Getting back to the land-and in shape-at Hart & Hind, a working ranch and fitness resort in Texas Hill Country. Just don't call it a spa.
Shelly Strazis

Though I've lived in Texas for 21 years and consider myself a native, it took me many years to comprehend the ranch concept. Here's the thing: Texans go to their ranches to do not much of anything beyond taking strolls, riding Jeeps, and throwing steaks on the grill. Their simple homes on the range aren't usually showy; purists wouldn't dream of installing a tiled pool or tennis court.

Neither would Hart & Hind, a working ranch in the Texas Hill Country that has found new life as a no-frills fitness resort. It does without Swiss showers, head-to-toe body rubs, aromatherapy facials, and other expensive indulgences. Unlike the programs at most spas, the one here is refreshingly simple- no endless list of fitness options, no guilt-inducing pressure. Just delicious low-fat meals, massages, a few toning classes, horseback riding, and long, aerobic hikes each day. What distinguishes Hart & Hind is the land itself. The area, 90 miles northwest of San Antonio, resembles Kentucky, with lakes, spring-fed streams, green hills, and white picket fences.

The ranch-as-spa idea was born after owner Kit Detering spent a week at the Ashram, a fitness retreat in Calabasas, California. "Vans ferried us to state parks and nature reserves to hike," remembers Detering. "I realized that my ranch, which has been in the family for four generations, was big enough to do everything without ever leaving the property."

Detering named her spread Hart & Hind (older English terms for buck and doe) and in 1999 launched a renovation. Her plan was to create an all-female retreat- and that worked for one season. "The women took a look around and knew their husbands would love the place," she says. "It's the stuff of boyhood John Wayne dreams- ten-gallon hats, cattle, wide-open spaces. But the men didn't want to be here without their drinks." So while there's no liquor on the menu, Detering now allows guests to stash bottles of wine in the cooler. Obviously, a flute of champagne isn't spa-like, but this isn't your typical spa. "I don't like the word spa," Detering says. "We don't fluff and buff, we don't weigh and measure, and there's no gym, pool, or treadmill. Not everyone is here to lose weight."

On the drive to the ranch, I expected the typical south-Texas vistas reminiscent of westerns: hard, dry land covered with sagebrush and cacti. Instead, Hart & Hind sits on an oasis of pecan groves and wildflower-scattered fields. Detering has left the natural terrain untouched, the roads unpaved. This simplicity extends right down to the front desk—there isn't one. Newsstand?Reception area?You must be kidding. Leave your wallet in your suitcase; there's nothing to buy.

Buttons, a black Labrador retriever, accompanied me to one of the two guesthouses, constructed of Hill Country limestone. My room was simple but comfortable, furnished in backwoodsy dude-ranch décor, with little more than a bed and a chest of drawers. Though four of Hart & Hind's rooms have private baths, I landed one with a bathroom across the hall. There was no TV or telephone, and I was disappointed to find that my cell phone didn't work. I wasn't sure if this ranch life was for me, until I wandered down the hall and spied a guest napping on an overstuffed sofa on the enormous sunporch. Outside I could see deer and a swarm of monarch butterflies in a field bathed in afternoon light.

That evening, I reported to the dining room and met my housemates, who ranged in age from 27 to 60 and included four women from Texas and a grandmother from Ohio (there were no men during my visit). In my makeup, sundress, and Manolo Blahnik sandals, I was definitely overdressed. Everyone else looked comfortably disheveled, having already turned in their city clothes for ranch-issued shorts and T's.

We had all come for a mix of relaxation and rejuvenation- except Betty. "I hope to hitch my belt one notch tighter before I leave," she announced. Donna, whose body-fat ratio must have been 12 percent, had visited Hart & Hind before: "I'm skipping everything but massage." The next morning, however, Donna disappeared 30 miles down the road to the towns of Uvalde, where she bought tortillas at a tortilla factory, and Utopia, to visit an antiques store. At dinner, we heard all about the shop's new shipment of French furniture.

The staff at Hart & Hind, I discovered, is tiny. Don't be surprised if Detering herself answers the phone and books your reservation, or if the fitness director, Angela King, meets you at the airport. Detering and her four staff members do everything except tuck you in at night. As King explained the schedule, I began to understand Hart & Hind's split personality. On the one hand, it's a fitness center. On the other, it's a gourmet retreat serving food that just happens to be low-fat.

The only pressure applied was during massages. We were given the freedom to organize the day as we saw fit. Anyone for kickboxing or yoga?Who wants to do the seven-mile hike, and who prefers a walk across the meadow?Would we like a picnic at a spring-fed pool?How about a beading class?Nobody was interested in fishing (the no-bait, toss-it-back variety) or rafting on the river, Frio (which also happens to be Spanish for damn cold). But the rest sounded fine, especially evening wine and appetizers at the Detering home.

There's the occasional campfire, but most meals are served in the old goat barn, decorated with cedar pillars, an antler chandelier, and a baronial fireplace. Chefs Paula Disbrowe and David Norman prepare healthful dishes in an open kitchen laid out like one in a cooking school (guests are welcome to observe or participate). From the first bite, I was impressed: a salad of greens from the garden, poached pear, and blue cheese, as perfect as a still life; shrimp tamales; orange flan for dessert. It was hard to believe we were consuming only 1,500 to 1,800 calories a day.

We did some horseback riding, but the usual order of the day was breakfast, stretching exercises, a hike, lunch, another hike. Fitter guests set out for longer walks, and although the pace was leisurely, we covered about seven miles. Each day we took a different trail that offered fresh views of the valley. Hill Country is beautiful in any season, but I visited in May, when the Indian paintbrush, purple mountain leatherflower, and wild violets were in bloom.

The nine-year-old Buttons, who was once arthritic and overweight, was ever present- a reminder that walking can make you fit. "She used to be too crippled to climb the stairs," Detering said."But when we brought her to the ranch, she started walking with the guests, and now she's in great shape." Some of the hikes left us breathless, but we were inspired by watching Buttons splash through streams and race up hills.

As someone who usually exercises like a maniac at spas, I had expected to be busy all day long. In no time, inertia set in. I took off my watch, applied the brakes, and sat there happily absorbed in my surroundings, my world reduced to walks, meals, and a trashy paperback. I skipped the kickboxing. I hung out in the hammock. Every evening, I joined the other guests at the hot tub to watch the sky turn crimson, coral, and orange. I rose with the sun and took lots of naps. Now I finally understand the meaning of Texas ranch life.

Hart & Hind, Rio Frio, Tex.; 866/868-1264 or 830/232-5025; . Packages range from three nights ($1,185 per person) to six ($2,400) and include two massages, activities, and all meals. Rates are based on double occupancy (if you're traveling solo but don't want to pay the single supplement, the ranch will assign a roommate). Hart & Hind is open from January through June and in September and October (it's closed in July and August; November and December are reserved for private and corporate groups).