What It’s Like to Stay at the World-Famous Golden Door Spa
San Diego is home to the world’s best destination spa: Golden Door. Tucked away on 600 acres in the hills of Escondido this exclusive getaway is home to just 40 guests per week who come to regain their center through customized programming that addresses the mind, body and spirit.
I leapt at the chance to experience the famous destination spa for editorial purposes and checked in on a lovely January day, joining a group of women from varying walks of life who were in search of changes big and small. Some needed to recover from life events and illness while others craved weight loss, a mental break or to strengthen bonds between friends.
My goal was to reboot back into a fitness regimen after an indulgent holiday season. And, I did.
A week here can change your life.
This is the recommended amount of time to check in for. But, you can certainly benefit from a shorter stay. In both instances, you will go home realizing that it is possible to feel better. And, don’t we all need a reality check like that every once in a while?
You might also be surprised to know that Golden Door changes lives for the better outside of the resort. Golden Door donates 100% of net profits to various charities, most of which benefit children in need—yet another reason to feel good about booking in.
This is your guide to Golden Door Spa.
Table of Contents
- Preparing for Golden Door Spa
- A Zen Arrival
- Ryokan Style Accommodations
- The Famous Fan
- Fitness Programming
- Awesome Spa Treatments
- Mouthwatering Spa Cuisine (Including Desserts)
- Behind-the-Scenes at Golden Door
- The Spiritual Side of Golden Door
- How Golden Door Gives Back
- My Results
- Departure (and Vow to Return)
Preparing for Golden Door Spa
A lot is included with a stay at Golden Door. We’re talking daily massages, multiple spa treatments, mind-blowing cuisine, lectures and, of course, over 40 fitness classes to choose from during your stay. The full list is impressive.
A week before arrival, I shared exercise and food preferences via an in-depth phone interview that also covered what to expect during my spa vacation. The interview helps staff prepare the week’s classes and menu. The staff to guest ratio is quite high at 4 to 1 which means they really do have the liberty of customization based on who is checking in.
Admittedly, I initially glossed over the nutritional aspect. My friend is the Executive Chef so I knew the food would be amazing. But I wasn’t sure how many calories per day to select as I’ve never been focused on calories or weighing myself. I choose the middle option of around 1400 calories per day (based on my height and weight) but worried about it a little in the days leading up to check in.
My concerns disappeared after the first meal as I wasn’t hungry at all during my stay at this luxury spa.
A Zen Arrival
The drive from La Jolla takes about 45 minutes. The resort entrance is marked by a set of Japanese-style gates. I buzzed in and someone was already waiting for me in front of the—you guessed it—golden door. My car was valeted and suitcase delivered to my room. Guests arriving by plane enjoy a complimentary private shuttle ride to Golden Door from San Diego International Airport and even LAX.
As someone of Japanese descent who loves Ikebana and basically all things Asia, the resort’s ambiance was right up my alley. The walk to my room included stone pathways through grass, streams, a koi pond and a two zen gardens. It took less than a day to become oriented with where the gyms, bath house, pool and other common areas were located, but was grateful for my map until then.
Little did I know the pathways would all be lit up by lanterns in the evening. I felt like I was in another world. Some people who follow me on Instagram actually thought I was in Japan.
Ryokan Style Accommodations
The sizable, quiet room suited my needs perfectly with beautiful Japanese decor, a meditation area, seating area, bathroom with tub and shower among other amenities. To round out the posh treatment… housekeeping comes five times per day. High speed WiFi is active here and throughout the luxury spa.
- welcome fruit snack
- reusable water bottle
- tote bag (love mine)
- daily supply of alkaline Carlsbad water
- generous supply of Golden Door bath amenities including cleanser, body wash, shampoo, conditioner and face lotion
- warm-ups, shorts, t-shirts and terry robe are supplied and laundered daily (I wore my own workout clothes but many people choose to wear what is provided)
- spa slippers
- fanny pack for hikes
- yukata robe to wear to dinner
The water bottle, tote bag and journal are yours to keep.
- Toiletries needed outside of what is provided.
- A separate pair of hiking shoes from fitness shoes. Hiking shoes get extremely dirty.
- At least two fitness outfits per day if taking cardio classes. I planned to exist on one per day and it was definitely not enough.
- A warm jacket for hikes, especially in winter.
- A beanie or scarf for the morning hikes.
- Hand sanitizer as a cold went around during my stay.
- A bathing suit for pool fitness classes and leisure.
Rest assured that if you forget anything, the spa’s beautiful gift shop has amazing high-end activewear, including from one of my favorite travel clothing brands, Anatomie.
Breakfast served in the room between about 7:00 – 7:30 a.m. is a real luxury. By that time, hikes are finished and there’s a good quiet hour or more before the daily programming commences.
