California's best spa

Sunday Times
Published: 7th October 2007

I went to the Golden Door hoping for glitz. Well, it's the place that spearheaded the spa revolution when it opened in 1958, and it remains the byword for beauty in La-La Land. I imagined excessive vulgarity. I imagined breast-enhanced, blonde Hollywood types. I imagined Courtney Love would be there, and at least one Hollywood star would be trying unsuccessfully to overcome their drug or drink addiction. After all, it's the former hang-out of Zsa Zsa Gabor, and she was hardly understated. Nicole Kidman's been here. And Alicia Silverstone, Olivia Newton-John, Oprah Winfrey, Barbra Streisand. The exercise rooms would be marble, at least. The facials maybe using caviar. It would surely be super-glamorous.

My sleek car (driven by a former employee of Frank Sinatra) drove into the mountains of San Diego. We purred through secluded gates and up to a radiant-eyed man standing beside a pair of golden doors that glinted in the late-morning sunshine. He looked as though he'd just that minute seen a vision.

The doors opened and we walked over a zigzag bridge. "The zigzags are so the bad spirits go on walking in the first direction," he said. "The influence, as you can see, is Japanese." There were Buddhas here and there, sand courts, waterfalls, a koi pond, ferns and delicate fir trees.

All very lovely, but where was the glitz? I was feeling grumpy. Happily, I bonded with an equally grumpy blonde - think Paris Hilton with huge sunglasses - from Los Angeles, who announced she found meditation boring and work-outs weren't her thing. Boy, had she come to the wrong place.

Weeks at the resort run from Sunday to Sunday: for seven days, you throw in your lot with the other guests - on my week there were just 20 of us, all women. Surprise, surprise: the blonde wasn't there at 5.45 the next morning for the five-mile hike. We walked up the steep mountain, past avocado groves and fruit trees - peach, orange, lime - with the early-morning pink glow touching the dark branches. It was good but exhausting. Did Zsa Zsa Gabor really do this?

There was no let-up. Next came yoga, swimming lessons, strength training, Pilates, private trainer sessions. Occasionally, I saw a glimpse of my blonde friend talking on her mobile in her room, but there was no sign of her emerging. In the afternoon, there was a massage, a facial, a meditation class, and dance classes from tap to belly. Deborah Szekely, the 85-year-old owner, explained what it was all in aid of. The idea is to "alter the way you think. Our aim is to change your life... take a deep breath, and for a moment feel the wonderful, fantastic being who is each one of us". She too had a luminous face. What did these people know that I didn't?

Not that the blonde seemed to want to rise to a higher level of being. I could have sworn on the third evening that I saw her in the foyer dressed in black leather jacket and trousers on her way out (frowned upon). But there have always been rebels. One journalist was thrown out after trying to lure people to her room with a bottle of Hershey's chocolate sauce.

And there have been activities that don't quite fit with the serene image. The biographer Kitty Kelley tells how in the 1970s she was sitting alone, miserable and hungry in the Golden Door dining room after a low-calorie lunch.

"I was so tired. The chef came over to me and said, 'Would you like a leetle zumzing?' I thought he meant a second helping. I said, 'Of course!' And he said he would bring it to my room. And I said, 'No, I'll have it right here.' Well, he looked at me with new-found respect. Because, he said, he didn't sleep with the women on top of the table. He did it in the bedroom. Well, I started laughing."

I can't imagine the chefs have time for much seduction nowadays. Besides, you'd worry about the breathing (with every type of exercise it seems you have to breathe in another way).

Later, I had my body drizzled with hot honey from the resort's own bees. The masseuse rubbed it in before leading me to a bath of milk, floating with slices of orange, to wash it off again. Cleopatra swore this treatment softened the skin. Afterwards, I felt I should be rolled up in a carpet and taken to visit a Caesar.

That evening, I'd signed up for kiatsu, a form of massage that takes place in a small pool heated to 95F. As we walked up through the trees to the pool, my therapist explained that the experience could be like a rebirth. You float on the water (foam buoyancy pads under the knees, head supported) and close your eyes, and the instructor massages you and submerges you and swirls you around, and your feet don't touch the ground for an hour. People with arthritis spoke of being pain-free, he said... but some guests had intimacy issues, as there was hugging involved. It seemed too late to back out. Then he asked if I'd ever had a near-death experience in the water. I said I had. He went ahead anyway.

I liked swirling through the water fast, with my hair loose like Ophelia, while my arms and legs were held by the giant of an instructor. And I liked looking up at the trees as the night fell, and seeing the stars come out as I was swayed and hugged. And I even liked being tipped down under the water. But when I came out and opened my eyes, heard the insects calling and saw the trees so tall, and the sky that Quink-ink dark blue with a brilliance behind it, I was very, very happy to be back on the ground.

"There is so much stress in the world today," he pronounced. "Soon there will be kiatsu pools everywhere." I'm not too sure about that.

Most women come here to hike the 25 miles of private trails, to get fitter and slimmer among the hummingbirds and scurrying geckos, and to wander the labyrinth designed for silent meditation. Sessions on the nature of happiness and "inner focus" were juxtaposed with the measuring of thighs, and pedicures. After all, nicely painted toenails can give some women more inner peace than a dozen early mornings of t'ai chi. There are many routes to serenity, as one of the zen masters might have said.

Most came back year after year to recharge and reprogram their exercise, their eating, their lives. No wonder. The Golden Door is a fusion of spiritual retreat and the finest spa, plus a touch of The Priory, in 377 acres of mountains and avocado groves. It's gorgeous: not big on celebrity debauchery, true, but it does the job in every other department.

We all grew close during the SAN week, more and more like schoolgirls, growing younger by the day, even high-powered LA lawyers. On the last day, to my astonishment, I saw my blonde friend dancing in a class with an older woman. They twirled together, doing the charleston before raising their skirts for a wild, abandoned cancan. Both were laughing when they emerged, their faces flushed. The blonde no longer looked tense, but girlish and merry and rather innocent. She hadn't bothered to put on any make-up. Yes, she definitely looked radiant. 

Need to Know

Sally Emerson was a guest of Golden Door.

Travel details: Golden Door (00 1 760 744 5777, is 130 miles from Los Angeles, and 40 miles northeast of San Diego airport, from where there is a courtesy transfer. United (0845 844 4777, and Delta (0845 600 0950, fly to San Diego from Heathrow or Gatwick, via Chicago, San Francisco or Atlanta. Expect to pay from about £360. The hotel's rates are from £3,808 for a one-week package, including a huge choice of treatments, classes and consultations, all meals, and maid service five times a day.