A Summer Camp for Grown-Ups Awaits at California’s Carmel Valley Ranch

It doesn’t take long to realize this is not your father’s ranch. Consider this adventure more of an upscale summer camp for adults that provides fun and adventure “without the discipline.”

As you head past the front gate and up the wooden fence-lined drive to the Lodge, you can’t help but soak in the tranquil beauty that envelopes the property. The yellow burned hillsides contrast with the bright green lush grass of the fairways. The day-glow aroma-rich purple lavender frames the winding hillside drive.

Carmel Valley Ranch contains the rustic beauty of an old-time camp with the modern charm and conveniences you expect from a five-star resort. The new light filled lobby, part of a 2010, 40 million dollar overhaul, is crisp and clean.

You will soon realize the new Ranch is borrowing heavily from the nature the surrounds the nearly 500-acre property. Outside the lobby sits one of several of the Ranch’s signature wooden rope swings. It’s hard to resist the temptation to take a swing and amazingly it just brings a smile to your face.

The 139 newly renovated lodge rooms share in the same modern yet rustic vibe that permeates the entire resort. Suites range from $425-800 a night and boasts high-vaulted ceilings with skylights beaming in the sunlight. In your bedroom, a fireplace sits in the corner while sliding glass doors whisk you out to a private deck that overlooks the Santa Lucia Mountain Range.

The fusion between modern and yesteryear continues with woodsy yet cosmopolitan furniture. Flat-screen TV’s, BluRay players iPod friendly alarm clocks, Keurig Coffee Pots and free Wi-Fi let you know that you are not going to be forced to “rough it.” The bathrooms have the feel of a tranquil spa. They are large enough for two to easily navigate around, with a large soaking tub and an ample size glass shower. The living room of the suites could double as a comfortable loft in San Francisco. The rooms may stir your imagination to begin some renovations at home.

I stayed two nights in a Hilltop Ranch King Suite. The 800-square-foot Suite felt open and airy and had more than enough room for two and would even accommodate a family of four. The resort was booked so I was not able to view the other suites but next door the 1100 square-foot corner-unit Premium View Garland Suite boasted more windows and a wrap-around deck that takes full advantage of the sunlight and serene view.

Bay Area based Geolo Capital, the private equity investment arm of the John A. Pritzker family,  bought the resort in 2009 and quickly decided the 1987 property needed a facelift and a serious injection of fun. The multi-million dollar renovation added the 10,500 square-foot Spa Aiyana, , the Native American Term for “eternal flower” , an adults-only salt-water pool, an infinity-edged hot tub and a guest favorite campfire to feast on S’mores while gazing at the star-lined skies above.

At the lower end of the property, the newly built River Ranch is the epicenter of family fun. Outside the clubhouse a Junior Olympic pool awaits families to enjoy as a unit. A children’s splash zone with water shooting fountains will keep the little ones screaming in delight. There is also children’s activity center, Ranch Hands Kid Camp, a basketball/sports court and playground. Take a break and play some bocce ball or table tennis. The Café at River Ranch offers lunchtime snacks and food allowing guests to refuel.

For the active set, the resort sports 2 gyms including a 5200-square-foot state of the art fitness center at the River Ranch. If you are looking or structured fitness activities, there are dozens of complimentary fitness classes are offered including TRX, spinning, Pilates and Yoga.

Tennis fans can rejoice. There are 7 hard court tennis courts and two Har-Tru clay courts. Teaching Pro’s Clark Corey and Rick Manning from Peter Burnwash International lead daily instructional clinics and drills. Social doubles mixers are offered twice a week for resort guests.

Golf fans are not left out. The 18-hole Pete Dye-designed championship course offers rolling fairways and tees with breathtaking views. According to the resort website Green fees range from $125 to $185 for resort guests based on the season and day of the week.

If you are interested in getting in touch with nature, morning guided nature hikes are your ticket. I headed out with 8 other guests after meeting in the lobby of the Lodge. The brisk 40-minute hike takes you through the newly planted vineyard, past the wedding lawn and up the hills. Our guide pointed out unique native plants, wildlife and even showed us a glimpse of the former horse barn.

