If you were a novelist, say, working on a book set in Heaven, and you needed to do some background research, a good place to start might be The Grand Del Mar resort and spa just north of San Diego.
The Grand Del Mar is both extravagantly luxurious and deeply uncool, which is precisely its charm. If your idea of paradise is the kind of sleek designer décor that makes you feel dowdy by comparison, or a staff that seems constantly to be judging whether you’re impressive enough to merit that Margarita or massage, then The Grand Del Mar is not for you. But if you could do with an eternity of feather-soft beds and heated patios and champagne by the hot tub? Then giddyup, baby: You’ll agree with me that The Grand Del Mar is as close to Heaven as any of us are likely to get here on Earth.
At first, I had my doubts. Everybody was so solicitous, so helpful, so nice that my New York self was suspicious. Even my California self was suspicious: Were they laying it on so thick because they knew I was a world-famous reporter for Insider’s Guide to Spas?
The Grand Del Mar is both extravagantly luxurious and deeply uncool, which is precisely its charm. If your idea of paradise is the kind of sleek designer décor that makes you feel dowdy by comparison . . . then The Grand Del Mar is not for you.
But my 25-year-old son, there as my guest and totally anonymous, had the same experience: throughout the resort, in the café and at poolside, he was treated like royalty by everyone from the housekeepers to the waiters to executives who, if they see you looking lost, not only ask if you need directions but escort you to your destination.
The effect is to make you feel that the world is wonderful just because you’re there, and isn’t that the way travel should always be? Your smallest wish is the command of the staff, as in one night when we were finishing dinner on the lovely outside terrace and remarked that the evening was turning chilly, whereupon an enormous heat-lamp was instantly wheeled tableside.
The theme of The Grand Del Mar is Renaissance, reflected in both the opulent décor of the resort and the treatments at the luxurious spa. In fact, the spa’s signature treatment is called the Renaissance. You’re slathered with warm mud, wrapped in a sheet, and cradled on a waterbed-like table. The effect is profound: You feel like you’re returning to the womb, to be reborn in an herb-infused shower followed by a stretching massage.
I also relaxed with a wonderful Art for Art’s Sake 90-minute facial, including scalp and neck massage, and assuaged my guilt with an early morning canyon hike led by a naturalist. And then I did plenty of lounging by the adult pool (separated by an entire huge building from the family pool), which included genuinely strong margaritas delivered to right to my chaise—by a waiter who, on Day 2, remembered my name.
The food at the resort’s second-tier Amaya restaurant—the Five-Star Addison was fully booked on the busy Friday night of our stay—was similarly ambrosial, from the watermelon gazpacho to the butterscotch brownie sundae, washed down by selections from the top-flight wine list.
Our heavenly experience at The Grand Del Mar was a very hard act to follow, a weight that fell on the shoulders of Rancho Bernardo Inn, a short skip down the road. If we had gone to Rancho Bernardo first or instead of the Grand Del Mar, I’m sure we would have been thoroughly delighted with the experience. The décor felt hipper, less intimidatingly luxe. The grounds are beautifully landscaped, with winding paths among the resort’s buildings and features like outdoor fireplaces tucked into lush corners. We spent a lovely day in a poolside cabana, which segued to terrific massages, followed by a delicious dinner at Rancho Bernardo’s ambitious Avant Restaurant.
But as much as the vibe at Rancho Bernardo was more relaxed and approachable than that at The Grand Del Mar, the reality was exactly the opposite, with staff that sometimes seemed detached to the point of rudeness. It would have been hard to meet the superlative standard set by The Grand Del Mar, where you felt enveloped in the arms of an all-loving goddess mother. But on arriving at Rancho Bernardo, we were left to manage our own luggage over a long hike up and down stairs, and on leaving, found ourselves locked out of our room without warning by an overzealous checkout staff.
Unfortunate, as the prices at Rancho Bernardo are truly reasonable for a resort that offers a similar range of services and activities—including spa, several pools, tennis, and golf— as the much pricier Grand Del Mar. The private spa pool is surrounded by tented cabanas, worth every penny of the $125 extra daily fee, with their upholstered sofas and chaises and waiter service for food and drinks. The saline pool leads seamlessly to the spa where treatments take place in individual garden casitas, a lovely experience with the sound of water in the nearby fountains and wind in the palms. My Arnica Intensive Massage left me drooling.
Avant Restaurant is worth a visit to Rancho Bernardo even if you’re not staying at the hotel. Especially notable is the artisanal charcuterie including house-made pate and mustards, with salami and soppressata that would impress Tony Soprano.
And the Avant Restaurant is worth a visit to Rancho Bernardo even if you’re not staying at the hotel. Especially notable is the artisanal charcuterie including house-made pate and mustards, with salami and soppressata that would impress Tony Soprano. The drinks list includes six signature cocktails, such as the Barrel Aged Negroni, and an excellent range of local craft beer such as Sculpin and Mission Amber on tap.
But Avant saves the best for last, with its PacoJet ice cream, a modernist treat found in very few restaurants because of the expense of the equipment. The result is the icy essence of fresh raspberries or salted caramel, which made for a heavenly end to a heavenly weekend.
What my research taught me: Any description of Heaven has to include massages and ice cream, warm swimming pools and strong Margaritas. And how the place looks is less important than how it feels. Beauty is skin deep, but soul of the kind found at The Grand Del Mar abides forever.