Behind the Golden Doors

Considered the forerunner of the modern destination spa, the Golden Door has pampered well-heeled clients for more than 60 years. Linda Grasso ventures to San Marcos to experience the resort’s much-storied Zen vibe.

If you are into health-and-wellness retreats, you can’t miss people talking about the Golden Door. At a cost of more than $9,000 a week for an all-inclusive stay and with just 40 guests at a time, it is considered the mac daddy of high-end spas. Former guests (who include Julia Roberts and Oprah) wax about the beautiful grounds, how they came home refreshed and with a sense of calm and purpose, and how they want to go back again someday.


Wellness pioneer Deborah Szekely opened the original Golden Door in 1958 in San Marcos, outside San Diego. It was envisioned as a more upscale sister property to her sprawling, no-frills health retreat, Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. The Door, as it’s called, was originally a converted motel surrounding a swimming pool. Hollywood stars like Judy Garland, Natalie Wood, and Elizabeth Taylor were photographed in their all-pink workout suits, participating in jump roping sessions and talent shows and giving rise to the lore of the resort.

In 1975, the construction of the I-15 freeway necessitated that the spa move a mile away and Szekely used it as an opportunity to do a revamp. Drawn to the calming influences of Japanese architecture, the interiors as well as the 600-acre grounds were recreated with an Asian vibe.

Then in 2012, the property was purchased for $24.8 million by longtime guest Joanne Conway, wife of billionaire financier Bill Conway. She hired a first-class team to upgrade the resort with complete makeovers of the rooms. New York interior designer Victoria Hagan was brought in, as well as ecological designer Jeff Dawson, who created biodynamic gardens for Apple founder Steve Jobs. His team transplanted an olive grove to the property and built a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse to cultivate heirloom produce.

Joanne Conway also changed the business model of the Door, implementing a policy that pledges 100% of net profits to select charities in support of her mission to make the world a more loving, humane, and peaceful place.


Before you arrive for your stay, you get a call from a Door representative, who questions you about everything from goals for your visit to dietary restrictions to physical injuries.

I went to the Door with my sister, who is something of a spa aficionado. Although I like her company, I also enjoy the context she provides when we travel together. As a magazine editor I too go to a lot of spas, but this girl outdoes me by a mile. We were picked up at her house in Manhattan Beach by a black sedan and made the easy hour-and-a-half ride to San Marcos. The Door provides sedan transportation within a certain radius of the resort. Some guests drive themselves; others fly to San Diego and get picked up at the airport.

We giggled in anticipation when we arrived and saw the ornate golden doors. Although the resort has Wi-Fi, digital detox is encouraged—i.e., this is not the kind of spa where you can go crazy with selfies. Still, we couldn’t resist. We whipped out our cell phones and snapped a few photos before going inside. We were greeted by a woman in traditional Asian attire, served an herbal tea and then filled out all the necessary paperwork.


One of the best things about the Door is the enchanting grounds. The beautifully manicured Japanese gardens, dotted by bridges and pagodas, are stunning. The picturesque setting puts you in a calm state from the moment you arrive.

The extensive grounds include 20 miles of hiking trails, and many guests take part in the pre-dawn group hikes. My visit to the Door was this past winter, and there was just nothing appealing to me about hiking in the pitch-black cold. (They do provide helmets with lights.) However, many of the guests I spoke with found the hikes invigorating and raved about one in particular, which ended with a full breakfast at one of the Door’s sprawling vegetable gardens.

Countless exercise classes are on offer, which you preselect but can change at any time. They include Pilates, spinning, and yoga. Twice I opted for yoga and, as luck would have it, was the only person in the class. (December is not one of the Door’s busier months.) In short, those two classes were excellent and enlightening. Who knew I was doing downward dog incorrectly all these years?

Guests can also sign up for activities like archery, tennis, and belly dancing (we loved this!) or a private fencing lesson with Olympic champion Dmitri Guy.

As for pampering, most guests sign up for the seven-day all-inclusive package, which includes six massage treatments, one body scrub, two body wraps, and four facials. In a nutshell, my sister and I gave the spa services all five stars.

Also included in the package: private sessions with a personal trainer. My session was an enjoyable workout, but my PT could have pushed me more. Even though I’m not suffering from any injuries and am in relatively good shape, she seemed tentative and I followed suit. A nice touch: Each trainer creates a packet of all the activities in the workout for the guest to take home.

À la carte health-and-wellness options are extensive. They include private healing, nutrition, hypnotherapy, meditation, shaman sessions. and acupuncture.

There are a host of group evening activities and speakers. During our stay we went to lectures by a nutritionist, an astrologer, and a somewhat woo-woo session with a shaman. We also took advantage of an entertaining cooking class in the Door’s attractive commercial kitchen.


Dining at the Door is a pleasant experience. Cultivating a backyard approach to farm-to-table cuisine, executive Chef Greg Frey Jr. grounds his menus in seasonal ingredients grown and produced on the property. (An al fresco lunch is served each week in one of the gardens, which I recommend highly.) You can choose from a number of meal sizes, and if you want more food you can order it from the table. The resort does not serve alcohol, red meat, butter, or salt at meals. (Although we did order a glass of wine served in our rooms on the last night).

Weather permitting, lunch is served poolside. Dinner is served in a large dining room, which is filled with long communal tables. On the first night, guests are asked to introduce themselves to the group. Whereas at some gatherings this could invoke painfully detailed discourses, intros were basic and on the reserved side.

Each day a midmorning snack of tomato broth is laid out for guests and, if you’re hungry, you can order little cups of healthy items like nuts throughout the day.


The Door advises you to try to let your hair down for the week. After all, you are just with a bunch of women. (Men’s and coed camp weeks are designated several times a year, but the rest of the time the resort is devoted to women.)

I was advised to bring very little in terms of clothes. My Door rep shared over the phone that the spa provides sweat suits and a toiletry kit filled with the Door’s products. I followed that advice, but honestly missed my Lululemons. The smallest size sweat suit was large on me and I felt dumpy. The resort also provides the customary Japanese yakuta robe, which you’ll see a lot of guests wearing around campus at any given time.

As for accommodations, you can opt to stay in a 1,000-squre-foot villa with a large deck, which has the vibe of a cabin in the forest, or you can choose a more central room. The rooms are spacious and have a more modern vibe (you can request a refrigerator) as well as a nice-size closet and bathroom.

So who is a typical Golden Door guest? Let’s start with the obvious: a person with dispensable income. Aside from that, they cut a wide swath. The guests the week I attended were in the 35- to 60-year age range and included a woman suffering from a terminal illness, a pair of lifelong best friends, a woman recovering from a serious brain injury, a blind woman who was shadowed by a guide, two girlfriends who kept casually tossing out that they’d flown in on a private jet, and a publicist for a popular hip-hop star. (Her stay was apparently a gift from him.) Unlike some spas where you see a lot of fraternizing, at the Door polite conversation is saved for communal mealtimes. In other words, guests tend to keep to themselves.

On the final morning of our stay, my sister and I sat waiting for our sedan. We felt relaxed and pampered and ready to return to the real world. How long would the feeling of Zen remain? We weren’t quite sure—so we took a selfie to remember.

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