By Nicola Bridges
Colorful koi fish the size of carp glide by in what seems like slow motion in a Japanese Zen garden pond whose banks are decorated with miniature stone temples and a statue of Buddha. I'm alone in the garden, sitting in its quiet serenity as I do a morning meditation.
I'm here to experience what for me is a once-in-a-lifetime stay at the sybaritic and legendary Golden Door health and wellness spa, consistently voted a No. 1 spa destination in the world, where women of privileged status and celebrities come, often annually or more, for a $9,650 fully inclusive minimum one-week stay. They come to rejuvenate and recharge their minds, bodies and spirits through an exclusive and highly personalized wellness program in the understated quiet serenity of a spa.
The location is hidden unassumingly on a meandering country road just outside of San Diego. Only the gold pagoda-style gates hint that something intriguing and special might lie beyond them. A short driveway leads to the spa's eponymous golden doors, where once you cross a Japanese bridge to enter the lobby and are greeted by a woman in full traditional kimono dress you feel truly transported continents away to a traditional "ryokan" — Japanese guesthouses where travelers and locals go to immerse themselves in Japanese culture and hospitality.
At the Golden Door, the koi pound, meandering paths, shrubs, labyrinths and a bamboo forest strung with copper wind chimes set the scene. The private villas and low main building feature traditional Japanese architecture, built slightly elevated off the ground with rooms opening through sliding "fusuma" doors (that in Japan replace walls) onto a wooden walkway around a center garden featuring the giant gong that calls us to dinner each evening.
Devoid of the frills of a typical luxury spa resort, women quietly pass each other on the paths in plush robes or the workout clothes — all provided to fit — with little eye contact and no makeup. You're encouraged to pack light or bring nothing, just you and your bare essentials to truly be in your natural state to focus on your health and internal self as you go through your program — perhaps from a morning meditation or dance class to a private fitness session with your assigned personal trainer, then on to aquatics in the pool or a nap before the daily 11 a.m. bone-broth break.
Each day starts with a 5 a.m. 5-mile hike up the 600-acre property's main mountain to witness the sunrise. We ascend in the dark with flashlights, and I can barely keep up with a spry 74-year-old Swedish real estate agent from San Francisco who receives the last night's dinner honor for being the only one to hike every morning, rain or shine.
In the evenings, I find my personalized program for the following day on my bed, written on a paper fan. I'm there more for my mind and spirit than fitness or losing a few pounds, so my fan is filled with days of yoga, chakra alignments, a private sound-bowl mediation, a vision-board activity and the place I crave: the bathhouse. I go there every chance I get to lie cocooned and sweating under layers of heavy and hot steaming towels before relaxing in the long indoor whirlpool or air-drying in the heat of the sauna.
After a session to breathe through my chakras and a daily in-room massage, I don the kimono robe in my closet and join a small group for decadent appetizers and a delectable dinner (many women retreat to eat in their rooms in intentional solace). We enjoy menus of roasted sunchoke and rose salad, kabocha squash gnocchi with blue crab, grilled guinea hen and truffle ice cream — all produce from the Golden Door's own organic garden. Servings are delicately small but exquisite to comply with my healthy 1,200-calories-a-day plan, but I feel I'm eating like royalty.
Satiated, back in my room, I forget about my phone hidden earlier in a velvet tech-detox pouch and browse the bedside book of Japanese haikus before falling asleep, deeply relaxed from the day's soothing of my soul.
WHEN YOU GO
Plan ahead. The Golden Door is often sold out a year or more in advance, especially for its speaker series weeks and annual men-only weeks: www.goldendoor.com.
Nicola Bridges is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
The eponymous Golden Door opens to the luxury spa just outside of San
Diego. Photo courtesy of Nicola Bridges.