REVIEW: Golden Door

America's Most Legendary Spa

Golden Door
Golden Door

Golden Door Spa in Escondido, California, is the original luxury destination spa, created by Deborah Szekely in 1958.  Many consider that it is still the best, especially if you're looking for an intimate, nurturing, customized experience. Most of the year it's a women-only retreat specializing in seven-day stays, but there are four men's weeks and four co-ed weeks each year. This is probably the most beautiful spa you'll ever stay in.

When Deborah first conceived of Golden Door, she modeled it on on a Japanese Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn that originated in the Edo period (1603–1868) and featured communal baths.  Forty rooms with private patios are surrounded by meticulously landscaped courtyards of camellia bushes, koi ponds or soothing sand gardens with raked patterns.  The antique Japanese art in the reception area and the stone lanterns that stud the property were all imported from Japan.

It is one of the most expensive spas in the country–nearly $9,000 for an all-inclusive seven-day stay that includes a private room, a daily in-room massage, a specialized beauty regimen with your personal esthetician, which includes five skin care sessions that can include facials, waxing and brow tinting.  You also get two herbal wraps, manicure, pedicure, shampoo and blow-out and a make-up session -- 18 treatments altogether over the week. (There is also a five-day program available.)

It's not just about pampering, however.  You get four private sessions with a personal trainer plus a customized take-home program. Excellent spa cuisine is prepared from an organic garden, just steps from the kitchen. A complete spa wardrobe, including work-out clothes and a Japanese Yukata (the famous blue and white cotton robe that everyone wears to dinner over their clothes), are in your room on arrival.

The Ladies Who Lunch

The clientele is definitely women with money (or who married to men who have loads of it) and their daughters. Chanel sunglasses, husbands who run Fortune 500 companies, and whether or not they will go to any other spa are the subjects at daily luncheons by the pool.  At one point during the week, the gorgeous staff who work in the gift shop come out for a fashion show, wearing chic outfits beautifully accessorized.  Men are said to love The Golden Door as much as women, with many coming back at the same time the next year to meet up again. 

Golden Door still offers to weigh you and take your measurement upon arrival and departure– a nod to the original fat farm days– but it has changed over the years.  Deborah sold it in the '90s (to her regret) and after an uninspired period of corporate ownership, it was purchased by Joanne Conway (wife of billionaire philanthropist Bill Conway), with the idea of restoring it to its former glory.  She got rid of the other Golden Doors that had been franchised,  hired a new CEO and enlisted interior designer Victoria Hagan to oversee a $15 million renovation. Then she started buying up neighboring Escondido property.  Today Golden Door is surrounded by 600 mountainous acres.  Mornings begin with an (optional) hike up those hills to a breathtaking vista to witness the sunrise.  But if you sleep in, breakfast might just be waiting for you in your room, the curtain pulled halfway back onto a beautiful scene of stone Japanese lanterns and blooming azaleas, like a fairy has come to take care of you while you slumber.

An Unparalled Level of Service

This level of service is possible at the Japanese-inspired inn because there are so few people–a maximum of forty people each week, everyone in their own room.  The surprise is that there is no lavish "spa" where you get a massage.  The therapist comes to your room every day.  During a seven-day stay that starts on Sunday, expect a daily in-room massage.

Because there are so few people (and most are there for a week), you gravitate toward people you like and develop a camaraderie here. Everyone gathers before dinner (in their Yukatas) for a little social time before dinner, which is held around one big table. The food, prepared with fresh produce grown on Golden Door's five acres of bio-intensive gardens, is spectacular.

Among the 40 activities there is everything you would expect at a first-rate destination spa (guided hikes on 30 miles of trails, top-flight yoga, Pilates, excellent personal training and meditation instruction) along with a few things you wouldn't (archery, burlesque dance, aswim coach and two labyrinths, including one a group walks together with candles.)   

You can also try the Golden Door Running Clinic, which provides tools for beginners, recreational runners, or athletes training for an event. Have your running form assessed and learn new techniques to transform your approach so you can run "lighter" and prevent injury. Why should golfers be the only ones to have clinics?

Some weeks are built around special themes– food and wine; mindfulness; astrology–or around special people–celebrity trainers, integrative doctors, neuroscientists.  No matter when you go, it will be fun, stimulating, delicious, relaxing and inspiring.  

Golden Door has pledged 100% of net profits to select charities in support of their missions, from fighting global poverty to supporting cancer therapy for children in San Diego.  

Contact Golden Door:

P.O. Box 46077, Escondido, California
Phone: 800-424-0777 or 760-744-5777

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