Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa Connects to Southern California in a Unique Way
By Rich Manning
Photos by Heather Manning
California is more than an enormous state. It is a mélange of styles and attitudes, all bound together through a motif of casual elegance that draws envious stares from the rest of the country. This is a principle that drives the Meritage Collection; a quartet of unique resort properties that thrive upon offering four distinctive takes on the California experience, from La Jolla to Napa with stops in Newport Beach and Santa Barbara in between.
In this, the first of a four-part series on the Meritage Collection’s group of hotels, OC Executive goes down south to the Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa and explores its decidedly unique take on resort life.
As a Southern California resident, I am well aware of the preoccupation that my state has with leaving its past in the dust while it moves toward the future. If you have lived in this region for any decent period of time, you know how this cycle works: A new building or structure gets erected in the name of progress, while leaving nary a trace of what may have existed there beforehand; over time, what used to be symbolic of time and place devolves into the dustbin that only county archivists and trivia buffs seem to willingly root through. It is because of this cycle that I have learned to cultivate a deep appreciation for that places that make an undeniably concerted effort into celebrating and preserving the land’s roots even as they progress into the future. Even though buildings and objects get knocked down along the way, what replaces them can still embody the spirit of what stood beforehand if it is done properly.
This is one of the bigger reasons why I find the Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa in La Jolla, CA is such a remarkable property. While the venue opened in 2004, its pulse can be traced back some 120 years prior, when the land was home to an equestrian center built in that classic Rancho California style of exposed brick and red thatched roofs. The old buildings that made up the core of the property have been razed, but they have been replaced with faithful replicas of what stood before, occasionally incorporating repurposed materials secured from structures of yore. The lobby is where the horse stables once stood. The main restaurant, Mustangs and Burros, is situated on the land formerly occupied by the property’s tack room. A third building in the center of the resort is built to look like the home that the stablemen that worked on the land resided. This allegiance to the past is a rather remarkable move, if not a bold one. Seeing as how the property is set within walking distance of San Diego County’s coastal bluffs and a chip shot away from the world-class Torrey Pines Golf Course, they could effortlessly make a mint playing up these proximities with a snazzy style that is relentlessly 21st century. However, the brilliance here is that they show restraint in this area, choosing instead to pay homage to the roots of the land and the community.
“The history of the land, and La Jolla in general, is very important to us,” explains Brittany Enos, Estancia’s Marketing Manager. “The Black family, who had owned this property, was well-known and well-respected within the community. We feel it was vital that Estancia tap into that same kind of spirit by honoring what was here before.”
This adherence to the community is palpable the moment my wife and I pull into the property. All the typical effects of a resort’s façade are scaled back in a type of minimalist way that feels casually homespun as opposed to a bombardment of swank. Even if you know nothing of the Black family and the land’s past, Estancia’s breezy 19th century rancho style gives the property a decidedly visceral character; one that gives it the unique position to be that rare luxury resort property that blows its guests away not with shiny newness, but with the elegant beauty of graceful age.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a fair share of attractive, modern-inspired baubles floating about Estancia, of course. If anything, the rustic roots of the property do a stellar job of making the contemporary touches that dot the property stand out because of how exceptionally they are executed. The property’s intimate, award-winning spa is tucked away on the property’s northeast corner, giving it a retreat-style essence, and its couples’ bungalows further its sense of coziness. The pool is located near the spa – as is the well-stocked pool bar – and feels casual and relaxed. The venue’s massive Executive Learning Retreat is highlighted by its brown and orange hued Learning Theater; nearly 3,300 square feet of slightly retro charm that feels warm yet almost legislative in nature. It’s most impressive that a room that contains so much gravitas is within a few steps of pastoral bliss.
Perhaps the most underrated feature that Estancia has, though, is this small, humble path that winds its way through the back of the property, behind the historically-inspired structures and the hotel rooms. It’s a modestly sized walkway, and its discreetly placed northern head empties out to a funky juxtaposition of educational buildings from the neighboring Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the rocky oceanfront outcroppings where daredevil dudes and dudettes clutching onto hang-gliders launch into the atmosphere. It is unassuming, almost shy, yet the tranquility that it offers is indicative of the very soul of Estancia. We traverse about half of the path en route to grabbing a pre-dinner cocktail at Mustangs and Burros’ outdoor patio. As we walk we see no part of the outside world other than the pristine expanse of blue sky that hangs overhead. We hear very little apart from our quick bursts of small talk and the slight rustle of tree leaves being jostled by the slight late afternoon breeze. We are at peace.
This is the strong point of Estancia, and what makes a stay here so worthwhile. There are pockets of quiet and calm spread throughout the resort, but these pockets seem deeper than those of a dot.com millionaire that split the scene before the boom went bust. And they are abundant – the Olive Lawn that lay right outside the main building; Mustangs and Burros’ charming patio; the centrifuge of Zen that makes up their award-winning Garden Courtyard stocked with local flora. Yes, the fountain in the garden may chirp a little too loudly for some, but even its gurgle adds a touch of character befitting such a uniquely bucolic property.
This atmosphere creates a lush stage for food and drink, as we find out when we stop by the property’s Trinitas Cellar Wine Bar and Tasting Room for dinner. To fully grasp this section of the property, you must understand that the award-winning Trinitas Cellars is part of the Meritage Collection’s flagship resort in Napa. As such, this wine bar functions as a Southern California extension of the winery’s property. We settle in at the bar, and our waiter Cory presents us with a quartet of cheeses along with matching pairs of heavily poured Trinitas selections. One quick sample of each glass confirms our hopes: This pairing is not simply borne out of product advancement. It is damn good juice; worthy liquid touchstones of depth and complexity that complements the cheese plate the way a wine and cheese pairing should. The darker and more sinister the cheese gets, the further down the rabbit hole the wine goes. The pairing ends up being a perfect bookend to the chocolate and wine pairing that we indulge in before we amble to the room. Along the way, we indulge in sumptuous salads and entrees replete with local, sustainable ingredients. My perfectly cooked skirt steak is accompanied by Irish nachos; an ingenious culinary stroke that gently reminds you that you are indeed allowed to let your hair down here. This is a good thing, too – by the end of our night of revelry with Cory, we are not exactly wearing up-dos.
Before we call it a night, I peer out on the balcony and take in one last evening view of Estancia’s grounds. It’s a still night, and the dark blanket of evening makes the property look like its shoulders are getting rubbed in preparation for a big day tomorrow. I get the sense that this is what the land may have felt like some 120 years ago when horses clippity-clopped on the premises. And considering the reverence that Estancia has for the communal and historic, I’m guessing that this ambiance that I’m picking up on is not a coincidence. However, if it is, then it truly is the happiest of accidents.
To read about our experience at Bacara Resort & Spa, The Meritage Collection's Santa Barbara property, please click here.