Healing the inner and outer self at the Golden Door spa

At the Golden Door in San Marcos, Calif., bliss begins at the spa. Included in the prices are daily massages. The facility offers healing for the inner self, too.

At the Golden Door in San Marcos, Calif., bliss begins at the spa. Included in the prices are daily massages. The facility offers healing for the inner self, too.

(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

What does it take to get over a bad breakup? Time mostly, but a visit to an experiential spa such as the Golden Door can speed up the process too.

I was here with a childhood friend, Jackie, as she attempted to regain her center. What was my excuse for visiting this world-class and not inexpensive place for a week? Besides just being a friend, I decided I needed to show myself some appreciation, calibrate life-work balance and take a respite from obligations.

One of America's iconic spas, here's an evening view at the Golden Door.

One of America’s iconic spas, here’s an evening view at the Golden Door.

(Jessica Sample )

Zen retreat


The Golden Door sits on 600 wooded and mountainous acres 40 minutes north of San Diego. At a bend in the walkway to the reception area, our greeter told us that in the Japanese Zen tradition, this was where our worries left us. The demons accompanying us could not make that turn.

The Golden Door was started in 1958 by Deborah Szekely after the success of Rancho La Puerta, her more rustic spa in Tecate, Mexico. The Door (as regulars call it) swiftly became the place where celebrities would frequent to lose weight, escape scandal or relax.

Photos on the walls of the spa’s public spaces document the eras — the 1950s with their glam suits and flowery swim caps, the 1980s with their unfortunate high-cut leotards and headbands. The spa serves mostly women, although five weeks a year are coed and six weeks are for men.

There are never more than 42 guests at a time. There were 38 during our week in early October, some staying for seven days, some for only four.

A guest room at the Golden Door.

A guest room at the Golden Door.

(Jessica Sample)

Our rooms were large and elegantly simple in the style of a Kyoto ryokan, or country inn, with gardens in front and a patio with a burbling brook behind.

Before I arrived, I received a call from a spa consultant inquiring about my week’s program: Did I want the long hike? What types of exercise classes? What spa treatments did I prefer? And did I want to be on the 1,200-, 1,400- or 1,600-calorie meal program? I ordered the 1,400-calorie plan, although my stomach was furious.

Friends for life

There was little need to pack more than a toothbrush, undies and hiking shoes. Supplied daily were shorts, T-shirts, sweats, a robe for treatments and a blue-and-white Japanese yukata (a casual summer kimono) to wear to dinner. I was grateful not to have to put on makeup, jewelry or worry about what to wear. I did bring my own exercise clothing, because I’m not much of a shorts wearer, but everyone donned the yukata for dinner.

I was awakened each morning at 5:15 or 5:30, depending on which hike I had signed up for. The five-mile jaunt left earlier than the moderate two- and three-mile hikes. We assembled on the trail with flashlights in hand, stretched and then climbed straight up the mountain. When I returned 90 minutes later, my chosen breakfast of oatmeal and flax seed was waiting in my room.

My schedule arrived on the breakfast tray. I began with a spine stretch class, then moved on to a vigorous dance or cardio class, then headed to my personal trainer for 50 minutes of firming up the bits I felt needed it (read: entire body). In between, there was a snack break, typically a cup of rich broth. And all this was before lunch.

A delicious and healthful meal at the Golden Door.

A delicious and healthful meal at the Golden Door.

(Jessica Sample )

Food became an obsession for Jackie and me. The first night was tough without a mollifying glass of wine (no alcohol until the final night), and the 1,400 calories were insufficient. We were constantly hungry.

On our second night, a regular from New York told me that I should never be hungry, that I could request snacks at any time and that I must up my calories to 1,600. This I did, but not without stopping to think about what a logistical nightmare it must be to plate 38 different meals, some with truly wacky dietary restrictions.

We ate communally, which may sound dreadful to shy types (you can eat in your room), but opening up to strangers was an experience unto itself.

Many women come here alone, and most have been here many times. Two were on their 20th visit. A week that started with a very reserved first dinner ended with a raucous, friends-for-life last night. The food was delicious, most of it grown organically on the property, and by the end of the week, I was not eating my full 1,600 calories.

After lunch and four hours of exercise, true bliss began at the spa. Included in the price are daily massages, five skin-care treatments, three body wraps, a hair treatment, a manicure and a pedicure. There’s a booklet of a la carte treatments that you can add. I had one of the best deep-tissue massages I had ever had.

Saying yes

Jackie and I had made a pact to be open-minded and try new things.

The Door had speakers daily on acupuncture, astrology, nutrition and meditation. We went to all of them, then added private astrology readings and a personal Tibetan singing bowl session. The singing bowls were placed around and on my body and seemed to have a calming effect and reduced my pain. The astrology reading was uncanny in its accuracy.

I’ve never been much for sitting still and meditating, but the Yoga Nidra (lying down guided meditation) fixed that issue. We also said yes to shopping at the Door’s dangerously fabulous retail store.

On Saturday night, we were granted a glass of wine and then taken to the labyrinth for a candlelight walk beneath the trees. Labyrinths are ancient meditative circle-paths that lead to a center. In this case, in the center, there was a flame in which we burned a piece of paper on which we had written something that we wanted to release from our lives or move beyond.

On Sunday, we walked out those gilded doors feeling fit and tremendously grateful for our lives.


If you go

Golden Door, 777 Deer Springs Road, San Marcos, Calif.; (760) 744-5777, Week-long stays are $8,850 (four-night stays $6,000). Includes airport transfers, all food, daily massage, five skin-care treatments, three herbal wraps, a manicure, a pedicure, all classes and four personal training sessions.