The Ranch Malibu attracts the likes of Elle Macpherson and Jessica Alba when they’re in need of a wellbeing boost. GTG’s Victoria Woodhall says ‘Ciao, bella!’ to the new Ranch branch near Rome

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A month before my five-day detox retreat at the Ranch Italy – the new European outpost of the American wellness phenomenon The Ranch Malibu –  I received an exhaustive, and somewhat worrying, list of ways to prepare. Four weeks to go: do ten push-ups and crunches on Tuesdays and Thursdays, go to bed 15 minutes earlier. Three weeks to go: add in a one or two-hour walk per day. Two weeks to go: quit caffeine, reduce portion sizes. One week - walk three (three!) hours at least four times, quit sugar and alcohol, go to bed an hour earlier. Wow. Who has the time?

In total, I manage one 8k walk and to give up caffeine, but in every other aspect I’m totally unprepared although I do a lot of yoga. But I’m looking forward to getting out into nature, switching off my busy mind, living in my hotel dressing gown and having someone look after me. I’m going with my friend Helen, who like me wants to recharge and reenergise.

I hear that actors Patrick Dempsey and his makeup artist wife Jillian Dempsey did The Ranch programme here so I’m hoping that the privations of 1400 calorie days, 15k mountain hikes, blood tests and twice-daily fitness classes will be sprinkled with a little stardust. The prices are certainly starry – my retreat costs just shy of £4000 ($US$4,950) not including flights.

Actors love The Ranch Malibu and the list of stellar alumni is huge: the likes of Elle Macpherson, Jessica Alba, Nicole Scherzinger, Angela Bassett and Rebel Wilson have crunched on its celery and hoofed up its hills, embracing the famous 5.30am starts. I don’t spot any A-listers in residence in Italy but it’s clearly a wealthy crowd who invest in their health; mainly midlife couples, including lots of Americans.

The signature programme is a seven-day retreat. It's all vegan, the idea being that this is the most anti-inflammatory diet. Many of my fellow Ranchers – there are never more than 25 at a time – are here for that. But I’ve come to do the shorter five-day version, which is three intense hiking days bookended by travel.

As well as being vegan there’s no caffeine, gluten, nor refined sugar at The Ranch, which has chosen for its first overseas outpost, the Palazzo Fiuggi, an 80-bedroom art nouveau mansion, in the mountainous region an hour outside Rome. Fiuggi as a town has form on the wellness front; it’s famous for its spring water, which is said to have cured one of the popes and Michelangelo of kidney stones and was, until not so long ago medically prescribed. In 2021, Palazzo Fiuggi pivoted to become a high-end medical hotel and is home to one of only two official Fiuggi spring water fountains.

The in-house restaurant is run by Rome’s only 3-star Michelin chef, Heinz Beck, whose team also prepares the Ranch meals, which are taken separately in a private dining room, presumably to keep us away from temptation. Not that there is any - there’s no alcohol on the premises (the bar serves only still or sparkling Fiuggi water) and all meals are calorie-controlled. Even if you are not on the Ranch reset, you have to be on one of the hotel’s own health programmes to come here.

While there will be no actual feasting going on, the Palazzo, with its triple-height ceilings, sweeping staircases and Murano glass chandeliers is at least a feast for the eyes. The gym is the size of a ballroom. In fact, it probably is a ballroom. In former incarnations, the hotel hosted dignitaries and royals.

Although the rooms are full, I hardly see anyone outside of our Ranch group. Eduardo at the front desk tells me that they are all either in the gym or having back-to-back treatments. The spa/medical centre is the most extensive I’ve seen. You can have your liver scanned, your bone density measured, your knees injected with hyaluronic acid to help your joints, lasers, microneedling and even your Botox topped up. I requested an obscure blood test for a genetic risk factor for a cardiovascular disease that I couldn’t get on the NHS and it transpired that, yes, I could have it at 7am the next day.

What is The Ranch Italy programme?

It’s a formula that has earned it a 50 per cent return rate for guests. It’s essentially this:

  • 6am: wake-up call
  • 6.30am: stretch class
  • 7am: breakfast
  • 7.30am: footcare (blister plasters etc) and drive to hike destination
  • 8am: 15k hike
  • 1pm: vegan lunch
  • 1.30pm: nap and spa time
  • 3pm-7pm: massage, yoga and fitness classes
  • 7pm: dinner

There’s a pleasing regularity to the days. As it’s a medical hotel you can potter around your dressing gown, In fact, we’re encouraged to stay in casual clothes and told not to bring anything fancy or valuable.

What are the treatments like?

On arrival there’s a weigh and measure – it’s a way of benchmarking weight and inch loss, although it’s optional. Some people opt for a silent weigh-in if they don’t want to hear the numbers. Then it’s off to the nurse for a blood pressure check to make sure we are fit to hike and ECG (electrocardiogram) to check our heart rhythms.

We’re given a pot to pee in first thing the following morning and instructed to present ourselves from 6am for a full blood test and to wait a couple of days for one of the resident doctors to tell us if we have anything that needs further attention to get us in optimal health.

