CANYON RANCH HAS A REPUTATION IN THE UNITED STATES AS THE STANDARD TO WHICH ALL OTHER HEALTH RETREATS ASPIRE.
WORDS BY KRIS ABBEY, PUBLISHING EDITOR SPA LIFE MAGAZINE
I was recently lucky enough to conduct a workshop at the Global Spa and Wellness Summit in Aspen Colorado, after which one of the Canyon Ranch directors invited me to experience their retreat in Tucson Arizona.
Just to give you an indication of how Canyon Ranch is perceived by the Spa industry, I mentioned to some colleagues at the summit that I was off to Grand Canyon. “Hmm, that’s nice,” was the general reaction. “Oh sorry no, I meant Canyon Ranch!” Well, that got a completely different reaction. “That is so much better than the Grand Canyon,” they all agreed. Well, having already experienced the incredible natural wonder of the Grand Canyon, I was left thinking that Canyon Ranch certainly had a lot to live up to.
I arrive in Tucson in the heart of Arizona – the biggest state in America and also the driest and hottest. It is dry for a staggering 350 days per year! The arid landscape is stunning, the heat intoxicating, and the sky as blue as you’ve ever seen. I feel like I’m on the set of a Cowboys and Indians movie. I even catch a glimpse of a giant, three-pronged cactus, straight out of a Road Runner cartoon. It just needed a tumbleweed to roll by to complete the picture! The environment is so sharp, harsh and unique, all at the same time. It is captivatingly beautiful.
When we arrive at Canyon Ranch, I am shocked by the sight of so much greenery. It is literally an oasis in the desert.
Canyon Ranch was founded by Mel Zuckerman and his wife Enid in 1979. Before they turned it into a luxury vacation destination dedicated to life enhancement, Canyon Ranch was the Double-U Dude Ranch. Dude Ranches are similar to our Farm Stays and became popular in the US with the rise of Western movies. They allow their guests to experience a somewhat edited and more luxurious version of the cowboy life.
The main reception, dining room and lounge area from the original ranch remains. There is a lot of sturdy furniture, exposed timber beams and stone walls covered in clay. Very warm and earthy, like most things here.
Mel’s story is an interesting one, and I was fortunate enough to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Mel, now 82, looks as fit as a fiddle and as vital as most men half his age. When he speaks, it is with humility and passion, and with much compassion for people with health struggles and weight-loss battles.
He makes it clear that if you want something bad enough, you have to work for it. It all comes down to believing. Believing that you can be an active participant in creating your own good (or bad) health. You can’t beat mortality by an act of will, but you can prevent, delay or eliminate many of the ill-effects of an unhealthy lifestyle. The basics of living a healthy lifestyle are, in fact, quite basic! Get off the couch, put down your fork or glass, and find some creative outlet to deflate your stress. This advice comes from experience.
In a past life, Mel was an accountant for a real estate company, after which he became a home builder, then a property developer in Tucson when the area was enjoying a population boom. He enjoyed a rags to riches life, but then back to rags. Each time he had a property development win, he would make the next gamble with higher stakes.
He enjoyed the good life, but when the economy took a battering in 1963, so too did Mel. He weathered the storm for a few years to keep afloat, but the stress of it all was slowly killing him. At just 5 foot 9 inches, he weighed in at 100kg. His stress release was food, and by his own admission, Carnation Rocky Road Ice-cream was his drug of choice. Poor diet, financial struggles and copious amounts of stress put him on the path to a breakdown – adrenal overload, high blood pressure, flirting with Type 2 diabetes, not to mention the pressure his poor mood was having on his marriage.
On the eve of his 40th birthday, he was in his doctor’s office awaiting the results of some health tests, imagining he was about to be told he was living in the body of a 45-year-old, or at worst 50. He was shocked to be told his biological age was that of a 70-year-old. “I was more fearful in that moment than I had ever been in my life,” says Mel. Not even declaring bankruptcy had been as scary. “But then my doctor said the magic words: ‘There are some things we can do about this.’”
As often happens with traumatic events, this one had a momentous effect on Mel’s life. Staring at a death sentence, Mel decided to turn the negative into a positive. At Enid’s insistence, he checked into a fat farm in Mexico for two weeks to lose some weight, hoping it might be the catalyst for getting on the path to good health. He was the only male guest and none of the staff knew how to deal with him, let alone have a specific program to meet his needs. Mel, who is eloquent and charming, was out of his depth talking C-sections and baby fat with the other guests. On day three, he hitchhiked out of there and returned home, not having lost a pound.
Enid was angry, he was defiant, and the merry-go-round of poor communication and angry outbursts picked up pace. A mid-life crisis, a marriage breakdown, a new wife and building another business up from scratch did not help improve his health. It’s a familiar story, and a story that usually ends in one of two ways.
Mel and Enid began missing each other, and the reasons they were a couple in the first place began to gnaw away at Mel. He left his second wife to rebuild his relationship with his true love, and eventually Mel and Enid remarried.
