Just Back From
“Pay attention to what you pay attention to.” ~ Amy Krause Rosenthal
It was my second day at the Golden Door spa in southern California when the switch flipped in my brain. I had done the sunrise hike with the group that morning, come back and had breakfast, and then headed out on my own for a second walk. The mountains were draped in mist and the light was soft. Camera in hand, I stopped in a meadow to zoom in on long grasses, silvery and wet and hanging low, then on a clump of ochre flowers, their spiky petals shaped like stars, then on the ruby stalks of Swiss chard. Returning through the property’s alleé of hundred-year-old oak trees on my way back to my room, I passed the zen rock garden and stopped to sit on the swing and admire its soothing swirls. The patterns were incredibly precise and I considered how much discipline had gone into making them so perfect. Then I remembered that I had passed the same spot the day before, shortly after my arrival, and thought with a dismissive shrug, I really don’t get rock gardens. I had been in a rush at the time, skimming across the surface of my day, mind distracted, too impatient to pay attention, mildly grumpy and skeptical, unable to slow down and enjoy what was around me. Just one day at the Golden Door was enough to ease me back to a place that felt truer to myself, where I had the peace and patience to appreciate a zen rock garden. It made sense to me suddenly. I felt a rush of emotion as I realized how much of my life I spent in that other state: that rushing, impatient, get-it-done mode. But I didn’t want to skim along the surface of my life. I wanted to be someone who listened and paid attention. I knew I had work to do.
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People come to destination spas for a variety of reasons. Some come to lose weight or break habits, to drop sugar or to pick up Pilates. Some come just to energize and escape. But many are after something deeper. They want to pull back and ask big questions of their lives: Where is it I am now? Where is it I want to be? How do I get from one to the other? How do I really spend my days? What boundaries do I set for myself? Am I living a life that is true to who I am and who I want to be? Erica Keswin, one of my fellow guests, asked our group at an evening talk: “Does your schedule reflect your values?” When it opened nearly sixty years ago, the Golden Door set the standard for facilitating this kind of inner work, developing a cult following in the process (60% of guests repeat). Though I knew this, I didn’t understand what that looked like now or even if it was still true to its mission. The property had, after all, changed hands several times from the original owner, Deborah Szekely. My conclusion after my stay: It is still true to its mission of creating a path to wellness for mind, body and spirit. This is due in part to the continuity and dedication of the superb staff members (many of whom have been with the property for decades) and in part because Joanne Conway, who now owns the property with her husband Bill, is a former guest and connects with the heart of the place. If you are ready to do the necessary work, the Golden Door has the infrastructure in place to be a portal to transformation.
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With an amazingly high four-to-one staff-to-guest ratio and no more than forty guests at a time, the Golden Door is a very intimate and nurturing environment. A big part of its allure is its strong sense of community. Upon arrival, all guests are given matching eggshell-blue t-shirts and fleece jackets to wear during the days, lightweight kimonos (called yukatas) to wear to dinner, and nametags to make it easier. This seems like an anathema in 2017 and yet people embrace it. The long tables and open seating at dinner and lunch create an ambiance that fosters conversations and connections. Many guests form lasting friendships.
The cuisine is focused on fresh fruits and vegetables, with small portions of lean protein and very little starch, fat, sugar or salt. Prior to arrival, you select a daily calorie count of 1200, 1400 or 1600. I chose 1400 and found that, even though I was hiking ten miles a day, the meals were balanced enough to keep me satisfied. (As a foodie, I am always amazed to rediscover at spas how little it turns out I actually need to get by and, by extension, how much of the eating I do is not strictly tied to hunger.) I appreciated that the vibe, though health-conscious, is not punitive or rigid: if you want some extra snacks or a cup of coffee, just ask. (Similarly, if you want to skip activities or not wear the uniform or dine in your room, it’s up to you.)
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Days at the Golden Door are highly structured with all meals at set times. At turn down, each guest receives a fan with a suggested schedule for the following day, with activities on the hour, ranging from the sunrise hike (a favorite) to group classes like hip-hop dance and yoga to wellness seminars on such subjects as brain food and acupuncture. In addition, guests receive a daily massage and skin treatment, such as a facial or wrap. Most find this schedule a relief. “In my regular life, I have so much to keep track of, my left brain is noisy all the time,” one guest, a mother of four, told me. “Here, because so many decisions are made for me, it really quiets down my left brain and gives me the space to listen to my right brain for once. It’s so relaxing.”
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It helps to be in such a salubrious natural setting. Just forty-five minutes north of San Diego, the Golden Door occupies more than 600 acres of private land in the San Marcos mountains. The property is designed in the Japanese style, with low-slung buildings, peaked roofs, covered wooden boardwalks and open courtyards. Beautifully manicured gardens feature waterfalls, neatly clipped boxwood, koi ponds, stone Japanese lanterns and sculpture, and zen rock gardens. To the north, a creek winds through an open meadow, past a bamboo grove. To the east, an orchard is planted with rows of orange trees, their blossoms deliciously fragrant in spring and summer, and an organic vegetable garden that grows much of the produce that is eaten at meals. Mature oaks shade long pathways for strolling. The piéce-de-resistance, however, is the network of twenty miles of private trails in the mountains on the south end of the resort. I spent hours each day exploring on my own, grateful that the trails were so wide, smooth and well-marked that I didn’t need a map. To encourage introspection, the original owner, Deborah, placed brass signs at lookout points with evocative haikus, created a meditation spot with rock seats reached by a mile-long hike, planted kumquat trees on one mountain’s summit, and built a stone labyrinth by a serene lake.
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By my last day at the Golden Door, I had developed a deal with myself. I would do two hikes each day. For one hike, I would go fast and push myself, but for the other I would go as slow as I could, take photographs, stop to appreciate the beauty of it all and listen. That is the balance I want to bring home with me. I also made this pact: I will nourish my body with fresh produce and balanced meals so my energy is consistent throughout the day. I will attend to my aerobic capacity so I feel energized and positive. I will meditate, reflect and be present so that I can be kind and level-headed during the day. I will pay attention to what I pay attention to. And when I start to forget that and it all goes to hell, I will return to the Golden Door and put myself back on a better path.
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