Go through the Golden Door to pamper mind and body

Actress Candice Bergen and husband Marshall Rose are lying on mats, legs in the air, following the commands of the perky instructor in the Golden Door's 8:15 a.m. stretch class. So are pink-haired British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes and an Ohio forklift mogul and his wife.

Most have awakened before dawn to hike the hills of this 377-acre retreat 45 minutes northeast of San Diego, then sweat in exercise sessions, lift weights under the tutelage of personal trainers or slip into a heated robe after a lemongrass scrub — one of the sybaritic body treatments on the menu here.

"I've never done anything like this," says Boston Legal star Bergen, enjoying decaf chocolate-flavored coffee served poolside after a low-fat chicken burrito lunch.

The week-long program is only for financial heavyweights. Each guest pays more than $1,000 a day to trim down, de-stress, weather a life challenge such as a death or divorce, or get a lifestyle revamp.

They fork it over gladly: The Golden Door, founded in 1958 by fitness visionary Deborah Szekely, is legendary.

What's viewed as the first luxury destination spa in the USA began as a weight-loss oasis that catered to movie stars looking to drop pounds for the cameras and still is considered the gold standard of U.S. spas as it marks its 50th anniversary this year.

Much of what Szekely (pronounced "SAY-kay") has been preaching for years — finding peace of mind as well as dropping pounds, building a buff body and eating creative organic cuisine — has set the agenda for other spas across the nation.

"It was the first of its kind … the ultimate in a truly relaxing mind/body experience. You're going to get it all," says Mary Bemis, editor in chief of Organic Spa magazine.

So chi-chi is the clientele that the address is not publicized and spa literature advises guests to "refrain from seeking out prominent individuals … for undue attention."

VIPs who have passed through the embossed gold front door and strolled tranquil grounds adorned with koi pond, sand gardens and antique Japanese lanterns include generations of Hollywood greats (from Gloria Swanson to Barbra Streisand), business bigwigs (auto magnate Lee Iacocca and Vegas kingpin Steve Wynn) and media headliners (Oprah Winfrey and Tina Brown). About 70% of guests are repeaters; 400 who've logged 10-plus visits have planted bamboo trees. A third of the 160 staff members have been here a decade or more.

A week at the Door involves 24-hour pampering and personal attention from the moment you walk over a wooden bridge (symbolizing leaving the world behind) to be greeted by a Japanese woman in a kimono offering a cup of hot cranberry tea. The property, inspired by Szekely's Asian travels, is styled like an ancient Japanese inn, with sliding doors with (synthetic) rice paper panels and Zenlike, uncluttered guestrooms without TVs and adorned with Far Eastern art.

Each guest (the capacity is 40) gets his or her own room. During co-ed weeks, couples use the extra for their daily in-room massages.

Allowing men (its male-only weeks have become hugely popular) is one of the changes at the Door since the days when spas were viewed as "fat farms" where gals retreated to lose pounds.

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