Illustration: Jaci Kessler Lubliner
Bizarre Rich-People Secrets I Learned Undercover at Canyon Ranch Spa
Yes, guests lie about being allergic to gluten. No, you can’t take 10 years off your face just by resting. That’s Botox.
Overweight and underslept, real estate executive Mel Zuckerman ignored the stern warnings from his physician: The yo-yo dieting and long hours at the office had to stop—his life depended on it. Then, suddenly, his father died, and he began to listen. It was the late 1970s, and fat camps were all the rage. But after one too many military workouts and bland, calorie-conscious meals, Zuckerman set out to develop a more satisfying and sustainable recipe for healthy living: Canyon Ranch.
Since its founding in 1979, the tony retreat has espoused a whole-person approach to care. The veritable pioneer of what’s become a multitrillion-dollar wellness industry, the Tucson resort has never focused on isolated symptoms but instead uses integrative medicine. And it remains on the cutting edge, counting the likes of Diana Ross, Tim Cook, and Eva Longoria as devotees of its Ayurvedic third-eye awakenings, crystal sound healing, and lucid dreaming “soul journeys.”
Zuckerman still swooshes on ellipticals alongside them, and his age is a mystery that guests love trying to crack—88? 95? 137? But these days he’s there for less work and more play. In 2017, Zuckerman sold his entire share of the company for an undisclosed sum to Texas billionaire John Goff, who’s continued Zuckerman’s project of turning Canyon Ranch into a global brand with satellite locations, cruise and airline partnerships, and a rapidly expanding real estate portfolio. In November a Silicon Valley-adjacent retreat opened to woo moneyed millennials; this winter, for its 40th birthday, the Arizona flagship is unveiling its own $30 million tip-to-toe refresh.
Aging well, it seems, is easy for Canyon Ranch and its founding father (who’s 91, by the way). So when the legendary spa offered me a chance to go undercover as a staff member for a week, I jumped at the opportunity to see how the (fat-free) sausage was made. And it wasn’t all downward dogging and green juicing, either. From cataloging sex toys to slicing single dumplings into half portions, here’s everything I learned at America’s original wellness retreat.
Special requests are a special nightmare
You’d think most people come to the ranch to reset their bad habits, but it’s often the ranch that needs to budge for picky clients. “I think seven is the current record for the number of times a guest has changed rooms during a three-night stay,” says front-office manager Samantha Zaepfel, who fields requests such as adding blackout curtains and duct-taping peepholes. She’s also been asked to unscrew half the lightbulbs in a suite, to remove all pens and paper, and to arrange a two-car airport transfer for a single customer—one for him and one for his luggage.
The list goes on. As the ranch has started drawing tech bros in addition to its usual crop of high-strung Fortune 500 execs and sixtysomething ladies who lunch, Zaepfel and her colleagues have gotten an equally diverse array of odd requests. They’ve flipped a bed so it didn’t face north for a feng shui fanatic, removed all the tables and chairs for someone who “hated the look of flat surfaces,” replaced the furnishings in a suite with a guest’s shipped-in selections, and hung an extremely expensive (and extremely giant) portrait over a bed—it was one client’s apology to his wife for bailing last-minute on their anniversary trip. For visitors who desperately want to be left alone, the staff has disconnected doorbells, enabled sensors disguised as rocks outside doors to let guests know when people are approaching, and even installed food warmers for frequent in-room dining.
Some requests end up as permanent installations. The La-Z-Boy recliners and big-screen TV near the hot tub in the men’s locker room, for instance, are there thanks to one regular who was adamant about having a place to watch sports. One casita has a special toilet installed higher off the ground than a standard latrine for a repeat visitor with very precise potty needs. All of these tweaks are made at no extra cost. Hard-core loyalists can even stow items in their own complimentary on-site locker—their personal tennis ball-feeding machine, for example.
Yes, there are gluten-free fakers
Every day the dining staff gets a personal-needs report outlining who has special dietary considerations—all of which are taken very seriously. “Ten years ago the list was one sheet; today it ranges between 20 and 30 pages,” says Mena Garaawey, the assistant restaurant manager. But how many of these diners are conflating preference and allergy? “Around 40% of people who claim to be gluten-free will go for some bread or dessert,” she explains. “The same amount of dairy-free diners will quietly splurge on ice cream.”
Allergic or not, picky eaters are best accommodated at the Canyon Ranch Grill. It’s like Goldilocks’s dream restaurant—you can tweak any dish to your heart’s delight. Want four scallops instead of three? Easy. Take the coconut out of the coconut rice? Sure. Slurp the chicken broth but skip the noodles? No prob. I even watched a colleague serve half of a single wonton, its stuffing barely contained by the remaining sliver of dough.
