You can directly trace the current rage over destination spas to a dusty desert sanctuary on San Diego’s Mexican border called Rancho La Puerta.
In the 1940s, Deborah Szekely, the mother of today’s spa industry, attracted health nuts and movie stars, such as Burt Lancaster, to her vegetarian wellness ranch.
Since then, during the multi-billion dollar spa industry explosion, San Diego reigns as ground zero for locals and visitors seeking respite from hectic, daily life.
Three lavish destination spas regularly appear on the Best Of lists of travel magazines and websites, all world-famous in quality and reputation. These spas are the early pioneers of today’s multi-billion dollar destination spa industry.
As a travel writer, I’ve covered spas for many years and I’ve been to all three of these spas. So let’s start first with the matriarch of this exclusive clan, Rancho La Puerta Spa.
Rates start at $2895. per week
Chosen as Travel & Leisure Magazine’s top destination spa for the past two years, Rancho La Puerta launched America on its destination spa rampage, growing this industry since the 1940s. Founder Deborah Szekely and her husband, Dr. Edmund Szekely were considered “health nuts” but these pioneers start a healing place on a ranch just south of the Mexico-California border in Tecate.
They offered guests a revolutionary program of spiritual retreat, outdoor exercise and vegetarian cuisine from their organic gardens, just as the spa still does today. A spa signature, morning hikes up rugged Mt. Kuchumaa is part of a high-quality array of classes and activities: meditation, Pilates, arts and crafts, Spanish lessons, and yoga (including restorative yoga – my favorite).
The Great: Excellent quality throughout at a reasonable weekly rate; the teachers and the cuisine will not disappoint the perfectionist.
The Not So Great: Nothing really. As I said earlier, I’ve covered a lot of spas and I got nothing.
Rates start at $6750. per week
Deborah Szekely moved across the border to create a luxury ‘daughter’ of Rancho La Puerta and the Golden Door has been long considered the best spa in the country, if not the world. Inspired by ancient Japanese Honjin inns encountered during her Asian travels, she offered visitors a place to rejuvenate body and spirit. She revolutionized spa treatments here; you can thank Deborah for herbal wraps and hydrotherapy treatments, which first began here.
Imbued with Zen philosopy, the stunning Japanese architecture and gardens and koi ponds give you an authentic feeling of serentiy. The seven-day program consists of daily, in-room massages, dozens of classes in everything from belly dancing to meditation, fascinating lectures, hair and facial treatments, a custom make-up plan and the gift of the famous Golden Door yukata.
The Great: There really is a Golden Door to pass through and once you do, the calm, healing energy is genuinely palpable.
The Not So Great: Sometimes a worry, the Golden Door was sold and is now part of a chain of Golden Door-branded spas owned by Luxury Resorts & Hotels. Let’s hope their past record of Golden Door-level quality continues.
$477. for a one night Spa Retreat Package.
Since 1965, the spa cognoscenti who read Vogue and Fortune traveled to La Costa Spa and Resort for jet set-level relaxation. Today, the spa has re-made itself as a upscale destination known for its impeccable facilities .
Oriented to the outdoors and the Southern California sun, bring a bathing suit to enjoy the extensive outdoor water features, pools and a Roman fountain, which is like your own private waterfall and feels great. Amid the lovingly tended and colorful gardens, you’ll find a cool reflexology footpath made of river stones that make your feet feel great. A relaxing lounge room offers huge day beds, snacks and pitchers of lemon water. The pristine wet area has a huge indoor Jacuzzi pool, a steam room, hot sauna, and private spaces for sea salt scrubs.
The Great: Nice touches everywhere. Be sure to eat at the Spa Cafe outside.
The Not So Great: The massage service and quality can be spotty. The locker room can get very crowded.