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California's Newest Spa Boot Camp

Malibu, Unplugged, The Ranch at Live Oak Malibu, Spa, Pool

Photo: Ericka McConnell

Like so many gadget addicts in this age of digital gluttony, I am hooked on the narcotic of electronic content: Twitter, RSS feeds, Facebook, Tumblr, e-mail. On vacation, in the subway, while brushing my teeth, I seem to be logged on, constantly serenaded by a symphony of iPhone dings and clicks. My addiction, if you could call it that, drives my kids crazy. “You walk down the street like this,” says my son, squinting at an imaginary iPhone, mock horror on his face.

He got me to thinking how good it would be to leave the digital cacophony behind and go somewhere where I could actually complete a thought. In an age of hyper-connectedness, there’s something almost romantic about being alone and unpestered by IM’s. And there certainly would be no harm in losing the extra 10 pounds I’d put on by Twittering instead of working out. You don’t burn a lot of calories typing with your thumbs.

As it happened, a friend e-mailed a blurb about a new “boot camp” called the Ranch at Live Oak Malibu that promised to help guests get “off the grid.” So, on a late-fall morning, I flew out to California. The only preparation I had, apart from the occasional spinning class, was a phone call from the ranch’s owner, Alex Glasscock, who warned that it would be ugly the first few days if I didn’t wean myself off caffeine, diet soda, sugar, and alcohol immediately.

I was still floating in a reverie of denial when I arrived at a big white wooden gate high in the Santa Monica Mountains. Set on 120 acres with an organic garden, a saltwater swimming pool, and a “massage village,” the ranch looks more like a five-star hotel than its name suggests. Each guest has his or her own cottage decked out in beautifully weathered wood that Glasscock’s wife, Sue, reclaimed from a scaffolding company. Plush beds are swathed in Alta Pampa blankets and the limestone bathrooms come with Turkish towels. The place was made for design aficionados who would gladly deprive their bodies for the sake of some personal improvement—but wouldn’t like to compromise their aesthetic standards.

At the main ranch quarters, staff members were waiting to size me up. Marc Alabanza, the relentlessly upbeat program director with an indomitable spirit, cautioned me in the pre-interview he conducts with each guest upon arrival. “Toxic Tuesday might be rough,” he said after reviewing the questionnaire I’d filled out, in which I’d inventoried my consumption of artificial sweeteners, alcohol, caffeine, red meat, and processed food.

But how bad could it really be? I had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro (13 years ago) and endured the militaristic dawn-to-dusk Ashram program in Calabasas, California—10 years and 20 pounds ago. The Ranch’s “no options” program was similar: guests handed over their watches, powered down their cell phones, and relied on the staff to lead them through an intense schedule of four to five hours of hiking followed by yoga, fitness classes, and a massage.

After each of the 10 guests in my group—nine women and one man—had been weighed and measured, we all sat down to a dinner of acorn squash stuffed with quinoa and black beans. The ranch chef, Kurt Steeber, a veteran of San Francisco’s Zuni Café and the Ventana Inn & Spa, in Big Sur, is not a vegetarian, but he has an alchemist’s ability to infuse dull vegetarian staples such as green lentils and cauliflower with zesty flavors. He’s also remarkably inventive when it comes to finding replacements for such high-calorie no-no’s as cheese and cream sauces. At every meal, the food was delicious—what little of it there was.

Alabanza went around the table and asked each of us to describe our goals for the week. I wasn’t the only prisoner of the grid. Most of the group had paid the ranch’s high weekly rate of $5,600 just to step away from the daily grind. Carey, a blond mother of three from Darien, Connecticut, dressed head-to-toe in Lululemon, confessed she needed a break from the chaos of scheduling hockey practice and playdates. Daphne, an energetic entrepreneur from Santa Monica, had threatened to quit her job from exhaustion but instead struck a deal with her boss that allowed her to unplug for a week once every three months. Another fortysomething mother of two from Palo Alto, named Trina, was obviously not looking to lose weight—she was a marathon runner; she merely wanted to check in with herself.

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