By { Beth Weitzman

Driving up to the porte-cochère at Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa, we were welcomed by a friendly bellman who escorted me, along with my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Lucca, to the check-in hacienda, where a glass of wine (for me) and doggie treats and adorable branded bandana (for Lucca) were waiting. The rustic design, reflective of the beautiful Rancho Santa Fe area where the property is located, bestowed an immediate sense of calm. In just minutes, we were checked in and ready to enjoy all the resort has to offer—which is a lot.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary and recent ranking as the No. 1 resort and hotel in California (and No. 5 best resort in the United States) by U.S. News & World Report, Rancho Valencia, the only Relais & Châteaux property in Southern California, is the epitome of laid-back luxury—understated and sophisticated. Ninety miles south of Los Angeles and only 30 minutes north of downtown San Diego, it is spread over 45 Mediterranean-inspired acres of lush gardens, rolling hills, lantern-lit trails, olive groves and citrus trees. Far from the hustle and bustle, there’s plenty of room to wander. 

Since opening in 1989, Rancho Valencia has attracted some of the most celebrated entertainers, politicians and business leaders, including Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Michael Jordan and Rene Russo. The all-suite resort has undergone a $30 million property-wide renovation, while keeping the original Spanish hacienda feel intact. No wonder it has earned the AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Five-Star accolades. 

Adjacent to the check-in hacienda is a well-stocked boutique (you’ll probably walk out with a few new outfits, purse and all), and culinary and imbibing spots. Open for lunch and dinner, the equestrian-themed Pony Room is designed with a mix of wood, leather and iron, reflecting a sense of rugged masculinity. With a bar, outdoor terrace and fire pits, it is the first California establishment to offer sparkling wine on draft, plus high-end wines on tap, handcrafted cocktails and a wide selection of spirits, including more than 150 tequilas. In the evening before sunset, don’t be surprised to see hot-air balloons flying on the horizon. 

Meanwhile, the resort’s elegant Veladora offers coastal Mediterranean farm-to-table dining inside and outside. The restaurant features oversized wrought-iron chandeliers accented by a $1 million colorful Damien Hirst art piece made of hundreds of butterflies. Additionally, Rancho Valencia’s wine cave and private dining room is complete with a vaulted brick ceiling, 500-pound antique entrance doors from a ranch in Jalisco and a private patio overlooking the eucalyptus grove.

Total serenity and privacy are found in 49 all-suite hacienda-style casitas, which average 1,000 square feet and feature custom furnishings, high beamed ceilings, private patios (some with fireplaces and whirlpools) and spacious bathrooms with Talavera tiles, deep soaking tubs, glass-enclosed showers and Barcelona-based Natura Bissé citrus-scented bath products. Furnishings include Spanish-inspired carved wood furniture, lamps made from hand-painted ceramic vases and hand-woven rugs made in Mexico. The ultra-plush beds dressed with down comforters and fluffy pillows guarantee a good night’s sleep. A plush doggie bed and set of bowls were provided for Lucca. She ran right to the bed, jumped on and nestled into her new favorite place on earth. 

We began our stay with a delicious lunch at the Pony Lounge, where we indulged in the hummus with veggies; RV ahi poke with avocado, sesame seeds, ginger, cucumber and crispy wonton; the Rancho burger made with Brandt beef, crispy pancetta, shaved lettuce, tomato, “the sauce,” house-made pickles, Kennebec fries and black truffle aïoli. The views over the 8,400-square-foot croquet lawn are lovely.

The resort has a strong focus on health and wellness, so I scheduled a treatment at the 1.5-acre Spa at Rancho Valencia. It features outdoor elements, such as a private Duet Suite, lap pool and sun gardens; and indoor amenities, including seven treatment rooms with private patios (five with outdoor, deep soaking tubs and rain showers), two couples rooms with fireplaces, private patios, outdoor showers and tubs for two; a Vichy shower room; two manicure and pedicure rooms; and a plunge pool circuit. Meanwhile, the expansive menu of beautifying and healing treatments for mind, body and spirit—massages, body wraps and scrubs, and facial treatments—incorporate Natura Bissé and ISUN skin and body care products. I chose the Balancing Gemstone Massage, which incorporates four aromatic, herb-infused massage oils applied in a special sequence, a cooling quartz crystal wand, a facial rejuvenation, a raindrop herbal-oil therapy and a luxurious back massage. It was delightful. 

When it comes to total relaxation, the full-service pool adjacent to the spa features plush cabanas (available by reservation), chaise lounges and Mediterranean tiles dot-ted with lavender, navy and coral. The pool bar, Rein, offers a variety of handcrafted cocktails, salads (the lobster Cobb is a must), ahi sashimi poke style, classic ceviche and a selection of freshly pressed paninis. The menu can also be enjoyed in the spa cabanas, on lounge chairs or at the bar.

