10 Reasons to Visit the Hidden SoCal Spa of the 1%

Golden Door: Over the hills, but not too far away

By Reuben Brody

Here's 10 Reasons to Spend $10K on a Spa
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19 October 2016

Status updates. Selfie sticks. “Social” media (which you can’t spell without me, mind you).

These are solipsistic times we’re living in. Probably a good idea to shut it all out and get away for awhile.

Best place to do that? Golden Door, a palatial spa hidden in the hills outside of San Diego that offers some of the swankiest relaxation services around.

We just spent a week there. First impression: it’s basically a RESET button for your life.

But if you still need convincing, we’ve got 10 reasons to attend — none of which involve your Instagram.

1. The place has a seriously rich history

Golden Door was started in the 1950s by Deborah Szekely. She’s credited with creating the modern spa scene, and was a go-to guru for movie studios looking to get actors screen-ready. The Men’s Camp Week — which your correspondent had the distinct pleasure of attending a fortnight ago — was first introduced in 1960 and fast became a favorite of folks like the Rat Pack, Aldous Huxley and Gilligan’s Island star Jim Backus.

Now, the book on health and wellness has been rewritten quite a bit since the days of Backus smoking a cigar and reading a paper while having his fat jiggled. These days, expect high-intensity workouts and Hinoki body wraps. But Szekely’s holistic ethos and the retreat’s Japanese-inspired layout — think bonsai trees, koi ponds, a bamboo forest and Kasuga lanterns — remain intact.

That’s all despite the property having changed hands a few times. Szekely sold it to Grand Bay, which in turn sold it to Wyndham Resorts. LXR, a hedge fund, bought it during the recession and was going to carve it up into McMansions until Joanne Conway and her husband Bill Conway (Carlyle Group) stepped in. Conway was a longtime guest and couldn’t fathom McMansions in this paradise. Since 2014, she’s really elevated the digs, buying up more acreage to keep the grounds secluded as well as provide more room for hiking and the on-site organic farm.

2. You start every day with a five-mile sunrise hike

There are over 600 acres of pristine hillside and 20 miles of hiking here — enough to break a new trail each day. These are guided, and you have great conversations with the other guests as you make your way up to the top. Or you can walk in solitude, which I did one day, ascending through a marine layer to find the landscape below blanketed in James Turrell-like hues. It was a surreal and calming experience.

3. You get to wear Japanese robes all day

It’s actually called a yukata, and to me is symbolic of the elegant simplicity of the place. They try to minimize the number of decisions you have to make each day. Clothing is one obvious example. In fact, you don’t really need to bring clothes at all. They provide everything, including the yukata, which you wear to dinner. I was resistant at first, but grew into the soft cotton sweats that serve as a uniform. You get clean gear every night.

4. You dictate the experience. Every guest’s itinerary is different.

Before you get there, they have you fill out a questionnaire that covers your diet, health needs, exercise requests and relaxation preferences. If you want to switch it up, the motherly concierge, Debbie Ann Meyers, will accommodate your requests with aplomb.

5. The fitness program will have you toned within a week

After breakfast, you take a break and then you have either a group fitness class — boxing, supercircuits, swimming, etc. — or a session with a personal trainer (each guest gets one for the week). There are also interdisciplinary classes to help you focus, like yoga and archery. At the end of the week, you get a pamphlet detailing, with pictures, each exercise so you can replicate it at home.

I have always found pull-ups challenging, and told my trainer at Golden Door I wanted to improve at them. She taught me some TRX exercises that strengthened my core and back muscles, and now I’m cranking out three sets of 10 every time I go to the gym.

6. The food kicks ass, even if you’ve requested a kooky diet

Almost everything you eat is grown in their organic garden. That includes the eggs. You eat lunch out in said garden one day, and can tour their beehives, where honey is made. There are snacks and protein shakes served between classes. Bento boxes. Steel-cut oatmeal with fresh berries. Pan-seared free-range chicken. It’s all very fresh. It’s all very good.

The menu was designed in part by Susan Piergeorge, the resident nutritionist who dispenses health knowledge with a razor-sharp certainty. Her class on detoxifying foods is a nice companion to the no-nonsense ethos espoused in Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, which happens to be one of the books in the guest rooms. Definitely read it.

7. The conversations are big league, so pack your wit

The guys who go to Golden Door are a clique, many are return visitors, and they’re all at the top of their game, from movie producers to real-estate developers to judges. Meals, morning hikes and everything in between are filled with stimulating, worldly conversations that’ll garner many a meaningful connection. And every day at noon, the guys get together to play water volleyball. It’s competitive but completely inclusive. The banter between the net is reminiscent of being a kid at camp. When else do you get to do this? Not often.

8. Daily massages

There’s a massage table in your closet, and every afternoon a masseuse arrives to knead the knots in your shoulders, soothe the furrow in your brow and alleviate all sorts of stresses you didn’t even realize existed.

9. Yes, get the facial. And the manicure. And the pedicure ...

Facials? I thought they were ridiculous. I was foolish. A: Having your face massaged with soft soaps and lotions is intensely relaxing. B: You have no idea how dirty your pores are until they’ve been cleaned properly. When I got home people told me I looked great. Who doesn’t love compliments? Manicures and pedicures also weren’t my thing, but I’ve since recanted.

10. If a more relaxed, handsomer you doesn’t help make the world better, your money will

Since Joanne Conway took over, all of Golden Door’s net profits go to their foundation, which funds charities such as the Whole Planet Foundation and the Forensic Health Services, a charity for victims of sexual abuse.

As for what to do once the vacation is over, here’s how to make the feeling last ...

Like any great vacation, you’re going to feel pretty amazing when you return. People will notice it, too. And like any vacation, that sensation will wane as the stresses and routines of your daily life resume. So we made a list of local spots to keep you on track.

Skin Care: John Allan
Morning Hike: Temescal Canyon
Boxing: Trinity Boxing Club
Personal trainer: Handstand
Yoga: Austin Hollingshead at Equinox or Playlist
Healthy Snacks: Beverly Hills Juice
Diet: Blue Apron
Meditation: InsightLA
Massage: Burke Williams
Sensory Deprivation: Pause Float Studio

And finally, I’d like to finish with anecdote that was shared with me by an older gentleman who’d been to Golden Door 120 times. His family goes, too. As I walked with him to dinner one night, he told me that Deborah (the founder) gave him some advice that he continues to practice weekly, and I have begun to, as well:

At the end of every week, take an assessment of the events and ask yourself what was life-enhancing and what was life-diminishing? Subtract or minimize all that was diminishing and add all that was enhancing.

Like much of what you’ll learn at Golden Door, it’s simple — but not easy.

Recent images provided by Jessica Sample

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