Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Resort & Spa Review: Canyon Ranch at Tucson, A Unique Vacation Experience

While I was enjoying my stay at this world renown spa nestled in a valley beneath the Catalina Mountain Range, I had occasion to email my niece at one of the computers provided for guest use in the immense, multi-level Spa and Fitness Center to inform her of my stay at what I called a fat farm in Tucson.

Her reply, in the form of a gentle rebuke, reminded me that far from being a "fat farm" , Canyon Ranch was a "rejuvenating spa" & encouraged me to keep the proper frame of mind in order to derive the most benefit from my 10 day stay. She couldn't have described the place and it's mission statement better if she herself had been it's owner and founder, Mel Zuckerman.

The Zuckermans, founders and Canyon Ranch residents

There is something quite unique about the Ranch, which has nothing to do with it's spa menu, body treatments, hiking trails, state of the art medical center and countless other amenities. It has more to do with the hope, vitality and level of expectation that its guests bring year after year with them during their stay. It's a sort of health seeker's paradise where wishes of all kinds are granted hourly (or at least every 50 minutes, the average time for a talk, class or treatment) under a cold, clear sky in the high plains desert amidst the cactus flowers and coyote. (Of course, if you visit the ranch during the summer months, the adjective cold must be omitted.)

The Catalina Mountains in full display from every vantage point at Canyon Ranch

Despite the high cost of a visit there ($18,000 for 10 days, including meals, accommodations, spa treatments, medical lab tests & sundry purchases at its boutiques) Canyon Ranch at Tucson is not the most luxurious spa you will find. Its young staff is not the most polished; its rooms could do with a few structural renovations (the forced air heating in my large, well-appointed "executive suite" was so loud it kept me and the coyotes up half the night); its classes are not all taught by knowledgeable instructors (although Yamuna Zake, herself, was there during my stay teaching her remarkable Yamuna body rolling class); it's doctors are not Harvard grads (and are as likely to suggest a session with a shaman as they are a serum cholesterol test); nor are its meals the absolute freshest and most delectable in all of resortdom.

The "Serenity" pond

However, taken all in all, it was a very satisfying experience and one that I would willingly repeat; especially when you consider how quickly 10 days went by, even though I went alone, had never been there before and knew no one at the resort.

I am certainly not alone in my opinion of the Canyon Ranch experience. Most surprising to me was the international following that Canyon Ranch enjoys. There were people from England, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Venezuela, Australia and Canada. They all spoke perfect English but freely conversed in their native languages at dinner which lent the rather staid, rustic lodge dining room a certain cosmopolitan air.

Of course, Canyon Ranch is also swarming with Americans, a great many of them Southerners. I must say I've led a sheltered life, I've never met anyone from Kentucky before. Being a Yankee, myself, by way of Manhattan, I couldn't help laughing when I heard one elderly couple discussing with the thickest southern drawl since Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With The Wind" their rabbi's progressive predilections. Look, I know intellectually that there are people of the Jewish faith from the South but being a good New Yorker, I found their accents discussing Judaism more foreign to my ears than any of the languages spoken by our international visitors.
I, also, never saw so many blond "helmet" bobs in one room before. What is that strange relationship between Southern belles and VO5 hairspray? I think the FDA should do a study on the subject.

In the week and a half I spent at Canyon Ranch, I counted several fashion models (including former model Carol Alt), sports announcer Al Michaels, golfer & reality tv personality Natalie Gulbis among the resort's guests.

Yes, Canyon Ranch has a devoted following and many repeat guests who come year after year with multiple generations of family in tow. While I was there, there were four groups of families, numbering 8-11 women, all grandmothers, mothers, daughters, granddaughters, cousins, sisters, aunts together plotting and planning their fabulous activities and having a ball doing it. The perfect girl's getaway. There were plenty of couples, too. Most were in their 60's but younger couples were also present and accounted for; each sharing with the other their newly acquired bits of information from whatever activity they participated in.

