The Golden Door’s Spa Guru

Robert Risko

When the Golden Door’s Annharriet Buck invented the resort’s mind-body program nearly 30 years ago, guests found it inspiring. Today they find it invaluable.

Annharriet Buck—the apple-cheeked guru in a pantsuit with a voice like an herbal wrap—is the Golden Door’s secret weapon. Her disguise is a strawberry-blonde, middle-aged June Cleaver, yet the essence of her message is both simple and complex: Honor your thoughts. Yes, that’s right: Buddhism Lite.

For 32 years Buck has presided at the Golden Door, the shrine in Escondido, just outside San Diego, that quickly became the lodestar of luxury spas after opening its doors in 1958. Buck, who was once a college administrator, read of the Door’s innovations in the era when it still served almond milk—a froth of blanched almonds, water, ice cubes, and vanilla extract—to starve pounds off stars such as Barbra Streisand. Soon after being hired in 1977 as an “evening hostess,” Buck became the Door’s director and the architect of its mind-body program called the Inner Door. For years she has turned down a platoon of offers from publishers to get her message out. “I never felt the approach matched what I was trying to achieve,” she says.

It is not difficult to understand the suddenness of Annharriet Buck’s appeal. I overhear a woman in the steam room blurt a quick explanation of the prevailing mood: “Charlotte is a ghost town. Everything is gone. Wachovia Bank! And Winston-Salem? Forget it! Schlitz Beer—gone! The Chinese have taken over the furniture business! I don’t know how I can justify being here except for Annharriet Buck. She’s the reason I am here.”

I know what you are thinking. A thousand dollars a day for the Golden Door? And in this economy? Are you kidding? America is trying to reset—and that includes Door regulars who have found themselves in the nouveau poor.

For years the Golden Door has been a magnet for one-on-one pampering, a daily massage in the room, and a fan-shaped schedule of classes served on a tray with breakfast. You’re picked up in a black SUV, get on the highway, then exit into a long driveway leading to the zen inn with wooden walkways and two acres of Japanese gardens that the redoubtable founder Deborah Szekely designed more than 50 years ago. The regime consists of exercise from dawn to dusk as well as a full schedule of lectures.

I’m at the Door the week of its 50th anniversary celebration. Szekely is at the spa as well, celebrating her 87th birthday and delivering her weekly lecture on how to take control of one’s life. What Golden Door guest hasn’t looked at her calendar and thought of Szekely’s commands to color code and cancel everything that is not a necessity? Szekely sold the Golden Door in 1998 to Wyndham International, which was bought by the Blackstone Group five years ago. It’s a decision she now regrets; the Door has become a bit frayed around the edges. But the spirit of the place and Annharriet Buck remain very much in tact.

Buck’s skill is rewiring high achievers to reconnect with their most resilient selves. Even those who are not at the Door at a discounted press rate have the jitters. The week I arrive, Chrysler has declared bankruptcy and half the guest rooms are empty. We are finally a society in which it is necessary to analyze and consider every dollar spent. Buck’s daily lectures are sprinkled with impressive thinking in neuroscience, Tibetan monk theories, and soothing Mildred Newman How to Be Your Own Best Friend schmaltz. The guests gathered by the pool are hardly frivolous: I hike at dawn each day with a Hollywood producer and a Boston judge who meet here every year. Buck’s lectures and private sessions have now morphed into crash courses in internal crisis management.

“I came at this with brain language,” Buck explains. “I was trained as a scientist. It was not woo-woo. People who come to the Golden Door have access to the finest lectures in the world. They are not going to sit still for woo-woo. In the early days I taught biofeedback. Gradually I moved on to right-brain and left-brain thinking, and ultimately power affirmations.” She honed her skills at science retreats and monasteries, sitting at the feet of Thich Nhat Hanh, her favorite Buddhist thinker.

So, what advice does Buck have for the armchair spa-goer who can’t afford the Door, even at discounted rates? Her “How to Be Happy” lecture says it all: “People are being called upon to adapt in ways that they have not in decades. Things are hard. It is okay to be upset and it is necessary to grieve. That’s the first thing I say. We have to honor anxiety. The phrase ‘You are feeling sorry for yourself’ is not in my vocabulary. I believe the finest works of art are born out of the deepest suffering. We can teach ourselves skills that will make us happier in life. Seek a beautiful moment. Savor it. No matter how bad you believe your past was, you did somehow learn to skip. There was a day when you discovered your shadow and how to ride a bike. We have a choice about what we remember—past and present.”

I am hearing Buck’s voice play in my head. See yourself as an adorable four-year-old. Treat yourself with that same forgiveness and tender care you would give the four-year-old. Honor your four-year-old.

Not every day can bring perfect discipline, four-mile hikes, or turkey burgers the size of two silver dollars. Well okay then, pass the Jamoca Almond Fudge.

Buck would approve.

For more information about the Golden Door in Escondido, California, call 800-424-0777 or go to

Buck’s Theory of Contrasts

There’s one take-away from the Annharriet Buck experience that I won’t soon forget. It’s her solution to getting what she calls “unstuck.” It’s what she tells people who find themselves in a rut and unable to steer themselves clear of whatever ails them. Her solution? Focus on word contrasts.

If you have been sitting, stand.
If you have been standing, sit.
If you have been traveling, stay home.
If you have been home, travel.
If you have been teaching, learn.
If you have been learning, teach.
If you have been talking, listen.
If you have been listening, talk.