When I arrived at the spanking-new Canyon Ranch in the Berkshire Mountains, I was coming down from an intense eating binge as Vogue's monthly food correspondent. No sooner had I polished off a metric ton of mail-order Christmas treats than I was on a plane to Paris, where I had squeezed twenty-two restaurants into sixteen days. Then I was off to Texas, roaming between Dallas and Fort Worth in an extremely rewarding search for world-class barbecue joints. My weight had climbed into a new zone, and I was getting nervous about it. Five days later, Canyon Ranch had changed my life.
— From now on, I will always use conditioner after shampooing. The shower room had pump bottles of conditioner, which left my hair so much softer and easier to manage. Where have I been all these years?
— I will become a serious weight lifter. See below.
— I will strive to become merely chubby again. That was twenty pounds ago.
— Until then, I will wear sweatpants as often as possible. They bind and chafe less than regular trousers and slip on so much more easily.
— I will become a spa junkie, if I can afford the habit.
Canyon Ranch's publicity material scientifically estimates that more than half of America's population has heard of the original Canyon Ranch in Tucson. I was vaguely aware that it was the first major coed fitness resort, not just another plush pamper palace exclusively for women. And that it was a magnet for socialites, movie stars, and CEOs, a lush oasis where you eat one thousand exquisite gourmet calories a day yet never go hungry. I also knew they were building a Canyon Ranch clone in Lenox, Massachusetts, near Tanglewood and Jacob's Pillow and, for those like me who are old enough to care, Alice's Restaurant. It opened on October 1.
Even if you've been a guest before (three out of four have), the first thing you get is a guided tour with lots of numbers: forty million dollars to build on 120 wooded acres, an inn for two hundred guests with 120 rooms and suites (each with a VCR), a spa with 100,000 gleaming square feet for fitness and health, an 1897 mansion called Bellefontaine for dining and wellness, thirty-two fitness classes daily, sixty massage therapists, three hundred staff members in all. Newcomers may find themselves winded before the end of the guided tour.
Next you fill out some medical forms. The final page strikes you as particularly bellicose and hypocritical. "Do you find yourself obsessing about food?" it asks. "Not at all," you reply, "but I think about almost nothing else." So, you soon realize, does everybody at Canyon Ranch, including the three hundred in staff.
Then you meet with a program adviser who guides you through a bewildering range of possibilities: aquatic fitness, aromatherapy, arthritis consultation, badminton, basketball, behavioral therapy, biking, bingo, biofeedback, body composition, body contouring, breathing, cholesterol evaluation, clay treatment, cranial massage, cross-country skiing, European facial, food habit management, funk aerobics, handwriting analysis, high- and low-impact aerobics, hiking, hydrotherapy, hypnotherapy, inhalation, intensive treatment facial, Jacuzzi, Jin Shin Jyutsu, Lifecycles, Lunch & Learn, makeup, meditation, minitrampoline, nutrition counseling, posture and movement, racquetball, reflexology, rhythms, rowing, running (indoor and out), salt treatment, sauna, shiatsu, snowshoeing, squash, steam room, stop smoking, stretching, Swedish massage, swimming, tennis, treadmills, volleyball, weight lifting, wellness counseling, whirlpool baths, yoga.
I was growing acutely anxious about exercising in public. I flashed back to those agonizing afternoons in summer camp on the dusty baseball diamond—where three of us were always dispatched to far right field and spent two hours in the blinding sun praying that the ball would never come our way. My wife could hardly wait. A dancer and star high-school sprinter in California when she was young, she doesn't get much practice in either of them around me. She immediately signed up for a facial, three types of massage (cranial, sports, and shiatsu), body composition analysis, aromatherapy, and a herbal wrap, and filled in the rest of her schedule with classes in rhythm aerobics, flexibility, and strength training. Then she sprinted across the hall to the Canyon Ranch Showcase shop, unavoidable as you enter the spa building, where they sell athletic clothing, shoes, books, and tapes. She had not gone shopping for thirty-six hours and was beginning to show the strain.