At the peak of the hike you are standing high above the resort at a hilltop vista. Here you will discover the Ridge Platform. The yoga deck was installed for a peaceful workout that also gives you stunning views of the Carmel Valley. Don’t be surprised to find a deer joining you on the hike or during your yoga session.

Wild animals and plants roam the wooded property. Once agricultural land, Carmel Valley Ranch is returning to its roots. The aroma of lavender waifs throughout the property with 7,500 plants spread throughout the hillside. On my last day, I spent 3 hours on the Lavender Harvest & Essential Oil Distillation with John Russo.

Meeting in the organic garden, the easy-going Russo and his equally patient assistant takes us step-by-step through the lavender oil making process. Guests begin by harvesting a basket full of purple plants. The lavender is then crushed and distilled into fragrant oil. The former high-tech employee’s love of the land could not be contained.

Russo also heads up the Honey Harvest & Extraction tour. Guests over age 6 can don a beekeeper suit and mingle up close and personal with several hives of honeybees. After a half-hour introductory talk, I zipped up in a beekeepers suit. I found the experience to be not only educational but also exhilarating. This is your chance to hold in your hands a tray full of hundreds of honeybees busily producing the sweet nectar that eventually ends up on the table of the Lodge’s restaurant. Russo’s laid-back yet informative tour gave me a new founded respect for the bees that buzz around us.

That latest buzz is the newly installed salt house. I had the pleasure of meeting the purveyor of the salt house Robert Kirkland. The enthusiastic former carpenter founded the Monterey Bay Salt Company. Kirkland began the venture on a dare after a fellow surfer challenged him to do something with all the residual salt on his wetsuit.

Now, Kirkland extracts seawater from the Monterey Bay and dries it out in a specially designed green house. The water evaporates but leaves the mineral infused clusters of salt. Kirkland explained the depth of water and location in the Monterey Bay changes the flavor of the salt. The salt is then used in the restaurant kitchen.

That is the main point of the new Carmel Valley Ranch. Here is a destination where visitors can learn about the natural environment and how it can be integrated into our daily living. The fresh-pressed lavender is transformed into Spa Aiyana oils and bath products inside your guest suites. Executive Chef Tim Woods incorporates the honey and vegetables from the Ranch’s organic garden into his seasonal menus. It’s part of the locally grown organic food approach the Ranch embraces.

I experienced several delicious meals at the Lodge Restaurant. I began with an evening dinner. Executive Chef Tim Wood is a firm believer in the farm to table movement. Wood is quick to combine the local seasonal ingredients into delicious meals. I began with a Swank Farm Asparagus Soup which was mouthwatering and a great teaser for what was next. Next I experienced the Black Angus Filet of Beef over oven-roasted garlic with a root vegetables puree. It was tender and tasty.

The chef uses a simple preparation to allow the meats own natural flavors to come to the surface. I finished the meal with a warm market fruit crisp that was topped with brown butter hazelnut streusel and had a dab of vanilla ice cream. The list of local wines gives you plenty of choices to fit your meal.

Breakfasts are simply fulfilling. From the steel cut oats to blueberry pancakes and huevos rancheros tostada, there is something for everyone. The dress is Lodge casual but the experience is purely dining at it’s best.

“Really impressed,” is how fellow guest and Chicago resident Malika Ameen felt about her experience at the Ranch. The Windy City resident first visited the Carmel Valley property 15 year ago. This time she brought her three boys ages 4, 7 and 9. “So much to do…including activities for the family that let’s us play together”, remarked Ameen after the beekeeping experience.

This pasty chef, who knows a thing or two about high–end food, noted the resorts great meals are “done really well.” Ameen even remarked the nightly campfire S’mores were a good chance for guests to bond and enjoy the night sky.

The Carmel Valley Ranch is an adult summer camp that is also family friendly. The visit brought back fun childhood memories of summer camp for me. I was sad to leave and quickly longed for a return trip. Who knew nostalgia could feel this good.

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