scouting for carrion. “Hey, don’t look at me, guys,” I said. “I’m alive.”

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In fact. I rarely feel so alive as at Rancho La Puerta, which explains why I’ve been 11 times and am looking forward to making that an even dozen at my next opportunity. The lynchpin of their program is daily hiking in the Sierra Juarez mountains, a 3-5 mile group exercise that’s the best way I know to start a day off right. Yep, the hikes are scheduled before breakfast, partly because it’s cooler then, and partly because, as the Ranch’s 92-year-old founder Deborah Szekely said in a talk she gave one evening, “We know we wouldn’t get you out for a mountain hike at 4 in the afternoon.”

Certainly not after a day such as the ones I scheduled for myself, which typically included — after a fortifying breakfast in a brick courtyard — Sculpt and Strengthen at 9, Abs and Cycle at 10, Wave (water aerobics, no laughing matter) at 11, then lunch and perhaps a mini-siesta or soak in a hot tub. Then on to dance (Zumba, Hooping, Cardio Drum) at 2, and a stretch or yoga class thereafter. These were some of my choices, of at least five options offered every hour at a dozen gyms and studios.

I tried a few things I’d not done before, including Foam Roller and Crystal Bowls Sound Healing (which I could do without). I didn’t make it to Design Your Own Jewelry or Sketch the Landscape, as I had in previous years, or Feldenkrais, or cooking classes, and I can never be bothered with meditation while I’m there. Too much else to do! I even missed Popcorn Bingo, though I attended a travel-photography talk, an astrology workshop, and wouldn’t dream of skipping the ever-popular Organic Garden Breakfast Hike, a 4-miler to and from Tres Estrellas, the Ranch’s 6-acre organic farm, where the buffet is as spectacular as the scenery. (A few images from that hike, below.)

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At Rancho, you’re never without a view of Mt. Kuchuuma, top, sacred to native peoples and Ranch guests alike, and 32 acres of exuberant gardens, which blend at the property’s edges into the surrounding scrubby chaparral. The exquisite surroundings are, for me, one of the chief pleasures of the place. As always, I enjoyed the Landscape Garden Walk with botanist Enrique Ceballos, who is responsible for the management of the gardens, and the Chaparral Walk, with the Ranch’s resident naturalist. I missed the Arroyo Walk, however — it probably conflicted with a massage or facial.

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At Rancho, people walk around looking at their schedules instead of their cell phones. I met nice people and made new friends, though Rancho La Puerta is an excellent place to visit solo. You’re seated at dinner, served in the grand Spanish Colonial dining hall or on one of two glorious patios, at a different group table every night, so there’s little chance of feeling lonely. Of my 11 visits, this was the third on my own, and I don’t mind not having conversations like one I overheard: “So we’re both gonna do Foam Roller at 4?” “No, I was thinking of trying Kettlebells… if I’m not too tired.” (For that very reason — late-day fatigue — the Stretch and Relax instructor got a big laugh, after a shocked pause, when he arrived at 4PM to find his class already laid out on their rubber mats in Montana gym, practically snoring, and announced in a loud, cheery voice, “Welcome to Cardio Muscle Blast!”)

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Every time I go to Rancho, there are new classes, new buildings, maybe a new swimming pool. Rancho La Puerta is not a place that rests on its considerable laurels (it’s often been voted #1 spa in America by major travel magazines). This time, there was something new, surprising, and very much to my liking: a wine bar. Since I first visited Rancho in the mid-1980s, the only wine available was a glass at the festive farewell dinner, bottom, on the final night. But guests often brought their own wine or went into town for it. Against the wishes of Deborah Szekely, who wanted to keep the Rancho booze-free, employees (and presumably Board members) prevailed to convert a casita near the edge of the property, one with a particularly stunning mountain view, below, to an indoor/outdoor gift shop/bar serving wines local to the Valle de Guadalupe, Baja’s wine region. Every night at 6PM then, it was off to the Bazar del Sol with new friends to taste every white, red and rose they had. All were good, and I enjoyed this new aspect of the Ranch immensely.

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IMG_4830The wine didn’t wreck my fitness goals. I got back to Brooklyn on a Saturday night, and Sunday morning I was at my usual Y for a reputedly brutal class I’d always hesitated to take. I’m here to report I sailed through it.

