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Destination: Arizona, Baja : Low-Fat Desert : Rancho La Puerta and Canyon Ranch, two of the world's best 'ranch' spas, are close by, but there are differences. For starters, about $1,000 a week.

July 03, 1994|CAROL ISAAK BARDEN | Barden is a Houston-based free-lance writer and contributing editor to Conde Nast Traveler magazine

TUCSON, Ariz. — If there's anything I know about, it's spas. I've been on the circuit for years and have trekked to far-flung corners of the earth for the spa-going experience. Closer to home, I've gone for tuneups to a score of American fitness camps.

Although I've never met a spa I didn't like, I do have my favorites, and topping my list are two "ranches"--Canyon Ranch Health and Fitness Resort in Tucson and Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. These wellness camps are both Southern California-adjacent, and they differ in style and price. But one is not better than the other. The choices are personal, and as far as I'm concerned, a stay at either place is a really good time.

Many Americans check into a spa when their body starts resembling a U-Haul trailer. Minutes after arrival, they work themselves into a feverish pitch, heading to the gym for some body sculpturing and adventurous weightlifting. All day long they're booked solid working to shed a few pounds and flatten the stomach.

Years ago, when I started going to spas, I was like that too, a kamikaze fitness fanatic with a schedule that barely left time for a nap. Today, at 47, I have come to terms with my body and know that I cannot overhaul it in one week. Finally, I know what spas are for--they're just another form of therapy. I go to either of the ranches when my head is a mess, when I'm jumping out of my skin. Once there, I proceed at my own happy pace. If it feels good to join the dropouts by the pool hiding behind their paperbacks, that's what I do. Unlike some spas, the ranches have great intelligence, allowing guests to do as they please, and it's perfectly respectable to do nothing.

Both of the ranches are one-stop co-ed fitness emporiums where the foundation for revitalization is vigorous exercise and fresh mountain air. Each day, approximately 50 different get-fit options are offered at both: aerobics, toning and stretching, walking and tennis clinics, calisthenics, tai chi, country line dancing, water classes, and weight and circuit training. All this alternates with massages, herbal wraps, yoga, and a host of New Age cures to make a slightly better you.

Rancho La Puerta was founded in 1940 by a Britain-based native of Transylvania named Edmond Szekely and his American wife, Deborah. (Twenty years later, Mrs. Szekely founded the equally health-conscious but ritzier Golden Door in Escondido, Calif., which the Szekelys still own and operate.) In an adobe hut at the foot of a mountain sacred to the native Kumeyaay, the Szekelys established a health camp with a philosophy of fitness, spirituality and vegetarianism. Forty miles southeast of San Diego and three miles south of the Baja California border at Tecate, RLP is at 1,800 feet at the base of Mt. Kuchumaa, and has an idyllic year-round climate--smogless and fogless, with clear days and starry nights.

Canyon Ranch was born in 1978, after local real estate developer Mel Zucherman watched his chain-smoking father die of lung cancer, and watched his own health deteriorate. "I was a man who had everything," he says, "high blood pressure, high cholesterol and ulcers." After visiting several spas, Zucherman experienced the miracle of restored health and knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life: launch his own place.

Canyon Ranch started, in Zucherman's words, as a "fat farm," but has evolved into an elite fitness retreat with full-time doctors, psychologists, nurses, dietitians and physiotherapists. Zucherman is a believer in the mind-body connection--that emotional and spiritual health is as important to overall well-being as physical fitness--and everything at the ranch is calculated to help guests "open themselves to new personal possibilities," according to marketing director Brian Shultz. In 1989, Zucherman took his complete bag of Tucson tricks to Lenox, Mass., and opened Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires. Since then, executive fitness and renewal has become a big deal, and corporations send their burned-out executives to both of his ranches to unwind.

At Canyon Ranch in Tucson, summer guests fork over a minimum of $2,564.00 (which includes $2,040 for basic accommodations, plus an 18% service charge and tax) to be cosseted for one week in a single-occupancy room with television, VCR, telephone and air conditioning. Expensive? You betcha.

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