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Jim Byers

Guest contributor

Jim is a Toronto-based travel writer who freelances for a variety of publications, including his own site (www.jimbyerstravel.com), Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Yahoo Canada, Vancouver Sun, Zoomer magazine and many others. He tries to bring the world to readers with a Canadian perspective and humor.

Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa has been one of the top southern California retreats since 1989. It was given a facelift worthy of a Hollywood starlet in 2012, and is the only Relais & Chateaux property in the southern half of The Golden State.

Located in the posh community of Rancho Santa Fe, the resort is about a half-hour north of San Diego. It’s a serene and supremely quiet spot, with 45 acres and just 49 suites or casitas done in a Spanish style.

The service here is impeccable, and the spa is first-rate. Toss in fabulous California cuisine, craft cocktails, tennis and even a chance to drive a Bentley around town, and we’re talking serious luxury.

Photo courtesy of Jim Byers


The property is tucked high in the hills but is only 20 minutes from Solana Beach, and only 32 kilometers to the walkable, oceanfront city of Carlsbad, home to Legoland and a nice outlet shopping center. Downtown San Diego and the San Diego airport are roughly 35 minutes away.

Lobby lounge in a posh California hotel, Rancho Valencia. Seen are two brown tufted leather chairs with a dramatic piece of art on the wall, filling the entire space behind them.
Photo courtesy of Rancho Valencia Spa & Resort


You’ll find a mix of Californians on weekend getaways and out-of-country visitors who wish to indulge in the kind of atmosphere Relais & Chateaux resorts are known for. It’s definitely not a mixed crowd in terms of income, but we found a wide range of ages hanging around the pool and dining by the sparkling fountain at night at the resort restaurant.

Photo courtesy of Rancho Valencia Spa & Resort


Our casita, number 153, had a spacious, relaxed living room with high ceilings, a fireplace and lots of windows to let in the California sunshine. In one corner was a lovely set of tall vases, perfectly lined up. There were two deep orange cushions on the sofa, and a beautiful, miniature, old-style suitcase on the end table in a suite that was around 1,000 square feet (pretty much the average for their 49 casita units).

Photo courtesy of Rancho Valencia Spa & Resort

The outside patio was enormous, with terra cotta tiles, several chairs and two loungers. I laid down for a bit and admired the just-right landscaping; with cacti, flaming orange birds of paradise flowers and green-bark palo verde trees.

Photo courtesy of Rancho Valencia Spa & Resort

The massive bathroom had two sinks, a soaker tub and a shower big enough for the starting lineup of an NHL hockey team. There was a small wooden tray next to the tub with soap and other amenities; all neatly arranged.

Photo courtesy of Jim Byers

The bed had a series of settings so you could get just the right level of firmness, and even set the temperature. The room also had an espresso machine, a wet bar and a mini-fridge with free snacks and free soft drinks and juice.

Photo courtesy of Rancho Valencia Spa & Resort


We had a fine lunch of lobster tacos and Hawaiian poke at the spa pool just after we arrived. The main dining facility, The Pony Room, has both an elegant indoor space and outdoor dining. We had our dinner on the patio, with a pretty fountain gurgling under a partial moon and a singer warbling very credible versions of James Taylor tunes and other soft-rock faves.

I had a very good bucatini pasta dish with California spot prawns and nduja (an Italian sausage paste) saffron and peas, while my wife had a truly sensational miso-crusted sea bass that was as thick as Conan O’Brien’s hair.

I loved, loved, loved the La Pinata margarita with mezcal, Serrano Tequila, charred pineapple and cilantro for a fine, smoky flavor.

Photo courtesy of Jim Byers

In the morning, back at the Pony Room, we had an excellent Acai bowl with granola and fruit, and terrific lemon souffle pancakes.

Photo courtesy of Jim Byers


Rancho Valencia Resort and Spa has an indoor-outdoor yoga pavilion, 13 tennis courts (including three new clay surface courts), four pickleball courts and a luxury bicycle partnership with Electra. The resort has been named the as the best tennis resort in the U.S. by Tennis Magazine every year since 2008. There’s also hiking, croque and bocce.

Photo courtesy of Rancho Valencia Spa & Resort

The main pool is great for swimming laps and soaking up the sun. It’s a pet-friendly resort, and someone had brought a lovely golden retriever to the pool, which barked when I first went in the water but quickly settled down. There’s also an adults-only pool at the spa, where you can book a massage that’s a flawless blend of relaxation and stimulation. The treatment I selected came complete with a rose-scented aromatherapy option, pillows for my head and back, a warm robe and a nice relaxation area with fruit and tea and other healthy options


Rancho Valencia offers guests an opportunity to drive luxury Bentley models during their stay at the resort. Resort guests are able to take the luxury vehicle out complimentary, at any time, for up to four hours a day.

One thing I noted right away is how professional the staff is. When we were checking in, the phone rang at the check-in desk. The hotel worker gave us a nod and answered the phone. “Hello, Rancho Valencia Spa & Resort. I’m dealing with a guest at the moment. Would you mind terribly if I put you on hold for just a moment? Thank you so much.” Yes, that’s a little thing. But it’s an indication of excellent manners, and equally impressive staff training.

I also love that the resort delivers fresh orange juice to your casita in the morning, leaving it in a lovely, wooden box.


It’s quite common at resorts, but there’s a $60 resort fee for guests. There’s free orange juice and free snacks and free newspapers in the morning (yay). And there’s no charge for the Wi-Fi. But if you’re spending $650 for a room (a recently posted price) they shouldn’t add a resort fee.

Jim stayed as a guest of the hotel. It did not have editorial approval.

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