Insider's Guide to Spas
An outdoor soaking tub at the spa at Rancho Valencia




Finding Wellness at Rancho Valencia

Mary Bemis

  • Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa
  • Rancho Sante Fe, California
  • 858-756-1123

“I felt like I had uncovered a secret, and I wanted to share it with everyone else.” So reveals Kristi Dickinson, spa and fitness director at Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa. She’s telling me the story of her own personal awakening into the spa lifestyle—but it’s also the story of the spa at Rancho Valencia.

Both Kristi and the resort come from the glories of fitness and performance athletics like world-class tennis—Rancho Valencia holds the title of #1 Tennis Resort in the US by Tennis Magazine—and likewise, Kristi dug into spa with the tenacity of an athlete to create a phenomenal new wellness program amidst the luxury of what has truly become one of the great American spas.

Welcome to the Wellness Collective

Launched this past January, the Wellness Collective, based on the cutting-edge science of epigenetics, is one of the most innovative programs I’ve experienced at a spa. “I want Rancho Valencia to be known as the lifestyle resort,” shares Kristi. “The word ‘collective’ implies community. That’s why we chose the word.”

Community describes the experience. Rancho Valencia has six hundred very active and very involved members. What is atypical is how those members interact with the resort’s guests. “I was noticing our guests were checking out and commenting on how the members made them feel so welcome,” Kristi says, “Usually, members make guests feel excluded.”

Indeed, during my stay, I had a lengthy and lovely conversation with two members, dark-haired beauties, sisters who frequent the spa and fitness center on a regular basis, as we sweated it out in the sauna.

“My members live in these sprawling estates and aren’t getting the interaction with their neighbors that they once did,” notes Kristi. “They come to the spa and they’re looking for that community.”

The ultimate goal of the Wellness Collective is to create a culture of wellness for program participants. To that end, the resort has partnered with Dr. Lee Rice, DO, FAAP, FAOSM, founder of the San Diego-based Lifewellness Institute.

An easygoing and affable man who walks the talk, Dr. Rice brings thirty-plus years experience as a family and sports medicine physician to the new program. The combination of the doc and all the resort has to offer has all the makings of a truly transformative experience.

“Dr. Lee’s values are well-aligned with ours,” says Kristi. “He’s super-positive and he’s doing boutique medicine. We wanted to have an option for people who may have serious issues like cancer, depression, heart disease—anything outside the scope of practice of our massage therapists and personal trainers.”

On offer are six yearly retreats, or “chapters,” as they are called, ranging in time from three, five or seven days. The Wellness Collective kicked off the year with a Movement & Fitness Retreat, followed by Attitude & Perspective, Nutrition & Toxicity, and Sleep & Respite. A nice touch: During the latter retreat, an interior designer was brought in to teach the “Design Your Sleep Sanctuary” class. Participants learned about the colors, the lighting, and the scents that are more conducive to sleep.

The remaining two retreats for the year are Relationships & Connection (September 17 to 23) and Stress & Balance (November 12 to 18). For those who cannot make the specified dates, the resort will work with you to customize the particular themed retreat to your schedule.

Kristi, the architect of this program, works personally with each guest and member to ensure they not only get the most out of their wellness journey, but that they realize their true potential. Included in the program are accommodations (the Relais & Chateaux property is an all-suite heaven), and an in-depth wellness consultation, three exquisite healthy spa meals a day, a daily 90-minute spa therapy that is customized to each guest’s specific needs, personal training and private fitness, unlimited yoga, Pilates, spin, barre, and TRX classes, expert lectures, and more.

To date, about 50 people have gone through the Wellness Collective. Connoisseurs of resorts and destination spas, the majority are baby boomers that, notes Kristi, “really notice how different our treatments are.” They’re especially relating to the guided meditation and practical homecare how-to’s like dry-brushing.

The Makings of a Great American Spa

Kristi was mentored by the brilliant Anne Bramham, founder of ASTECC (Advanced Spa Therapy Education Certification Council), creator of the Earth Matters skincare line, and a true believer in the benefits of a spa lifestyle.

The spa has a staff of sixty, plus forty independent contractors. To date, ten therapists are ASTECC-trained. The entire program is 256 hours, and Kristi is aiming for two classes a year for select therapists. Wisely, she uses ASTECC as a retention tool. “If you want to keep great therapists, you need to invest in them,” she states.

Soaking Tubs & the Power of Touch

One of those great therapists is a Brazilian woman named Juliana Bruni who I had the good luck to be paired with during my stay. I experienced one of the new Elemental Wellness Spa Therapies created by Anne Bramham that uses her fabulous Earth Matters body-care line, crafted with organic herbs and oils and seaweed and clays.

I had the Wellbeing Ritual, which begins with a questionnaire to determine my constitution (Ectomorph, Endomorph, or Mesomorph). Once it was established that I am Ecto, Juliana led me to the outdoor soaking tub in my treatment room, where I soaked in my special Ecto bath powder and stared up at the sky and lush surroundings for half an hour that sped by.

After an outdoor shower, I returned to the table in the treatment room to be cocooned in a wrap. While the minerals and oils were working their magic, Juliana did some guided meditation—and I promptly fell asleep. The 90-minute ritual ended with a powerful massage using oils for an Ecto.

The treatment had knocked me out in a good way—and revitalized me in an even better way.

During my stay, I also experienced the Wild Radiance Facial, an excellent facial using wild-crafted ISUN products that really did leave my skin glowing. The spa also uses Natura Bisse, a luxury line from Spain that created a custom citrus-infused line for Rancho Valencia. You’ll find these products in your suite, as well.

Gardens & Grounds

“Part of the beauty of the spa is having a great outdoor space that forces you to pause,” says Kristi. “You’re in nature, you’re looking at it, and it’s coming into you.”

Nature is in abundance here. The Mediterranean-inspired property is bursting with blooms and sunshine. There are 45 acres—trails, olive groves, and gardens—and the spa itself is situated on one-and-a-half of those lush acres. This spa means business and has a great flow to it.

With seven treatment rooms (each has a private patio, five with outdoor soaking tubs and rain showers), the spa seamlessly melds the outside with the inside. I was happy to note the Vichy shower room that actually gets used!

Outdoor amenities are excellent: sauna, steam room, cold plunge, whirlpools—and the spa offers guests a superb guided Hydrotherapy Wellness Circuit on “Plunge Monday.” There’s also a lap pool, private sun gardens, and an elegant, open-air Serenity Yoga Pavilion.

“The property encourages the pause, the balance, really just being present,” says Kristi. And with the addition of the Wellness Collective, guests can now bring that back home.

Make Sure Not to Miss

A mandala workshop with Nadia | Monday’s guided Hydrotherapy Wellness Circuit | The Kale and Salmon Salad at Veladora | One of the daily delicious fresh tonics and elixirs | A cocktail at the Pony Bar


















Mary Bemis

Mary Bemis

Mary Bemis is editorial director of She is an award-winning spa journalist, honored with Folio's Top Women in Media Award, and the distinguished ISPA Dedicated Contributor Award. In 1997, she launched American Spa magazine, and in 2007, Mary co-founded Organic Spa magazine. A pioneer in the sustainable spa and beauty worlds, Mary is co-curator of Cosmoprof North America's Discover Green Pavilion. She sits on the board of Wellness Warrior, is a Global Wellness Day Advisor and a co-founder of the Washington Spa Alliance.