This Centenarian Founded a Wellness Hub in America’s Only Blue Zone

Brooklyn-born and Tahiti-raised Deborah Szekely is often referred to as the “Godmother of the Spa”—and at 102, she is a living legend in wellness travel. It all started back in the 1940s, when she headed to Tecate, Mexico with her husband, and discovered a small, temporary hut nestled in the mountains of Baja California. The two transformed the site into what is now Rancho La Puerta, a renowned fitness and wellness resort on the southern border of San Diego, California.

Thanks to the influence of her mother, the Vice President of New York’s Vegetarian Society, and childhood in Tahiti, Szekely turned the site into a buzzy sanctuary with a focus on exercise classes, freshly-grown food, and nature. In 1958, she established the lavish, Japanese-inspired Golden Door Spa, which was a huge hit for female Hollywood stars who were seeking rejuvenation in the 1960s and ‘70s. From General Manager to Head Chef, she has held every imaginable role at the resort—eventually spearheading a Blue Zone-inspired hub: a 4,000 acre utopia of wellbeing, leading to a life of longevity, vitality, and happiness.

While the Ranch is now run by her daughter, Sarah Livia, Szekely returns often when she isn’t celebrating more than a century on the planet, traveling from her home in San Diego, the only Blue Zone (a region where the population lives longer than average) in the US, to attend the theater, opera, and hikes with her friends from Los Angeles to New York.

We spoke with Szekely about her career in wellness, how it’s shaped her idea of living well, and her secret sauce to longevity.

What’s your idea of wellness travel, and how have you seen it change in your lifetime?

Wellness travel is movement, it’s community, and it’s fresh food from the ground. It started with the awareness of the importance of food, then it was all great chefs, and increasingly exotic experiences for healthy living. Today, there’s all of these buzzwords like, regeneration, biodiversity, and eco-friendly.

Everyone’s calling “wellness travel,” “luxury travel” now. I call it survival. When it comes to wellness, there needs to be another word, there needs to be a call to a larger audience. It really depends on what you’re looking for. I think with social interactions, family, you can reap the benefits of a healthier life. When I was promoting The Golden Door in the ‘60s, which was more “upscale,” I avoided the word luxury, too.

Besides the Ranch, have you traveled to any other wellness retreats yourself?

I haven’t been to any in a long time. When I first began the Golden Door, I did look at other retreats, but couldn’t find anything that caught my eye. I went to Elizabeth Arden’s Maine Chance early on, and they focused on beauty treatments. I was drawn to more of a focus on exercise and fitness. We didn’t (and don’t) have a pool, but we have a mountain to climb— and a sacred one at that. So we became the first fitness destination that hosted international guests, and offered 30 different classes a day.

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