Nestled in a sunny valley outside San Diego, the sprawling oasis of Golden Door has served as a peaceful, Zen-inspired sanctuary for spa-goers and relaxation-seekers since 1958. When founder Deborah Szekely first opened Golden Door, she was already a seasoned retreat professional. She and her husband had managed the famed Rancho La Puerta in Baja California, Mexico, which was at the time a bit more rustic than than what Szekely envisioned in an ideal spa retreat—rejuvenating and renewing activities paired with luxury amenities. In opening Golden Door, whose lush grounds—complete with stone walkways, picturesque waterfalls and Japanese gardens—and astounding range of wellness programs, Szekely realized her brain child. And it has topped the short list of world-class spa destinations since day one.
Typical guest visits are booked in weeklong increments (although in 2009, the retreat began offering three- and four-night options), which are completely customized to the client’s individual needs and concerns—may they involve skin problems, weight control, pain conditions, behavioral troubles or issues with smoking cessation. “While some people certainly come just to relax, many guests visit during a time of transition,” explains Judy Bird, executive director. “Maybe their children have gone away to college, or they are recently divorced, or they are caring for their ailing parents.”
The seven-day time frame allows Golden Door staff members to get to know each guest personally and, in turn, better serve him/her. “We know who has a back issue or who really needs TLC; who isn’t sleeping well or who needs to eat better,” Bird says. Skin care, bodywork, special therapies, fitness and nutritional programs, and evening education programs are also targeted to the individual guest. Bird believes that depth and scope of staffing is the key to Golden Door’s enduring success, noting, “We are able to offer cutting-edge treatments and new developments in fitness education, and we are continually adding services and classes that keep us one step ahead of the curve.” Some of Golden Door’s newest programs include Active Aging—designed for those who may struggle with orthopedic or balance problems—and Hanakasumi—a Japanese body ritual combining exfoliation, massage, reflexology and cherry blossom aromatherapy for a multisensory wellness treatment.
Aligning with the spa’s wellness focus is Golden Door's organic and nutritionally balanced cuisine; the menu items served are constantly updated on both a weekly and seasonal basis. Guest preferences are determined in advance and individual servings are portioned according to clients' health goals. Much of the cuisine originates from the spa’s own garden, and the executive chef regularly meets with the property’s gardeners to discuss planting needs for the future.
Promoting a healthy diet is especially important to founder Szekely, who recently launched the Wellness Warrior program, a grassroots project designed to lobby lawmakers to focus on wellness, be it in the form of nutritious food, clean air or protection of the planet’s resources. The Golden Door owner often promotes this initiative at her weekly visits to the spa, during which she often treats guests to evening wellness lectures.
The spa’s star treatment doesn’t end in the facility. A take-home program is one of the most important components of a Golden Door experience. “So much of what we do is educate,” says Bird. Printed materials from the lectures, fitness DVDs, personalized beauty information and menus are just a sampling of the goodies with which guests leave. For those who want to maintain results achieved in treatment, private-label products used in spa services are available for purchase. “After guests go home, we follow up with emails to check in and see how they are doing,” Bird says.
Guests are also invited to return for designated women’s or men’s weeks, or for specific focus programs. This year’s focus programs will include Inner Door Week, which concentrates on mindfulness and inner wisdom, an in-depth study of Pilates, and expressive arts. “We love it when guests plan return visits with friends made at the spa,” says Bird.
Golden Door aficionados can also relive their experience at any one of the brand’s four other locations in Arizona, Utah, Florida and Puerto Rico. Although these facilities—located in resort hotels—focus more on individual treatments rather than entire integrative programs, guests can still expect the same “variety, personalization and expertise the Golden Door brand represents,” says Bird. “We’re heading into our sixth decade and still setting the industry standard.” —Andrea Renskoff