Cerca: Tasting the luxuries of Rancho Santa Fe

While only five miles from the Pacific Ocean, Rancho Santa Fe seems worlds away from the congested San Diego County coast. This is a land of rolling hills filled with mature trees and dense verdant vegetation. It also boasts a balmy climate with a hint of ocean air mixed into the faint scent of citrus and fragrant flowers.

Rancho Santa Fe is mostly made up of private multimillion-dollar homes on meticulously landscaped multiple-acre lots, many with spacious equestrian areas. Few are those wealthy and lucky enough to live here -- only about 5,000 people -- but there are a couple of places where you can temporarily taste a life sweet as most of us could imagine.

I had heard about the Rancho Valencia Resort and Spa, an Auberge Resorts property, last year while on a visit to nearby La Jolla. Many people told me it had a top-notch spa and was considered the best tennis resort in the country, both subjects of great interest to my daughter Charlotte and me.

With a few free days in our schedule recently, we arranged to spend them at Rancho Valencia. We had our choice of several things to do shortly after arriving but, knowing we would be coming off a five-hour drive, we put the spa at the top of our agenda.

The 10,000 square foot spa offers Pilates, yoga and a state-of-the-art fitness center, but its world-class spa treatments are actually famous. On arrival, Charlotte was whisked away for her manicure-pedicure while I was greeted by massage therapist Vandella Peoples and brought to my private spa room where I would spend the next 90 minutes. Peoples began with a one-hour Tangerine Tango body therapy. This consisted of an exfoliation of sugar and oil of tangerine followed by an outdoor rain shower in my treatment room's private outdoor patio. Then, there was a moisturizing orange blossom lotion followed by their Essence massage.

All buffed and polished, we felt good about dressing up and heading out for the evening to a wine and hors d'oeuvre party at the resort's private Villas club house. We spent much of the time chatting with a family from Dublin, who come here once a year thanks to their partial ownership in a private villa.

We easily could have enjoyed just staying in our luxurious suite, one of 49 at the resort. The suite was about 1,000 square feet with a king bed, sunken living room, cathedral ceilings, hand-painted tile fireplace, a steam shower and jetted tub. French doors led out to our own patio with hot tub, all completely private and surrounded by lush plants.

Fresh-squeezed orange juice and a newspaper were waiting outside our room every morning. Breakfast was served al fresco, overlooking the verdant canyon below. We filled up on fresh fruit, and I couldn't resist getting the eggs Benedict. It wasn't the ideal choice to eat immediately before the hour of tennis lessons we had scheduled, but it sure tasted fine.

Charlotte and I had signed up for a private lesson with resident head tennis pro, Arturo Navarro. Upbeat and friendly, Navarro is one of eight pros at the resort, and one of the most popular. Formerly a top doubles player in Mexico, he came to the states with one small bag, his racket and just a few hundred dollars and established a rewarding career as an instructor. He loves the resort like he loves the game itself. "Nothing beats this place," he said. "It's laid-back and pleasant."

Right away, Navarro diagnosed a flaw that had troubled my game for years: I had a tendency to lean forward too much. This helped me get to an incoming ball quickly, but made it difficult to quickly position my racket for the return. And Charlotte, he advised, needed to step in a bit more toward the ball in order to volley it off the sweet spot of her racket.

"We are the number one tennis resort in the country at the moment," said John Delille, the director of tennis and recreation for the resort. His claim wasn't empty bragging; Tennis Magazine confirmed it in its list of the top 50 tennis resorts in its issue for November/December 2010. It's celebrating the recognition with a couple of package deals offered this spring for those who care intensely about the game.

The tennis program is best known for its instructional clinics offered each morning for three hours, and there is a group for each level player. These have a 4-to-1 student-to-pro ratio and focus on net play, ground strokes and serving. There are 18 tennis courts.

When we returned from tennis, our luggage had been moved to one of the resort's villas, which had been offered for our second night's stay. The Villas at Rancho Valencia are shared ownership private residences, each owner guaranteed a minimum number of weeks a year in the vacation home with full access to the resort's amenities. There are 12 of the three-bedroom villas, and if we hadn't become acclimatized to luxury by our suite, I don't think we could have withstood such a dose as we experienced in a villa. Each has more than 3,500 square feet of indoor and outdoor living areas. Ours included a full kitchen, spa, three full-size bedrooms, three-and-one-half bathrooms, dining room, living room and both an indoor and outdoor fireplace.

One luxury offered here I do not believe I have ever seen elsewhere: Through a special arrangement with the manufacturer, Rancho Valencia will loan a Mercedes-Benz to a guest. (It's first come, first-served.) We happily accepted the resort's SL 550, a silver convertible, for our outing to Del Mar City Beach. It took us less than 15 minutes to get there, and after some trouble finding a place to park -- I really didn't want to scratch any fenders -- we headed to the water and spent a glorious hour or so body surfing.

