The ground slides beneath my feet, the sodden dirt offering no grip as gravity takes hold, dumping me arse-first into the bog before I can clock what has happened. Letting out a yell of frustration, I glance around to check if anyone has seen me fall, before remembering I’m completely alone. My tear ducts prickle, eyes welling up from loneliness and frustration, and I seriously consider giving up. Except, I’m in the middle of the Italian forest and there is no quitting because, to paraphrase Robert Frost, the best way out is through. I extricate my muddy self from the muck and carefully continue picking my way along the trail.
The terrain quickly dries as the incline tops out. The ridge is strewn with wildflowers, the air redolent with the scent of herbs bursting up around haphazard rocks. It’s easier to feel a little less sorry for myself up here; the absence of mud means I can raise my eyes from the ground and take in the landscape. Rolling hills are an almost impossibly vivid shade of green, a result of an unseasonably wet Italian spring, interrupted only by towering peaks that seem to rise into eternity. The path I’m following is a small section of the Camino di San Benedetto, which tracks the journey of St Benedict of Norcia, an Italian Christian monk who wrote the influential Rule of Saint Benedict, from his birthplace in Norcia to the town of Montecassino where he spent the last few years of his life.
The spiritual context to this hike feels appropriate given I’m on day one of The Ranch, a luxury wellness retreat that attracts guests to both its original Malibu location and this, its Italian outpost, which promises a physical and mental transformation. Founded in 2010, The Ranch was set up by Alex and Sue Glasscock – he a property developer, she an interior designer – in an attempt to combat unhealthy habits generated by modern living. It quickly gained something of a cult following, with everyone from Michelle Obama to Brooke Shields flocking to its doors in search of a reset.
The Italian branch of the wellness retreat is based out of the town of Fiuggi, famous for being fed by thermal hot springs. It’s a fitting home given the healing properties that the village’s water is purported to have, with daily cups from the Fontana di Vita propping up the programme’s inherent focus on health. Located approximately an hour’s drive from Rome, it’s the perfect gateway to the Apennine mountain range, offering both breathtaking views and challenging terrain – prerequisites for a retreat that aims to nourish both body and soul.
The programme is designed to remove the paralysis of decision-making almost entirely. Days tend to follow a flow: wake up at 6am, stretch and eat breakfast, hop into vans to be driven into the wilderness, hike for four hours (give or take, depending on the day), return to base for lunch, fit a yoga and fitness class in around your daily massage, before capping things off with dinner and a good night’s sleep. Then, the following day, prepare to do it all over again.
The hardest decisions you have to make at The Ranch Italy are: should I do yoga before or after the fitness class? Should I use the Kneipp pool or the sauna today? And, which mug of herbal tea should be drunk before bed? Crucially, there is no alcohol, processed sugar, gluten or caffeine, and the food is entirely vegan. Perhaps the biggest question of all is: how can I, a food writer who eats for a living and definitely drinks more alcohol than the recommended weekly intake, survive the next four days?
As they jet off ahead of the pack, deftly navigating the quagmire that the recent weather had created, I happily settle into a rhythm
The evening before my mud-bath hike, over a two-course dinner of broccoli soup and courgette spaghetti with roasted tomatoes and lentil meatballs, I meet the attendees that will make up our group for the week, or my fellow ‘Ranchers’, as we’re called. It ranges from a couple of die-hard Ranchers who are on their ninth trip and one man who had, in 2019, spent six weeks at The Ranch Malibu, to two friends who are here on their annual girls trip and a tech executive who is here for the first time in an effort to kickstart their wellbeing journey. At 25, I was the youngest by over a decade.
Our home is the grand Palazzo Fiuggi, a bastion of luxurious modern wellness that drips with gleaming white marble, plush cream carpets and gargantuan rooms. It’s home to a subterranean spa equipped with everything from a thalassotherapy pool to a sauna, steam room and cold plunge setup perfect for practising the Wim Hof method. Ranchers occupy their own wing of the hotel, where meals and pre-and-post hike workouts, yoga classes and stretching sessions are held. A full blood panel and electrocardiogram takes place upstairs on our first morning, and we’re sent off with a plastic cup to pee into for a urine analysis. I’m told we’ll have an appointment with the in-house doctor on the last day to discuss the results (spoiler alert: mine told me I was in perfect health, great – albeit, surprising – news for my inner hypochondriac).
After a fitful night’s sleep, perhaps in anticipation of the following day’s hike, or simply my body already experiencing withdrawals, I wake to my alarm at 5.55am, set to allow myself a full five extra minutes of adjusting to being conscious before the official wake-up call at 6am. I give myself a mental gold star for remembering to figure out the mechanics of my water pouch and filling it up the night before, allowing me to be out the door in a record ten minutes. After stretching, limbering up, and consuming a surprisingly filling breakfast of granola and almond milk, we hop into our spy movie-esque blacked-out Mercedes vans and roll out of the gates of the Palazzo in a vaguely threatening convoy.
