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Written by Caylee Matthews


“Welcome to our home,” said the lovely attendant who greeted me by name as he offered me a blood orange iced tea in the courtyard of Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa, the only Relais & Châteaux property in Southern California. I could hardly imagine a better setting to call home for a few days: 45-acres that were once part of a 1,000-acre orange grove in the midst of a high-end residential neighborhood just 25 miles north of downtown San Diego.

Serenity Yoga Pavilion

Originally opened in 1989 and owned by an adroit and wellness-oriented San Diego-based investment group since 2010, the resort closed for 10 months as part of a $30 million property-wide refresh completed in October of 2012. Even with the opulent upgrades, the new owners worked with the original architect to ensure that the buildings and grounds remained quintessential Southern California, from the Spanish Colonial architecture to the abundant bright pink bougainvillea.

Meshing well with the surrounding residential area, the 49 all-suite casitas average a generous 1,000 square feet, and have either a private garden patio or outdoor spa patio with a jacuzzi. The interiors of the guest rooms boast bespoke rustic-style furnishings, vaulted beamed ceilings, brightly hued commissioned artwork from Mexico City that pops against the warm vanilla-colored walls and wood tones, sumptuous bed linens, walk-in closets, and enormous bathrooms with deep soaking tubs.

My favorite design feature, which I came to appreciate on my very first morning, was a console table outside the front door of my casita, which facilitated daily delivery of sunshine in a glass—aka freshly squeezed orange juice— along with my newspaper of choice. Call me old fashioned, but I relished in what I saw as an invitation to ease into each day.

Activities and amenities at Rancho Valencia embody the “work hard, play hard” ethos. For instance, I had no qualms about indulging in a Baja chorizo and egg burrito at breakfast, a signature Rancho burger at lunch (they had me at black truffle aioli), or a bite or two of dessert at dinner, knowing that I’d need plenty of fuel to power me through each day’s packed itinerary.

With 95 complimentary fitness classes each week, ranging from hard-core cardio to yoga for beginners, fitness junkies will think they have found heaven-on-earth. An offering of an aprèsclass cold-pressed juice or protein shake is a nice reward and serves as a little extra motivation for those who aren’t as keen on exercising. For a more freestyle calorie burn on property, guests can partake in biking (the resort has a partnership with Italian bike manufacturer Pinarello), hiking, croquet, and bocce ball. A tee time at one of five nearby country clubs can be arranged by the concierge.

Reflecting the passion of its original owner, the property debuted in 1989 with 18 tennis courts, a huge number for a resort with just 50 rooms. The resort has retained its draw as a haven for tennis enthusiasts as reflected in its rating by Tennis Magazine as Southern California’s No. 1 tennis resort each year since 2008. The new owners added two European clay courts and refurbished the 16 plexi-pave championship courts, tennis clubhouse and pro shop. Court time and use of a ball machine are included amenities that fall under the $35 daily resort fee.

Robin White, a two-time U.S. Open Women’s Doubles Champion who played professionally for twelve years, used to train at Rancho Valencia in the 1990s. Today, “Rockin” Robin is back at the resort as its Tennis Director, leading an esteemed team of tennis professionals. Her passion is as palpable as her patience while instructing newbies, and in short order she had me feeling relatively comfortable on the court.

I was ready for a reprieve after working up a sweat on the tennis court, and the spa at Rancho Valencia offers up ample opportunities for relaxation. Finding a quiet nook and soaking up the sun in the spa gardens or seeking shade and solace inside a cabana next to the lap pool is a restorative exercise in and of itself. Spa treatments incorporate Natura Bissé and ISUN skin and body care products. During my blissful 90-minute facial, which included the trifecta of a scalp, foot and hand massage as part of the service, the products that were applied to my face smelled good enough to eat!

Dining is a delight, whether you are inside one of the exquisitely outfitted dining rooms, or al fresco, where you can frequently spot hot air balloons dotting the sherbet-colored sky at sunset. While each on-site dining destination has its own distinct personality, they share a conscientious commitment to utilizing the best of what’s freshest according to the season, as well as sourcing as locally as possible, including the resort’s own gardens.

With servers attired in riding-inspired uniforms, The Pony Room pays homage to the area’s rich equestrian heritage (Del Mar racetrack is only 10 minutes away). While the vaulted ceiling calls to mind the airiness of a barn, the reclaimed wood floors are more literal: barn wood from a Tennessee farm. Serving lunch and dinner, there are 150 varieties of tequila behind the bar (I preferred to enjoy mine in a spicy margarita).

The Pony Room

Across the courtyard is Veladora, which has similar ceiling architecture as its neighbor, but in a darker hue that adds gravitas apropos for this finer dining destination. A largely monochromatic color palette enables the room’s two focal points—a large artwork by Damien Hirst comprised of thousands of butterflies, and a fireplace surround executed in Venetian plaster tinted a vibrant royal blue—to take center stage. The Mediterranean-inspired dishes are tantalizingly plated, allowing you to discern the freshness of the ingredients even before the first bite crosses your lips.

A private dinner in the Wine Cave is a delight for both foodies and oenophiles. Substantial wood doors open to reveal a long, barrel-vaulted room clad in brick from floor-to-ceiling. Displayed behind a wall of glass is a collection of 250 of the resort’s most prized vintages (from micro-producers in California all the way to Tasmania), along with five full-sized oak barrels filled with the resort’s own private blends.

Spa Pool

Dan Chapman, an advanced sommelier and champion of boutique producers, said that Rancho Valencia goes to great lengths to get their hands on outstanding and hard-to-find wines, some of which are offered by the glass. If you happen to be on property during the weekend, join Chapman for sabrage demonstration and chat about all things bubbly.

While there is certainly enough to keep one sufficiently busy on property, complimentary use of a Porsche Cayenne or Boxster convertible makes it easy to hit local highlights, including Torrey Pines State Reserve, the Flower Fields of Carlsbad and LEGOLAND California. Just be sure to make it back by sunset, as Rancho Valencia has some of the best views around.


Rates at Racho Valencia start at $650 per night

For more information:

call (800) 548-3664


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