Rancho Valencia: A Luxury Retreat in Southern California

The main pool of Rancho Valencia

The main pool of Rancho Valencia

Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa is one of the country’s premier tennis resorts, but that’s clearly not why I’m here. As I lob yet another tennis ball over the tall fence and into the adjoining court, I have no problem admitting that I’m here just for the spa and relaxation.

Located about thirty minutes from the San Diego airport in the Del Mar region, Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa is, as I soon discovered, quite simply a luxury retreat ideal for any guest. The 45-acre destination has everything I need for a relaxing stay far from the cares of the world: fine dining, excellent drinks, luxury accommodations, and, yes, a spa. There’s an amazing array of fabulous fitness classes and activities, too, but I’m not going to sully my indulgent getaway with any sort of laborious physical activity. I’m on vacation, after all.

Which is why I was so delighted to curl up on a cushioned bench beside a roaring fire pit, drink in hand, and watch a blazing orange sunset. In the quiet of the early evening, I could hear the rhythmic whooshing of hot air balloons hovering above, so close it felt as if I could touch them. Now the bevy of iconic aircraft hovered in the distant sky, backlit by the sun. Could it get much better than this?

Yes, yes it could.

A hot air balloon at sunset

A hot air balloon at sunset

Rancho Valencia is an unpretentious triumph of luxury living while never being too standoffish or snooty, unlike some luxury resorts. Sure, Bentleys and Porsches are parked right outside the restaurant, but inside couples are dressed in workout gear fresh off a run. There’s a croquet court with stunning panoramic views, though let’s face it—the court is more for kids having fun than dapper adults dressed in their whites perfecting their gentlemanly game.

The resort feels more like a home. Perhaps that’s because my casita at Rancho Valencia was bigger than my entire house. Seriously.

The casitas
The headquarters of indulgence are the 49 hacienda-style suites sprinkled throughout the property. Though I got lost more times than I could count while trying to find my way back to my casita at night, I kept reminding myself that this was a good thing! The casitas are so hidden that you always feel that you’ve got a private little space all to yourself that few people can find—yourself included, sometimes.

Evening turndown service includes lighting the fireplace in your casita

Evening turndown service includes lighting the fireplace in your casita

Inside casita 117, a foyer opened up into a spacious living area with a tiny kitchen. In the living room, a gas fireplace took center stage. Each night after turndown service, I returned to my casita to the welcoming glow of a roaring fire and soft music playing. Down the hall, there was a spacious bedroom, an enormous bathroom with a glass-walled shower and soaking tub located in the middle, and an expansive walk-in closet tucked aside.

A casita's outdoor patio area

A casita’s outdoor patio area

The Mediterranean-inspired casita was delightful inside, but the highlight of my stay was utilizing the private outdoor patio. With high walls and tropical plants creating a serene enclave, it was among the highlights of my stay. A outdoor gas fireplace, surrounded by lounge chairs, served as my morning retreat, where I could sip the freshly squeezed orange juice delivered to my room each morning in a cute vintage orange crate. On the other side of the patio (yes, it is that big!) were lounge chairs and a private heated jacuzzi.

Miniature lemon trees were laden with heavy yellow fruits pulling down their tiny branches and releasing the most divine pure citrus aroma. This, my friends, is what California is like in my dreams. Only this is real.

The laid-back atmosphere is pervasive throughout the resort. I swam alone in the main pool without a fellow guest in sight (easy to do with a 6:1 staff-to-guest ratio), squinting up at palm trees as I did a backstroke. Gas fireplaces are sprinkled throughout the Clubhouse area, where the restaurants, bars and check-in can be found, creating cozy little hideouts for either morning tea or nightly cocktails.

Drive a Porsche
It’s at the Clubhouse that I kept walking past several Porsches parked outside each day. Finally, one morning, I asked the valet if I could take a spin and he handed over the car keys. One of the delightful perks of being a guest at Rancho Valencia is free use of the brand new Porsches on loan each day. Don’t think I didn’t get a photo taken and then text it excitedly to my husband.

Veladora Dining Room

Veladora dining room

Local eats
A day of driving Porsches and lazily basking under the sun can really work up an appetite in a girl. Well, not really, but I had to indulge in the Resort’s superb dining, after all. Executive Chef Eric Bauer utilizes the freshest local foods, some sourced right on property, to create dynamic Coastal Ranch cuisine. Healthy and hearty, I never left the table craving a Big Mac, as is often the case with spa resort food.

At Veladora, one of the resort’s two restaurants, the stunning interior is just as stunning as the plates being served. Light and airy, the huge windows overlook the tennis courts while pops of turquoise color and a bevy of candlelit lanterns warm the rustic interior. I chose to eat outdoors—why not, with the beautiful California weather—and feasted on a hearty mushroom risotto with a garden salad whose local pedigree was explained to me by the server. An inventive mustard-seed hummus served with pretzel rolls was the appetizer, leaving little room for the fresh fruit platter full of tropical colors with homemade ice cream for dessert.

Tequila tastings
The Pony Room serves up casual, yet equally imaginative, food, too. What makes The Pony Room stand out, though, is the impressive tequila collection overseen by Chris Simmons, a certified catador (a catador is like a sommelier for wines). With 100 tequilas, the options for tequila tasting seem to be endless at Rancho Valencia. Simmons creates tequila tasting classes to increase awareness of the spirit, but a lesson in how to appreciate the alcohol as something other than a margarita ingredient can be found any night of the week at the bar in The Pony Room.

The spa lobby at Rancho Valencia

The spa lobby at Rancho Valencia

The spa
The next day, over at the spa, a variety of fitness classes were being held in the many workout rooms and a yoga pavilion, but I walked right past them and focused on checking in for my spa treatment on time. Wrapped in a fluffy robe and fresh from the steam room, I sat down in the open air gathering room that is perhaps the poster child for Mediterranean hacienda charm. A roaring fireplace is surrounded by plush loungers and a table laden with homemade treats.

Just named the Sustainable Resort Spa of the Year by the Green Spa Network, Rancho Valencia’s spa—as well as the entire resort—is committed to eco-friendly practices. I was led to one of the private rooms that surround a reflective pool laden with tropical plants.

Inside, the massage room opens out to a private patio with an al fresco shower. That wasn’t to be enjoyed during my spa treatment, but my Swedish massage was relaxing, just the same. Afterwards, I was handed a glass of “Wellness Journey,” a freshly pressed green drink made on site with apples, kale and celery.

The name of the resort’s famous drink is a fitting moniker for my short time spent at Rancho Valencia. Whether you choose the path to wellness through relaxation or fitness, a journey to Rancho Valencia can be good for both body and soul.

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