I like to think of myself as a pretty fit person; I exercise at least four times a week, am an avid walker and have recently taken up running. And yet, almost as soon as we set off on that first hike, it was clear I am no match for a certain group, which I nickname the speed demons. As they jet off ahead of the pack, deftly navigating the quagmire that the recent weather had created, I happily settle into a rhythm somewhere in the middle. The hikes follow a setup where a member of the guiding team heads off 30 minutes before the rest of us in order to place guiding flags along the route, and we’re all given walkie talkies to stay in communication with both The Ranch staff and the rest of the group. This means that each group member can move at their own pace; for some this is athlete-level hiking, for others simply getting out there onto the path is enough of a challenge for the day.
It also gives me ample time to think. There are times I walk with fellow group members, and others where I’m completely by myself, finding my pace somewhere between the packs that inevitably form. One day I ascend a ridge line with a man from California who works in tech. We speak about everything from the housing crisis in San Francisco to the perils of modern dating. The group separates as the path reaches a precipitous incline. I video call my mum back in New Zealand, taking her along with me until the route steepens enough to make conversation a struggle.
On another day, I catch up to an English couple. We discuss my job and their work and somehow end up on the topic of beekeeping. In the times that I walk alone I find myself vacillating between peaceful contentment and deep-set loneliness. In some of my most challenging moments I pretend I’m with family and chat to them about what is going on in my life. I’m not usually prone to talking to myself, but something about the isolation of these moments made connections – even make-believe ones – feel increasingly necessary.
As we rapidly make our way downhill, I somehow manage to shake off my fear of clumsiness and allow gravity to rumble me onwards
The ones that I form with the people on the trip seem to develop slowly and then come on almost all at once. I’m so used to encountering new people with the inhibition-numbing crutch of alcohol that meeting 15 strangers completely sober felt, if not difficult, then at least stilted in the initial stages. But, with each shared challenge came a sense of understanding, and from that understanding came a willingness to open up. By the third day I find myself crying with laughter in our blacked-out vans as we zig and zag up a mountain to our drop-off point after playing resident young’un and filling the others in on Leonardo DiCaprio’s Headphone Dino Bones nickname (coined by gossip Instagram DeuxMoi, if you’re curious to know more).
On our last hike, I somehow find myself catching up with the speed demons as we thread our way down the incline we had just scaled. I consider holding back and letting them go ahead, then quickly realise that I am easily matching their pace, and decide to continue until I hit a wall. Except, that never eventuates. As we rapidly make our way downhill, I manage to shake off my fear of clumsiness and allow gravity to rumble me onwards. And then, as we reach the final challenge, a sharp uphill stretch that deposits you at the vans, I hold fast alongside them, before drawing ahead and cresting the peak of the hill alone, somehow the third person to make it back. I can only describe the emotion I feel in that moment as pure elation, and pride that I hadn’t followed through on my desire to quit while mired in a bog on that first day.
Walking through the Kneipp pool that evening in the Palazzo’s spa (a pair of water treading pools where you walk through one at a frigidly cold temperature before moving onto extremely warm water in a process that is meant to bolster muscle recovery), I feel a mental clarity that’s been evading me for months. It’s like a fog has been lifted, and my brain is finally working at its full capacity. I’m not quite sure whether that was down to the complete mental rest that comes from barely having to make a decision for days on end, or if it’s a result of the extremely clean lifestyle and abundance of fresh air. During a conversation with the nine-time Ranchers about London’s best restaurants, they said something that really stuck with me: “we do this for a week, so that we can do that (eating what they like at incredible restaurants) for the rest of the year.”
In the days following The Ranch, when friends ask me how it felt, I quite honestly answer that it felt like being in a coma. Like, when you watch a movie, and the film depicts the person in the coma wandering aimlessly through an all-white world, having conversations and not really living? That’s sort of how my time at The Ranch felt, but in the best possible way. It wasn’t real life or even an imitation of it, but that’s kind of the point. It’s not meant to be your forever, unless you’re some kind of quasi-Gwyneth Paltrow. Instead, it’s meant to provide you with a reset, and the tools you need to make healthy lifestyle choices after you leave. It just happens to accomplish that at the highest level of luxury.
It’s this that I hold onto upon departing The Ranch. The series of early mornings make getting up to exercise before work feel like a breeze, something I had previously written off as too exhausting. I find eating less meat and substituting carbs for vegetables easier than ever, and am committed to fundamentally cutting down my alcohol intake. Checking in with some of my fellow Ranchers a few months after leaving, one had already booked a return trip, while another had continued her health journey and referred to her time at The Ranch Italy as the boost she needed. In a world that’s increasingly full of distractions, I’d say investing in your health is one of the purest luxuries that life affords.