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In a United Airlines ad, actress Eva Gabor stands in front of the signature golden doors at the entrance to Golden Door spa in San Marcos. Courtesy photo/Golden
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Golden Door luxury spa remains destination for rich and famous

SAN MARCOS — Golden Door. Even its name invokes luxurious feelings, but why wouldn’t it? For six decades it has been a hidden jewel in San Marcos where the rich and famous go to get pampered, lose weight and find solace.

Celebrities who have walked through its hallowed entrance include Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Taylor, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Burt Lancaster and more recent visitors include Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, Nicole Kidman and Barbra Streisand.

Two women chat and relax in an early sauna at Golden Door.
Courtesy photo/GoldenDoor

Founded in 1958 by Deborah Szekely and her then-husband, Edmond, Golden Door initially accommodated just 12 guests as an upscale alternative to Rancho La Puerta, often referred to as the “health camp” the Szekelys opened in 1940 in Tecate, Mexico.

Today it’s lavish entry — golden copper-and-brass doors hammered with an intricate “tree of life” design — continues to welcome those who can afford to stay here at more than $9,500 (not including taxes for a seven-day stay). Yes, this storied spa, located at 777 Deer Springs Road and considered to be the first of its kind in the U.S., aims to rejuvenate and recharge those who enter.

Early beginnings

When movie stars make a request, it’s apparently answered. While operating Rancho La Puerta, Szekely was asked by her Hollywood celebrity clientele to create a smaller, more exclusive retreat for them nearer Los Angeles. And she did.

Actress Jill St. John, a regular at the Golden Door, sits for a yoga class.
Courtesy photo/Golden Door

The first location was where Interstate 15 is now; it was a small motel with 12 rooms. In 1968, she purchased 125 acres at the Deer Springs Road location. She went with architect Robert Mosher to Japan where they were inspired by the old traditional “honjin” inns designed to welcome weary travelers.

Some of her guests loaned her money since no large bank would finance her. A smaller bank in Escondido did take the chance, and in 1973 she started to build. Golden Door opened in July 1973 bigger and better than its early beginnings.

Hollywood elite

Leaving Hollywood’s material-centric world behind, luminaries have headed to Golden Door to rekindle their glow beyond the spotlight. Grande dames luxuriate in the riches of Mother Earth while royalty re-gild their spirits. Chief executives and heads of states herald their inner warriors, as do wives of the Fortune 500.

Yet there are no status updates here; it’s all about relaxing, restoring and refreshing. Golden Door is a way of life — the best individual balance of healthy mind, body and spirit, it says.

A gentleman smokes a cigar and reads a magazine while standing in an electro-mechanical massage therapy machine. Courtesy photo/Golden Door

It’s easy to see why, since guests are greeted by the pure vitality of nature and the music of water flowing over rock cascades into quiet ponds, the soothing simplicities of an ancient labyrinth, the Japanese honjininn design and a crisp cotton “yukata”robe as evening wear. The salubrious pleasures of bathhouse rituals, sunset hikes, moon-watching all offer a welcome return to quieter, “unplugged” times.

Harmony abounds

Its 600 acres of lands and gardens uphold ecological harmony through bio-intensive agricultural methods that harken back to the 1920s. Pest control methods are natural; plantings are in sync with the cycles of the local ecosystem.

Experiential garden tours guide guests through the multi-sensory symphony of the pastoral landscape — blooming with vibrant colors, authentic flavors and heady aromas such as tension-dispelling lavender and mood-boosting lemon verbena. A small flock of chickens raised on site deliver the pleasure of farm-fresh eggs.

Five culinary, floral and herb gardens and a 3,000-square-foot computerized greenhouse cultivate a diverse crop of rare heirloom fruits, vegetables and plants, including more than 20 types of culinary herbs and 50 varieties of tomatoes. Renewal of the age-old tradition of heirloom seed saving supports the preservation of a genetically diverse and safe food supply, it reports.

Guests are surrounded by tea gardens, herb gardens, avocado orchards, sand gardens and those exquisite original, harmoniously disciplined Japanese gardens. Sixty acres of citrus groves are now officially certified as organic and a recently transplanted olive orchard boasts more than 250 trees bearing Italian varietal olives soon to be sustainably harvested and pressed to create a collection of fine gourmet olive oils.

Size matters

At Golden Door size doesn’t matter in fact, it believes “small is beautiful.” Amongst globally renowned wellness resorts, Golden Door remains singular. It offers an experience to just 40 guests each week that is exclusive and highly personalized.

An aerial view of the Golden Door grounds. Courtesy photo/Golden Door

Over the years it has been renovated with the help of some heavy hitters like New York-based interior designer Victoria Hagan who refreshed the signature Asian decor of the 40 guest rooms, the dining room, reception lobby, bathhouse spa, guest lounges and yoga gyms. The outside comes inside through a mix of natural textures such as wood, bamboo, Japanese papers and grasses. Polished lacquered surfaces contrast with the humble matte finish of traditional shoji screens.

“There’s a tranquility that defines the Golden Door experience; a guest room becomes a personal sanctuary,” Hagan has said. “Subtle splashes of color and a sophisticated range of materials, evocative of the spa’s iconic past, have renewed the spirit of understated elegance for which the Golden Door is celebrated.”

Healthy eating

Don’t forget about the cuisine: Szekely strongly believed that regular exercise and nutritious food were essential to a healthy life and focused her programs on active and passive exercise, including meditation and yoga. Meals were low in fat and nothing was fried. Most of the meals were soups, salads and chicken. Later, fish was put on the menu. Most of the vegetables and fruits served were grown here as they are today. Golden Door was the first to offer garden-to-table cuisine.

New owners

In 1998, Golden Door was sold to Patriot American, and Szekely and her son, Alex, remained active as consultants until Alex was diagnosed with melanoma and died in 2002. The Door was then taken over by Wyndham Hotels who sold it to The Blackstone Group, which later sold it to Joanne Conway.

Zsa Zsa Gabor takes a few tips from the “Mother of Western Yoga,” Indra Deva, far right, during a 1960 session at Golden Door. Courtesy photo/Golden Door

In 2012, 22-time guest Conway, wife of billionaire philanthropist Bill Conway, purchased Golden Door for a reported $24.8 million. The new management, led by Chief Operating Officer Kathy Van Ness, added upgrades including makeovers for the 40 guest rooms and the lobby, as well as new programs and products.

Today the Golden Door experience continues to empower each guest to achieve a healthy mind, body and spirit. Visitors relax, restore and refresh on a journey focused on personalized fitness, spa and nutrition programs, thoughtfully designed to meet the specific goals and needs of each.

And of course, Golden Door continues to be the place where celebrities, the elite, and the glitterati pay homage when it’s time to be taken care of —  from head to foot.