Deborah is a remarkable women. Besides running the Ranch (which she and her husband Edmond founded in 1940) and creating a second, more exclusive spa (the Golden Door in Escondido, near San Diego), she has run for Congress and spent seventeen years in Washington running a federal agency. She has contributed to the welfare of the citizens of Tecate; she has funded parks and schooling; and she is in the process of raising $25 million to build a museum honoring immigrants in America. There are pictures of her with presidents Reagan, Bush Sr, and Clinton, and the people who she knows can fill a Who’s Who of VIPs in America. How she started the Golden Door is an interesting story. She credits Kim Novak, who used to go to the Ranch in the early and mid-fifties when she had a movie to make and needed to get into shape. Her curves were in place, but she had a big rear end that needed slimming, and she would complain to Deborah that she often felt uncomfortable working out as others in the room would stare at her. “Why can’t you create a place for people like me?” the star of Vertigo and Bell, Book and Candle asked. So Deborah gave it some thought and went to see some studio heads to see if they would send some of their stars to a health spa closer to Los Angeles than Tecate. Some said they would and Deborah found an old two-story hotel ninety minutes south of Hollywood. In 1958 she opened the Golden Door, quickly losing $58,000 the first year. But then the stars began to come—not just for a week, but for a month or six weeks—to get in shape for their next film. They came with their voice and acting coaches and they worked hard, exercising all day, eating organic vegetables, studying their lines at night, and when they left they were transformed into…movie stars! Glowing and glamorous. “Today, we still keep the Golden Door to a maximum of forty visitors a week,” Deborah says, “but it’s no longer all movie stars. The stars all have personal trainers, dieticians, their own exercise rooms, so they don’t come they like used to.” But that’s OK, because now other rich women (and certain wealthy men, who come during the two male weeks each year, or the two co-ed weeks) go to shape up, paying $7,000 for a week of personal attention and pampering. Rancho La Puerta, which charges a third to half of what one pays at the Golden Door, came to be known as the Poor Man’s Golden Door. It has a very different atmosphere: more laid back and relaxed, not as individually intense, and, for my money, the best place in the world to take you out of your world and give yourself a break.
It’s also a place for romance, if you go as a couple, as Alicia Silverstone did with her boyfriend a few years ago during one of my visits. There she was, fresh off her film Clueless, standing in the swimming pool kissing her lover for all to see; holding his hand, smiling just for him.
“I find this a very sexy place, if you want the truth,” an Australian woman told me as we walked the two and a half miles to the vegetable garden one early morning. “My boyfriend is very loving and mellow after he comes back from a massage. We light a fire, dim the lights, drink a cup of tea, and just enjoy ourselves. Sometimes we walk late at night, and sometimes we go, just the two of us, into the Jacuzzi near our villa. It’s like we’re the only two here and it’s our own private mansion.”
Talk to enough people at the Ranch and you realize it becomes a series of testimonials. People will tell you how many times they’ve visited. Some will be wearing the Ten-Year T-shirt, given to them on their tenth visit. One woman called it her $30,000 T-shirt, but she wasn’t complaining; she loved wearing it.
There are other places to visit after leaving the Ranch if you have the time (and a car): there’s some excellent wine country just 45 miles away, below Ensenada, in the Valle de Guadalupe. You can taste the different wines at some of the wineries, like the Adobe Guadalupe, Casa de Piedra, or Liceaga, and buy some decent merlots and chardonnays for $8 to $45 a bottle. The place to stay is the six-room Adobe Guadalupe for $150 per night. You can also go to Ensenada, to Rosarita Beach, and to Tijuana to add to your Baja experience.
But if you’ve only got two weeks, and you spent the first week jumping from Las Vegas to Scottsdale to San Diego and Carlsbad, then by the time you’re ready to depart the Ranch, your body is probably telling you that all is well within you and that fifteen hour flight home won’t even put a crimp in your neck, because you’ll feel twenty years younger than when you came. And all the way home you’ll probably hold hands with your mate, a smile on your faces, and dream about how many ten-year T-shirts you may have collected by your hundredth birthday.