You see, the Canyon Ranch experience is part fitness boot camp, part college campus with a weekly schedule published in booklet form provided to you replete with descriptions and times of fitness classes, lectures, demonstrations, cooking labs and a daily planner with a double sided pen (one side yellow highlight marker, one side felt tip pen) that allows you to highlight and schedule every minute of your stay. This indispensable book is tantamount to a bible and is something no Canyon Rancher is ever seen without (along with her Canyon ranch tote bag and refillable water bottle) to lose it is like losing your mind: you'll have no idea what your scheduled appointments and classes are & will have to head to the Program Advisor to have it all reprinted wasting precious moments of your day. Not since high school, have I had such a regimented day with every 50 minutes accounted for and worried whether I'd be late for 5th period trig because 4th period drama was on the other side of the quad. Believe it or not, it was more exhilaratingly fun than it was stressful. I felt like I was 15 again.

Allow me to share my schedule for January 17th with you, as an example of one of my less active days at the ranch:

6:45 am - 7:30 am RMR testing
( the gold standard test for taking your resting metabolic rate which tells you how many calories your body requires at rest to maintain your current weight; taken lying supine with a space age bubble around your head which measures your oxygen uptake & CO2 output, more on this later)

7:30 am - 8:00 am Back to the room to groom & dress
(the RMR test requires that you do nothing more strenuous than get out of bed & put on a robe before being tested & bellman picks you up in a golf cart to take you to the lab. No hair brushing, no face washing, no toothbrushing hence the need to run back to the room before anybody sees you in that scary state of deshabille)

8:10 am - 8:50 am Breakfast
(Canyon Ranch is an all-inclusive resort. Breakfast is served in the main dining room and the cafe. There is coffee, tea, juices and fruit offered at the spa and the clubhouse all day & night. The main dining room in the clubhouse offers an a la carte menu with several options, a cereal, fruit and yogurt bar as well as an egg station where omelets are cooked to order.)

9:00 am - 9:50 am DEXA Bone & Body Composition Scan
(Another state of the art test that scans your body & tells you your bone density, muscle weight & (gulp!) fat weight. By the by, my bones are 4 standard deviations above normal density. The doctor said he'd never seen anyone with such dense bones in all his professional experience & then asked me if I sink in the swimming pool. See, I knew I was big-boned!!! Now this test proves it.)

10:00 am - 10:50 am Session with Program Advisor
(Program advisors help explain & set up all your appointments and treatments)

11:00 am - 11:50 am Lymphatic Massage
( A very gentle massage meant to increase healing lymphatic flow through the body. Hated it! If you want something gentler than a deep tissue massage that is still healing try the cranial-sacral massage. It's very esoteric and mentally stimulating; though, not for those who like to get their bodies flat-ironed by a therapist.)

11:50 am - 12:20 pm Shower & change
(The spa facilities are good with many showers, zillions of robes and towels, a sauna, a cold plunge, a waiting area for treatments, a "resting" lounge for those who need respite from their exhausting spa schedules, two steam rooms and two whirlpools each with different heat levels to accommodate all tastes and the all important nude sunbathing area for those who abhor tan lines. Refreshments are provided in every possible area of the locker room. My only gripe is that the lockers themselves are ridiculously small; especially since most guests spent the majority of their stay in the spa area.)

12:30 pm - 1:30 pm Lunch
(You have three venues for lunch at Canyon Ranch ( four if you choose to get a takeout lunch for an afternoon hike, five if you want room service at $15 for an extra delivery charge): the Clubhouse Dining Room, Cafe Double U, or the Demo Kitchen where there is a "Lunch and Learn" session conducted with the resort's chef's providing step by step cooking demonstrations of your entire meal while you eat. All meals are included in your package, you can eat as much as you like, all menus change daily and include nutritional information about each dish where the prices are usually printed. Many snacks to go are also available from the hostess stand or Double U cafe. I saw many guests take large shopping bags full of snacks to their rooms right after dinner. Don't they know they should be dieting?)

1:30 pm - 1:55 pm Free Period
(WOW, 25 minutes with nothing scheduled whatever did I do with all that free time???)