An innovative fitness and wellness program makes keeping up—and even advancing—fitness routines easy. The full men’s and women’s fitness facilities include a large state-of-the-art gym with top-of-the-line strength equipment and weights. The Balinese-style, indoor-outdoor Serenity Yoga Pavilion impresses with 1,000 square feet of space and glass folding doors that open up to a water-surrounded platform from where the instructor leads. There’s also a spin studio, plus additional fitness studios offering 97 fitness classes per week, with everything from meditation to Power Blast and TRX. The steam rooms, saunas and Whirlpools are sheer perfection postworkout. Fitness classes are complimentary for spa and resort guests, and are all concluded with a fresh cold-pressed juice or protein shake.

Rancho Valencia, which has been rated Southern California’s No. 1 tennis resort by Tennis magazine since 2008, offers 18 resurfaced tennis courts. The bougainvillea and citrus groves are a scenic backdrop for two European red-clay courts and 16 plexi-pave championship courts. Terrific certified tennis instructors are available for private or group lessons. Seriously, they are the best. After an invigorating match, fresh towels and iced lemon water are available to enjoy courtside. 

I highly recommend biking around the property, taking in the fresh air, lush landscape and coastal views. Rancho Valencia has formed a luxury bicycle partnership with the premium Italian cycling brand Pinarello, so beginners, as well as cycling enthusiasts, love taking a spin around one of San Diego’s most esteemed cycling communities. A Pinarello expert from the company’s San Diego showroom is available for custom fittings, too. 

The new customized integrated health and wellness program, called the Wellness Collective, features a robust calendar of intimate workshops, enlightening lectures and activities based on the cutting-edge science of epigenetics. Rancho Valencia partnered with Lifewellness Institute, the premier wellness center in San Diego, to provide tools for sustainable changes in overall health and well-being. The program is available to Rancho Valencia spa members, as well as guests and locals, at three-, five- or seven-day retreats that include accommodations; wellness consultations; daily meals of spa cuisine; personal training and private fitness; unlimited yoga, Pilates, spin, barre and TRX classes; a daily customized 90-minute spa therapy, a welcome wellness gift; and lectures by industry experts. All participants have the opportunity to schedule one-on-one time with Dr. Lee Rice, founder of the Lifewellness Institute. 

Another distinctive Rancho Valencia offering, the Porsche Test Drive program, comes courtesy of its partnership with Porsche of San Diego. New models—the 2019 Porsche 718 Boxter convertible and the 2019 Cayenne—are available for one complimentary four-hour drive per guest, per day. The resort’s super knowledgeable concierge can help plan your route—perhaps down Highway 101 to the beaches of La Jolla, through Temecula’s wine country or to the Gaslamp Quarter of downtown San Diego for a date night.

Golf enthusiasts can play on more than 80 courses in the San Diego area. Among them, the famous Torrey Pines Golf Course, home to the 2008 US Open, is only 10 miles away, and you can borrow a set of the resort’s Callaway Golf clubs gratis. For the ultimate golfing getaway, the Callaway VIP Experience ($10,000 per person) includes a two-night stay at Rancho Valencia, chauffeured transportation, all meals at award-winning restaurants throughout San Diego County, custom fitting and instruction for a full day at the Ely Callaway Performance Center, a round at Del Mar Country Club, personalized golf balls and more. 

For those who enjoy the excitement of San Diego’s horse racing season, Rancho Valencia has partnered with Del Mar Thoroughbred Club to offer guests a special VIP Behind the Scenes Race Day Package that includes an overnight stay in a Rancho Valencia casita for up to four guests, a reserved table in the Turf Club following a personal tour of the stables, a meet and greet with the jockeys in the paddock, an exclusive trip to the Winner’s Circle and more.

While the landscape, accommodations, cuisine, spa and partner amenities are all pretty epic, the star of the show here is the impeccable level of hospitality—which is extended even to pets. Over our weekend, Lucca was welcomed with open arms and large smiles everywhere on the property. She was allowed to join me in most places, including the restaurants, where she ordered from her own doggie menu—shepherd’s pie, Rin Tin Tin tartare and morning risers made with scrambled eggs and potatoes were among the options. Plus, there’s a special in-room doggie tapas menu.

There are also plenty of places for pets to play, as well as pet-friendly shopping, grooming and pet-sitting nearby. Lucca knew she was on vacation and had the time of her life, which, of course, made me very happy, too. 5921 Valencia Circle, Rancho Santa Fe, 866.233.6708,