Golden Door Spa: Finding Zen in Southern California

Luxury Spas: “Spa” is too small a word for the Golden Door. It is too insignificant for the history, beauty, philosophy, care and professionalism that guests at this amazing place in Southern California enjoy.

The oldest “spa” in North America (Elizabeth Arden’s Maine Chance opened first, but is long gone and The Greenhouse in Texas just closed), started in 1958 with the theme that real food, exercise with professionals in their fields, pampering exceeding anything in the country, and a deep look into the mind/body/spirit connection is the very best thing that a woman (or during certain “coed” or “men-only” weeks, man), can do for herself. After a week at the Golden Door, most guests head home with an individualized program for a healthier lifestyle than they had before they arrived, and a desire to keep feeling the way they felt here.

“The Door,” as returning guests like to call it, is a 377-acre plot of rich agricultural land in this copacetic place that founder Deborah Szekely turned into a replica of a Japanese ”Ryokan” or country inn, complete with sliding Shoji screens, wooden bridges over little streams, gardens decorated with stone lanterns and ancient temple bells, waterfalls splashing over hand-placed rocks that represent such figures as the Buddha or a turtle, and a sand garden raked to perfection twice a week.

The physical door itself at the front entrance is actually from Tijuana, Mexico, of hammered Tunisian brass and copper but the rest of the artwork scattered about the property, including wood sculptures from the Edo period and porcelain vases from the Meiji period, are authentic, brought from Japan by Szekely and the architect she hired and took there for a month to study that country’s special beauty. “I want the dining room to look like it’s floating,” she later told landscape architect Takendo Ari, and it indeed floats, over a pond filled with multi-colored swimming koi.

Zen is in the air, as guests muse among eucalyptus trees and Chinese lantern trees and live oaks and deliberately planted deciduous trees so the latter would have changing fall colors, and it encourages serenity and reflection and calm.

But most guests are here for the intense physical activity encouraged, always optional, that comes with the seven different gyms, each with its own specific purpose; the 6 a.m. mountain hikes up among avocado and pomegranate trees followed by at least three hours per week of individual consultation and workouts with your own personal trainer, and the aerobics and cardio fitness and strength and flexibility classes taught by renowned experts in their field. When we took a belly dancing class it was taught by a professional belly dancer who has performed all over the world, including Morocco. A Balletone, or body sculpting class, was taught by a former dancer with Ballet West. A jazz dancing class was led by the delightful Yuichi Sugiyama, who danced on Broadway and with, among others, the Alice Cooper rock band. He made us feel as though we were in Chorus Line and we almost forgot we were in a cardio workout.

The fitness program is state-of-the-art and the meals, overseen by executive chef Kayla Roche, come mostly from vegetables grown in the organic garden on the property, managed by head gardener Victor Reynoso, who is celebrating his 35th year with the Door. It says much about a facility when you find that more than half the staff has been here for 10 years or more. General Manager Rachel Caldwell, who started right out of high school, has been happily with the company for more than 45 years. The longevity of both the staff and the guests is remarkable; many guests make the Door a yearly event and one recently celebrated his 100th visit with a party in the health resort’s bamboo grove.

The Golden Door is ridiculously expensive, at $7750 per week, but it’s worth every cent when you consider the level of service and pampering and professionalism expressed by the staff, which numbers 150 for just 40 guests. The personalized level of care, which includes a massage every day in your room, five facials or body treatments per week, breakfast served in your room or all three meals served anywhere on the property if you desire although most dinners are eaten together, is almost embarrassingly exceptional. Every time we threw our robe on the bathroom hook and left to go to an exercise class, we returned to see that the sash had been re-tied, obi-style, to keep it neat. If we wanted extra nuts and fruit brought to our room any hour of the day or night, there it was. Our personal underwear, along with our spa-provided exercise clothes, was washed and dried and brought back to the room by 5 p.m. We could have brought everything we needed for the week in a hobo’s bindle on a stick, since all that was required were hiking boots and athletic shoes.

The Door provides everything to wear all week, including yakutas, or casual Japanese robes for dinner time which totally level the guest fashion/social playing field. Even big straw sun hats for wearing around the pools are in your closet, along with a hooded rain jacket just in the rare case that the SoCal weather turns wet. We had the feeling, after watching our wonderful helpers, that if they were allowed to carry us from breakfast to exercise class to the bathhouse (where warm robes are always available and a woman waits to rinse out your bathing suit for you) in a palanquin, they would do it.

Luxury at the Golden Door is defined as a creamy mushroom soup without the cream and a mousse-like dessert that tastes better than any hot fudge sundae but has far fewer calories.

Luxury is the “invisible hands,” as they’re called, doing everything from quickly picking up a used juice glass to hanging a note from your showerhead describing how women should do a breast self-exam when bathing.

Luxury is classes in the spiritual side of life, from hypnosis regression with a psychotherapist to a computerized biofeedback stress relief program to a one-on-one discussion on how to be happy, with Annharriet Buck, stress management consultant with a degree in psychology who trained at the Jung Institute, the Menninger Foundation and the Center for Applied Creative Thinking. She also has studied meditation and mindfulness with the renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

The inspirational Szekely, who also founded Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico, in 1940 as a camp with organic fresh food, that charged $17.50 per week and asked guests to bring their own tents, is 88 years old and has just upped her weekly Pilates workouts with a former Navy Seal instructor from two to four, learned about the value of good, real food from her mother, who was vice president of the Vegetarian Society in New York. Meat is served at the Golden Door but everything is apportioned carefully so that while overeating is discouraged, no one ever feels hungry, and most guests are losing a few pounds as the week unfolds.

She is strongly against fast food and food that has antibiotics given to the animals providing it. She doesn’t take Tylenol or aspirin, believing that “if you have a headache, ask yourself why. Pain is a normal message; it’s telling you something. Walk, take a nap, drink a glass of water, whatever. The casual use of medication throws everything else out of balance. We (Americans) gulp our food and then take antacids. We eat fast foods with chemicals in it. Look at the cumulative effect of chemicals in your food over the years.”

Book this hotel now with confidence! Personal Service. Best Rate Guarantee. 100% Luxury Hotels. Book Now! In addition to encouraging eating slowly, the Door philosophy, as explained by its founder, “gives you time to have a thought and invite it in to sit down.” After a week of this contemplative serenity, personalized exercise and nurturing beauty treatments at the Door, the usual guest feels rejuvenated, as well as sculpted, toned, manicured, massaged and cherished.

For more information, call 800-424-0777 or Fax 760-471-2393.

Julie Hatfield

Julie Hatfield, former Boston Globe fashion editor and society editor, is now freelance travel writer for the Boston Globe, Hemispheres Magazine of United Airlines, USA Today Food & Wine, Denver Post, numerous newspapers around the country including the (San Francisco) Bay Area News Group, national travel magazines and travel websites such as and LiteraryTraveler. She is the ...(Read More)

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