5 (Free!) Life Lessons From a $9,000-a-Week Destination Spa

Stressed-out celebrities flock to this place for a reason.

I have a massage addiction. When the going gets tough, or when it's a Tuesday, I'll drop everything to hit the massage table for a blissful hour of pampering accompanied by gentle flute music. (Listen: don't ever knock the Pandora spa station.)

So when Golden Door—the destination spa nestled at the base of the mountains some 30 miles northeast of San Diego—invited me to stay for a few nights, you can guess what my answer was. But, here's the thing: while I've been to many a spa, this was my first time visiting a destination spa. And there's definitely a difference.

When an advisor phoned me up a week before my visit to devise a personalized itinerary, my first question was do you have Wi-Fi? (That's right. I was full-on Miranda rolling into Mexico from the first Sex and the City movie.) For the record, they do have Wi-Fi, but—surprise!— that's really not what this experience is all about. And over the course of my three-night stay, I would start to learn a little more about living a healthy, mindful lifestyle that's more about the balance and less about being the plugged in 24/7.

A week-long stay at Golden Door goes for $9,000—small wonder celebrities, agents, and other Hollywood power players are among its repeat clientele. But, here are five tips I learned there that you can practice anywhere, on any budget, and especially during the super-tense election and busy holiday season to come. 

1Unplug as Much as Possible

Back to that question about Wi-Fi. Yes, I did indulge in a little laptop time while I was away. (Major world events were going on—and that week brought the advent of Ken Bone. How could I have missed that!?) But, staffers urge you to stay off your phone, which is not allowed in common areas, and to show restraint when it comes to opening up that laptop. Plus, the whole property only has two TVs, and there are none in the guest rooms. Without all that distraction, something amazing happens: you start appreciating your surroundings, and have meaningful conversations—replete with eye contact!—with those around you. The spa only has around 40 rooms, and usually hosts single-sex retreats. I got to know the women in my group fast, and it was soul-enriching to sit at lunch with them and talk—really talk—without Snapchatting our beautiful meals.

2Plan Out All Your Meals (and Snacks)

Speaking of fresh, beautiful meals: you'll eat a lot of them at the Golden Door. Even if you do follow the 1,200-calorie-a-day meal plan. (You can also opt for the 1,500-calorie plan. Will you judge me if I tell you which one I chose?) Each night, staffers deliver a menu card for the next day so you can choose your selections in advance. Sure, it'd be great to have chef-prepared citrus-grilled chicken salad or persimmon pudding at home each day. But for me, there was something so freeing about having meals pre-portioned, pre-planned, and supplemented with light snacks like vegetable broth for every day of my stay. It takes the guesswork out of eating clean, and you never get super hungry. And though I heard wine is available for those who want it, alcohol isn't really on the menu at Golden Door. I didn't miss it one bit, but did appreciate the hot herbal tea that's served with dinner. Not to sound like your grandma, but try it! It has a cozy, calming effect, as you may expect, and it also makes the meal feel more filling.

3Set Your Alarm For a Time So Early it Terrifies You

And you'll need that sleepy-time tea to get to bed early. Each morning of a stay at the Golden Door begins with a mountain hike a 6 a.m. (6 a.m., people!) The prospect of this was terrifying to me, but in actuality, the experience was completely invigorating. First, you can have strong, French-press coffee delivered to your room beforehand. There's usually a few options for the hikes, which range from gentle and flat to mountainous and more advanced. I chose the middle way. The hour-long mountain hikes rewarded us with sweeping sunrise views, and a snack of oranges from the spa's own grove at the summit. By the time we got back to "camp" at around 7:15 a.m., I felt I'd already accomplished something, and so did my Fitbit.

4Invest in Spa Treatments—and Luxurious Bath Products

The morning hikes were just one of several types of exercise the group would participate in each day. Throughout the week, we also dabbled in water aerobics, dance classes, yoga practice, indoor cycling, sessions with a personal trainer, and more. But, the second half of the day was devoted to spa services—and that's services, plural. One day may include an in-room massage, a facials, a pedicure, and a body treatment. Plus, the bathouse is always open for a little sauna, steam room, or hot tub.  Alas—as with the personal chef cooking up persimmon pudding in my kitchen—unwinding with multiple spa services a day falls under the wouldn't it be nice category.

But, the bathroom in my Japanese-style guest room was also stocked with Golden Door products that made ordinary tasks feel luxurious—almost like a ritual, instead of a slog. (Yes, taking off eye makeup can feel like a slog.) I came to crave washing my face with the spa's cleanser, which has a gorgeous lavender scent that makes it feel like you're getting an aromatheraphy treatment as it foams. And, I took home the Golden Peel-a-Way Masque. I can't live at a destination spa, but it sure feels decadent to sit on my couch while a Cleopatra-style potion works wonders on my skin. The moral of this story: whatever top-shelf skincare product you're eyeing, go for it. Or, light up some candles and let the Enya tunes flow while you brush your teeth. Anything that motivates you toward better self-care is worth it. 

5Load Up on The Self-Help Quotes

Even if you're not the type to stock your Facebook feed with rainbows and motivational sayings, don't underestimate the power of a good, positive quote. Each morning before the hikes, a staffer reads a life-affirming statement to the group, and it really felt good to set off into the darkness with a motivating sentiment rattling around in my head. There's also a communal gratitude board at the spa, where guests can—and do—use colorful chalk to scrawl anything from "my family!" to "Tai Chi with DJ!" It's said that taking the time to be grateful can forge new pathways in the brain. And if writing and reading uplifting thoughts throughout the day can bring about a sunnier mindset, I'm all for it. I took home the menu from my last day, which was printed with a haiku that pretty much sums up my experience at Golden Door: "On Gratitude Hike, Holding stone of joy in your hand, Letting the light in." 

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