2:00 pm - 2:50 pm Max for Weight Loss
(A private session with a nutritionist to discuss weight loss goals, test results and set up a sensible, realistic individualized weight plan based on my food preferences, body composition, activity level & RMR. Very useful & informative, despite my considerable knowledge of proper nutrition. Thank you, Hana Feeney, nutritional goddess!)

3:00 pm - 3:50 pm The Secrets of Cosmic Timing
( A group lecture and discussion of "synchronicity" with a Canyon Ranch astrologer. Completely silly! The most interesting part was listening to all these women, most of them seemingly yahoos from the south but actually very wealthy & allegedly accomplished. In the mix was also a German C.E.O. of I forget what company and an Australian retiree living in Marin, all discussing the factless and fatuous as seriously as molecular biologists discuss quarks.)

4:00 pm - 5:30 pm Gyrokinesis
( Juliuo Horvath's usually amazing floor exercises done on his specially designed stools involving massage, breath, spiraling, stretching & strengthening every muscle in the body. The favorite exercise and rehab of dancers everywhere, gyrokinesis and gyrotonic makes you feel light, beautiful and transcendent. Unfortunately, the woman who taught this class was never a dancer, had never been properly trained and didn't want to be there. She started by asking us if we really wanted a 90 minute class, looked disappointed when we said yes and proceeded to skip the entire "awakening" portion of the class, an integral part of the gyrokinesis experience. Really disappointing!)

5:30 pm - 6:30 pm Chest, shoulders & triceps with U.B.E. cardio interludes

6:30 pm - 7:25 pm Back to the room to call hubby, shower & change for dinner

7:30 pm - 8:45pm Dinner at the Clubhouse Dining Room
Dinner is a casual affair at Canyon Ranch. Reservations are de rigueur for the clubhouse dining room but dinner is also offered at the Double U cafe with special theme nights on certain evenings. Although, I brought several cute resort wear pieces for dinner, I wore none of them. In January the average evening temperature is about 38 degrees F; not exactly conducive to donning the sweet little wrap dresses and shifts I brought to wear. A parka and pair of Ugg boots would have been a much more practical choice. The truth is most nights I & my fellow ranchers had no time to hike it over to our rooms to change anyway; so crammed with activities were our schedules. Workout clothes were the garb of choice with my Lululemon outfits garnering much praise from staff and clientele alike.

Alcohol and soft drinks are strictly verboten at Canyon Ranch. No alcohol is served or available for purchase on site nor are guests allowed to consume it in public ( you are allowed to have it in the privacy of your room if you brought it) but a "mocktail" hour is offered between 6:30 & 8:00 pm offering such nectars as pomegranate mocktinis and virgin bloody mary's.

There is an a la carte menu with appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, desserts and specials that change daily; a pasta bar with a pasta special daily including perennial favorites like spaghetti and meatballs, both salmon & chicken offered as a protein with the pasta; and a salad bar with a variety of fresh salad greens, chopped vegetables, legumes, edamame, caramelized brussel sprouts, jicama, marinated tofu, nuts with several vinaigrettes and hummus as dressings.
Heaps of multigrain flatbread and sesame coated rice crackers were also present at 40 calories a serving (they posted caloric counts everywhere).

Portion control and lower fat substitutes is the Canyon Ranch key to controlling calorie counts which are provided alongside every menu option. Controlling portion size is how they can serve steak au poivre with mashed cauliflower and potato pancake, parmesan crusted Alaskan cod with macaroni and cheese with chocolate ice cream, vanilla creme brulee and chocolate chip cookies for dessert and not tip the calorie scale too far over. An average portion is about 3-4 oz. of cooked protein, half cup of starchy vegetables or grains and half cup of your "healthier" veggies. A guest can order as many items as they wish or double orders of an entree but I stuck to the suggested Canyon Ranch portions and never felt hungry afterward. The fish entrees here really shine with fish that was pristinely fresh, carefully prepared and always interestingly seasoned. I had fish twice a day because it was by far the best menu option offered.

