I love a hotel with character. When we travel, we avoid the ubiquitous chain, whether or not it’s five-star. So we were very excited as we drove the winding eucalyptus-lined two lane road into Rancho Santa Fe to check into the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, a Southern California icon with character to spare. Our destination was just 30 minutes north of San Diego International Airport and minutes from the beaches and the upscale seaside towns of Del Mar, Solana Beach, and La Jolla

Everything about this fabled hotel was fascinating, from its architect, Lilian Rice, to the rich and famous that walked its grounds and lived over the course of 90-plus years. This was the temporary home for hundreds of stars and celebrities such as Bing Crosby, America’s Sweetheart Mary Pickford, Hollywood hero Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and even Bill Gates and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The stories the walls could tell—and now we would be a part of the hotel’s history in our own small way.

The newly restored Inn at Rancho Santa Fe is on 21 acres of landscaped grounds including flowering gardens, lush lawns and winding pathways between cottages, guest rooms and suites. Although it’s a luxury hotel with all the trimmings, it has an unpretentious and easy going character that instantly made us feel at home. Cottages scattered through the gardens made it feel like a peaceful, enchanted village rather than a hotel.

After a quick and friendly welcome, we settled into our home for the next three days. The spare Spanish-influenced architecture of the exterior of our room belied the country-inspired sophistication of our large suite, complete with a full-sized kitchen, a large bedroom, two desks and a spacious living room highlighted by a working wood-burning fireplace and balcony. We also enjoyed speedy WIFI that worked without a password, two large flat screen TVs, and a professional-looking espresso machine that needed a professional to figure it out. Complimentary wine and cheese fortified us before we set out to explore the hotel and grounds.

The interior design of public areas of the hotel is impressive, reflecting the same casual ranch elegance as the room with a little more contemporary feel. A giant fireplace with a roaring fire and impressive paintings anchored the main lobby and entrance to the Morada restaurant, a hidden culinary gem. The recent major renovation included enhancing the Inn’s arrival experience at the front parking area, constructing a new meeting space, adding new private dining rooms and planting event lawns, herb and produce gardens.

Mary enjoyed a treatment at the recently opened The Spa at The Inn, a new 3,000 square foot full-service spa and relaxation courtyard offering guests and residents a place to relax and be pampered.
One highlight of our stay was our leisurely dinner at Morada, named after the hotel’s original title name. Its elegant, softly lit interior further embraces the Inn’s past with historic photos of famous guests featured on one great wall. The dining room is large but cozy, with comfortable seating and acoustics. Patio dining, perfect for warm days, fronts the wide green lawn and village.
Executive Chef Todd Allison’s take on California cuisine was fresh and inspired. His sea bass (more on this) blew me away. All the dishes we sampled reflected the seasonally fresh ingredients from local sustainable farms and farmer’s markets and from the edibles and herb garden on Inn property.

The wine and food service was professional and friendly, and the wine selections for each course were spot on. Allison and Morada should be on everyone’s list, for visitors here during Del Mar racing season or locals seeking a relaxing night out. We can’t stay every month at the Inn, but we sure plan a return to enjoy the restaurant.

Our three days at the Inn didn’t disappoint. Accommodations were infused with charm and character. The staff was friendly, professional and kick-backed. And Morada restaurant was world class. But it was the feeling that we were there in spirit with giants of another era that made this experience one to remember and savor.