LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. - The old adage in golf - a false one at that - is to keep your head down.
That's virtually impossible on Ben Brown's Golf Course at The Ranch at Laguna Beach. As I'm walking this fun and funky nine-holer, I can't stop looking up. The walls of the Aliso and Wood Canyons that surround the 87-acre resort and course command attention. You can't help but stare. The hills come alive every morning and evening as shadows from the sun dance upon the brush and boulders overhead.
Most people come to this trendy California beach town for the ocean. They don't realize how relaxing and rewarding an escape in these canyons can be. The Ranch at Laguna Beach, which has a history dating to the 1870s, reopened last December after a multi-million-dollar, three-year rebranding and renovation by a new owner. Its new vibe - coastal cool meets rustic ranch - delivers laid-back luxury.
The remodeling job reimagined the check-in lobby and the resort's signature farm-to-table restaurant, stripped the motel/lodge-style buildings to the core and rebuilt the 97 rooms and suites to meet the modern demands of travelers and added the Sycamore Spa, a 3,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor wellness center with four treatment rooms, a Techno Gym fitness center with core movement equipment and an outdoor relaxation courtyard.
My family spent one way-too-short 24 hours in June getting a taste of life at The Ranch, swimming in the saline pool, dining at Harvest, walking the beach and playing golf. It's fair to say nobody wanted to leave.
The Ranch at Laguna Beach
My first impression of The Ranch, formerly the Aliso Creek Inn & Golf Course, came from a phone call (and later a text). All guests receive the call before their stay to ask about special requests or see if they want to add activities such cooking classes and yoga or standup paddle boarding, surfing, kayaking and more from the Jr. Ranger Kid’s activity program. It's one of many ways the resort shows its commitment to service.
Most visitors just want to unwind. We pulled in, let the valet park the car after we unpacked and went straight for the heated pool, a popular gathering spot, along with the nearby bocce ball court. It's hard to say who has more fun at the inn's original, no-frills pool - the children splashing away in the eight-foot deep end or the adults who soak in the hot tub with a drink in hand.
The energy on a Saturday night at the resort was overly festive. Children were running around on the patio by the first tee, playing bean-bag toss and tag, while their parents swirled glasses of wine from Ben's Pantry (a grab-and-go bistro) and listened to live music. Nearby, a couple got married in front of a small audience of 50-or-so people on a grass events lawn beyond the ninth green.
The bar inside Harvest was already full when we sat down for an early dinner. The best seat in the house, our corner table, looked out upon the first fairway and the canyon. It's hard to impress a 12-year-old, but my daughter was pretty thrilled when her peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich arrived toasted and cut into triangles with the crust removed (something we would never allow at home). My wife and I ordered more glamorous entrees with savory sauces, the lemon glaze on the halibut and spicy chimichurri on my flat-iron steak. All of the vegetables are grown in the Harvest garden, a half-acre organic farm offering a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
After several nights sharing a room at a Marriott near San Diego for my daughter's lacrosse tournament, it was nice to get some space in a two-bedroom 'cottage' with some real charisma - vaulted ceilings and a patio off of the first-floor living room and a balcony off of the second-floor master bedroom, both overlooking the course. Rope-wrapped wrought-iron chandeliers and vintage distressed leather chairs paired with local Plein-Air art added a splash of sophistication to the décor.
The next morning, we walked along the Pacific Coast Highway to Ruby's Diner for breakfast, then crossed the street to marvel at the oceanside cliffs of the Montage Laguna Beach, a five-star luxury resort. We dip our toes in the sand on the beach along the way and dreamed of owning one of the mansions protruding from the cliffs. As the waves roared, my wife and I commented on how the water color was a more beautiful blue than in NoCal.
It's a short golf-cart shuttle ride down the resort entrance road to the family-friendly Aliso Beach located right across the highway from The Ranch. Its name comes from the narrow canal where the Aliso Creek spills into the Pacific Ocean. My teenagers, too old for the nearby playground, couldn't get enough of messing around in the shallow, fast-moving current.
Ben Brown's Golf Course
It's easy to dismiss Ben Brown's Golf Course, named after the original resort owner from the 1950s. When the scorecard lists only nine holes, a par of 32 and maxing out at 2,241 yards, most diehard golfers would call that a glorified putt-putt. They would be dead wrong. I lost two balls in the Aliso Creek proving the point.
The creek comes into play on the first hole and lurks throughout the round. I managed to clear it with a nine-iron to the first green. Meandering along the left side of the next four holes, the creek eventually crosses in front of the sixth green. A 140-yard par 3 would not normally be so daunting, but tall weeds lining the creek bed, and an extra-long flag stick, can really mess with a golfer's depth perception. My pitching wedge didn't clear the trouble, landing in the junk. I'm not ashamed to admit I sunk another ball in similar overgrowth on no. 8, a 187-yard brute of a par 3 to a raised green beyond the hazard.
I made up for those mistakes on the five par 4s, all of them playing less than 318 yards long. They're ripe for scoring. All the while you're playing golf, you're walking in this Jurassic Park-like natural setting. It's a unique experience, almost spiritual in nature.
You could argue that Ben Brown's feels just as beautiful and inspiring as the ocean courses of Orange County - Monarch Beach Golf Links in Dana Point and the Ocean North and Ocean South courses at the Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Coast - but at a fraction of the cost ( $200-plus green fees vs. less than $50). At some point, it's wise to leave the ocean to the golfing tourists chasing bucket lists. Hanging in the canyons can be just as cool.