You walk into the lobby of this resort in northern San Diego and pass a table with a bouquet of roses and hydrangeas. It’s the size of a giant balloon; the flowers are fresh and glorious. But you’re too distracted to fully take in the image — there’s so much to look at, you don’t know where to turn.
The woman behind the check-in desk tells you the place opened in 2007, and you think, “She must be kidding.” Or else you’re dreaming. The enormous fountain outside the entrance – didn’t we see one like that on the Piazza Navona? The high ceiling above you: little squares framed in wood, each hand-stenciled — didn’t we see ceilings like that in the Pitti Palace? Such an abundance of detail, such artistry, such noble materials. Who does work like this any more?
Then this tall, handsome man emerges from behind the front desk. He introduces himself: Nenad Praporski, a native of Serbia and the Executive Director of Rooms. Nenad doesn’t dismiss our astonishment. Actually, he understands it, although he assures us we are not dreaming. “You’ll see ceilings like this throughout the property. It took 24 artisans three months to hand-stencil each little square,” Nenad tells us. “You’ll find fine wood — not only these frames but hand-hewn ceiling beams, 25,000 feet of floors, also moldings, doors, wall panels, bookcases, cabinets –all hand-crafted, hand-finished, the work of 120 carpenters.
I can show you a perfect little chapel in this building (a favorite spot for weddings, by the way) with carved benches that were brought here from Italy on seven ships. You’ll walk past pillars of Italian marble, walls of Jerusalem limestone, luxurious brocades and velvets, exquisite chandeliers, beautiful Portuguese-glazed tiles. And all of it is for real!”
So it is. Still, it may take a while to believe your own eyes. And there may be occasions when, once again, you think they are deceiving you. Like the first time we stepped onto the terrace outside our suite and saw a long ornamental pool on the lawn below. It was made of blue and white tiles, shaped like a Moorish arch on either end, and flanked by tall Italian cypresses. As we watched the jets down both sides of the pool shoot streams of water into the air, we almost lost our bearings. And for a moment, it was Granada and we were looking at the pool in the garden of the Alhambra.
The Grand del Mar has such power; it encourages enchantments and entrancements. Moroccan arches beckon you into colonnades, while wrought-iron aqua-colored gates open onto gardens, courts that end at Mudejar-style towers, expansive dining patios, infinity swimming pools, and paths that end at the hacienda-style buildings whose rose-colored stone surfaces seem to reflect the glow of a sunrise any time of the day.
You could spend hours wandering around this 600-acre property, never at a loss to find a new and bewitchingly beautiful perspective. Or you could combine the pleasures of viewing scenic wonders with invigorating outdoor activity at the 18-hole, par-72 Tom Fazio-designed Grand del Mar golf course that begins and ends right outside the hotel. Spread over 380 acres with 250 mature trees, its undulating fairways will provide you with vistas of surrounding valley and hills. At the same time, meeting challenges posed by maddening sand traps will keep you at the top of your game which ends, once the 18th hole is completed at the site of an 18-foot cascading waterfall.
“To spend an afternoon on this course is such a splendid experience,” golf professional Erik Wilson told us. “You have privacy, space, the splendors of nature, the joy of being outside in mostly perfect weather. See the ridge in the distance? The Pacific is on the other side. You step up to the t-box and it’s your own game. In the hole you’re on, you won’t see anyone except the people ahead of you or behind you. This is a course that takes into consideration the golfer’s psyche. Every time you play it, something is different.”
If this sounds a bit mystical, especially coming from a young, blonde and very California (albeit Oregon-born) kind of guy, you quickly see that Erik’s passion for the game and the course belies a cool professionalism. “I probably picked up my first club when I was 7,” he said. “I just stuck with it until I got to the point when I knew this was what I wanted to do. I love working with people, helping them to become better players” — something we discovered first-hand when Erik gave each of us a lesson that was direct, personal, aimed at our level and with such specificity that we knew what to take home and build on.
“The owner of this property purchased the golf course, had it completely redone, and built the hotel around it,” Jim Croghan, director of Spa and Recreation, told us later on when we met him for café latte in the hotel’s little Italian bistro. “The idea behind it was to have people feel they have their own private space and are not surrounded by others. The golf course is part of this plan; so is the Renaissance Spa.”
Jim, friendly and professional-looking, dressed in shirt and tie, came to the Grand del Mar a month ago and has clearly fallen under its spell. “For 15 years I worked in the most exquisite resorts,” he said. “But this is different; you don’t see resorts like this. I find myself continually thinking about the beauty of it. Every single day. And what is so exciting to me is that in 30 years, it will look the same.
“The spa fits so well into the overall picture,” he continued. “Its treatments are the best in the industry. Recently we received the Five Star award for being among the top twenty spas in the world — that’s out of probably 30,000 spas. We have our own brand based on aromatherapy, all organic products, created from scratch by the well-known spa consultant Ann Robin, who insists the treatment be designed around the product, not the other way around. Our purpose is to reconnect guests with enriching elements of the earth: warm mineral muds, native herbs and calming botanicals. And to this end, our therapists do more than just give a massage. They are intuitive, in tune with the body in terms of understanding just what treatment is needed.”
Therapist Vanessa Zunino described the Renaissance Massage, considered by many to be the ultimate Grand del Mar treatment: “You lie on a platform above a tank filled with water. Warm mud from Austria is applied to your body; it extracts, pulls out all the toxins. Wrapped like a burrito, you drop into the water. You will be covered but floating, weightless in the water, gently rocked. We will do a lot of compression; I will work on your neck, on your feet while you stay submerged and feel the water swishing around. Then you are brought up to the surface. You rinse off in a thirteen-head rosemary-infused shower. Your muscles are ready for the next step: a 60-minute stretching massage.
