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Pampering With Purpose at the Famed Golden Door Spa

By Eric Rosen

Aug 9, 2021

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Golden Door spa in California feels a world away, with the tranquility of a Japanese ryokan.

Photo by Rhiannon Taylor Photography

Golden Door spa in California feels a world away, with the tranquility of a Japanese ryokan.

Rather than just a self-indulgent spa escape, Golden Door also represents more mindful travel choices.

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“I should buy some Himalayan singing bowls,” I murmured to myself. File that under: “Things I never thought I’d say,” along with, “I could totally brew my own bone broth at home for a midmorning pick-me-up,” and “Predawn hikes are a fantastic way to start the day!” 

It was one more uncharacteristic mumble during my three days at the famed Golden Door spa, a wellness retreat for the well-to-do in Southern California. But it seemed totally natural as I lay on the floor of a yoga pavilion surrounded by a dozen other kimono-clad men, lulled into a dreamlike trance by the bowls’ vibrato after 20 minutes of intense guided breathing.

Well-publicized tune-ups by celebrities over the years, including Elizabeth Taylor and Oprah Winfrey, have made Golden Door an enduring destination for half a century. When it was founded by Deborah Szekely and her then-husband, Edmond, in 1958, “visitors brought tents, climbed nearby Mt. Kuchumaa, and tended a vegetable garden,” reports the Los Angeles Times. But following its sale to well-known philanthropist Joanne Conway in 2012, the Golden Door has a new mantra: to work on mental weight loss as well as physical. 

This brief sojourn was my first getaway after a year and a half of COVID-induced reclusion. I envisioned days of exercise and yoga sessions punctuated by nutritious meals and soothing spa treatments, all leading up to my re-emergence as a fully operational human. Rather than just a self-indulgent spa escape, Golden Door also represented more mindful travel choices than those I had made in the past.

By opting for a destination within driving distance of home rather than flying, I dramatically reduced my carbon footprint. And most of the wholesome cuisine created by Golden Door’s executive chef, Greg Frey, was prepared with organic produce grown on the 600-acre property or nearby. 

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I was also impressed to learn that since 2013, Golden Door has donated all of its profits to charities to help victims of child abuse and sexual assault, to tackle poverty with the Whole Planet Foundation, and more. “We believe that responsibility extends beyond our walls,” reads their “way of life” pledge, and these donations are “a show of support to those involved in making the world a more loving, more humane, and more peaceful place.” Golden Door’s chief operating officer, Kathy Van Ness, sees it as part of a fuller picture of healing that connects, if subtly, the extremely privileged guests who can afford to spend time at Golden Door with neighbors in need.

“Every week, people’s lives are being changed who come here as guests,” she says. “Is it not the most perfect thing to take that work we do with them—that allows us to change the lives of children?”

With that in mind, I began three days of pampering...with purpose. 
 

Photo by Rhiannon Taylor Photography

The Fellowship of the Door

Near the town of San Marcos, some 40 miles north and inland of San Diego, I pulled up to the eponymous golden door. (It’s actually hammered Tunisian brass and copper sculpted with the image of the Tree of Life and inlaid with semi-precious stones.) 

The Japanese-inspired spa is laid out like a ryokan, with rooms arranged around central courts and manicured gardens with perfectly trimmed trees and flowing water elements, including a small waterfall. Japanese artifacts appear throughout the property, including a 300-year-old bronze bell from the Josen-ji Buddhist temple that calls guests to dinner, and 17th-century stone lanterns that illuminate walkways after dusk, when frogs call from the ponds.

Room decor is also reminiscent of traditional Japanese inns, with shoji doors opening onto the gardens and colorful silk prints on the walls, but no televisions. Another nod to leaving the world behind: The closet held all the exercise clothes I’d need, a water bottle, and tote bag, while the bathroom was stocked with toiletries and Golden Door’s yuzu-scented skin and hair products. I could have shown up with just the clothes on my back and not wanted for anything.

I donned the provided blue-and-white yukata, a lightweight kimono once commonly worn to bathhouses in Japan that served as dinner attire here, and ambled through a eucalyptus-shaded meditation maze before joining my fellow guests for our first meal together.

(Most weeks are reserved for women, but I had come for one of the six annual men’s weeks in 2021; there are also a few coed ones, though each person must book an individual room.)

Photo by Rhiannon Taylor Photography

Menus are restricted to 1,200–1,600 calories per day, yet fresh food and moderately sized portions of blue crab and avocado, or wheatberry salad with tarragon vinaigrette, were more than satisfying. After a welcome dinner of miso-glazed California black cod with edamame and rice, the other guests and I introduced ourselves and noted our reasons for coming to Golden Door. Nearly everyone relayed a sense of exhaustion and a yearning to heal after a challenging year. The word “reset” kept coming up.

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I was one of just a handful of first-timers. One man, who had recently turned 90 and was marking his 112th visit, proclaimed the Golden Door was his personal fountain of youth. Others had returned dozens of times and planned their year around it, making sure fellow guests they’d met would be there for the same week. As the habitués told stories about the friendships made and the clarity achieved on previous trips, I was deeply impressed by the community-building that took place here. It was as though I had been inducted into a secret society of wellness-minded moguls, a mix of entrepreneurs, authors, film and television producers, and even a professional gambler. 

Over the following days, I saw the fellowship unfold. During communal meals, we spoke about the toll the pandemic had taken on each of us and the anxiety of trying to find a “new normal.” Several of us were at turning points—embarking on new jobs or at the end of careers, facing changing family dynamics or dealing with grief. Within a day, we were telling one another about deep-seated struggles and turning to one another for counsel. 

Photo by Rhiannon Taylor Photography

That said, much of my focus was on the physical activities and pampering awaiting me. During a consultation the week before my arrival, I had been advised that it wouldn’t be possible to try everything in the three days I had, or even a full week. Instead, my schedule was calibrated to my preferences—HIIT over spinning, Pilates over TRX, please—plus discussions on nutrition and mental well-being. Everything was voluntary, including the 5 a.m. hikes (with a choice of a leisurely meadow stroll, or more strenuous three- and five-mile circuits through orchard groves and up into the surrounding mountains). I committed myself to stick to the schedule and to ignore the work emails piling up. 

My days did feel busy—productive and fulfilling rather than draining. I shuttled from one gym, studio, pavilion, or treatment room to another, but took moments between them to smell the blooming jasmine or watch hummingbirds flit from feeder to feeder. Each class or hike also provided a chance to talk about our time away from the everyday and just how significant taking a few days for ourselves now felt. Indulgent, yes, but also profoundly needed and deeply appreciated. 

The sense of community hasn’t faded, either: I’ve been meeting one of my new Golden Door friends for morning hikes around Los Angeles since we’ve been back. 

Weekly stays, including accommodations, meals, most activities, and transportation to and from San Diego International Airport or Los Angeles International Airport, start at $9,950.

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