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Self-Health Experience

In a region known for its fast-paced attractions and opulent resorts, it’s refreshing to see a local destination like Golden Door Spa encouraging guests to slow down and focus on managing their personal health and well-being.

Nestled among trees in Escondido, the 377-acre property offers a secluded retreat where people can wind down enough for some soul-searching and a little introspection.

Guests in need of a respite have included such celebrities as Barbra Streisand, Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart. A significant number of the spa’s visitors are repeat clientele, as many as 60 percent, and a large majority of guests come from out of town. A seven-day stay priced at $7,750 including meals, fitness programs and spa treatments is the norm, for up to 40 guests who usually are women, although five weeks are reserved for men and women, and four weeks for men.

Judy Bird, spa fitness executive director, said people indulge in the Golden Door for a variety of reasons, but most often it’s to jump-start their fitness activity or work through a transition period, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, divorce, or they’ve recently become empty nesters. Participants have ranged from triathletes to a well-known 87-year-old in great shape, she said.

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Although the year-round business dipped with the economic downturn the past few years, it’s experienced a revival of late.

Marketing a Reputation

Marketing efforts that focus on word-of-mouth and referrals have helped. Golden Door also reaches out to high-end travel agencies, promotes through social media and runs campaigns geared toward editors of travel, health and fitness magazines. Shape magazine even ranked Golden Door No. 2 on its list of top fitness spas in the world published in August.

With a 4:1 staff-to-guest ratio, Golden Door Spa is a dream come true not only for the guests but for founder Deborah Szekely, who envisioned a luxury Zen-influenced spa serving a small number of clients after founding Rancho La Puerta fitness resort in 1940 with her late husband Edmond Szekely in Tecate, Baja California, Mexico. Deborah Szekely opened the first Golden Door Spa at the old Highway 395 and Deer Springs Road in 1958. Caldwell said when Interstate 15 was built in the early ’70s, the property was taken by eminent domain and Golden Door relocated a short distance away to its current site on Deer Springs Road. At the time it was the only commercially zoned property in the rural neighborhood, she said.

Over the years several other locations opened in Arizona, Florida, Utah, and Puerto Rico, and in 1998 Szekely sold the Escondido Golden Door, which is now owned by the The Blackstone Group’s Luxury Resorts division.

A Major Player

Blackstone owns roughly 50 companies globally, including SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Merlin Entertainments, which runs Legoland California, Hilton Worldwide and is the majority owner of Hotel del Coronado.

The experience with Golden Door Spa begins well before the visitors arrive each Sunday in the form of pre-registration packets to determine their interest level in participating in cardio exercises, strength training, yoga or meditation. Used in tandem with phone or personal interviews, the information is helpful in crafting a weeklong program tailored to the individual.

Promotional material indicates a high priority is placed on ensuring the program is balanced and achievable. “We will work with you to create an active schedule that also allows time for rest, renewal and pampering,” the brochure states.

Golden Door Spa General Manager Rachel Caldwell said they promote mental, physical and nutritional balance by making time for relaxation, exercise or strength conditioning, and quality meals.

“Like the old three-legged milking stool, you take away any one leg and you’re out of balance,” said the longtime staffer who has worked for the company for more than 50 years. There are between 140 and 150 people on staff at the spa.

A typical day at the spa starts with a 6 a.m. hike, followed by breakfast in the rooms, 8:30 a.m. warm-up classes, then aerobic classes and a 10:15 a.m. juice break. Around midmorning guests get a massage or beauty treatment, and reverse the regimen in the afternoon. At 1 p.m., lunch is served by the pool and afterward the guests return to their scheduled activities, such as Pilates, dance, tennis, T’ai Chi and archery. A healthy dinner prepared with fresh vegetables grown on the property and served in the dining room caps off the day.

A tour of the 35 acres of developed property in Escondido reveals serene architecture and landscaping patterned after the millennium-old Japanese Honjin, country inns that are designed to welcome the weary traveler. Four courtyards adjacent to guest rooms are designed in Japanese garden style and include the Bell court with a 300-year-old bell formerly housed in a temple in Japan, and an Azalea court with a koi pond. The upper Azalea court contains a sand garden that replicates those used by monks who rake the sand as part of their meditation during prayer hour.

“We invite the guests to sit on the benches and meditate,” Caldwell said. “They have time to really quiet the mind. They can get to the point where their inner thoughts percolate up, and it can be very insightful. Things can come from this type of meditation.”

Time for soothing reflection is also afforded at the campus’ waterfall and at a labyrinth similar to an ancient floor labyrinth placed in Chartres Cathedral in France. Not a maze, the path is a classic 11-circuit design which is used for walking continuously and meditatively toward the center, then back out again. Caldwell said it takes about half an hour to complete the walk at a moderate pace.

“It’s a metaphor for life,” she said. “If you keep going and you get to the center there’s nothing to block you.”

Absent any television on the site, Golden Door Spa plans activities such as dance classes that have been taught by “Dancing with the Stars” winner Karina Smirnoff during Dance Week and cooking classes taught by executive chef Curtis Cooke during Culinary Week.

Cooke said he puts an emphasis on a plant-based diet and looks to Golden Door’s own garden first when planning meals. Whatever is in season, from spinach to radishes, will dictate the protein to be paired with it, he said.

“It’s the complete reverse of how most chefs come up with their ideas,” said Cooke, who is inspired by the book, “Healing Spices: How to Use 50 Everyday and Exotic Spices to Boost Health and Beat Disease,” because he likes the idea of using natural healing methods.

Through the activities, the weekly program and reflection opportunities Bird said guests get a rejuvenating experience. By Thursday, they feel safe enough to let their guard down and look inside a little more and by the end of the week they’ve developed lasting friendships, she said. When it’s time to leave they’re sent off with a program and a promise that the fitness staff will be in touch.

“Even though the guests go home our staff is still checking on them, so many of our guest relationships go on until they come back again,” Bird said.

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