You don't realize just how much you're pampered at Canyon Ranch Spa until you return to the real world, and a rude waitress forgets your side dish, or you feel your muscles tightening.
Voted best spa by Conde Nast's Traveler magazine 10 times, Canyon Ranch may be the best-known resort of its type in America. It's been a leader among destination spas in combining health and fitness with services like facials and massages, and it employs three staff members for every guest to ensure that customers leave happy.
But Canyon Ranch is not for those on a budget. A four-night stay for one person at the Tucson spa costs about $2,600 in the summer when temperatures are as high as 120 degrees. Winter rates are higher — about $3,900.
My mother treated me and my sister, and our bill was a little less — we came on a mother-daughter special. The rates include all meals, most classes and a $560 stipend for services. Many of the massages and basic facials are around $110, but other services like doctor visits cost as much as $240.
I felt it was worth every penny, though — and mom agreed.
But Canyon Ranch would be a waste of a vacation for those who prefer to laze around all day. Guests are encouraged to be very active, and the schedule of classes is like a candy store for the physically fit — every type of Pilates, aerobic and strength course you can imagine. I was surprised both by how much physical exercise my body could take, and by how exhausted I got on our four-day visit.
Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalina mountains, the 70-acre ranch is set up like a village, with guest rooms around the perimeter, and the spa complex in the middle like a town square. There are several pools near the lodging, though some of the other buildings are a bit of a hike to encourage guests to walk. The air is dry and hot, and the grounds are a muddy brown in the summer, with the occasional fleck of red and purple flowers, plus saguaro cacti. Javelinas, snakes and jack rabbits come out at night.
The resort opened more than 25 years ago, and a second Canyon Ranch is located in Lenox, Mass.
When you book your stay, a large packet comes in the mail detailing all the services and exercise classes, with the extra costs conveniently located elsewhere. There's also a thorough questionnaire about your health, medical history and reason for coming to the spa that you're supposed to mail in before you come.
I did, but my mother and sister forgot; it didn't matter much either way. After you check in, you are sent to the nurse's office for a quick checkup.
The next stop is program advising, where you plan your stay and schedule appointments. It took hours for the three of us to decide on a game plan — we should have coordinated before we arrived. Appointments for massages and facials fill up quick, so it's a good idea to book those in advance.
When you arrive, you also get a tote bag, water bottle, pen and events schedule called “This Week At Canyon Ranch,” which becomes your temporary Bible.
We had to wait hours for our room to be ready, which caused some grumbling, but it was the only hitch all weekend.
The scene at Canyon Ranch is a bit of a culture shock. Women milled around in terry cloth robes, or in sports bras and gym shoes running off to the latest exercise class. Most of the guests were in their 40s or 50s, although there were several mother-daughter groups — but there was nary a male in sight and many of the employees were college students. The difference in age between the staff and most of the guests made for a strange juxtaposition.
After a day, we fell into a routine. We'd get up, eat breakfast, head to a strength-training class, an aerobic workout — sometimes in a pool — then a yoga class. After about three hours of solid work, we'd be starving and meet up for lunch, laze by the pool for a while, hit an afternoon stretch class, then head to the locker room to relax in the steam, and follow up with a massage or mud wrap or facial. It felt like our own desert Eden.
The food was delicious — and I'm a food snob. But the portions seemed shockingly small. Actually, they are in line with FDA guidelines, but it was a valuable lesson to see how small a cup or a half-cup of something really is in a country where orders are commonly super-sized. I've been mindful of portion sizes since.
And while guests are allowed to order as many extra helpings as they like for no additional fee, the servings were so small that it was hard to overeat, even if you ordered two entire entrees. And it wasn't just salads and fruit shakes: Omelets, bagels with cream cheese (just a half-bagel, but still), burgers, steak, and even spaghetti with meatballs — turkey meatballs, that is.
The calorie count is listed on the right hand side of the menu, where the prices would normally be. I counted my calorie intake one day when I had eaten what I thought was a ton, including seven of the spa's signature chocolate chip cookies (my sister and I needed them for a movie night while Mom was at a 9 p.m. massage) and it added up to a mere 1,370.
But the best part about the food is that you don't have to worry about it. You know it will be healthy and tasty, and that even if you think you're eating a lot, it's still nothing compared to a McDonald's burger and fries.
And besides, you're spending the bulk of your day burning calories, not consuming them.
Each week one special class is offered; we took one called “World Beat” where we danced barefoot to live African drums. There are generally two instructors per class, sometimes three, and it helps liven things up. Classes are 45 minutes and run from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m.
My mom is a big yoga-holic and was disappointed by some of the classes, but others like water aerobics and “Let's Dance” were a big hit.
Bike tours and hikes in the foothills are also offered. These are no joke — six-hour excursions into the mountains. The spa provides a pack with lunch and water plus a ride there and back. It's a nice contrast to the indoor classes.
In the evening, there are lectures on relationships, live music, pottery and painting classes — but we were always too tired to take advantage.
We stayed in a three-bed suite with high-speed Internet access, two flat screen TVs, a couch and a desk. The sheets were glowing white and there were a pile of pillows on each bed. It was the kind of understated fanciness you'd expect from the Kennedy household — but in the Southwest. The spa has a considerable DVD collection, and we raided it nearly every night.
We stuck to fitness and pampering, but a cornucopia of other services are available, from handwriting analysis and astrological readings to metabolism work-ups. A training staff will help design your exercise routine, doctors will help design a weight-loss program. A man wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shell necklace figures out what gym shoes are best for your feet.
Let's face it, I'd never have gone to Canyon Ranch if my mother hadn't given me the trip. We were average Joes in a world of monied women — but I loved it, and so did she and my sister.