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Spas: Golden Door Spa

You’d never know that the Golden Door is there, unless you are looking for it. An unassuming wooden door on a windy two-lane road near Escondido is all that indicates the wondrous retreat that lies behind.

The Golden Door is perhaps the world’s most famous luxury destination spa (and arguably the first), founded in 1958 by Deborah Szekely and still going strong fifty years later.

Now 86 years old, Szekely (pronounced “Say-kay”) has turned the ownership of her baby over to a large hotel group, but the key elements that have made the spa such a success have not changed. Passing through those unobtrusive wooden doors, you head down a long driveway to discover the real entrance – gleaming golden doors with an elaborate Japanese floral design that beckon you inside to a place that evokes a traditional Japanese inn.

Zen garden and spa bedrooms at the Golden Door Spa.Zen garden and spa bedrooms at the Golden Door Spa.

If you are lucky, you have come for the full seven-day experience, designed, as Szekely explains in her weekly evening after-dinner chat with guests, “to change your life with an appreciation of it.” They do that from the moment you enter those doors, whisking you through the reception area to the outside wooden walkways that take you past Zen gardens to your room. That’s a place of serenity, with no televisions, no DVDs, just a CD player (although the Door has recently succumbed to pressure from guests and added wireless internet to the rooms), but with a view of the sculpted gardens out the window, with hummingbirds flitting by.

They have stocked the room with all the clothes you will need for the week of exercise, pampering, and rejuvenation – their “journey of self-discovery” – but if you’re a moisture-wicking tech-fabric fan in your exercise clothes (as I am), plan to bring your own, as they supply cotton. They’ll do your laundry for you every day, so no need to pack heavy. Also in the closet is a traditional flowered yukata, the thin cotton robe that everyone wears to dinner each night. Actually, before you arrive, you’re advised to leave your dressy clothes, jewelry, and makeup at home; but make sure to pack well-broken-in hiking shoes, for there’s plenty of mountain climbing in your future here, and sturdy athletic footwear as well.

The morning hike view from the hills above the Golden Door Spa.The morning hike view from the hills above the Golden Door Spa.

Most weeks at the Golden Door are women-only (thus the ability to shed the makeup and fancy clothes), with four weeks a year devoted to men only, and five to co-ed; only 40 guests are there on any given week. Taking a week for the experience is essential, as Szekely explains, for “it takes that long for you to shed the outside world and get in touch with your inner self.” It also takes that long to see and feel a real change in your body, as you jumpstart a healthier lifestyle. The Golden Door has, however, launched a series of three- and four-day “Spa Interlude” stays that will be offered in July, August, and December, for those strapped for time but in need of a quicker spa fix.

Inside the Golden Door Spa.Inside the Golden Door Spa.

And fix they do at the Golden Door, from shifting your eating habits to healthier choices (most women are on a 1100-calorie per day diet) that are surprisingly delicious and filling, to making exercise a priority, beginning with a daily 6 a.m. hike into the hills high above the spa. Then it’s off to the races, with a full day of classes – everything from stretching, yoga, spinning, cardioboxing, Pilates, aqua sports, dance – along with personal training sessions and some serious pampering. You can choose inner focus sessions as well, like meditation, Zen archery, self-hypnosis, and mindful stress management.

During your week, you’ll have a massage every day in the privacy of your room, where therapists address your specific needs, as well as a daily beauty treatment (facials, herbal wraps, a delicious lemongrass body scrub, manicure, pedicure, makeup lesson); by the end of the week you feel so buffed, polished, centered, and relaxed that facing the real world again is quite the struggle.

Happily, nothing is set in stone at the Golden Door, so if you decide to simply loll by the pool with a good book all day, you just do it. But if you want to do even more, additional private sessions are offered for of the disciplines and beauty treatments at an extra charge; the full week with everything included (except tipping, which is done at week’s end, en masse) runs $7,995, with the new shorter stays priced at $3,625 and $4,725.

The Golden Door Spa notebook, filled with schedules, menus, etc.Your personalized Golden Door Spa notebook, filled with schedules, menus, etc.

It’s hard to put a price on the more ethereal things that a visit to the Golden Door imparts, as new friendships are forged, bad habits are broken, and a re-focusing on what is truly important in life is achieved. On the final evening, guests are invited to walk the Labyrinth in silence, contemplating the week’s experience and, when reaching the center, burning a note that represents all the negative things that they have let go during this rejuvenating week. Symbolic of the change that the week at the Golden Door has wrought, it is a perfect way to close out what is a truly unique life experience. Unique, that is, unless, like the majority of the women (including two famous film-star sisters) who populated my week at the spa, you return to the Door to relive the experience again and again. I know I’d have liked to have stayed there forever.

Golden Door
PO Box 463077
Escondido, CA 92046-3077

About Jenny Peters (165 Articles)
Jet Set Jen is the brainchild of Jenny Peters, a longtime freelance journalist whose career has spanned everything considered "Lifestyle" reporting, from movies and celebrities to fashion and fast cars, with plenty of food, wine and travel thrown in too. She currently contributes regularly to USA Today's,, New York Magazine, Coast Magazine, Bask Magazine and numerous other newspapers, magazines and websites worldwide. She is a founding and voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (, which annually honors the year's top films with the Critics' Choice Awards. Jenny and her crack cadre of reporters at Jet Set Jen offer up opinions, suggestions and insider scoops on the best that the world has to offer, to keep you on the cutting edge of that ever elusive pursuit of life, liberty, happiness – and fun, fun, fun.

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