The only objection that I had to the food was that the sauteed vegetables were often overcooked; surprising when you consider that the object of this menu is to introduce you to delicious healthier options. I guess the kitchen staff hate their veggies. I also was surprised to see the amount of obviously canned vegetables and unseasonable fruits and vegetables (tomatoes in January?) served at the salad and breakfast bars. Because Canyon Ranch is all-inclusive, they may skimp on these items to save food costs but the saavy know that fruits like fresh pineapple, blueberries, blackberries and strawberries are available in the kitchen though not listed on the menu (of course, none of the aforementioned berries are in season now but it's better than the bland, mushy cantaloupe & honeydew offered at the breakfast bar).

The service at Canyon Ranch can be incredibly amateurish. While there were a few exceptions that proved the rule, it's as if the management scoured Tuscon for every high school drop out or fresh off the boat immigrant to staff the dining and spa areas. They are incredibly young and inexperienced. (When I tell you that one hostess suggested to a party of 8 that there were no tables available but they were all free to do a "take out" meal consisting of cold chicken wraps to their rooms instead of a warm mutli-course dinner on a frigid night, you'll know I'm not kidding. Needless to say, the offer of takeout wraps for 8 was rejected and a manager promptly summoned to attend the matter after a few tense moments filled with terse comments from the less than enthusiastic guests brought the matter to a head.)
Some servers were recent arrivals from India and barely spoke English. When I pointed out to one of them that the salmon teriyaki he served me was not the seared scallops I ordered, he looked quizzically at me and said, "Fish, yes?". I was too weary to explain the difference between fish and mollusks so I said yes and ate the salmon anyway.

I found a startling dichotomy to be the case throughout the resort: services were either stellar or pathetic. There seemed to be no middle ground.
Some massage therapists were like long-time masseur veteran, Charlie Malone, whose muscle melting deep tissue massage was not only professional but also mind-blowingly wonderful. I left his table feeling relaxed yet reinvigorated. Others, like the young woman who was new to the ranch and performed an Ayurvedic Herbal Rejuvenation, were painfully horrific. Allow me to elaborate on this particular instance:
Aryuveda is a several thousand year old traditional medical practice from India that among other things prescribes specific dietary and activity needs according to your body type (known as doshas) and your psychological make-up (known as gunas) to provide balance and equilibrium both mentally and physically.
A detailed questionnaire is filled out to determine your body type which I dutifully completed before the treatment in order to determine what type of body oil and scrub would be most beneficial.
When I walked in, the practitioner claimed she already knew what my dosha (one of three: vata, pitta or kapha) must be. Upon tallying up the questionnaire results, we found that I had 10 characteristics in pitta (fire & water), 7 in kapha (earth & water) and 5 in vata(air & ether). My practitioner was astounded by the results since she was convinced that I must be vata (air & ether) because of the quick cadence of my speech; even though according to the Aryuvedic questionnaire, I had the most characteristics of the pitta (fire) dosha and I had the fewest vata (air) characteristics.
She wanted to disregard the test results that she herself tabulated and give me the vata treatment. Well, I was paying $250 for this Aryuvedic treatment and wanted the correct balance so I told her that thousands of years of research could not be disregarded and we would be procede with the pitta treatment that the test results clearly indicated were necessary not the vata, fast speech notwithstanding, but thanks for the effort.
She resented my decision and nearly took my skin off during the scrub portion of the herbal wrap. I was left with a noticeable scab on my left elbow and still was given an herbal tea for vata even though my dosha was clearly pitta. The woman was definitely a psychotic.

For every health care practitioner & master of physical therapy like the brilliant Rob Hughes of the Mckenzie MDT Exercise Prescription ( a fascinating rehabilitation method that teaches you how to heal yourself and monitor your recovery with a few carefully chosen self-correcting movements by an experienced certified McKenzie practitioner) with whom I shared four very informative sessions, there were people like the cute young woman from Kentucky who was also an exercise physiologist and spent most of our session discussing her previous injuries not mine then told me all about her recovery while wearing an icepack during our session for her most recent injury.
When we did finally get around to my injuries, she seemed genuinely puzzled by the fact that I could not perform squats to rehabilitate my swollen right knee with the medial meniscus tear. She also stressed the need for swimming as a way of doing cardio even though I told her that I was a non-swimmer who was terrified of the water. HELLO, wake up and smell the protein powder, honey !!!!! She was very nice but completely clueless.
She did however clue me in to the dry icepacks available at the medical building which were delivered to my room along with a fabulous icepack that holds real ice but keeps you dry while you ice, free of charge. YAAAY!!!