As I had signed up for nothing but a late-afternoon tennis lesson (with an excellent pro), I rented a tape of Tequila Sunrise with Michelle Pfeiffer, Kurt Russell, and Mel Gibson, and returned to our comfortable room after lunch. Except during meals, there is no coercion at Canyon Ranch, nobody following you around to make sure you are doing what you should. Tequila Sunrise, it turns out, is a much underrated film.
On our second day, my wife's schedule was so crammed with exercise and pampering that we saw each other only at meals. By dinnertime, her skin was pink and smooth as a baby's. The skin-care person urged her to wear plastic bags filled with lotion on her hands all night. The skin-care person is divorced.
I spent my time wandering around, watching but not engaging, until I dropped into Gym 4, where they keep the aerobic and strength-training machines, beautiful glittering things in chrome and brass made by a company called Keiser. The fitness staff were unaccountably squandering their afternoon break lifting weights and futilely trying to climb the StairMaster; when they were done, I asked for a demonstration. Before you knew it, I had completed the full circuit, at modest levels of resistance, of course, and had mounted the treadmill for a snappy walk as I gazed through a huge picture window at the New England countryside. The Appalachian Trail passes just beyond the property.
When I had worked up quite a lather, I signed up for a locker (most guests do this on their first day), tried the men's sauna, steam, and inhalation rooms, took a cool shower (individual curtained stalls), and, against my better judgment, felt almost terrific.
The herbal room was dim and warm. Calming New Age music seeped in through hidden loudspeakers. I lay on a table tightly swaddled in heavy, hot, wet canvas blankets impregnated with five herbs. The herbal therapist could not remember which five herbs they were—I would have preferred a little more tarragon—but promised they would detox me, get all the poisons out of my bloodstream. Like what? Oh, nicotine, coffee, chocolate, like that. With my sanguinary poisons oozing out all over the canvas blankets, I was surprised that she was not wearing a protective suit and helmet. I have always considered people who believe that chocolate is a poison to be twisted beyond redemption.
Then she left me alone. My arms were pinned to my sides by the herbal wrappers, and for five minutes I considered going into a serious panic. At last I settled into a pleasant reverie. I was in Paris again, tucking into a plate of Joël Robuchon's ravioli of langoustines and his roasted rabbit under a fricassee of wild mushrooms. Presently the scene shifted to La Cagouille, where tiny mussels are grilled without oil on a bare open skillet. When the herbal therapist returned to unwrap me, I was sipping a dark morning coffee at the Café Flores, biting into a crusty baguette.
Any of these delights would fit into the Canyon Ranch low-fat, low-calorie regime, yet none of them does. I knew I was in trouble at our very first lunch, the emptiest 285 calories I've ever frittered away. It was a "pizza" with a thin brown leatherette crust covered by a cheese mistranslated as mozzarella and some vegetables that don't even belong in the same room with a pizza. Coffee was a pallid version of brewed decaf. At dinner I would learn how to order a packet of instant Maxwell House to dissolve in my decaf, and the next day I would meet a waiter willing to smuggle out a cup of real coffee from the staff's real coffeepot.
Why all this fuss about caffeine? On my last day at Canyon Ranch, I read a delightful story in the newspaper. Researchers at Stanford have discovered that decaffeinated coffee increases your bad cholesterol (LDLs) by an average of 7 percent! Real coffee has no such effect. The decaf crowd has got so powerful of late that you can no longer find a cup of real coffee at the end of a dinner party. Although these people have deprived me of pleasure for all these years, I now feel a profound sense of compassion toward them and am thankful to Whoever has guided me upon the low-cholesterol, caffeinated path.
I was never hungry at Canyon Ranch but never satisfied. Executive Chef Barry Correia has a strong background in modern American cooking, but he faces four insurmountable problems: the Canyon Ranch Nutrition Philosophy, the official recipes he is required to produce, the ingredients he uses, and the organization of the kitchen. The directors of Canyon Ranch should either start over from scratch or erase the words "exquisite gourmet fare" from all brochures, pamphlets, and advertising.
