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.
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.
Friendships are forged in a week of cloistered togetherness that invariably ends with hugs and exchanged contact info. "You make lifelong friends," SpaFinder.com president Susie Ellis says. A former Golden Door fitness instructor, she met her husband here.
'Nobody cares who you are'
"After the third day, nobody cares who you are, what you're wearing or what you make," says repeat guest Conley Wolfswinkel, a resort developer from Tempe, Ariz. "By the end of the week, you know everyone and you're trading apples for oranges on the mountain (hikes)."
Still, an icon such as Iacocca had some fellow spa-goers fawning and trying to make business contacts, he recalls. This week, most guests take pains not to bother Bergen. But all are aware that a star is in their midst, and some approach to say they admire her work or jockey to sit next to her at meals.
Nancy Kranzberg, a down-to-earth arts patron from St. Louis, likes the camaraderie but remembers a hoity-toity moment on her first visit. As guests announced their names and where they lived on the first night, one listed the multiple places where she had homes, prompting others to follow suit. Kranzberg snorts at that.
The Golden Door is out of reach of the average spa-goer, Szekely concedes. But "it's a model that's hand-tailored" to guests and is costly to run. "Guests learn a lot and they are thought leaders." Back at home, CEOs might influence employees to exercise and eat better, she says. (Those who can't afford the Door can experience a similar program with fewer frills for $3,000 a week at her Rancho la Puerta in Tecate, Mexico.)
Szekely (whom Ellis calls "the godmother" of U.S. spa-dom) says she regrets selling the Door in 1998 after her son and business partner had a recurrence of cancer that proved terminal and he wanted to spend more time with family. She says they had a change of heart and tried unsuccessfully to buy it back.
After being in the Wyndham stable, the Door was acquired in August 2005 by the powerful Blackstone group (which also bought the Hilton chain) and is operated as one of its LXR Luxury Resorts.
"This is a jewel, and everyone views it as that," says Tom Posey, LXR Spas chief and Golden Door CEO, addressing concerns that the Door is in for retooling to benefit Blackstone's bottom line.
Blackstone, he says, aims to polish its gem. A new gym just opened; rooms done in modern boutique style are being tested with regulars in advance of a redo.
A big change: Mini-sessions are being offered this year. It's a way "to introduce (the Door) to people who don't have the ability to stay a week," Posey says.
That's "sad," Organic Spa editor Bemis says. "It's not enough time" to kick-start new habits. She sees it as evidence that destination spas are suffering from competition with shorter-stay resorts with spas.
Szekely has capitulated, but "she still believes it takes a week for the benefits to work best," Posey says.
Like other luxury spas, such as Miraval and Canyon Ranch, the Door (already in resort-spa versions at getaways including Arizona's The Boulders and El Conquistador in Puerto Rico) will expand. A Golden Door spa is due at the yet-to-open Dakota Mountain Lodge in Park City, Utah. Golden Door residential communities also may sprout.
"Look, people are going to live to their 80s and 90s," Szekely says. Spas improve "the quality of life. Everyone wants to be younger."