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At California's Golden Door (Photograph by Jessica Sample)

The North American Spa Grows Up

From fat farms to transformational centers, these three classic North American spas are coming of age. Here’s why.

> Rancho La Puerta (Tecate, Mexico) 

Claim to fame: Located just south of Mexico’s border with the United States and turning 75 in June, it’s North America’s oldest destination spa.

Then: “$17.50 a week, bring your own tent.” Burt Lancaster joined other health buffs in the desert south of San Diego and baked bread in an outdoor oven.

Now: A loyal clientele books casitas adorned with Mexican tile and art, most with fireplaces, and takes classes such as “Hot Latin Cardio.” They hike boulder-strewn Mount Kuchumaa and stroll 150 acres of organic gardens.

What’s new: A lounge pouring local wines; body treatments using herbs from the garden. Mexican cooking lessons are on the menu, followed by salsa dancing under the stars.

> Golden Door (Escondido, California)

Claim to fame: The U.S.’s first pampering spa retreat, opened in 1958.

Then: Celebrities dropped weight for roles in a cosseting California hideaway, styled like a Japanese inn and entered through a gleaming bronze portal.

Now: Repeaters and newbies stay in 40 refurbished rooms with shoji screens, set in meticulously landscaped courtyards with paths lit by antique lanterns. They enjoy fragrant citrus-and-herb body wraps and daily in-room massages.

What’s new: Paddleboard yoga, mountaintop tai chi, plus classes to enhance sleep quality. More male-only weeks as men discover spa-going benefits.

> Canyon Ranch (Tucson, Arizona)

Claim to fame: A spot to hit your reset button via medical assessments, alternative therapies, and spa treatments.

Then: In 1979, a health convert transformed a cattle ranch in the desert at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains into a fitness resort serving 800-calorie-a-day meals.

Now: A 158-room center for wellness and optimal aging, it dishes up heftier meals including grass-fed beef and potato pancakes in Southwest-flavored surroundings. A Life Enhancement Center hosts themed weeks—“brain health” is one.

What’s new: “He stays free” promos targeting men; wilderness survival classes teaching animal tracking.

This piece, reported by Kitty Bean Yancey, first appeared in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.