The Canyon Ranch Nutrition Philosophy is strict, though not as draconian as Pritikin: 60 percent carbohydrates, mainly complex, 20 percent fat, 20 percent protein, 1,000 to 1,200 calories a day, high fiber, no caffeine, oils high in polyunsaturates, two grams of sodium, almost no refined flour. Some of these rules are arbitrary, some outmoded. There is no medical reason whatsoever for healthy eaters to limit themselves to two grams of sodium a day. The tasteless gazpacho came alive after I had a dish of salt brought to the table and added two tiny pinches. Though delicious crusty, yeasty bread is the most wonderful complex carbohydrate in the world, all the breads at Canyon Ranch range from boring to gruesome. All are store-bought but one, and this is made with baking soda instead of yeast. Great breads are not made with whole wheat flour and baking soda. Getting my knife into the whole wheat dessert crepes demanded more fitness training than I had undergone. The Canyon Ranch rule against refined flour (oddly they are happy to buy dried pasta made with refined flour) may raise your fiber intake a gram or two but popcorn does the job twice as fast.
After straightening out their Nutrition Philosophy, the owners should get rid of half the Canyon Ranch recipes and many of the ingredients they buy. The vanilla extract is half artificial. The melons are unripe, the apples waxed, the bananas green. For at least two years now, polyunsaturated oils like soybean and safflower have been considered dangerous compared with monounsaturated oils like olive and canola. I have been told that Canyon Ranch in Tucson switched to canola last July; I saw no canola oil in my tour of the kitchens.
The ubiquitous rubbery skinless chicken breasts should be replaced with juicy low-fat free-range veal from Summerfield Farm in Virginia; the olive oil I saw in the kitchen was not extra virgin or even slightly virgin; the pasta was precooked and cooled, waiting to be reheated in boiling water; the vegetables were presteamed and reheated in the microwave; the "Maine lobster tails" were tough and dry and came frozen from New Zealand.
Why not steamed mussels, and tuna tartare, and cold briny oysters opened on demand, and sashimi sliced at the very last minute, and concentrated, degreased veal or chicken stock for richness and flavor, and naturally low-fat game, and wild mushrooms, and hearty bean stews (a profoundly complex carbohydrate), and vegetables grilled with a little olive oil? What's needed are the freshest ingredients, recipes that go beyond the health-food theology of the sixties, and lots of skilled labor at the last minute. The Canyon Ranch kitchen is run with seven workers in the morning and five at night to feed a hundred guests three times a day. One restaurant kitchen I visited in Paris had a staff of thirteen for forty guests.
I gained at least one piece of nutritional information at Canyon Ranch that was worth taking home, and it may well change my life: Your metabolic rate is directly related to the amount of lean muscle mass in your body. Doesn't this mean, I asked young Dr. Robert Heffron, that if I follow a program of weight lifting, I will be able to eat more? Heffron is one of the ranch's great human assets—up-to-date in both traditional and alternative medicine, open-minded and undoctrinaire, skeptical toward the Food Police and their current edict. He found my theory unusual, but he grudgingly agreed. Aerobics may be good for your heart, but weight lifters use up more calories all day long, even in their sleep.
I hurried over to Gym 4 for a consultation with a weight lifter named Richard, who burns 2,600 calories before he gets out of bed in the morning. My goal is not to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, I explained, much to Richard's relief. He taught me a series of home exercises with dumbbells and barbells and a padded bench. Now all I have to do is go out and buy a set of sixteen weights ranging from two to thirty pounds each. I am confident they will change my life once I have figured out how to carry them home.
Pumping up, purifying, and pampering, strengthening and slimming (I lost four pounds), and just plain thinking about your body for sixteen hours a day are inebriating experiences, and Canyon Ranch is a terrific place to do them all. The Berkshires are a land of calm and beauty, and after five more days there, I might even have believed that Yogurt Carob Parfait, the most comical dessert at Canyon Ranch, was really a hot-fudge sundae.