When I heard the famed Golden Door, one of America’s most exclusive and expensive health retreats, was opening after a lengthy pandemic shutdown, I was a bit hesitant to book a visit during Men’s Week. Gathering in groups and socializing terrified us all for a long time, but when there is an opportunity where I can venture out of the house, albeit masked, tested, and safe, I will wholeheartedly take it. While I am not comfortable yet taking a long flight to an international destination, an intimate visit to a world-class spa seemed a perfect choice.
The Golden Door takes it very seriously with social-distancing orders, and extra sanitary measures were in full force. After having my temperature taken on arrival and filling out a health questionnaire confirming that I hadn’t been in contact with a person ill with COVID, I was met at the gates by VIP Concierge Debbie Ann Meyers, and taken directly to my room, avoiding the lobby and reception area altogether.
At around $10,000 for a week’s stay, the Golden Door is not for everyone. With a serious Japanese vibe, including stunning Zen gardens filled with koi ponds, grassy knolls, and bamboo forests, you feel far removed from the daily news and politics, which really is the perfect antidote to wellness.
When I first arrived, my insecure side was tempted to stay in and order room service, but I was so quickly and eagerly welcomed by the amazing group of men that I decided to fully embrace the experience. My dining table of four quickly grew to a group of eight every night, and if social distancing was not a factor, it would have been a long glorious table every day filled with some fantastic conversation.
Most guests can be as anonymous as they want, but I found nearly everyone wanted to bond, make connections, and exchange phone numbers. This was not really a shy bunch, but rather a group of confident men who are proud of the lives they have made for themselves and what they have individually accomplished.
While the State law limited occupancy, there were roughly 20 guests at the spa during the time I visited (typical occupancy is 40 guests total.) Among them, a few CEO’s of major companies, a few billionaires, a few entrepreneurs, and most were enthusiastically sent by their wives to get out of their confined homes. Some of the guys told me they were reluctant to come because of the pandemic and the social aspects of the retreat, while others were thrilled to spend a week not only getting healthy and losing pandemic pounds, but also missed the experience of bonding with strangers.
The first night, our illustrious group of successful men were all dressed in matching kimonos, as we walked to our meal where we would formally get to meet each other. Golden Door makes it a custom to have everyone introduce themselves before the first dinner (often without using their last names.) Each guest says what brought them to the spa and their goals, ultimately bonding them to others right away.
This is a soulful and often spiritually uplifting retreat; one guest told me he was on his 133rd visit to the Golden Door, a handful was there for the first time. A few of the guests arrived by private jet or town car; they were all of shapes and sizes, ranging in age from 30 to 90. All were mostly active, healthy, and devoted to taking care of themselves. I was probably the most out of shape among them, but thank God for loose-fitting kimonos.
Your individual health goals are discussed before you arrive, and a personal schedule is given to you nightly, including the next day’s spa services and activities. Most everyone at Men’s Week woke up at 5:45 am to do the five-mile mountain hike as the sun rose. Before the pandemic, most guests would indulge in the famed daily water volleyball matches, but these days it is more intimate, quiet and distanced. I never for once felt unsafe in the short time I was there.
Spa treatments are also a new experience for me, having been in lockdown since March. The skilled therapists are all masked, shielded, and gloved, and for massage treatments, guests need to wear a mask when they are face up on the table. It is an experience we will all likely get used to in the new world.
One of the key elements about the Golden Door is that unlike many other resort properties that are run on a centralized AC system, at Golden Door, each room has its own AC unit. They were all thoroughly cleaned and rebuilt during the summer, and it is comforting to know that guests are not sharing air between rooms.
The Spa has also created many outdoor therapy experiences, including starlight massages and treatments in luxury cabanas. Each of the resort living areas offering a private VIP Concierge, day and night room attendants, and housemen. Each area effectively becomes its own bubble with the staff.
Food is one of the highlights of the retreat with Chef Greg Frey Jr. creating some truly wonderful and delicious low-calorie meals from the spa’s garden and orchards. Lunch was served poolside or on the farm, all outdoors, with each guest seated 6 feet apart. It’s all about sustenance rather than starvation, so asking for second helpings is not frowned upon.
The Golden Door was founded in 1958 by Deborah Szekely; she was married to Edmond Szekely, a renowned linguist, philosopher, psychologist, visionary, and natural-living enthusiast. Deborah and Edmond set up what would become the world’s first destination health retreat, the no-frills Rancho La Puerta, in Baja, California.
Deborah then established the Golden Door as an upscale Hollywood retreat with such celebrity devotees as Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Natalie Wood, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Back then, they all dressed in pink sweatsuits and turbans, and the experience was more social than sweaty. The first men’s week was in 1960, with esteemed guests like Burt Lancaster, William Holden, and a few movie studio heads among them.
The Golden Door changed hands a couple of times before longtime devoted guest Joanne Conway, wife of billionaire financier Bill Conway, bought the spa in 2012. The retreat is headed up by its amazing COO, Kathy Van Ness, who has helped continue the esteemed legacy and maintain the spa as the ultimate year-long summer camp for adults. It is a retreat more about personal reflection than weight loss or extreme workouts, although you can make that part of your experience if you want. It is also good to know that the Golden Door donates 100 percent of net profits to philanthropic causes, so in a way, we are all investing in something better for our lives.
I departed Golden Door excited about the faith and trust we can establish with each other, and the renewed act of engaging with strangers, something I have desperately missed. Creating a retreat that is not only safe, but an escape from the stress we are all experiencing in our daily lives is a good thing.