This is when things started to turn positive for Mel. Business was back on track and, by 1978, he had a little empire going again. He had built a large portion of the houses and apartments in Tucson, but his health was not thriving to the same degree. One day, Enid planted the seed that they should build a fat farm in Tucson. At the time, this didn’t register with Mel.
Another little poke came when Mel’s father, aged 76, was diagnosed with lung cancer and given two months to live. He quit smoking on the spot and fought bravely for six months. His last months of life were filled with ‘If onlys’.
Approaching his 50th birthday, Mel decided he didn’t want to live with regret and ‘If onlys’. He set himself a goal of losing 30 pounds (12.5kg). Flicking through a magazine, he was lured by an ad that said “Lose a pound a day with Sheila.” It was for a Spa in California, the Oaks at Ojai, owned by Sheila Cluff. Mel thought he might be able to lose 10 pounds and signed up, except this time he took his own car as a getaway vehicle!
Upon arrival, Mel was introduced to the Oaks fitness director, Karma Kientzler. It was at that point that good Karma showered upon Mel. She wouldn’t let him give up on himself. She could see an unhappy, overweight person and wanted to know more about him and what he wanted to achieve during his stay. She showed him how he could do it and, most importantly, met every one of his “I can’ts” with a “You can”. She pushed him to jog for the first time in his adult life. By day 10, he had lost 13 pounds and could run a mile without stopping. The exhilaration of jogging a mile for the first time since he was a kid was the highest of highs for Mel.
This time, rather than checking out early, he stayed another two weeks. During this time, he learned that the two things he’d always believed about himself – that his body was a curse, and that it would always fail him – were wrong. As he says, this was his ‘Aha!’ moment. “I’d always thought of health as something that happened to you, like having blue eyes, or being tall or short, or being good with numbers. Now I know better.”
On the drive home, Enid and Mel talked non-stop about opening their own fat farm in Tucson. For the first time in their married life, they agreed on everything. They shared a vision. They knew they would have a place with staff who genuinely cared about their guests and who understood what they wanted to achieve during their stay. 30 years ago, that was pioneering stuff. Today it is the standard for all good health retreats.
After intense planning and research, they had a reasonable idea of what they wanted their fat farm to offer. Now they just needed the location. A real estate buddy told Mel that an old Dude Ranch was for sale, but it was in a state of disarray. It turned out to be very run down and in need of love, but even then both Enid and Mel could feel the magic, the powerful energy this land held. You can still feel it here today.
Immersed in their vision, they never once stopped to think “We’ve never run a hotel, or a restaurant, and we’re about to do both!” True greenhorns, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. But passion, guts and belief got them through, and on 20 December 1979, Canyon Ranch opened with 88 staff and eight guests (of whom only one was a paying guest). And the rest is history. And yes, Karma Kientzler is an integral part of the Canyon Ranch team. Even today, in her 80s, she plays an important role.
I heard Mel tell this story to a room full of students who had enrolled in one of the speciality programs they offer at The Life Enhancement Centre, which is like a mini university at Canyon Ranch. In an intimate and professional environment, you can do various courses ranging from Weight Loss and Stress Management to Awakening Your Spiritual Beliefs and Reaching Your Personal Potential.
I sat in on the orientation session for the Weight Loss Program. The anxiety in the room was palpable. Most of these people were about to take their first step on an incredibly confronting journey. Mel shared his story with great clarity and honesty, causing plenty of goosebumps and tears, but above all, inspiration. By the time he had finished speaking, the anxiety in the room had been replaced by a wave of excitement and self-belief. If I had to leave Canyon Ranch right then, after less than 12 hours, I would have thought it was well worth the trip, just to have had the experience of hearing Mel Zuckerman’s story. Thankfully, I had three more days left…
Here’s what I want you to take away, says Mel: “Don’t do what I did for the first 50 years of my life. Do what I’ve done since.”
What I love about Canyon Ranch is the wonderful fusion of natural therapies and cutting-edge science, packaged around fantastic accommodation and mouth-watering, nutritious food. In the middle of the Arizona desert, in a place developed out of a passion to inspire guests to be active participants in their own health, magic truly happens. The ‘old you’ evaporates and the ‘new you’ is born!
Treatments you MUST try:
REJUVENATING WATERS (TÓ BEE HÁÁJIDÁÁH)
In native traditions, the sweat lodge is a place of cleansing and healing for tribal members. When the effects of the sweat lodge are combined with body work, it produces a profound response. Your journey (pronounced twa-ba-ha-ji-dah) begins in our hydrotherapy tub as you are massaged in warm water from head to toe. Then, in a steam-filled room, your already-warm, relaxed body is massaged again. This treatment is tailored to your needs and may incorporate massage techniques using the therapist’s hands and feet, deep stretching, and hot and cold towels. Swimsuit required.
ASHIATSU – DEEP BAREFOOT MASSAGE
From the Japanese words “ashi,” meaning foot, and “atsu,” meaning pressure, this is the ultimate deep-massage therapy. In this compression massage, the therapist uses overhead bars for balance while using the feet to bring about release and structural change in chronically sore, tight tissues. Ashiatsu provides deep relaxation and stimulates the circulatory system. This is the modern version of a classic Asian therapy for persistent back and neck pain.