I so loved spending time in my room. I slept surprisingly well in the comfortable bed.
The Famous Fan
Based on your phone interview, a suggested itinerary is placed on a paper fan you’ll receive at check-in and then every evening in your room until check-out. The fan actually clips on to the Golden Door tote bag to ensure that its never lost. However, a full-day’s schedule of events is posted so that you can switch to other activities should you feel like it.
This is your journey so you call the shots.
I tend to overdo it in the fitness department whenever I check into destination spas. Fitness is a big reason why I go and I can’t help but treat every day like it’s my last day to ever exercise again.
Mornings provide several hike options ranging in length and level of difficulty starting around 6:00 a.m. Receive a lovely wake-up call, roll out of bed and meet the hiking groups in the lounge where amazing muffins, fruit and coffee await.
After breakfast, a few warm-up classes are on offer before the first class at 9:00 a.m. Classes are on offer on the hour through the late afternoon. A stay here is an excellent opportunity to try something new. For me, that was The MELT Method, a series of small, easy, low impact exercises using a special ball (mostly rolled under your feet) and soft foam roller to hydrate connective tissue. It is supposed to change your life in 10 minutes per day. After one class, my shoulders dropped, calves loosened up and I felt noticeably more relaxed.
I was the only guest in residence eager for exhaustive cardio which proved a bonus as each class was tailored to only me. I got my tail handed to me in Treadmill Burn (twice), Legs & Abs, Fast Fit, spinning and similar classes. Everyone who stays the full week receives four personal training sessions. My trainer, Leslie, worked on loosening upper back and sent me home with a fitness routine to do on my own.
Other guests stuck to dancing, restorative yoga and whatever classes suited their preferences. Some people opt out of the fitness side altogether and that’s O.K.
Awesome Spa Treatments
A daily massage is something I could get used to. With all of the intense fitness classes I was up to, my noon in-room massage became more of a necessity. My schedule always seemed to have enough time for me to shower off quickly beforehand, which I appreciated. I chose to have my therapist, Michael, work primarily on my normally-stiff shoulders and back. Massage is so good for you on a number of levels for circulation, relaxation and muscle therapy which I’m sure is why it’s included in your Golden Door rate.
Golden Door guests are also treated to multiple services at their full-service hair salon, spa and nail salon. I had a deep conditioning hair service and blow out, a manicure and a facial during my short spa vacation. It’s a reminder to take care of yourself because when you look good, you feel good. Detoxifying wraps, sauna and steam are on offer in the bathhouse where guests can hang out at leisure (though wraps need to be scheduled).
Mouthwatering Spa Cuisine (Including Desserts)
When they chose my friend, Greg Frey, Jr. as Executive Chef, they really hit the jackpot. No bias (seriously). I listed to many, many guests rave about how there wasn’t a meal they didn’t like. And, they had no idea that I knew him.
You see, going to a place as lovely as Golden Door simply doesn’t work if meals aren’t memorable. And, they were. Food plays a big role in nourishing the whole you. It has to taste good, be beautifully-plated and keep you satisfied through active days. The portions were also larger than I had envisioned and I felt better than I thought I would. Each meal is designed specifically for you (we grabbed room number place cards before being seated so staff knew where to set specific meals).
Greg believes that a great diet is an enjoyable one. This means that you get to eat delicious dessert at Golden Door at both lunch AND dinner. And, what is especially cool is that he visits with guests during lunch and dinner to see how their stay is going and solicit feedback regarding their dining experience.
Meals happen like this:
- Breakfast delivered to your room. Coffee and milk are allowed but are in addition to your meal plan.
- Mid-morning snack of usually some kind of (surprisingly filling) healing broth along with fresh fruit and vegetables.
- Group lunch served by the pool or in the main dining room if the weather is dreary.
- Mid-afternoon snack (similar to mid-morning snack).
- Light appetizers before dinner.
- Dinner in the main dining room (it is traditional to wear the provided yukata robe to dinner though not everyone does).
You may request to dine in the privacy of your room in lieu of group meals. I’m the type where a mix of the two works for me. Opting for dinner in my room on the second night due to sheer (good) exhaustion was totally the right thing to do.
The early Edo period bell summons guests for appetizers at 6:15 p.m. each evening.
Wine is served on the last night but not otherwise. I became hooked on the fresh ginger tea while others raved about mint and other flavors.
In all honesty, I wasn’t hungry. I did take advantage of the snacks (losing weight was not my goal but happened anyway), some added calories on top of my 1400 meal plan. But I could not have consumed more than 100-200 extra calories per day as I was noshing on mostly fresh fruit and veg though.
