Golden Door spa: How a legendary retreat made the ultimate comeback

Exteriors at the Golden Door Spa in San Marcos. Interior design by Victoria Hagan.

San Marcos, California’s Golden Door spa has been restored to its former glory—which is exactly how you’ll feel when you leave.

The short version of the story—how I came to be at Golden Door, the storied, ultra-luxe retreat sometimes referred to as the “Mrs. Astor of spas”—is that I have two children under the age of 5 and a demanding job that requires fair amounts of both sitting and socializing. I needed to lose a little weight, sure. Mostly, I was desperate to be alone for a few days.

Set on 600 acres of California grove land two hours south of L.A., Golden Door launched in 1958 as the country’s first destination spa and for decades was also its most preeminent. Movie studios sent actresses here for guided deprivation among the avocado trees; Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand and Elizabeth Taylor were regulars, not to mention, more recently, Oprah and Martha. But Golden Door also pioneered the idea that maybe regular folks deserved these sorts of time-outs, too: life-changing “me time” trips that included daily massages, gourmet meals, lectures on mindfulness and the promise of no interruptions.

These days, the genre is more crowded than ever, with wellness retreats the industry’s fastest growing category. But Golden Door and its offshoots—Canyon Ranch, Rancho La Puerta, Miraval—prove that new isn’t necessarily better, as long as you adapt with the times.

In the late ’90s, corporate ownership and careless franchising began to dilute the Golden Door brand, while the flagship fell into disrepair. But in 2013, Joanne Conway, wife of billionaire philanthropist Bill Conway, bought the property and the name, and set out to return both to their former glory. She dismantled the franchises, hired a vibrant new CEO and enlisted famed interior designer Victoria Hagan to oversee a $15 million renovation. Then she started buying up neighboring Escondido property with an eye toward expansion.

A private room at Golden Door, modeled on the traditional Japanese principles of the ryokan.

The newly restored Golden Door respects its rich history, offering a modern take on the original Japanese country inn concept with plenty of vintage touches. It is at once highly refined and comfortingly familiar, creating a feeling that you’ve been here before, even if you haven’t.

From the moment I walked in, everyone on staff made it clear that the week ahead was about me and me only. A wellness concierge helped plan a customized itinerary, which included a morning hike, fitness classes led by personal trainers and daily beauty treatments. Chef Greg Frey Jr. works with the head nutritionist to prepare personalized meals sourced from local farms and fishermen, as well as the spa’s own garden, with portions based on your goals. After-dinner activities include cooking classes and meditation. But I’ll tell you what’s game changing: daily mandatory massages from your own dedicated massage therapist. Eventually, the demands I faced in normal life faded from memory. These are people highly skilled in the art of healthy self-indulgence.

The newly expanded spa offers dozens of serene gardens and 20 miles of hiking trails.

While the experience is certainly lush, it’s the emphasis on simplicity that stuck with me most. Nights were early and so were mornings. Camaraderie was high and competitiveness was low. The talk was about giving—to others, but also to yourself. (Golden Door donates 100 percent of its net profits to charity, which in itself is groundbreaking.) It isn’t exactly real life, which of course is the point. But it helps you realize there’s no reason real life can’t be a little more like Golden Door. Especially if it includes a daily massage.

The Golden Door Spa is at 777 Deer Springs Road, San Marcos, CA 92069. For more information call (760) 744-5777 or visit

Nicole Vecchierelli is executive editor of DuJour news and style magazine. Published by agreement, for more, visit

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