Hooneymoon Luxe

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Hurley is The Times' Executive Film Editor

There's nothing like a little delayed gratification to make a couple of newlyweds appreciate their honeymoon. Tom and I were married in May in a tiny ceremony, and held off having our official reception until early July, so by mid-July we were more than ready to run off to someplace special. It turns out the Timberhill Ranch, nestled in the rolling hills of Sonoma County, was worth the wait.

First of all, the 80-acre estate is remote--a 116-mile, three-hour drive from the Oakland airport, the last third of which is along extremely narrow portions of California Highway 1 high above the Pacific. So just arriving at Timberhill--and completely wilted in the midst of an unseasonable heat wave--we felt like we'd made a significant trek.

This gorgeous land was a summer home in private hands for most of this century, and in the '60s became briefly the alternative Timberhill School (original outbuildings used by the student residents still stand around the grounds). In 1983, two California couples, Frank Watson and Barbara Farrell and Michael Riordan and Tarran McDaid, left the San Francisco urban grind and bought the property, and have slowly molded it into one of the most highly praised American resorts today. It is one of the few American members of the Paris-based Relais & Chateaux hotel association, and last year Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report rated Timberhill Ranch among the top 10 U.S. resort hideaways. So our expectations were understandably high.

And mostly they were met--in many cases exceeded. Upon driving into the understated grounds around 4:30 on a Friday, we were immediately greeted in the parking lot by one of the cheerful staff members who quietly motor around the place in modified golf carts. One of the secrets to the serenity at the ranch is the prohibition against cars, and it takes a day or two to fully appreciate how much this adds to tranquillity. You get everywhere on foot or by cart--and the ethos of pampering is so strong here that you probably could arrange never to take a single step under your own power.

Our cabin, Cottage 2, was situated on a small hillock, overlooking the goose pond, and far enough away from its 14 companions that we felt completely alone in the countryside. It was simply furnished, with a large, firm quilt-covered bed, overstuffed chairs and a huge wood-burning fireplace. The bathroom and closet were roomy, and the deck, under a big live oak tree, was inviting.

One crucial piece of equipment that was missing this weekend, however, was an air conditioner. The heat was in the triple digits--unusual for this part of Northern California, to be sure, but a scorching reality for us. And because, with gratuity and tax, the stay was costing about $500 a night (including, not insignificantly, an incredible six-course dinner and continental breakfast daily), it did seem that air-conditioning might not have been too much to ask for. (Of course, this is likely to pose no problem into the fall, when daytime temperatures average in the low to mid-60s, and you may well need to fire up the fireplace in the evening.)

Dinner is served in 20-minute staggered start times; the earliest time available was 7:20, which we signed up for. The dining room, we happily discovered, was air-conditioned, so we would have been happy to linger over our meals even if the six courses didn't take about two hours to present. And the food was simply delightful.

Friday night we began with appetizers of marinated mushrooms on wonton strips and a smoked salmon, goat cheese and chive potato cake. This was followed by a chilled crenshaw melon soup swirled with strawberry puree, heavenly after the day's heat. Salad was mixed field greens with walnuts, perfectly ripened pears and Stilton. A honeydew sorbet palate-cleanser followed.

For his main course, Tom had a robust mixed grill of beef and pork tenderloins and local chicken on a ginger pilaf, and I had spicy sesame-crusted ahi tuna, piled on soba noodles and sea vegetables, topped with a toothpick sail made of seaweed. Our desserts were a melt-in-your-mouth coconut orange cream cake, and a dense chocolate hazelnut cake topped with nutty ice cream. (For the record, Saturday night's meal was as memorable.)

We finally left the dining hall around 9:30, and it had cooled enough that we took a twilight stroll around the grounds, bumping into more fauna than had been out before, including one of the resident cats, Smoky, and the pond's family of tame geese. The pond's bullfrogs were in full chorus, and we could feel ourselves letting the city stresses go as we walked.

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The next morning, we were awakened by a tap on the front door, signaling that our still-warm breakfast had arrived. We set up our individual trays on the deck to enjoy the gorgeous sight--birds chattering in the trees as the sun peeked over the distant vineyard--and forest-covered hills beyond the goose pond.

Breakfast was freshly baked croissants and muffins packed with real blueberries, fresh orange juice, a pot of decent coffee, and my add-on order of bagels and lox ($11.50), which tasted as though it had been flown in from Newfoundland that morning. On an after-breakfast walk down shady Seahill Ranch Road, we were accompanied by dozens of Monarch and white butterflies and the distinctive scents of summers of our youths--warm earth, cut grass, cedar groves.

But the temperature was rising and, in the best tradition of travelers punting when mother nature doesn't cooperate, I made an appointment for a massage and Tom decided he would take the car down to the coastline and check out the ocean views and the tiny hamlet of Sea Ranch.

At 2:30 Micky, the massage therapist, arrived at the cabin, offering traditional Swedish massage or a session of what she called Breema bodywork, based on an ancient Kurdish method of stretching and mild manipulation done while clothed. After being thoroughly Breema'ed, I was much more mellow. Tom returned and reported that from the ridge overlooking the ocean, the breezes were so strong it felt almost chilly, making me wish I'd had the chance to check it out.

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Budget for Two

Air fare, LAX to Oakland: $228.00

Thrifty car rental: 50.98

Timberhill Ranch, including breakfast and dinner: 1,016.34

Breakfast (1 added item): 11.50

Knapsack lunch: 20.00

Beverages with dinner: 24.00

Massage: 75.00

Gas, tolls: 15.00

FINAL TAB: $1,440.82

Timberhill Ranch, 35755 Hauser Bridge Road, Cazadero, CA 95421; tel. (800) 847-3470.

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