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To read about my previous visit to Rancho La Puerta, with more photos of the gardens and the grounds, go here.

Rancho La Puerta: Garden Close-Up

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I’M HOME FROM RANCHO LA PUERTA and not too happy about that. The sun is shining here in East Hampton, N.Y., and things have greened up slightly. The daffodils are still in force; my scrawny magnolia is in what passes for full bloom. But the goutweed is also back in full force, and the expanses of brown dirt seem enormous. I prefer to remain at Rancho for a while longer, at least in my head. I’m thinking back on the past week of sun-soaked floral abundance and wondering how I can transpose all I saw and learned there, in some small way, to my Northeastern half-acre.

Last Thursday at Rancho, I took the Landscape Garden Walk with Enrique Ceballos, below, the person most responsible — after Sarah Livia Brightwood, daughter of the Ranch’s founders and a landscape architect — for the phenomenal landscaping of the Ranch’s eight exuberantly cultivated acres. A former botany professor, he has been involved with the Ranch since 1988 and knows everything there is to know about its horticultural bounty.

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It wasn’t really much of a walk; we joked about that afterwards. We began under the gazebo in the central area, near the main guest lounge, and because the plantings are so intensive, and the large group so enthusiastic and inquisitive, we barely moved from our starting point in the allotted hour, yet there was plenty to see. We walked perhaps 50 feet in all, as Enrique gave us some background on the climate (double the normal rainfall in the past year, which is why this spring is so green), the alkaline soil, and the highly eco-conscious philosophy of Rancho La Puerta’s garden maintenance program (I saw only one sprinkler going the whole week; of course, the water is all reclaimed and recycled).

“This is a landscape with no chemicals,” Enrique stressed. No pesticides: insects are welcome (some prey on others, he pointed out, so why kill the helpful ones?) No herbicides: hand-weeding is preferred. No slug-icides, either: the birds take care of that.

The aesthetic intent, he said, is to create “an abstraction of the chapparal inside the garden,” with contours and rhythms that echo the shapes of the surrounding terrain. I now know that chapparal is the native eco-system in the foothills of Mt. Kuchumaa, considered sacred by the area’s original inhabitants;  the mountain dominates the Ranch’s longer vistas, partly because the design is intended to do just that.

The Ranch uses either native plants or “eco-equivalents” – plants from similar climatic conditions, particularly the Mediterranean region, which are not native but thrive and grow like natives. A ubiquitous example is rosemary, which I never walked past without picking a sprig and holding it to my nose. It was introduced to Baja by Franciscan monks from Italy, Enrique told us.

Some of the highlights of our “walk”:

  • AGAVES – 80% of which are from Mexico, we learned. They bloom once, spectacularly, and then die, in a 7-year life span. There are eight different agave species at the Ranch.
  • ALOES – these are eco-equivalents from Africa. The coral aloes, below at right (with orange gazanias to the left of them), now in bloom throughout the property, are outstanding. I couldn’t get enough of looking at them.
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  • MONTEZUMA PINES – pale green and feathery
  • EUCALYPTUS TREES – Enrique called them a “big weed, aggressive and flammable.” He is not a fan of eucalyptus.
  • GAZANIAS (African daisies) – orange flowers, below, with delicate magenta undersides and juicy succulent stems, they are used in big drifts for sheets of color.
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  • EUPHORBIA – not the type we have here, but recognizable, with chartreuse flowers
  • NANDINA (Heavenly Bamboo) – now bursting with red berries, below
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  • FRENCH LAVENDER – not part of this walk, but used to great effect, below, along with tall Italian cypresses and more of that fabulous coral aloe, around the circular fountain in the Villas Luna area
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  • CALIFORNIA PEPPER TREE – huge and venerable, resembling weeping willow, on the lawn near the dining hall, below
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  • ROCK ROSE, or cistus – a marvelous, rather funny-looking pink flower, below, with red triangles inside
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  • SALVIA (sage) – there are 25-28 species, native and non-native, all well suited to the Ranch’s conditions
  • ARTEMISIAS – semi-desert plants which do very well at the Ranch
  • DATE PALMS from the Mideast, QUEEN PALMS from Africa, others from California
  • ICE PLANTS – wonderful architectural feature, used everywhere for big drifts of color (such as the pink ‘river’ in photo at top)
  • ECHEVERIA (Hens & Chicks), below – gigantic, compared to our Northeastern varieties
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  • TRUMPET VINES – invasive elsewhere but here, said Enrique, all that’s necessary to control them is to cut their water supply
  • WISTERIA, now having their moment on pergolas throughout the Ranch, originally from China
  • STAR JASMINE – many different types on arbors
  • PYROCANTHA – red-berried and not native, but successful
  • ROSES – many species throughout – the most magnificent, to me, are the yellow ‘Lady Banks’ on the pergola near the Montana gym, below
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You can see why we didn’t get far. The above list represents just a fraction of the Ranch’s plantings. And I understand the wildflowers in the upper altitudes of Mt. Kuchumaa, reached only on the 5.5 mile Coyote hike (which I chickened out of, preferring to save some energy for Bar Method, swimming, and African dance) are beyond belief.

