Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa
“You need this one,” my caddie said, more than a hint of sarcasm in his tone.
I can’t do anything but laugh at my caddie’s pop … or prop … which is it?
“Now don’t leave it short.” Again with the needle.
This guy is getting a larger-than-usual tip. It’s not every day one’s noble squire can poke subtle fun at his charge … and you know it is totally deserved. Then again, it’s not every day you have a 12-footer to break the half-century mark for nine holes, and certainly not after tossing up a 39 on the front.
Well, except in my game, where such things — B-side meltdowns and deserved witticisms from caddie or friend — are but standard features.
“Never doubted you,” he says as my putt hit the bottom of the cup with that tell-tale rattle. And he laughs.
I’m at the The Farms Golf Club, an attractive high-end golf retreat not usually available to us daily fee players. It’s not just the Farms, though. My gypsy-in-the-palace escapades extend other directions, courtesy of a getaway I’m enjoying at Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa just inland from Del Mar, in Rancho Santa Fe.
Rancho Santa Fe is the California of imagination: rolling hills of chaparral-sage cross-cut with barrancas, towering eucalypts, color-wheel shocks of bougainvillea and all other manner of floral exotica, white-washed walls and red-tiled roofs, warm days and sea-cooled evenings. Sure, the ranchos are now thoroughbred farms and these dons’ and doñas’ conveyances are branded with three-point silver stars. But if you were to sketch up how life should be out this way, one image could be Rancho Santa Fe, with a panel or three for Rancho Valencia.
Fresh orange juice, from fruit grown right on site, and the Los Angeles Times are waiting by my door. With a steaming cup from my in-casita espresso maker, the trio is an unneeded reminder that I’m not bunked down at Budgetario Inn & Truck Stop by the interstate. My Mission Revival-styled abode is pushing 1,000 square feet of bull-nosed corners, paver flooring and in-laid tile, open, rough-hewn-timbered ceilings, wrought-iron appointments and not a bit of it is rustic. Rancho Valencia is this kind of resort. Intimate. Stylish. Chic. Timeless and timely, a condition courtesy of a recent eight-figure nip and tuck to the now 25-year-old property. It’s also intimate — 49 casitas — friendly, inviting and not remotely stuffy even as they let you reserve a gratis Porsche for an afternoon spin to the beach.
But that’s just so much fluff; I’m here to play golf.
“Hello, Mr. Van Vechten, I’ll be your caddie today. Would you like to walk or ride?”
After thinning out the overload that is my carry bag — come on, who has three-dozen balls in their bag, champ? — I’m off to do battle with nearby The Farms. Originally designed by Dye Golf and reworked substantially by John Fought and Tom Lehman in 2000, The Farms is a green cascade of thrills just to the east of the resort. Boiling the playing experience down to a single word the course is about movement. The clubhouse is situated like an eagle’s nest, an aerie on high from which to survey where the next two hours of flight will take me.
Two hours? Walking? Eighteen holes? It took 2:20 to be exact, and I’m no svelte agile mountain goat. Such is the magic of private golf, a good caddie and not too many balls going yard … until the last batch of holes, at least. The routing twice scampers down and ambles up a broad arroyo pocked with stream and lake. Verticality, however, isn’t really the movement of note; it is the lateral kinks and banks of most holes. If you pick the right lines here, risking but averting hazards or blast-crater bunkers, subsequent shots, approaches to huge greens with distinct quadrants, become that much easier.
Though a morning spa keeps me from a second scoop of exclusivity — or a second helping of humble pie — Rancho Valencia guests can also play The Crosby at Rancho Santa Fe. A par-70 with five par-threes and a stout USGA rating of 73.7, the uniqueness of the property spawned the unique arithmetic here, says head professional Ron Cropley.
“He [lead designer Brian Curley] had a tough piece of land he worked very hard with to get 18 holes on this property,” Cropley says. “Because of the terrain, the hills, the canyon, the river and the huge elevations changes [up to 200 feet], it took some imagination to put it together.”
