Go through the Golden Door to pamper mind and body

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."

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