We quickly came to think of our visit to Quail Lodge, the tranquil, recently renovated resort surrounded by the lush Santa Lucia Mountains, as a trip to a fantasy world of studied gentility.
My wife, Helene, and I felt like minor celebrities, with a retinue of friendly, handsome, intelligent and articulate servants whose only aim was to make certain we were pleased.
The royal treatment started as soon as we pulled up to the circular drive.
We thought we would check in.
But we were met at our car by a dashing footman — er, bellman — whose mission seemed to be to make sure we didn't do something so obviously beneath us.
"Would you care to have a seat on the sofa and let me get you a glass of Chardonnay while I check you in?" the kind young man asked.
He then took us by golf cart along concrete paths topped by vine-covered trellises to our room, part of a cottage on the back nine of the Robert Muir Graves-designed golf course that is the resort's centerpiece.
The room, $225 a night plus tax and an $18 resort fee, was the least expensive Quail Lodge had that weekend. Although I thought the renovated room was elegant, with its vaulted ceiling, twin easy chairs and palette of earth tones and burgundies, my wife, a more reliable authority in such matters, assured me that the only truly luxurious thing was the bed linens.
And, I reminded her, the 42-inch plasma TV.
Not that I care.
Sampling the coast
We had set out from Los Angeles on a Friday earlier this month to take a leisurely drive up the Central Coast, stay one night at the casual and less expensive Cliffs Resort at Shell Beach and compare it with Quail Lodge.
The Cliffs, off U.S. 101 between Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo, seems more a hotel than resort. But we were relieved to find that, in one important respect, it lived up to its name.
It is indeed near the edge of steep, ocean-side cliffs that offer panoramic Pacific views.
Again, I had reserved the least expensive room available that weekend, $172 plus tax. It was compact and modern, featuring a simple, clean design. It had a wonderfully comfortable king-size bed and a shower with no bath. I had settled for the mountain view, which meant the hotel parking lot was in the foreground. Better to spend a few dollars more and enjoy the sight of the sea.
We got out of the room as quickly as possible to explore grounds that were part manicured lawns and part landscaping with native California plants.
We took a short stroll down concrete sidewalks to a well-maintained path. Stairs led down to a long, narrow stretch of sandy beach populated mainly by surfers, mussels and a dog that just wanted to play fetch.
Then we climbed back up for some refreshments at the hotel. I was a little taken aback when my beer came without a glass. Hey! I am somebody! But this was a very laid-back place. Only a fool would complain while sitting on a deck with a perfect view of the coast and the setting sun.
For dinner, we tried the hotel's restaurant. The service was slow, my wife's fish was dry and the only entree that appealed to me — steak, cheese, mushrooms and onions on a croissant — wasn't the most healthful choice.
I tried to make up for it the next morning with a workout in the hotel's modest fitness center and a swim in its elevated outdoor pool, heated to the temperature of a warm bath and surrounded by deck chairs with ocean views.
Then we took off up the coast, stopping twice on a breathtakingly clear day. The first stop was at Point Piedras Blancas, just north of Hearst Castle on California 1, to see hundreds of beached elephant seals who come here every year to breed and molt. The next was at Nepenthe, the landmark restaurant at Big Sur, where we enjoyed drinks, appetizers and a stunning coastal view.
Then it was getting to be 4 o'clock, check-in time at Carmel's Quail Lodge, on the outskirts of town on the way to Carmel Valley.
The ritzy resort had received Mobil five-star ratings for years until it fell on four-star times. This prompted a $25-million make-over that included room renovations, a redesigned clubhouse, remodeled restaurants, a new Wellness Center and an expanded spa.
I had booked an indulgence, a 50-minute Swedish massage at the spa, which offers a dizzying array of specialized services, such as "grapeseed antioxidant facials" featuring "a refined mud mask made from finely crushed grapeseeds," and "tri-crystal microdermabrasion," which was said to feature "state-of-the-art tri-crystal microdermabrasion technology."
In other words, I knew from the brochure I was out of my league.
I went for a swim in the heated pool, which was more like a cool bath, then headed for the spa's eucalyptus steam room, where I met a man who taught me that Quail Lodge is more than a resort with 97 rooms, some of which go for $795 per night. It is also a private golf and social club.
He was a "social member," he said. He golfed elsewhere.
That night, refreshed from a massage that was amazing — thank you, Steve — we decided to pass on the Covey, the resort's elegant restaurant, where entrees range from $30 to $40. Instead we headed for the clubhouse and Edgar's, the more casual eatery, styled as a sports bar with flat-screen TVs and a California Craftsman look.
The maitre d', my new best friend, practically insisted that I not order an Amstel Light. Try a local brew instead, he said.
"If you don't like it, just send it back. We want you to be happy."
He said it was called Ramses Fat Lip. He swore it was named for a local brew master who got smacked in the lip with the lid of a caldron while a first batch was being made. And there was no need to send it back.
I was up early the next morning and brewed some complimentary Seattle's Best Coffee. There was also complimentary fruit, chips, dip, wine, beer, soft drinks — you name it. I headed outside in my luxurious hotel robe to relax on a teak lounge chair on my private patio overlooking what I recall as the 14th green.
We were far enough inland to escape the belt of fog that sometimes wraps the Central Coast, and nothing obstructed my view of the finely manicured course, replete with lake, a splendid weeping willow tree and oaks.
Oddly, no one was playing golf on a course that has been home to the California Women's Amateur Championship the last 17 years.
I couldn't change that.
I don't play.
And that's the main reason I won't be back to Quail Lodge.
I would recommend the place without hesitation to friends who are looking for a genteel fantasy getaway, who play golf and who are willing to shell out $160 or more per round in peak season.
But for my taste, the casual Cliffs was the more enticing value.
Ted Rohrlich is a reporter for the Metro staff of The Times.
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