Since our visit, Rancho Valencia has appointed a celebrated executive chef, Eric Bauer, who is said to be retaining the resort cuisine's farm-to-table spirit, emphasizing locally grown foods and fresh catches. The appetizer menu now includes roasted Tahitian squash soup with pumpkin seed crisp, which sounds like it might be worth a return trip.

On our last morning at the resort, we sallied out to the main lawn to try our hands at croquet. As all players are expected to do here, we had dressed in white from head to toe. And we didn't use the simple wooden backyard set I remember from childhood; the mallet was much larger and heavier, and the business end that struck the ball was rectangular rather than the more familiar cylinder. I have since learned that croquet rules place few restrictions on the kind of mallet one uses.

Delille, who appears to know his croquet about as well as his tennis, tried to share his expertise with Charlotte and me. There are at least five ways to strike the ball in croquet, and Delille showed one that made the ball leap almost straight into the air. He showed us different stances that were best to use on certain strikes, and the best way to grip a mallet. There's more to this game than meets the casual eye. While tournament play is certainly not in our future, we may have learned enough to have a slight advantage in a social game some Sunday.

Starting March 17, the resort is scheduling a weekly event around this classy game: Every Thursday evening aficionados will meet for "The 4C's," meaning croquet, cocktails, cheese and charcuterie. (I had to look up that last word; it means elegant cold cuts and pates.)

This place lies on part of the former Rancho San Dieguito, a 9,000-acre land grant dating to 1845. In 1906, the heirs of the original grant-holder sold the land to the Santa Fe Land Improvement Company, a subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway company. The railroad planted eucalyptus trees, hoping to harvest them and make ties for the railroad's own tracks. But the pretty trees produced wood too soft for ties, and in the face of additional difficulties, that project was abandoned. By the 1920s, Rancho Santa Fe was carefully developed and became one of California's first planned communities. The wooded hills were organized into ranches and estate subdivisions. Architecture was primarily Spanish Colonial, and after 1921, all owners had to adhere to design controls and deed restrictions.

Lilian Rice, who in 1910 had become one of the first women to earn a degree in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley, was chosen to manage the Rancho Santa Fe project. She had already proven her ability at faithfully re-creating historic adobe buildings in San Diego; now she was able to re-create an entire Spanish Colonial village, perhaps not as the real ones were, but as they certainly should have been in an ideal world. A focal point of her design was a guest house called "La Morado," or "The House of Many Rooms," which became a famous resort that hosted heads of state and Hollywood royalty. It's now known as "The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe."

Some 70 years after Rice's death, her own charming home has become a senior citizens center. At least 10 buildings of her design, from the Santa Fe Land Improvement Company Offices to private residences, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it is hard to discuss Spanish Revival Architecture without mentioning the town she shaped. Some visitors come here specifically to see her work. In 1989, Rancho Santa Fe became a State Historic Landmark and, in 2004, a California Cultural Landmark.

Besides the marvelous village, a stay here offers easy access to more of Southern California's best attractions, from the Legoland amusement park to the Flower Fields of Carlsbad Ranch, an annual display of horticultural splendor that opens every March. But our own stay at Rancho Valencia had been so enjoyable that we bypassed them all and headed straight home, the longer to enjoy the lingering taste of perfection as we began our re-entry to reality.

Contact Deborah Wall at deborabus@aol.com


Location: Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., about 312 miles southwest of Las Vegas.

Directions: From Las Vegas, take Interstate 15 south for about 214 miles and keep left to take Interstate 215 south. Follow for about 56 miles, whereupon the road once again becomes I-15 south. Continue south about 31 miles to Escondido, taking the Valley Parkway exit. Follow for 0.4 miles and turn right onto West Valley Parkway/CR-S6 south. (The road name changes to Del Dios and then Paseo Delicias along the way.) Drive about 11 miles to Rancho Santa Fe.

Lodging: Rancho Valencia Resort, 5921 Valencia Circle, (858) 756-1123 or (800) 548-3664, www.ranchovalencia.com. The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, 5951 Linea Del Cielo, (858) 756-1131, www.theinnatrsf.com.

The Villas at Rancho Valencia: A private residence club offering fractional interests in 12 luxury villas. Each 3,500-square-foot villa features custom furnishings, hand-painted tiles, private patios, three bedrooms, three-and-one-half baths and indoor and outdoor fireplaces.

The Spa at Rancho Valencia Resort: 10,000-square-foot retreat with three therapeutic pools, a Watsu therapy/massage pool, lap pool, sauna and steam rooms, private sun gardens and a fitness center. Ten treatment rooms with private patios and deep soaking tubs and two couple’s rooms include fireplaces, private patios, outdoor showers and tubs for two. (858) 759-6490.

Rancho Santa Fe Historical Society: 6036 La Flecha. Open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. (858) 756-9291, www.ranchosantafehistoricalsociety.org.