Go through the Golden Door to pamper mind and body

Early guests wore pink exercise suits and turbans, and "we were giving them 750 calories a day and they were starving," Golden Door executive director Judy Bird says. Now, they get 1,100 calories or more daily depending on size and goals — plus unlimited snacks. "The emphasis is more on moderation and being healthy," Bird says.

Szekely, a trim and lively 85-year-old with piercing eyes who has sold the Door but remains as creative director, was a pioneer in requiring a seven-day spa stay.

She sees a week-long visit as a chance to really "get in touch with your inner self" and jump-start lifestyle changes. "It's my opportunity to brainwash people … they feel so good (stretching their exercise parameters and eating sensibly) that they say, 'I can do this. I can feel young again.' "

Leave designer duds home

Guests meet with a staffer on arrival about their needs and goals and get a personalized program that arrives each day printed on a paper fan. You can follow the schedule or ignore it. Room attendants bring freshly laundered Door-issued exercise clothes daily.

"We're taking care of your needs, giving you an opportunity to see what you need — for your mind, body and serenity," assistant spa director Alex Bunshaft tells 16 guests on a recent evening after they've dined on miso-glazed sea bass and poached pear with star anise and cinnamon. "If there's anything you want to change in your life, begin in small ways."

One woman is here to lose weight for a knee-replacement operation; a male guest just quit smoking cold turkey and needs reinforcement.

Jim Dicke, the affable forklift king who has been to the Door many times, spends much of the first evening hugging and catching up with staffers. Kathryn Hinsch of Seattle, a former Microsoft executive who's here for her 12th stay, leads a newcomer through the after-dinner Door ritual: a brisk walk to the front gates to knock on it for good luck. She's in the Door-issued kimonolike yukata that guests are encouraged to wear at dinner.

Hinsch, a trim brunette who's 48 but looks like she's in her 30s, says she tells her husband that "this is not an indulgence. This is budgeted out of our health care budget — not our luxury-vacation budget."

Now head of the non-profit Women's Bioethics Project, Hinsch says that unlike resorts with spas, "this is a place where there are no temptations. It's a nurturing cocoon. It resets my eating and exercise habits. But the most important is the reflection and clarity. It helps me put things in perspective."

A day at the Door begins with a meditative trek starting in the pre-dawn darkness. The only jarring note: the hum of traffic from a freeway about a mile away. Next comes breakfast — maybe muesli or oatmeal — served in-room or in the dining room.

A sample schedule from this reporter's daily fan: warm-up; yoga; strength training; morning broth and vegetables; session with private trainer; water exercise; lunch poolside; facial; circuit training in the gym; fresh juice break; in-room massage; makeup session; dinner followed by a lecture on maximizing metabolism. It sounds like a lot of activity, but the result is energizing, exhilarating and soothing. Unlike larger spas, the focus is on your specific needs 24/7.

Guests are encouraged to leave expensive jewelry and designer duds at home (not all do). Door-issued gear is meant to be an equalizer and eliminate the stress of dressing to impress.

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