On a nondescript road in the rambling hills near Escondido, Calif., bejeweled gold doors mark the gateway to the Golden Door spa, the getaway where Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Taylor, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Burt Lancaster and other Hollywood luminaries escaped to shape up between film roles. More recent visitors include Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, Nicole Kidman and Barbra Streisand.
Founded in 1958 by Deborah Szekely and her then-husband, Edmond, the Golden Door initially accommodated just 12 guests as an upscale alternative to Rancho La Puerta, the “health camp” the Szekelys opened in 1940 in Tecate, Mexico, a forerunner of today’s wellness retreats. The earliest visitors brought tents, climbed nearby Mt. Kuchumaa and tended a vegetable garden.
If Rancho La Puerta resembled a commune, the Golden Door was a place for pampering. Royalty and heads of state joined the steady stream of (temporary) refugees from Hollywood on the trek to San Diego County.
In 1975, Deborah Szekely built a new Golden Door complex a mile west of the original, a series of buildings inspired by Japanese honjin, or inns, that attracted wealthy clients who indulged in spa cuisine, body wraps and strenuous exercise. The retreat still includes the traditional bathhouse and Japanese gardens, a bamboo forest, labyrinths, koi ponds and a vast, museum-worthy collection of outdoor lanterns and Asian art acquired over the years by Szekely.
But the sparkle began to dim after the spa changed hands in 1998 and again in 2005, and the venerable name was added to other corporate properties. In the meantime, the spa industry — and the competition — was growing. It was time for the Golden Door to get a dose of its own medicine, refashioning and rejuvenating.
In 2012, 22-time guest Joanne Conway, wife of billionaire philanthropist Bill Conway, bought the spa for $24.8 million. The new management, led by Chief Operating Officer Kathy Van Ness, instigated a series of upgrades: makeovers for the 40 guest rooms and the lobby and updated programs and products. Renovations are expected to be completed by the end of September. The ultimate goal? Restore the luster.
“The Golden Door is slightly ahead of the curve, in terms of what’s happening in the destination spa space,” said Mia Kyricos, chief brand officer of Spafinder Wellness Inc., noting that her company’s 2014 trend report highlights the development of retreats near large metropolitan areas, in the hopes of eliminating the need for plane travel. “Their approach is to go even deeper with their offering, to increase the authenticity of the mother ship and, in some ways, to reclaim the position that they had originally.”
To that end, the grounds have been expanded, from 377 acres to 600, including 20 miles of hiking trails. New York-based interior designer Victoria Hagan is refreshing the décor. A newly curated boutique is focusing on unique finds — antique kimonos, obis repurposed as table runners, a collection of jewelry from featured artisans and a branded Golden Door product line that is expanding into fashion and food.
Exterior additions include a transplanted olive orchard, chickens for fresh eggs, a 3,000-square-foot computerized greenhouse and five biodynamic culinary, floral and herb gardens, courtesy of Jeff Dawson, director of a new lands and farms division who previously created biodynamic gardens for Apple founder Steve Jobs. Produce includes fruits and vegetables in multiple varieties (there are 50 types of tomatoes) and herbs such as lemon verbena and lavender that are mixed into fresh spa scrubs and a newly formulated, locally produced Golden Door skin-care and beauty line.
Of course, all this luxury doesn’t come cheap. A four-day minimum stay is $5,800, and a seven-day stay — which includes personal training sessions, customized skin-care treatments, daily massage, herbal body wraps, manicure, pedicure, hair treatment, classes, lectures, meals and a hand car wash — is $8,250.
Although the Golden Door clientele is primarily female, male guests are a growing business. There are currently two coed weeks and five men’s weeks each year (an additional two are being added in 2015). The spa fitness program has been expanded to include triathlons, motor-biking and all-day hikes.
Jim Pedas, a film producer and former movie theater owner, has visited the Golden Door 115 times since 1979. “I was a spa-hopper until I settled down there,” he said. “It is very special because of the spirit that Deborah ingrained in the place, and that basic spirit has not changed. Opening those golden doors is like entering the doors of paradise. Suddenly I feel very, very calm.”