“I love this treatment,” she added. “It’s the ultimate relaxation experience, like a return to the womb.”
“In this hotel, people check in, take in the beautiful surroundings, and the spa just seems to be part of it,” Jim had told us. “Guests get a sense of wanting to take care of themselves and learning how to do it well. The Renaissance Spa addresses that desire. Our goal is to get them to not only feel better while they are here, but to take away a wellness program developed just for them, a regimen they can follow at home or wherever they may be.”
Walking through the wide hallways on the way to Addison, the Grand del Mar’s signature restaurant, we passed rooms lined with cabinets of fine mahogany. Could there be so many libraries here? we wondered. A closer inspection revealed it was not books that they housed, but wines, some visible, others secreted behind doors — all told, some 21,000 bottles, organized according to appellation. Unknowingly, we had stepped into the Burgundy Room; the Bordeaux Room was next door. In addition to providing storage space, the rooms are used for private dinners and wine-tastings – in which case, there is plenty to choose from. Addison received the “Wine Spectator” award in 2009. “We were the youngest restaurant in the world to ever have received it,” assistant sommelier Jessie Rodriguez told us. “Only 17 restaurants in the world have it.”
Addison is named for Addison Mizner, the architect whose Mediterranean-style design in Boca Raton is a strong influence on the Grand Del Mar. The only five-star and five-diamond restaurant in California, it is, in a word, “grand,” with a hand-painted (what else?) gold leaf ceiling, baronial white stone fireplace on the far wall, and an expanse of floor-to-ceiling arch-shaped windows framed with wrought iron along the length of the room.
Thirty-one year-old Executive Chef William Bradley is a native of Los Angeles and has the easygoing manner one associates with a youthful, west coast lifestyle. Nevertheless, he is seriously committed to the rigors of French cuisine. “The chefs I worked for were French. That is my lineage,” the award-winning Relais and Chateaux Grand Chef told us. “I want to work in their tradition. But at the same time, we have lightened things up. Here in southern California we have so much wonderful product. That is what we focus on.”
William nodded with approval at the sea bass one of us had ordered. “This is a good example of how we respect the product and the tradition,” he said. “Roasting the fish properly in a pan, letting the ingredients speak for what they are.”
And so they did, loud and clear, not only the sea bass, but the mussels with picholine olives, the curry-roasted cauliflower, and the licorice-glazed squab with candied red cabbage and plums. Together with an incredibly delicious dessert — toasted almond gâteau with wild berry confit and crème fraîche — they added up to a memorable meal.
We learned that we share a common friend with William in the Parisian restaurateur Guy Savoy. “He is so approachable,” William said. “Here at the Addison we try to create the kind of warm and friendly environment you found in his restaurant in Paris. And I believe people respond to that. We not only get the guests at the hotel and a lot of people from the San Diego region, we draw from all over Orange County, even as far away as San Francisco. They make the trek.”
It was at Addison’s that we sampled two Napa County sparkling Chardonnays, the first distinguished by apple, the second, berry aromas. They were delightful, easily comparable to the French “champagnes” and deserving of the name that French marketers claim as theirs alone. We also had a white wine from a 43-acre vineyard in the Basque region of Spain: Txomin Etxaniz, 2009 vintage. Having tried and failed to properly pronounce anything in the unique Basque tongue, we won’t know how to ask for it in a New York wine shop. We’ll just say we want this white wine from a small vineyard in the Basque which has a lemony color and a citrusy flavor, is slightly effervescent, and quite wonderful.
One descends a grand (again) swirling staircase from the main floor of the main building to Amaya. The second of the Grand del Mar’s restaurants, it focuses on a Mediterranean menu that features duck confit, lobster bisque, Catalan grilled shrimp, mushroom risotto, and seared scallops.
Amaya overlooks the golf course from an expansive dining patio and is an ideal place to begin one’s day. The sun is always shining, the temperature is moderate and the views beguiling. Breakfast options at Amaya may seem a bit overwhelming, particularly before you’ve had your coffee. We counted 14 choices of eggs, pancakes, and French toast, bagels with smoked salmon, yogurts, a plethora of unique breads and cereals. But one of us bypassed the stress-inducing overabundance of choices and ordered a creamy and satisfying Amaya Smoothie available in any one of five flavors – that much, she could handle.
Many of the Grand del Mar team spoke to its aura of privacy and space, a consequence of exceptional design and materials. But there is also the setting of the 4,100-acre Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, one of the last remaining undeveloped coastal canyons in San Diego. On Saturday mornings, Grand del Mar guests have the opportunity to join naturalist Dylan Jones on a hike through this canyon (it has 37 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails) which combines 500,000-year-old soils of vernal pools with 140 million-year-old sedimentary rock deposits, 500 plant species, and 14 habitat types. It may sound overwhelming, but when Dylan points out different trees and plants, spots aquatic birds like herons and egrets in the large fresh-water marsh, tree frogs and crayfish in a stream, a mountain lion on a distant hill, and evidence of a Native American presence that goes as far back as 7,000 years ago, the majesty of this planet and the dimensions of the life it has spawned become apparent and deeply felt.
A wildlife expert and enthusiast, Dylan was showing our little group some of the natural materials native peoples used for shelter and decoration when we heard barking in the distance. We turned to see a group of rangers and dogs of varied species, the latter being trained for lifesaving purposes.
The hike lasted only several hours. The memory of it will last forever.
So will the memory of an enchanted stay at San Diego’s grand Grand del Mar.
The Grand Del Mar
5299 Meadows Del Mar
San Diego, California 92130
858 314 2000
Photographs by Harvey Frommer