There are exceptions. I ended up on the receiving end of a tantrum when we couldn’t replace a dish’s shiitake mushrooms with maitakes. (Nine other fungi were offered and rebuffed.) And alcohol is always a no-no. The resort maintains a sort of “brown bag” policy; booze can be purchased off-site and consumed in the privacy of one’s casita. Garaawey says the nearest Circle K convenience store is probably the franchise’s most profitable location.
Oftentimes requests extend well beyond the dietary. “We have one regular that—no matter what he orders—wants his [already hot] entree zapped in the microwave for exactly eight and a half minutes,” Garaawey notes. Another demands a welcome offering of three raspberries and one small apple. (How small? Only one server has ever guessed right.) A certain startup whiz refuses to be served by a blonde, claiming they lack the mental faculties to get his order right; ironically, his brunette of choice is actually a towhead with an auburn dye job. During my shift I had one high-achieving soccer mom refuse to sit at all—“Sitting’s the new smoking!”—while a man demanded a table equidistant from the kitchen and salad bar. He was “allergic to the smell of raw onions.”
You can massage your spirit in a hot tub
Canyon Ranch’s spa services list reads like a Cheesecake Factory menu, with dozens of globe-spanning treatments targeting muscles you didn’t know existed. My favorite was the “Rejuvenating Waters,” which starts with an American Indian-inspired spirit worship in the sauna and culminates with an underwater massage in a hot tub. There are so many options (seaweed leaf cocoon, ahhhh) that creating a week’s itinerary can take two months of back-and-forth before arrival.
About 70% of guests are focused on nutrition and fitness (read: weight loss); 15% are dealing with significant life changes (divorce, death); and the remaining 15% are simply seeking some R&R. They range in age from 30 to 85, with a gender split that’s 70% female and 30% male—though Shayne Hornfeck, an operations manager, says that’s been shifting as men realize that “spas aren’t just places where ladies get their nails done.”
A trip here adds up. The weekly rate (from $7,800) includes activities such as spinning and hiking but not spa services, on which the average guest spends an extra $1,500. The biggest single-day spree on record is $45,000; each week a few big spenders notch $10,000 in facials and rub-downs. During my tenure, one guest who’d been there a couple of months had rung up more than $300,000, largely on astrology readings and other metaphysical sessions.
At times, the guests are too comfortable
“Around 40% of people like to talk throughout their massage,” says Ed Finnegan, one of the resort’s senior masseurs. Beyond that, 1 in 15 people audibly moan when the tension in their muscles is released. “Once I had a woman on the table who began to talk loudly in her sleep,” recalls aesthetician Hannah Turner. “We had a whole conversation about her favorite tacos that she didn’t remember later.”
And sometimes people just can’t help how their body reacts. “An elderly woman once got a cramp during her service, popped up buck naked, and began skipping in circles around the table for relief,” Turner says. Another time she found a client dangling nude from the ceiling after her session, experimenting with the Ashiatsu bars.
If there’s one phenomenon that’s extremely common, it’s farting. “Blatant tromboning happens at least once a day,” Turner says. “Guests eat high-fiber diets, and we’re moving air around their body. It’s sort of inevitable,” Finnegan adds.
Jenny Flora, Canyon Ranch’s personal dietary needs specialist, says this embarrassment often causes undue stress. “We get complaints that we’re adding something to the food to make them gassy, when really it’s just the body getting used to a balanced, vegetable-forward diet,” she says.
Some confuse sensuality with sexuality …
Fetishes do come into play at Canyon Ranch. A guest once brought a giant feather and demanded to be dusted with it. Another needed 10 minutes devoted to her left second toe.
But generally, cases of “Can you go a little lower?” are extremely rare at the resort, a place where people go for therapeutic benefits—not a happy ending. In Finnegan’s almost 30 years, he can remember only four isolated instances of questionable behavior: three women who adamantly didn’t want to be covered by their modesty blanket and one man who obsessed over a specific area between his buttocks during a salt scrub. “My guess is that people are more likely to confuse sensuality and sexuality at beach resorts or strip malls,” Finnegan says.
“Pheromones are happening in the gym, too, as people work on their fitness,” says Mike Siemens, corporate director of exercise physiology, who once had a female client complain “that sex was the only way for her to relieve the tension in her pelvic floor.” He declined the advance, putting the kibosh on any How Stella Got Her Groove Back fantasy. Equally memorable was the woman of a certain age who decided she was on a break from her marriage while visiting the ranch alone. When her husband rang the resort unable to get hold of his wife, she waltzed through reception drunk, with a young trainer on her arm. That was the end of the marriage—and the staffer’s tenure.