Savory Herb and Cheese Benedict
rolled omelet, grilled tomato, ricotta, farina cake
Organic Black Bean & Lentil Burger
heirloom lettuce, tomato, red onion, kosher pickles, Golden Door ketchup, whole grain mustard, lemon aioli
garden kale chips and cabbage slaw
Golden Door Chocolate Chip Cookie
Fair Hill Farms Apple Salad
tyee savoy spinach, flax crunch gorgonzola, pomegranates, sherry walnut dressing
Herb Roasted Skuna Salmon
“Paddy’s blend” crust, hon shimeji, garden sunchoke, sauce vert
Callebaut Dark Chocolate Mousse
with strawberries and almonds
People are so mesmerized by the food that menus are returned at the end of your spa vacation. This way, guests can remember what they ate.
Behind-the-Scenes at Golden Door
Much of the organic produce is grown onsite and I had a chance to roam the gardens, greenhouses and orchards with Greg who decides the menus based on what it in season. The garden here is quite an undertaking that requires a lot of planning, care and enthusiasm. Quite a few plants start as seeds inside the high-tech greenhouse.
Some of the resort’s eggs come from the most chill and happy free range hens I’ve ever seen. A few of these hens actually like being held, so we took a chicken selfie, of course.
Guests quite enjoyed talking to Greg about beekeeping, something he’s been up to for a while. The bees here help pollinate the resort’s garden and he takes note of the types of flowers they frequent to make sure Golden Door grows plants they like.
Our drought here in Southern California has been tough on pollinators like bees and we need them to keep our ecosystem in tact much more than we need the honey (though fresh honey is a bonus).
The Spiritual Side of Golden Door
I did not explore the mindfulness offerings, but they are why many people choose Golden Door over other wellness spas. On the last day, I took a few minutes to walk the labyrinth alone and realized that I’d probably missed out in this department. Next time.
How Golden Door Gives Back
I’ll say it again:
Golden Door donates 100% of net profits to various charitable causes.
A majority of these charities support children’s causes including cancer therapy at Rady’s Children’s Hospital, the “I Have a Dream” Foundation which helps children in need achieve higher education, and the healing process of local abused children via Forensic Health Services in Escondido.
If you see Golden Door products being sold anywhere, stop and look. I walked into Golden Door with really dry skin, despite my best efforts. I was pretty jazzed by how I thought my skin was handling the in-room amenities, which are designed for normal skin. But, after a facial, my Golden Door esthetician thought I should shift to the Golden Door’s balancing line of skin care products. She gave me samples and, wow, what a difference they made.
I bought full-sized bottles of everything before checking out.
These products feature all-natural, antioxidant-rich plant extracts and essential oils. They are results driven and I am proof of that. I do not let another skincare line touch my face, even a month later.
Skincare products, baked goods (hello, ginger cookies), soup mixes, preserves and more are sold in their gift shop, online and most recently in shopping malls around Southern California. The latter expansion, if you will, is a way for Golden Door to raise even more money for charitable causes. San Diegans should look for the Golden Door kiosk in the Westfield UTC shopping mall near Gap.
Please read more about The Golden Door Foundation.
Your Golden Door experience might be radically different from someone else’s because reasons for going vary. But, I left feeling substantially more relaxed, lighter and energized at the end of my stay.
A big takeaway for me had to do with portion control and that, with the right food, I could be satisfied with less on my plate and without refined sugars.
If weight loss is a goal, it is important to keep in mind that most guests lose inches and not pounds. Exercising like a fiend puts on muscle, too, which weighs more than fat does. But, I lost about 3 lbs in four solid days of exercise and clean eating. Someone else I spoke to returned home 8 lbs lighter after a full week—I would call this unusual, but it can happen.
Everyone I spoke to felt better. And, they were motivated to keep changes made at Golden Door in place at home. You will come home with lots of good material to refer to.
Departure (and Vow to Return)
Sundays are quiet at Golden Door. A few hikes and morning stretch session are offered but not much else, at least during my stay. I took the opportunity to enjoy a leisurely morning, walk around the property to take photos and reflect on what I’d just experienced.
Through my role as an independent advisor with Worldview Travel, I can book you into Golden Door with exclusive amenities. Contact me and I’ll be happy to provide you with rates and help you decide which room is best for you. I love talking to people about Golden Door!
You will not regret a stay here. I have paid far more for vacations that were not nearly as good for my health and overall wellbeing.
I left around 10:30 a.m. and, much to my surprise, a healthy picnic lunch had been placed on the passenger seat of my car, in addition to a carton of eggs from my chicken adventures with Greg. It’s the kind thing that keeps people returning to Golden Door. They really do send you back into the world prepared.
Have you been to Golden Door?