So.... Canyon Ranch..... hmmmm.

Accommodations are spacious, with my executive suite containing 2 flat panel tv's, dvd player (with the latest dvd's available in the library to borrow free of charge), stereo, a separate sitting area, desk, coffeemaker, makeup vanity, mini-refrigerator & four bottles of Calistoga spring water replaced daily, all at no extra charge.

Forgot your hiking boots? Spanx tights? Laura Mercier lipstick? Kerastase conditioner? Lululemon yoga pants? Fear not, the boutique, the ranch shop, the salon and the skin center have everything you'll ever need or want. Next time I go I'll bring an empty suitcase so I can shop for the perfect Canyon Ranch accoutrements and pay less sales tax than I would in San Francisco.

Desperate for a haircut because your usual stylist was unavailable before your trip? Don't worry, be happy: Torry is your man. He took these lackluster locks that had been recently mistreated by my long-time stylist and made them bounce with life. The colorist on the other hand took virgin locks (never been colored) and tinted three shades lighter. Leaving me shell-shocked. The tint was not charged to my account, although I never suggested not paying for it but I still say, steer clear of hair color at any resort!

The food is good with a nice variety of foods and venues to eat. You'll never go hungry at Canyon Ranch. Meal hours are a trifle limited. It would be nice to have one spot where all day dining was available, especially given the enormous number of activities and treatments that go on at these times.

There are lectures galore on all topics from the metaphysical to the science of weight loss with expert panelists who use Canyon Ranch as a stop on their latest book tour.

Workout facilities are stellar with a large variety of equipment, including underwater treadmills, and all the latest and trendiest classes offered in the fitness industry. They really have it all here. If I weren't injured I would have been in heaven taking classes like World Beat with its live drummers and exciting rhythms. You can even practice your golf game at their outdoor practice green and indoor computer monitored driving range.

Despite the shaman & clairvoyants that seem to share equal billing with traditional medicine at Canyon Ranch, the medical center is truly first rate. Some of the blood tests I took are trailblazing like the Biophysical 250, an expansive assessment which evaluates over 250 biomarkers, surveying the biomarkers in your blood that could indicate many conditions and diseases including:
  • Cardiovascular disease (such as the risk for heart attack & stroke)
  • Cancer (including breast, colon, liver, ovarian, prostate & pancreatic)
  • Metabolic disorders (such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome)
  • Auto immune disease (including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Viral and bacterial diseases ( such as mononucleosis and pneumonia)
  • Hormonal imbalance such as menopause, testosterone deficiency, thyroid deficiency)
  • Nutritional status ( such as vitamin deficiencies & protein deficencies
Then there's the Biophysical Ultralongevity blood panel, which is the most advanced test of the immune system available, offering more than 50 immune-specific biomarkers and a test of immune system responsiveness. The term ultralongevity was coined by Canyon Ranch Medical Director, Dr. Mark Liponis, and is used to describe the concept of "healthspan". Unlike the term lifespan, which refers to how long you live, healthspan refers to how long you live in a healthy state. Recent and ongoing research in the field of aging has uncovered a link between immune system activation, aging and the development of disease. This test can help identify:
  • chronic immune system hyperactivity
  • whether the immune system is directing an attack against the body
  • important nutritional indicators related to aging and the immune system
Add to those tests, the Nutrigenomics panel which with a simple blood test can identify specific food allergies and you have a fairly comprehensive assessment of the current and possible future state of your health. It's really preventive medicine at it's most cutting edge. Be aware, however, that few insurance carriers will pay for these exams since they are new to the industry, so you'll have to pony up the cash yourself; but, if you're really interested in being pro-active about your health and contributing to the burgeoning science of "ultralongevity" then this is for you.

