By Cara Greenberg of casaCARA: Old Houses for Fun & Profit
Rancho La Puerta is different things to different people.
For some, the main draw of this Baja destination is the early-morning trail hiking, from the gentle (Woodlands, Quail) to the challenging (Professor, Pilgrim) and the brutal (seven miles up Mt. Kuchumaa). Others come to work out all day in classes you won’t find at your local Y (Cardio Drumming, Wave Running, Aerobics with Soul), and/or embrace the challenge of seeing how many spa treatments they can squeeze into a week. Not to mention bird walks, make-your-own-jewelry workshops, and a zillion other options, from crystal bowl sound healing to the ever-popular popcorn bingo.
But for everyone, without exception, Rancho La Puerta is about good eating. It can’t not be, after all that exercise – you’re ravenous, and they don’t let you go hungry. The portions are calorie-controlled, but seconds and thirds are cheerfully provided. This is not a weight-loss place, although the correct answer, I’m told, to that annoying question when you get home (“How much weight did you lose?”) is “Seven pounds.”
Ha. My jeans seem no looser than they did four days ago. But who cares? The food here is too good. From the lavish-but-healthy buffet breakfast by the villa pools to outdoor lunches around the fountain on the tiled terrace to sit-down four-course dinners in the magnificent high-ceilinged dining hall, it’s mostly vegetarian, elegantly presented, totally delicious, and authentically Baja — never heavy rice-and-beans, but nouvelle Mexican, masterminded by Cordon Bleu-trained chef Gonzalo Mendoza.
Sixty percent of the produce comes from Rancho’s own organic farm, Tres Estrellas. The 4-mile hike there and back is such a highlight they run it three times a week to accommodate demand. Upon arrival, there’s a legendary breakfast spread at La Cocina que Canta (The Kitchen that Sings), Rancho La Puerta’s cooking school and culinary center. There’s a professional kitchen for cooking classes and an expansive dining room with French doors overlooking the farm, where rows of luminous lettuces prove that vegetables, too, can be ornamental. Many of the flowers, including calendula, violas, and nasturtium, are grown as edibles and used to pretty up salads and desserts.
Yesterday I was at Tres Estrellas/La Cocina que Canta not once, but twice — in the morning, for the hike, breakfast, and head gardener Salvatore’s tour (now I know what really good soil looks like and how to pick a turnip), and again in the evening, when I returned by van with a group of about 20 people for a hands-on cooking lesson with guest chef Alisa Barry, now based in Atlanta and owner of a food-products company called Bella Cucina Artful Food, in her own Tuscan-by-way-of-California style.
After which, of course, we ate the scrumptious results — baked goat cheese three ways, cilantro corn cakes with roasted pepper sauce, shrimp grilled on rosemary skewers, and more — a meal made up of antipasti, essentially, which is exactly the way I like to eat.
I’ll diet when I get home.