We check into Southern California’s newly relaunched Golden Door Spa to see what wellness 2.0 looks like
Even before I arrive at the Golden Door Spa—a storied getaway set in a valley a few miles north of San Diego—I have already mentally moved in. Thanks to the welcome materials I received in advance, visions of daily in-room massages, breakfast in bed served on Edo period–inspired ceramics, and afternoon strolls through stone labyrinths dance through my head.
But in my five-star fever dream, I’ve somehow neglected to register the fact that the resort—which, since its founding by healthy-living icon Deborah Szekely in 1958, helped to popularize such now-ubiquitous pillars of wellness as yoga, almond milk, and meditation—really does feature handmade-in-Mexico gilt doors. The ornate entrance through which I’m ceremoniously ushered by a waiting staff member (who instructs me to breathe deeply while I make this transition from the outside world) features a hammered, gem-encrusted design that’s said to represent the tree of life.
As we walk to the lobby along a suspended slatted-wood path that’s flanked by white camellia trees and bends sharply at the middle, my guide informs me that the kink in the road is intentional. “Evil spirits can only travel in a straight line, so the change in direction keeps them out,” she says with a wink. I nod, even glancing over my shoulder as if to catch sight of the stranded spirits we’ve left behind. Apparently, walking through bejeweled doors has a skepticism-voiding effect.
I’m not the first to succumb to the Golden Door’s spell: over the decades the spa has welcomed royalty, dignitaries, and celebrities from Nicole Kidman to Barbra Streisand and Oprah Winfrey. Its formula combines a Far East–inspired atmosphere with a pampered-inside-and-out approach to clean living. In 1998 Szekely sold the property to an international hotel group, but in 2012 it was purchased by longtime guest Joanne Conway, who promptly implemented a Newman’s Own–style business model—all profits go to charity—and hired general manager and COO Kathy Van Ness. A self-professed “fashionista gone rogue” whose resume includes a stint as president of DVF, Van Ness has spent the last two years updating the resort, developing a house skincare line, and restoring the Golden Door to its former cachet in time for a relaunch this past September. “We talked to a lot of designers, and they kept wanting to put their stamp on things by placing mirrors behind the bed and marble in the bathrooms,” says Van Ness. “That was the biggest challenge. This place is historical, so [any updates] had to be done artfully.”
The architecture of the Golden Door is emphatically Zen; Szekely, who traveled extensively throughout Japan with architect Robert Mosher, envisioned the property as a traditional ryokan. Mosher’s blueprint comprises a network of one-level guest rooms with ashy wood facades and winged hip-and-gable roofs, as well as pavilions created by noted landscape designer Takendo Arii. Buildings are connected by narrow walkways lined with flickering Kasuga lanterns, which lead to rock gardens, koi ponds, and gently burbling streams. It is the sort of place you go to in your mind when someone tells you to imagine the most tranquil spot possible.
Enter New York interior designer Victoria Hagan, who set about the sensitive task of refreshing the guest rooms’ decor. Armed with a materials palette of bamboo, wood, Japanese papers, and grasses, Hagan blended elements such as the in-room tokonomas (shrinelike alcoves styled with Asian art dating back to the early 1700s) with textured cream wallpaper and indigo throw pillows against pure white sheets. Hagan’s work also extends to communal areas such as the dining room, the bathhouse spa, the yoga studio, and the lobby—a space furnished with a hand-painted Japanese screen and a brass singing bowl of floating blossoms. In the Wisteria Lounge, where cucumber-and-mint-infused water is offered round the clock, Hans Wegner wishbone chairs encircle an orange lacquer–top table stocked with gluten-free muffins and crudités, and walls are covered with archival photos depicting notable guests, including Elizabeth Taylor and Eva Gabor.
The grounds, meanwhile, have undergone their own rebirth. The site’s five gardens were dramatically expanded under the direction of Jeff Dawson, a master horticulturist and organic farmer whose clients have included Wine Country vineyard owners and Apple founder Steve Jobs. Dawson’s biodynamic methods, which hinge on a cosmos-sensitive calendar and entail specific preparations involving cow horns and crystals to increase the soil’s fertility, have resulted in lush, Edenic plots that swell with seasonal produce: 50 types of tomatoes, melons, Swiss chard, broccoli, fennel, baby heirloom onions, blackberries, and every conceivable type of lettuce. A tea garden planted with lemongrass, hibiscus, and 12 different kinds of mint is being cultivated to cater to guests’ desires, and a coop of fluffy, fawned-over heritage chickens (during an early-morning jaunt I spy a gardener lovingly embracing a silver Wyandotte named Houdini) provides eggs for morning omelets.
Spend a week at the spa, and your daily agenda reads something like this: a sunrise hike amid citrus orchards and jacaranda trees; lunch taken poolside; a private training session; an afternoon astrological reading; and a locally sourced fish dinner (the dress code is sweats paired with a yukata kimono) followed by dessert in the form of a melt-in-your-mouth chocolate truffle—a decadent wonder that against all odds is actually good for you. The truffle, I can report, exceeds all expectations; but then again, shooting for the moon is the order of the day. “This is our flagship, and there’s only one,” says Van Ness. “So everything that happens here has to be perfect.”