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Golden Door

by Nora Zelevansky

golden door california, usa

Ultimately, each individual finds his or her own distinct rhythm here. That might include daily visits to the bathhouse—which smells of heavenly rosemary grown on-site—for sauna, steam and a hot plunge beside a screen showing slow-moving images created by a renowned photographer and meant to promote mindfulness and calm.

At iconic wellness destination Golden Door, there are literal metallic doors.

Shimmering in hammered Tunisian brass and copper with inlaid semiprecious stones, the entry depicts the Tree of Life in relief, reflecting what—and who—stands before it.

Guests cross the threshold of these doors into profound quiet. Ready or not, a calm descends like a whisper through the surrounding craggy desert greenery.

Minds still churning from their day of hectic travel, visitors are led down a slatted wooden bridge, bent so that negativity may not follow. Halfway across, they’re encouraged to pause. Take three deep breaths. Leave the baggage of daily life—as well as their actual baggage—behind. (Someone else will be handling that…and almost everything else here.) Then, they’re ushered inside a small Japanese Ryokan-style reception area for herbal tea and crisp cookies.

In many ways, these first moments at Golden Door are emblematic of the whole weeklong experience at this San Diego area resort and spa, which began pioneering retreat wellness in 1958. Back then, longevity was the guiding principle here and, in many ways, it still is today. But modern-day seekers are more educated about their wellbeing on a holistic level and their expectations extend way beyond the cottage cheese diet one might associate with the original health resorts. “We see our guests needing to pause,” says Kathy Van Ness, general manager and COO, “become closer to nature and…spend time in a place that soothes and reprioritizes the soul.”

Always evolving, the property recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation, refreshing guest rooms, reimagining the pool and stone-tiled bathhouse, adding on-trend treatments to the menu like full-body LED therapy and a cold plunge. It offers private sessions in everything from tarot and astrological readings to mental health deep dives with EMDR and psychotherapy. Still, the object remains the same: to shed everyday worries and distractions in order to focus on the things people tend to deprioritize and even lose in the chaos of daily life—most notably, themselves.

This, and the intimate size and communal atmosphere, is what differentiates Golden Door from many other all-inclusive retreats that might emphasize nutrition, fitness and self-exploration, but perhaps not achieve a sense of community or cohesive transformation. This and the fact that it gives 100% of net profits to charities for children of abuse. (Yes, you are reading that correctly, 100%.) So, yes, there are Pilates classes, juice and broth breaks, and foam rolling workshops. But, most importantly, the experience here is immersive. It’s total. Guests get absorbed in it. Alone and together. So they may emerge a bit more complete.

Inside the property itself, the aesthetic is simple and clean, inspired by Japanese wabi-sabi design that incorporates natural materials in raw form. This spirit of embracing—and even uplifting—imperfection feels particularly resonant here, where the goal is to connect to the authentic self (whatever that may be). Many of the guests here are recovering from difficult periods, taking a beat to work through trauma or are just giving themselves the gift of a pause to refuel.

“My first trip to Golden Door was transformative,” recalls Julie Carrigan, a Chicago-based guest who has returned with her sister multiple times. “I was at a point in my life where my children were off at college; I was running from a newly empty house and was contemplating a career change. Golden Door provided a sacred quiet space to really look at myself, take care of myself and reflect on what’s next.” 

This is a beautiful place to do just that: a matrix of black and natural wood outdoor walkways is lined with 40 spare, yet plush, single-occupancy guest rooms encircling a courtyard or garden (including two spacious villas in a different area). Even family members and friends who travel here together must stay separately, all part of the overall mission to eliminate distractions and focus entirely on taking space for personal health and evolution—the essential you.

For that same reason, the guests’ core needs have been thoroughly considered and addressed in advance. Though weekly themes may differ, from Classic Women’s Week to Men’s Week to Coed Food & Wine, this fundamental tenet remains the same: While Golden Door is posh on many levels (including options for private air travel and a partnership with Singapore Airlines), the greatest indulgence it affords is eliminating the need to think about the minutiae of daily life. The experience offers a rare break—the opportunity to make mental space—for everyone from burnt-out parents to people struggling with loss or change. The property supplies clothing and sandals, daily laundry service, skincare products from its own line that go way beyond average hotel giveaways—think: bamboo face scrub and a peel-a-way masque. “Golden Door is the epitome of luxury,” says Van Ness. “It is all about touch, feel, taste and creating a life-changing experience.” It’s also about finding clarity in simplicity.

Breakfast is delivered in-room each day, selected from a list of three or four options (but always customizable) including allergen-friendly delights like granola and fruit with coconut yogurt or an avocado tartine. This attempt to alleviate decision fatigue also extends to communal lunches and dinners, which are never repetitive and include pre-selected options from bento boxes and Thai soup to vegan gumbo and rack of lamb. A personalized daily schedule is curated for each guest based on an extensive pre-arrival interview—and, during free time, a selection of 80 possible classes is up for grabs.

So, when it comes to logistics, little thought is required. 

On each schedule, there are daily massages and facials. Rosemary herbal wraps. Manis and pedis that dry remarkably, almost magically, fast. And that pampering goes a long way toward relaxation and comfort, though it often still takes a few days for the guests’ brains to slow down enough to synch with this quieter rhythm. There are private training sessions and exercise classes that can be truly challenging like outdoor HIIT and cardio barre.

But many say it’s the bonding between guests during these shared experiences that has the most impact. Classes like breathwork (which can evoke laughing and crying jags) and meditative sound baths create a kind of catharsis for everyone present, which feels both individual and shared. Early morning group hikes—on 30 miles of meadow and mountain trails within 600 acres shared with the likes of mountain lions and coyotes—begin before sunrise and end with the morning light. There are myriad chances to try new things and meet new people, express vulnerability without fear of judgement. And perhaps this is what inspires people to return again and again.

As Van Ness says, Golden Door seems to become a part of people’s lives. Visitors often visit once or twice each year to re-up their self-care. In fact, the return rate here is a staggering 60%. For men’s weeks, there are guests who have stayed upwards of 130 times! Guests say they return because the experience makes a real difference in their lives. “It [has] really allowed me to dig deeper into my past and relook at events from my life with a compassionate perspective,” recalls Carrigan. “It has helped me understand where I was stuck and allowed me to break free of old useless messages and mindsets.”

Ultimately, each individual finds his or her own distinct rhythm here. That might include daily visits to the bathhouse—which smells of heavenly rosemary grown on-site—for sauna, steam and a hot plunge beside a screen showing slow-moving images created by a renowned photographer and meant to promote mindfulness and calm. Some people request smoothies in the morning or hard-boiled eggs in the afternoon. For some, missing their morning hike and stretch would be akin to sacrilege.

Whether individual or in groups, rituals are core to the process here—even some that might initially seem eccentric in a Nine Perfect Strangers kind of way, but ultimately fit. In the evening, after dinner (to which guests are asked to wear their in-room kimonos), there’s a tradition of walking up to the main gate to knock three times—once for a great week, once for great weather, and lastly to set a personal intention. On the final night, there’s a silent and solemn walk through a labyrinth. Guests scribble down intentions for the future, then follow a meditative path of the women before them, listening for any internal messages they might receive until arriving at center to dissolve their words in water as a manifestation.

The combination of all these experiences does seem to offer a kind of clarity and existential exhale. “I see our guests when they arrive and when they depart,” notes Van Ness, “and the transformation is always magical.”

A week away—and then they’re golden.


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