Very occasionally, the ranch will bar guests from the property for this kind of misconduct. This includes the high-profile ousting of British billionaire Sir Philip Green after a Pilates instructor claimed he spanked her (he disputes the claim) and the dismissal of a middle-aged woman who completely trashed her room, smashing wine bottles everywhere, after a male trainer rejected her advances.
… which is OK, if you’re in a sex toy showroom
One of the most popular doctors on the property is Nicola Finley, a women’s sexual health expert best known for her regular lecture, “Not Tonight Honey, I Have a Headache.” Most of her work at the ranch helps middle-aged, heterosexual, monogamous women address low libido or a disparity of desire with their partner. When their needs are being unmet, she says, it usually has to do with a lack of foreplay—not size or technique.
Ten percent of Finley’s patients are on the hunt for the Big O they’ve never achieved; the rest “often experience heightened pleasure on their own, but not with their partner.” She frequently reminds them that—despite common perception—there’s no such thing as a G spot. “Evidence-based medicine shows there’s simply not one anatomical area on every woman that, when stimulated, gives arousal,” she says.
To help guests find what works for them, there’s the Intimate Product Room, a sex toy patisserie selling more than $50,000 in literature, lubricant, dildos, and vibrators each year. The most popular purchase? The $200 We-Vibe Sync, which comes with a remote control and FaceTime capability for long-distance relationships—so clients can actually push each other’s buttons.
Guests ate a ton of kale last year
Well, more precisely, 3 tons. “Diet’s a four-letter word at Canyon Ranch,” says executive chef Russell Michel, who joined the resort in 2019 after catering a vegan bat mitzvah for Zuckerman’s granddaughter. Michel doesn’t adhere to buzzwords such as “keto,” “gluten-free,” or “paleo.” He simply reproportions ratios of meat, vegetables, and carbs.
The results are palpable: In my one week, I dropped 7 pounds of holiday chub I didn’t even know I was hiding.
In 2019, while the resort was at 70% of its normal capacity because of renovations, guests devoured 6,000 pounds of kale, 7,000 pounds of salmon, 10,000 pounds of apples, and—vampires, beware—more than 4,000 pounds of garlic. Scarcity and skyrocketing prices caused a decline in avocado consumption (guests still ate about 50,000 of them last year), while celery was ascendant, a direct result of rampant juicing.
It’s possible to eat too much produce at the ranch—even without exceeding the recommended 600 calories at dinner. One guest ate 2 pounds of carrots a day, turning the palms of her hands orange. Another insisted on consuming 4 pounds of cut-up cauliflower daily, which apparently causes an odd set of digestion issues. About cauliflower: It’s the most consumed veg on campus; the chefs prepared 13,000 pounds of it last year.
Way more people are doing Botox than you think
Even at a place such as Canyon Ranch, the full detox has recently gone a little more, um, tox. That’s thanks to Amy Henderson, who introduced injectables when she arrived as director of the resort’s medical aesthetics division.
Oddly enough, the elderly guests who signed up first were the same ones throwing shade about whether Botox belonged on the ranch at all. “I think everyone was worried that I was going to be some scary Botox lady, looking all exaggerated and fake,” Henderson explains. But as it turns out, high-level execs searching for a physical and mental recharge want to look the part, too. Now, on average, she touches up a dozen faces a day—including those of the company’s top brass.
Demand, Henderson says, is why the ranch added these plastic surgery-adjacent treatments in the first place: “So many people were sneaking off property in the middle of their stay to visit different clinics around Tucson, we decided to bring it in-house.”
More than half of her patients are first-timers who feel safe dabbling in something new if it’s within the confines of the ranch. And although the average filler treatment runs $2,000 to $3,000, “dipping a toe” into a light dewrinkling can cost only $12 a unit, making it much easier to stomach. (The typical forehead touch-up includes 35 or so units—or $400.)
But bragging about one’s Botox is far from commonplace. In fact, guests are so tight-lipped (really, the jokes are endless here) about treatments that they prefer to omit the line item from their resort bill, paying in cash or divvying up the expense across several credit cards to hide the indulgence, even from their spouse.
The boom in Botox is palpable, but the requests remain grounded. Well, relatively. “Recently I had a young woman aspiring to look like a Snapchat-filtered photo of herself—that was unsettling,” Henderson says. But no one’s demanded that their Shar-Pei be shot up, and “we’ve yet to receive a request for scrotox,” she adds. We’ll let you figure out what that entails.