For more on Rancho La Puerta, go here, and see my two previous posts below.

Rancho La Puerta: We Hike to Eat

All the photos in this post were taken at or around Rancho La Puerta’s organic farm, Tres Estrellas, and culinary center, La Cocina que Canta, in Tecate, Baja California, Mexico.

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RANCHO LA PUERTA is different things to different people.

For some, the main draw is the early-morning trail hiking, from the gentle (Woodlands, Quail) to the challenging (Professor, Pilgrim) and the brutal (seven miles up Mt. Kuchumaa). Others come to work out all day in classes you won’t find at your local Y (Cardio Drumming, Wave Running, Aerobics with Soul), and/or embrace the challenge of seeing how many spa treatments they can squeeze into a week. Not to mention bird walks, make-your-own-jewelry workshops, and a zillion other options, from crystal bowl sound healing to the ever-popular popcorn bingo.

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But for everyone, without exception, Rancho La Puerta is about good eating. It can’t not be, after all that exercise  – you’re ravenous, and they don’t let you go hungry. The portions are calorie-controlled, but seconds and thirds are cheerfully provided. This is not a weight-loss place, although the correct answer, I’m told, to that annoying question when you get home (“How much weight did you lose?”) is “Seven pounds.”

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Ha. My jeans seem no looser than they did four days ago. But who cares? The food here is too good. From the lavish-but-healthy buffet breakfast by the villa pools to outdoor lunches around the fountain on the tiled terrace to sit-down four-course dinners in the magnificent high-ceilinged dining hall, it’s mostly vegetarian, elegantly presented, totally delicious, and authentically Baja — never heavy rice-and-beans, but nouvelle Mexican, masterminded by Cordon Bleu-trained chef Gonzalo Mendoza.

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Sixty percent of the produce comes from Rancho’s own organic farm, Tres Estrellas. The 4-mile hike there and back is such a highlight they run it three times a week to accommodate demand. Upon arrival, there’s a legendary breakfast spread at La Cocina que Canta (The Kitchen that Sings), Rancho La Puerta’s cooking school and culinary center. There’s a professional kitchen for cooking classes and an expansive dining room with French doors overlooking the farm, where rows of luminous lettuces prove that vegetables, too, can be ornamental. Many of the flowers, including calendula, violas, and nasturtium, are grown as edibles and used to pretty up salads and desserts.

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Yesterday I was at Tres Estrellas/La Cocina que Canta not once, but twice — in the morning, for the hike, breakfast, and head gardener Salvatore’s tour (now I know what really good soil looks like and how to pick a turnip), and again in the evening, when I returned by van with a group of about 20 people for a hands-on cooking lesson with guest chef Alisa Barry, now based in Atlanta and owner of a food-products company called Bella Cucina Artful Food, in her own Tuscan-by-way-of-California style.

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After which, of course, we ate the scrumptious results — baked goat cheese three ways, cilantro corn cakes with roasted pepper sauce, shrimp grilled on rosemary skewers, and more — a meal made up of antipasti, essentially, which is exactly the way I like to eat.

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I’ll diet when I get home.

Rancho La Puerta: Ranch in Bloom

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HERE AT RANCHO LA PUERTA in Tecate, Mexico — the only fitness resort I’ve ever been to, and the only one I ever care to go to — there’s no need to exercise that gratitude muscle I referred to in my last post. I’m exercising every other possible muscle, but the surroundings are so exceptionally beautiful that gratefulness for simply being here comes easy (that’s my casita, below).

