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San Diego Still Captivates Health Seekers

San Diego ads play up the region’s natural beauty.

Credit: Courtesy of San Diego Tourism Authority

Above: San Diego ads play up the region’s natural beauty.

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For thousands of years, the San Diego region’s near constant sunshine, lush valleys and stunning coast have drawn people searching for wellness. In the final installment of a three-part series, a spa owner and San Diego boosters explain why the area’s allure remains.

Aired: July 31, 2019 | Transcript

As the story goes, newlyweds Deborah and Edmond Szekely hurdled through a rugged, dirt road in an old Cadillac in 1940.

They were set on opening a health camp in Tecate, Mexico, a short drive from San Diego.

“When we got there, there was nothing,” Deborah Szekely said. “And I mean nothing. We’re talking about no electricity, no running water. We had outhouses.”

But Szekely, now a petite 97-year-old with styled-white hair and piercing but gentle eyes, said they had Mount Kuchumaa. They built their retreat business called Rancho La Puerta at the foot of Kuchumaa.

“In the morning everyone climbed the mountain,” Szekely said. “And they still do.”

The Kumeyaay Indians have long believed Kuchumaa is suffused with power. It’s a place where shamans held rituals. It’s also believed to impart renewal.

“It’s hard to explain,”Szekely said. “But on the morning hike, I've had so many guests tell me my father spoke to me. I mean, you know, that they're sort of open to getting suggestions from there, you know, and they have interesting experiences.”

From day one, there was an organic garden where guests worked. The retreat offered meditation and yoga classes. Her husband, Edmond, who was once head of the British International Health and Education Society, lectured on living within “the natural and cosmic laws and return to original life.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of Rancho La Puerta

Guests pose for a picture at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico, in the early days of its opening.

The ranch became enormously successful.

“We're the first fitness spa in the world,” Szekely said. “And we have had all kinds of awards as the best in the world.”

Hollywood came.

“The two main ones were Kim Novak and Burt Lancaster,” Szekely said. “We had all those young starlets.”

Years later, Szekely said several actresses asked her to open a spa that offered more privacy and was closer to Hollywood.

In 1958, she opened the Golden Door Spa in northern San Diego County, which she later sold. Today, she still lectures at Golden Door and Rancho La Puerta, a place that she says has retained a “special quality.”

“Everybody tells me when they drive onto the ranch they feel at peace,” she said.

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Some of San Diego’s 35 million annual visitors also report a perceptive change in how they feel when they arrive in the region.

“As they walk outside of the airport, they just say they feel a difference in the air,” said Kerri Verbeke Kapich, chief operating officer for the San Diego Tourism Authority. “They can feel the sunshine. They feel this fresh breeze. They actually say it makes them feel better and different immediately upon coming into the city.”

The authority’s communications director Candice Eley said after extensive focus group interviews with visitors, she believes they are experiencing San Diego’s “sun vibes.”

“They get this good vibration, this healthy feeling when they're here,” Eley said. “They feel like they're their best self when they're here.”

Szekely credited all the commonly known traits of the San Diego region — the beauty, the sea, the climate. But she said there is something else that she can’t quite name.

“I wish I knew,” she said. “It just is. The Indians who settled here had quite a high degree of culture and had the sense to pick it. It’s always been a place which people select.”

Logo for Cal Dream project The California Dream Project is a statewide collaboration focused on issues of economic opportunity, quality-of-life, and the future of the California Dream. Partner organizations include CALmatters, Capital Public Radio, KPBS, KPCC, and KQED.

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