Canyon Ranch is a great place and offers a remarkable array of cutting edge activities, classes, treatments etc. that you will not find in your typical resort or health club. But buyer beware, you must be someone who is either very experienced with health care, fitness and nutrition or completely clueless to derive the most satisfaction from your stay.

Would I return to Canyon Ranch? Absolutely. However, that being said, I would book everything well in advance of my visit and be very careful as to what treatments I've booked and with who would be performing each treatment. As a rule, I found that the staff members who have worked at Canyon ranch the longest were truly the cream of the crop (except in the salon where I had a fabulous young woman from Texas who just started working there this summer give me a perfect manicure and a horrible old harrigan who has been there for years gave me a terrible manicure a week laterduring which she continuously hawked nail products while she hacked at my nails). The newbies (anyone who as worked there less than 5 years) were mostly inept and should be steered clear of. If you do your homework beforehand, you will be handsomely rewarded.

I miss it already.

Canyon Ranch has several cookbooks for purchase. There are also many newer recipes (which were served to the guests during my stay) on the Canyon Ranch website not offered in its cookbooks that could be useful for those that are seeking a way of trimming a few calories but retaining all the flavor from their meals. There is an amazing variety of culinary flavors offered; everything from middle eastern to Asian to Mediterranean and regional USA. I offer a link below, so that you can enjoy it directly from the source. Try them; you might be pleasantly surprised and save yourself a few pounds, too.

Canyon Ranch Recipes

For those who can't believe that the Canyon Ranch meals can be satisfying, I'll post a sample of one of the winter-friendly fish recipes I enjoyed:

Almond and Hazelnut Halibut with Orange Salad

Cracked Pepper Seasoning Blend III

Note: Dukkah is an Egyptian spice blend traditionally made up of toasted nuts and seeds. The leftover dukkah can be sprinkled over meats and vegetables, or used as a dip combined with olive oil. Any remaining dukkah should be kept refrigerated.
This recipe makes 4 servings for the calorie conscious, each containing approximately:
360 calories, 35 gm. of carbs, 12 gms. of fat, 35 mg. of cholesterol, 28 gm. of protein, 416 mg. of sodium, 4 gm. of fiber

For the Dukkah:
2 Tbs. whole almonds
2 Tbs. whole hazelnuts
3/4 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
3/4 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
2 teaspoons sesame seeds
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

4- 4 ounce halibut fillets
2 teaspoons of canola oil

For the Orange Salad
1 cup orange sections
1/4 cup diced red onions
1/4 cup diced red peppers
2 Tbs. chopped kalamata olives
1 Tbs. grated lemon rind
1 Tbs. fresh chopped parsley
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 Tbs. honey
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon orange oil
fresh ground black pepper to taste

1-1/3 cups Couscous Pilaf with Hazelnut Oil (see recipe on Canyon Ranch website)

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread nuts & seeds on a baking sheet and toast until golden, about 5 min. Cool.
  2. Combine nuts, spices and salt in a spice grinder or coffee grinder and grind to fine crumbs.
  3. Press 2 teaspoons of dukkah mixture firmly onto each halibut fillet. Lightly coat a 10" saute pan with 2 teaspoons of canola oil and saute fish over medium heat until cooked through about 3-5 minutes per side depending on the thickness of the fillet.
  4. Combine all ingredients for the orange salad in a medium bowl & mix well.
  5. Serve each fish fillet with 1/3 cup Orange Salad and 1/3 cup Couscous Pilaf
Bon Appetit!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

They really allow sunbathing at Canyon Ranch, and especially nude sunbathing? I thought it was supposed to be a healthy environment teaching healthy lifestyles. Sunbathing whether nude or not certainly isn't healthy. Your article gave a good glimpse into what a day at the Canyon would be like. I cannot imagine paying that much for 10 days, especially when there were so many negatives (mushy veggies, loud heating system, cranky dance teacher, etc)