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This is my 10th visit to Rancho since 1989, but my first in spring. Now I wouldn’t know chapparal from sagebrush, but I do know that the hills surrounding the ranch, thoroughly explored on the early morning hikes that are the linchpin of the fitness program, have usually been dramatic but brown.

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This time I am thrilled at the greenness and the abundance of wildflowers in the hills and the rustic outlying areas, as well as in the more central gardens surrounding the dining hall, gyms, pools, and guest cottages, most built from the 1980s onwards in vernacular Spanish Colonial style

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I took it relatively easy the first day — only did four classes. I hiked, stretched, lifted, and tried Bar Method, which nearly did me in. It’s the hot thing in California, apparently (it promises you’ll become 5’9″, with the posture of a ballerina).

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Aside from that, I’ve been mostly walking around open-mouthed, taking pictures of the monumental plantings: gargantuan agaves, entire beds of nothing but calla lilies, things we consider houseplants (geraniums, kalanchoe) and minor annuals (alyssum) used as bedding over vast areas, fragrant rosemary and sage as architectural shrubs, sheets of blanket flower and ice plant, pergolas laden with my formerly reviled wisteria, perfectly well-behaved and in its glory.

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The current grand, sweeping design is mainly the work of Sarah Livia Brightwood, daughter of Deborah and Edmund Szekely, who founded the ranch in 1940 as a bring-your-own-tent operation. The gardens have matured a bit since I was here five years ago. The team of 22 gardeners is entirely on top of things, I’m glad to say: all is perfection to my eye.

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Later in the week, after a Landscape Garden Walk and a Nature Walk, I’ll know more about what things are.

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For now, I’m content to try to identify those things Baja California has in common with the Northeast. I even blew off Hula Hoop at 2:00 just to walk around and take it all in.

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The Barely Bearable Fleetingness of Spring

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Magnolia in East Hampton village

THE ONSET OF SPRING, I’ve realized, is kind of like an LSD trip (or so I remember – this goes back a few years). You take the pill, you wait and wait, you’re convinced nothing’s ever gonna happen, and then all of a sudden, all hell breaks loose.

Or as my wasband put it, “Is there a switch somewhere that says, ‘Garden ON’?”

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Sheared forsythia

Nothing much was happening around here, flower-wise, until the past week of warm weather. Now it’s going so fast I’m already mourning the turning green of the forsythia, the lavender Exbury azalea in my neighbor’s yard past its peak, the mature magnolias in the village (that would be East Hampton, N.Y.), already dropping their pearlescent petals.

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The exbury azalea next door

Spring is the season for exercising the gratitude muscle, for not clinging, not grasping. For appreciating what you’ve got when you’ve got it, and letting go when it’s time.

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My best daff

Maybe spring has extra meaning for me this year. I’ve just had a major birthday. I’m now officially a senior, if not according to the Federal government, at least according to the East Hampton Cinema. I can see a movie for $7.50, and save $12/month on my gym membership. All to the good. As my friend Diana said, “You chafe against it at first, but then you want all the discounts you can get.”

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Vinca minor (periwinkle)

I had a memorable birthday celebration, below, drinking Prosecco with good friends in the garden on Sunday; then lunch at the Maidstone on Tuesday, and a walk along the beach at Sagaponack in unseasonable warmth.

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Senior in pink

Tomorrow I’m off to Mexico for a week, where I’ll meet my daughter at Rancho La Puerta, the fabulous fitness resort in Baja where I’ve been many times before. One of the chief pleasures of the place is the magnificent landscaping, and I’ll be blogging about that in days to come.

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Beach at Sagaponack

But today, I walked around my own modest property, observing. I saw a bleeding heart and some epimedium poking through the soil. The little blue flowers of vinca minor are everywhere, and I see May apples and lily of the valley pushing up. They are gifts – I didn’t put them there. I’ve put very little here so far, in fact, but that will change upon my return from Mexico.

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Birthday lunch at the Maidstone

My goal for the next six months is to spend every possible day working in the garden, weather permitting, or even weather not permitting. And to stay in the moment and enjoy it all while it, and I, last.

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Sunset over Three Mile Harbor