Farm-To-Spa Cuisine At California's Famed Golden Door

The Golden Door, considered the world's best destination spa, is named for its entry door, emblazoned with a gold-colored, bronze and copper, gem-encrusted Tree of Life, which opens to a raised boardwalk through a verdant canopy that leads to the minimalistic, art-filled, Honjin-inn-style retreat.

During my sixth visit this past August, I was as impressed as always with the farm-fresh, creatively cooked, perfectly-presented spa cuisine. And I felt lucky to once again meander amid the Japanese-inspired landscape — with its antique bell, waterfall features and koi pond — and receive daily massages, beauty services, and an individualized fitness routine (my favorites take place in a warmed exercise pool). Yet it's the beautiful, clean, pure food that I have most appreciated since my first magical seven-night stay, in 1996 (and which I try to replicate at home).

Eating healthfully has always been a priority to Deborah Szekely, who founded The Golden Door in 1958 as a more luxurious and intimate (for 40 guests, one to a room) option to Rancho La Puerta, which she created in Tecate, Mexico, in 1940. This daughter of vice-president of the New York Vegetarian Society grew up listening to health lectures on the radio before she established her well-deserved reputation as the "Godmother of Wellness." Perhaps those early "speeches" influenced the decades of weekly after-dinner talks, where she has inspired countless guests at both spas to choose natural, organic, and mostly vegetarian food in appropriate quantities for a person's size. I have always taken notes when she speaks and found this memorable quote from "The Door," December, 2011: "Our body is our best friend, but we have to treat it like a treasure."  At 95, Szekely's active life continues, but she is no longer involved with The Door.

Joanne Conway, a former guest, purchased it in 2012, and while maintaining its original vision and ambiance, she has also renovated the facilities, refurbished the décor, greatly expanded the acreage and created The Golden Door Foundation, which benefits charities, primarily to help abused children. Now, with 600 acres, there are avocado groves, 60 acres of citrus groves officially certified as organic, and a newly transplanted olive orchard with 250 trees. These will soon produce Italian varietals to be harvested and pressed into gourmet olive oils.

The daily program has changed little over the 20 years of my experiences. Year-round, seven-night women's, men's, and coed stays continue. There are more men's weeks now and the occasional option for shorter (even three-night) stays. Newly launched theme weeks, activities, and treatments have been added, but the culinary routine remains constant.

Most breakfast trays are delivered to rooms at 7:30 a.m., after many guests have returned from a hike (with 25 miles of trails, there are a multitude of choices). Of course, the orange juice is freshly squeezed, the salmon is smoked in-house, and the berries for the yogurt are grown on site. (In 2003 or 2006, I was served a quinoa-stuffed baked apple, and it was the very first time I had tasted the crunchy, gluten-free grain.)

By 10:50 a.m. — after hikes, yoga or tai chi, cardio or private training sessions — the staff sets out the crudité platter and mugs filled with hot tomato-potassium broth. The easy-to-replicate, V8-style beverage (mostly low-sodium tomato juice and vegetable trimmings) has long been my microwave-warmed, mid-day drink of choice.

Lunch is served poolside at umbrella-topped tables. Lump crab and avocado stack, grilled chicken Caesar salad, or a turkey sandwich sounds ordinary but tastes extraordinary. For example, turkey arrives on a rosemary-studded focaccia, spread with a spinach and microgreen pesto and topped with grilled red onion and avocado. My favorite is the sushi-style bento box (presented in a beautiful compartmentalized box for sale at the gift shop), which contains togarashi seared hamachi (tuna); Golden Door shrimp; a California roll; udon noodles, turmeric and ginger pickled vegetables, soy-marinated shiitake mushroom, and a pickled cucumber salad.

At 3:50 p.m., a tray of berries and fruit appears in the lounge.

Promptly at 6 p.m., the antique Japanese bell rings to announce dinner. Most guests dine together in the redecorated dining room and arrive for hors d'oeuvres wearing long yukatas —white Golden Door logo-decorated kimonos — sometimes over the provided sweats and T-shirts.

Dinner entrées include a variety of fish, poultry, and vegetarian options. I enjoy fennel-dusted poussin (a tiny chicken), sea bass en papillote (steamed in paper), Mexican dishes such as chicken or bean fajitas, and a variety of Asian-inspired items: miso soup, miso-glazed black cod, teriyaki tofu, Vietnamese spring rolls or a ginger garden soba bowl with wild mushrooms. Herbs and house-made preserved lemons, pickled vegetables, or candied pecans enhance dishes. Satisfying desserts delight, such as cookies or yogurt with berries at lunch, and crème brulée, spiced nectarine cake, orange blossom ice cream and persimmon pudding cake, at dinner. 

I always opt to tour the garden. This summer, farm manager Wil Ryan led four of us through the five culinary, floral, and herb gardens (among the 20 herbs are tension-dispelling lavender and mood-boosting lemon verbena); he pointed out vegetables and rare heirloom fruits (there are 50 tomato varieties) starting in the 3,000-square-foot computerized greenhouse. Then, he introduced the fenced-in flock of chickens, which provide farm-fresh eggs, before others joined us for a garden lunch, set under a tent.

Executive chef and culinary director Greg Frey Jr. conducts the weekly cooking classes and heads the staff, who prepare pre-hike coffee and mini-muffins, three meals, and two snacks daily — including vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options — and service a multitude of individual requests, from dietary preferences, restrictions, and "druthers" to extras. While salt, sugar, fat — even carbs and calories — are carefully considered, this "cuisine minceur" hardly seems anything like "diet" food.

One evening, Frey greeted the kimono-clad guests in the bamboo garden, where we were seated at three long tables strewn with floral arrangements and lighted by round, electric chandeliers hanging from a huge tree. Each bamboo tree had been planted in honor of a guest's 10th visit; these days, with a plethora of bamboo, name plaques that honor guests hang and tinkle with the breeze, like a wind chime.

Details are what continue to keep The Golden Door so special!