CARMEL, Calif. -- When your competition is Pebble Beach, you've got to offer something different to attract visitors. At the Carmel Valley Ranch resort, different and fun are its specialties, whether it's the Pete Dye-designed golf course or simply gathering around the campfire at night, enjoying S'mores and storytelling.
That's exactly the way John Pritzker envisioned the transformation of Carmel Valley Ranch when his company bought the place in 2010 and sunk $35 million into this 500-acre, warm, sunny nature escape.
Pritzker likes to explain his vision with a treasure box. One by one, he pulls out curious items, such as a feather, a bird caller, a package of squash seeds or a stalk of lavender. They all have significance here, and the symbol for the resort is a rope swing hanging from a tree (which is actually on the resort).
"We wanted to give our guests the opportunity to do things that are fun," said Pritzker, the founding partner and director of Geolo Capital and chairman of Joie de Vivre, which owns Carmel Valley Ranch.
"Children at heart, children at play," is how Pritzker characterizes the experience.
For some, the Ranch is a great place to take a family, with more than 50 complimentary activities. For others, it's the perfect place to rekindle romance. Or for the sports and fitness enthusiast, excellent golf and tennis await, only to be topped off by an exquisite spa treatment and a tasty but healthy garden-fresh dining experience.
Carmel Valley Ranch's scenic backdrop
Set in the sunny foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains of Carmel Valley, the Ranch backs up to the 4,400 acres of Garland Ranch Regional Park. From the new, luxuriously appointed 139 suites, guests can step out on the balcony and take in the views of the vineyards on the hillsides or the golf course below.
The views were already there when Pritzker arrived, but the amenities -- at least the way he envisioned them -- were not. That's why there are new fitness centers, tennis courts, outdoor saltwater pools and fire pits in a separate family area called River Ranch.
The suites, which range from 600 to 1,200 square feet, are exceptional. Each have large soaking tubs and separate showers, electronic fireplaces, flat screen TVs, a separate living room area, deck and beds that rival the world's most luxurious hotels.
One of the most unique aspects of this resort, however, is its harmonious natural environment.
Not only does the dining room at the renovated Lodge pick from an organic garden that changes month by month, but the resort is also ripe with wild turkeys, deer, vineyards and lavender. The purple flower attracts bees, which the resort takes advantage of, harvesting honey from the Italian honeybees that make their home here. In turn, guests can not only sample the honey, but they can take part in a guided "beekeeping experience," which is just one of the many activities the resort offers.
Along those lines, guests can also hike among the resort's scenic trails, make their way to a yoga platform overlooking the golf course or take a tour of the organic garden.
Golf and tennis at Carmel Valley Ranch
Not to be lost in the resort experience is the Carmel Valley Ranch golf course. While it may not seem daunting at 6,117 yards, it's anything but easy, exactly what you would expect from a Pete Dye-designed golf course.
Having undergone renovations just a few years earlier, the course is in excellent shape and provides plenty of dramatic views, especially on the back nine. The par-3 16th, for example, provides a vista of the whole valley.
Dye integrated water hazards, unusual angles and doglegs to create a course that forces players to think their way around it. The short holes, such as the 293-yard second, are offset by a few longer ones that play fairly difficult, such as the 426-yard 11th and difficult 444-yard 18th that has water off the tee.
If you're like Jack Nicklaus and play tennis as well as golf, Carmel Valley Ranch has you covered there, too. Not only are there seven resurfaced hard courts, but two clay courts as well. Plus, the staff offers tennis instruction and clinics. Golf instruction is also available from Carmel Valley Golf School, headed up by noted instructor Todd Southard.
Spa and dining at Carmel Valley Ranch
The Spa Aiyana, named in honor of the Indian word for "eternal flower," stands out among pampering experiences. Treatments are based on four specialized gardens: lavender, herb, aiyana and alchemist, using "invigorating, restorative energy found in the natural world." (The lavender is distilled on property and is included in a number of spa products.)
Treatments range from facials to massages, with the latter exceptional. Carmel Valley Ranch hired the best talent in the area to administer everything from its signature Lavender Garden Swedish massage to its reflexology massage to a couples massage, using the natural ingredients found on the property.
After the royal treatment, guests can retreat to the Lodge, where Chef Tim Wood creates seasonal menus, using the freshest ingredients from his garden, local fishermen, artisans and other farmers in the valley. Tantalizing starters such as the Carmel Valley Ranch honey-Chile chicken wings (yes, they're that good) and Dungeness crab cake whet the appetite for entrees -- line-caught sea bass, black Angus Filet or organic English Pea Risotto. It's complemented by a great dessert selection and wines from the surprisingly good Carmel Valley and Monterey Peninsula wine producers such as Figge Cellars.
And for those who would like a cooking lesson or two, Wood also conducts the Adventure Kitchen, an interactive cooking experience where Wood reveals many of his secrets to preparing ultra-fresh and flavorful meals -- perhaps the capper of a summer camp for adults.