Curley, who shares the design credit with Fred Couples, echoes the challenges, and opportunities, inherent to the site. “The routing plays its way up the hill then drops into some serious elevation changes,” Curley says. “We uncovered a few rock outcrops along the way that we saved and were able to work a few holes into difficult terrain. The holes along the river were subject to numerous environmental constraints. The course is not scorecard-long, but it is very sporty, fun to play and the views to the river basin are very strong.”
Rancho Valencia also partners with private Del Mar Country Club and the renowned public offerings at Aviara, La Costa and Torrey Pines.
CUISINE TO REMEMBER
Back at the resort, the $30 million makeover is most noticeable in the dining facilities, cuisine and at the spa.
“Fancy no more,” Executive Chef Jarrod Moiles offers as a short and apt mantra. “The vision with the makeover was to lose fancy, elaborate plates and a stuffy atmosphere, and to replace it with comfortable. The food is special but it doesn’t feel like a ‘special-occasion’ restaurant.”
One night I dined bar-top in The Pony Room, which in days of old was a library/parlor space that was not surprisingly underutilized. Now, its HD TVs, a Baja-long run of tequilas, stone-and-leather accents, local craft beers, classic rock for tunes and Chef Moiles “Coastal Ranch” spin on pub fare. Bacon, goat cheese and leeks flatbread, sashimi and an acidy, fruit-balanced Pinot from the Russian River flavor my viewing of the Kings taking out the Sharks.
Pub fare reimagined.
My second-night dinner was at Veladera, the resort’s revamped, renamed, repurposed centerpiece eatery. If “hacienda-cool” is a recognized design style, that’s what Veladera is. Oysters Rockefeller and veal scaloppini might once have held court in this space, but as chill and trip-hop play through the speakers instead of Bobby Darin, chef’s commitment to farm-to-fork innovation and local sourcing leaps from the menu.
Moiles speaks to the goal of obtaining the “absolute best” for the culinary outlets at the resort. Most is from California, about 65 percent. The produce is hand-selected daily from a farm just down the way and the no-hormones/no-steroids/no-antibiotics beef comes from just over the mountains in Brawley. When market conditions dictate he will go farther afield, with the thought being that local doesn’t simply prevail in the battle of locality versus quality, for as he says, “We reach out and find the best product for the customer, our guests. If it is not seasonal or not available locally, we find where it is,” as with overnighted Amish-farmed lamb from Pennsylvania or shellfish from Maine.
The Pony Room and Veladera menus change regularly. Both nights I put myself in the hands of the easily attentive staff, a plate-determining practice I almost always follow when on the road. At Veladera the yield is a same-day market salad, Berkshire pork tenderloin, roasted local Brussels sprouts and simply because they all but forced it upon me, ricotta gnocchi with braised greens and sausage. For oenophiles, the new wine program emphasizes varietal presence at every price point.
ME TIME IS THE RIGHT TIME
The Spa at Rancho Valencia received a good dose of the love when the property was remodeled a few years back. For the truly inclined, a yoga pavilion, spinning room and Pilates studio are new, as if the fitness facility wasn’t sweat-inducing enough. For the rest of us, it’s plunge pools and other wet facilities — including new steam rooms.
Abril Gruber, spa director, says it’s all good, that there’s no one way to spa.
“There is a fitness aspect to what we do here,” she offers. “We think of this as a wellness journey … wellness and fitness. When you visit us you can spin or do yoga or take a Pilates class and enjoy massage and body services. If you want to simply relax, you can relax. You can do something or everything or nothing.”
If you are one of those golfers who thinks spa is equivalent to afternoon tea, or maybe some wacky Yanni tunes, put the hickories back in the bag.
“I simply say, ‘Try it once,’” Gruber gives by way of how she moves the unmoved, “’You won’t be sorry.’ I don’t know that I’ve ever had to say it twice.”
No one had to ask me twice. Sauna and steam, a plunge, 60 minutes of watsu.
I almost forgot who shot that 49.