You can book in for any other tests or treatments or scans that the hotel offers its general clientele although these are extra. I also have my hormonal panel checked, as the price is the same as in the UK. Helen is worried about osteopenia so books a DEXA bone scan and has her blood pressure checked every day because it’s a little high. A doctor gives her prescription medication to lower it and suggests tweaks to her diet (more omega 3s).

In the Roman spa, there are two pools, saunas, steam rooms, a salt room and a plunge pool as well as a Kneipp bath – where you walk through thigh-deep warm water followed by cold ten times to boost circulation.

Daily sports massages are included as part of the programme and, boy, do you need them. My calves were screaming after the first hike.

Image: Tyson Sadlo

What are The Ranch Italy hikes like?

The hikes are the highlight of the programme. It’s here that you build muscle and burn calories thanks to plenty of steep inclines but also beautiful biodiverse scenery – the area is a UNESCO world heritage site. I’m blown away by the pristine nature – there’s everything from wild asparagus to wild bulls, anemones and cowslips, peach and cherry blossom, as well as snow-capped summits. In winter these mountains host skiers, in off-season they’re perfect hiking terrain. One minute we’re high on a ridge with top-of-the-word views, the next we’re in forests with towering beech trees swishing through leaves, or following the footsteps of monks and pilgrims on ancient trails.

Most of the routes are ‘out and back’ rather than loops and you’re told to turn around after a set time - so everyone’s hiking for the same length of time and not distance. This takes the pressure off having to keep up with faster walkers. Guides run ahead to mark the routes with red flags. I spend a good hour walking on my own following the flags, with no one in sight and only cuckoos for company. We all have walkie-talkies and occasionally ‘Ranchers, we believe in you!’ motivational messages come through, although most of the comms are useful snippets about the scenery ­and crucially when it’s time to turn back.

After the first hike along an old pilgrimage route, I can’t wait to get my aching legs into the Kneipp walk. This becomes my daily routine and I’m sure it helps me recover quicker.

What are the fitness classes like?

There is an hour of very gentle yoga and an upper body workout class every day. You’re encouraged to join, but not ticked off if you don’t. Some people prefer the super high-spec gym with panoramic views. I try the Icaros machine, a VR flight simulator that gameifies a hip and core workout by making you feel like you are a bird. My flight lasted two minutes before motion sickness kicked in.

What about the Ranch food?

Many Ranchers are here for weight loss and so the food is carefully calibrated to 1400 calories a day. My Fitbit told me that I’d burned 1300 on one hike alone, so you are definitely in calorie deficit. However, no one starves. You can request double portions at mealtimes and there’s always fruit available. It becomes clear from hushed conversations that some people have contraband such as crackers, protein bars and coffee. No one ’fesses up to cookies.

Our breakfasts range from granola with almond milk, to a courgette and banana muffin with nut butter and porridge. Lunches are cauliflower pizza, lentil pancakes with a sliver of hummus and salad (don’t ask for olive oil) while dinners are a delicious black rice and mushroom risotto and aubergine parmigiana with macadamia ‘cheese’.

We’re given snacks for the hikes which all count towards the total calories (one day it’s a sorry-looking eight almonds and some salt, another day an apple or granola bar). They even manage to get two courses into some of the meals – although what the 3-star Michelin chef thinks about serving up a bowl of iceberg lettuce with some lemon juice as a starter is undocumented. I learn that all the recipes come from the Malibu mothership, so there’s no room to deviate but it’s a shame that there’s no hint of even a local basil leaf to make it more Italian. One highlight though is a vegan chocolate filled with peanut butter that we’re all given because it’s someone’s birthday. This does feel like culinary heaven.

Going home

At our last supper, we go around the table to say one thing we’re grateful for. As we’ve got to know each other it doesn’t feel as awkward as when we did the exercise as an ice-breaker at the beginning. I say that I’m genuinely grateful for my health, after the doctor told me that I had the most ‘boring’ blood work and pee of the group – I just needed to optimise my vitamin D levels.

We’re also asked to write a letter to our future selves, to be mailed to us in six months’ time - to remind us of an insight we gained and resolutions we made on our stay. I must admit I skipped this bit.

The verdict

I didn’t go to the Ranch for weight loss, more for stress loss, but at the final weigh-in I’ve lost 1.1kg (about 3lbs) and Helen, on the same regime, is delighted to have dropped more than half a stone (3.8kg). We’ve also both gained muscles in our legs and lost inches off our middles. What’s more important than inches though is that we’ve lost the weight off our minds. We’ve come home lighter in spirit and keen to embrace a few new habits, such as regular ‘big’ walks and maybe even cauliflower pizza. I’ve lost some of my afternoon sugar cravings and have reduced my stress-spiking caffeine consumption to one green tea first thing. When Jillian Dempsey finished The Ranch Italy programme, she posted: “Thanks for pushing my reset button, it’s exactly what I needed.” I couldn’t agree more.

The Ranch Italy 4.0 costs from £3994 per person for double occupancy and £4680 for a single room. This includes 4 nights and 5 days of daily guided hikes, fitness and exercise classes, daily massage, diagnostic testing, blood panel, medical consultation, accommodation, all meals, some evening nutrition talks and a return airport transfer