You won't find Rodeo Drive glam here: Residents of bucolic Rancho Santa Fe in north San Diego County prefer to live under the radar, hidden behind gates in multimillion-dollar estates. Its quiet, spotless downtown (there aren't any visible trash cans) is classic and understated with Spanish-style buildings, red-tile roofs and ironwork. Horses are part of the landscape, with equestrian properties and riding and polo clubs. The tab for a ritzy weekend with the horsy set: We paid $239 plus a $25 resort fee for one night (current weekend rates at the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe range from $269 to $1,200). My husband and I spent $175 for meals and drinks.
The town centerpiece, the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe (5951 Linea Del Cielo;  756-1131, http://www.theinnatrsf.com) was the vision of a young architect, Lilian J. Rice, who created the inn in the 1920s as well as designing the adjacent town in the image of a Spanish village. The inn recently completed a $12-million renovation of its rooms and public spaces; there's also a new restaurant, Morada, and a spa. Garden cottages and guest rooms are spread around 21 acres of landscaped grounds. Accommodations range from small, simply decorated rooms to charming cottages and suites. Our room was small but lovely with simple country furnishings and a modern bathroom; the best feature was the outdoors-in feeling with a patio overlooking a garden. This is a place to relax; the inn's vibe is mellow. Kick back and sip cocktails on the Morada's outdoor terrace, which overlooks a large croquet lawn. Inn guests have access to the Rancho Santa Fe golf and tennis clubs.
We had lunch across the street at Thyme in the Ranch (16905 Avenida de Acacias;  759-0747, http://www.thymeintheranch.com), a cute eatery in a country cottage. The soup and sandwiches are good; save room for the desserts, which take the cake. When in Rome: In the evening, we went über-upscale at Rancho Santa Fe's really high-priced spread, the five-star Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa (5921 Valencia Circle;  756-1123, http://www.ranchovalencia.com). I was a bit uneasy as we pulled up to the valet in our aged Camry sandwiched between a Porsche and a Bentley. No worries: Everyone was quite friendly. We had drinks at the casual but tony Pony Room bar, then moved to a table for paella and lobster tacos. It's packed and fun on the weekends.
Give your pocketbook a break and download a free map from the Rancho Santa Fe Historical Society's website at http://www.ranchosantafehistoricalsociety.org. Take a walking tour to explore the town's well-preserved buildings, many of which Rice designed from 1920 to 1940. (Some of them are on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Historical Society's home at 6036 La Flecha.) After that, take a drive along the backcountry's winding two-lane roads to catch a glimpse of gracious homes set among lush foliage and towering eucalyptus. Leave time for the Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve in Escondido (8833 Harmony Grove Road; http://www.olivenhain.com/elfin-forest-recreational-reserve), a short drive from the inn. Elfin Forest has miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking. Top it off with a horseback ride at Willow Creek Stables in nearby Encinitas (3049 Camino del Rancho;  756-6937, http://www.willowcreekstables.com/index.php).
The lesson learned
Sunday is not a fun day in downtown RSF: Nothing was open except for a tiny shop selling coffee and baked goods and several real estate offices. (Real estate is the town's main industry.) It's a good day to get in more hiking at Elfin Forest or to hang at the inn — croquet anyone?
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