Exploring the 500-acre playground at Carmel Valley Ranch

-images-photos-experience-tour-us-photo-tour-2-1Two years and $20 million in enhancements have produced an intriguing new Carmel Valley Ranch designed to bring out the inner child in every guest. There are tree swings, s’mores, a fanciful organic garden to explore, endless activities and meals meant to be shared family-style.

“It’s a carefree throwback to summer camp,” says sales and marketing director Brian Gipson. “Very luxurious, but playful and down to earth. People are on vacation and want to avoid pretension.”

The ranch—which first opened in the mid-1980s—was purchased in 2009 by John Pritzker, an heir to Hyatt Hotels and owner of Commune Hotels, which include the Joie de Vivre and Thompson Brands.

Thirty new suites have been added, all with sweeping views of the oak-studded hills of Carmel Valley. Many suites come with lavish outdoor soaking tubs or romantic fireplaces.

Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 10.58.07 AMAt the same time, new guest experiences were being developed. Seven thousand lavender plants were put in, along with 3.5 acres of pinot noir grapes, bee hives, a flower and vegetable garden, a salt drying house, an equestrian center and a relaxing spa with 11 treatment rooms—all in addition to the world-class golf course, swimming pools and tennis courts.

“Our guests have already been everywhere, so when they travel they are seeking experiences and what is very authentic and true to the destination,” said Gipson, explaining that agriculture and grape growing are traditional Carmel Valley pursuits. Legendary local experts direct farmstead activities connected with the gardens.

Valley Kitchen. SteaklyTo cap the renovation and further connect guests with their surroundings, the ranch restaurant has been expanded and transformed into the Valley Kitchen, with a focus on locally-sourced food.

Award-winning executive chef Tim Wood remains at the helm. His deep roots in Carmel Valley—dating back to his time working at Bernardus Lodge—and his familiarity with the best local purveyors work perfectly with the new concept.

For example, local fisherman Jerry Wetle makes an appearance on the menu with “Fisherman Jerry’s Line Caught Daily Catch.” Other local purveyors include Swank Farms, California Kurobuta Pork, and Carmel cheese monger Kent Torrey.

scottcampbellphoto-002Instead of the traditional appetizers, salads and entrees, the menu is organized in three sections: Let’s Taste, Let’s Share, and Let’s Eat.

“We call it eating like a chef,” says Wood. “It means having one of our signature cocktails and two or three plates to share.”

Under “Let’s Share,” for instance, you can find Honey and Goat Cheese Salad made with “Our Honey, Our Lavender and Goat Cheese from Charlie Casio in Big Sur.”

Valley Kitchen Honey.SteakleyOther dishes, like Vietnamese Shrimp and Pork Bun Cha, Hawaiian Poke and Moroccan Spiced Beef Carpaccio, reflect cuisines other parts of the world because Wood likes to give all his cooks a chance to contribute to the menu. One of his own contributions is the Fried Green Tomatoes, which are made using his mother’s recipe.

Local residents are discovering that Valley Kitchen is the perfect spot to stop for late afternoon drinks and nibbles or for a late supper, since the kitchen doesn’t close until 10pm. The monthly winemaker dinner, held at different locations on the property each time, is also a big hit with Carmel Valley residents and a good value.

scottcampbellphoto-10Valley Kitchen sommelier Dave Eriksen has assembled 150 different Monterey County wines, as well as other California and international labels and won Wine Spectator magazine’s Award for Excellence in 2015 for the first time.

And Carmel Valley Ranch has just launched it’s own wine label called Swing, made by winemaker Peter Figge. Swing wines include a chardonnay, rosé and pinot noir made from Monterey County grapes.

On October 9, Swing will release its first estate reserve pinot noir made from grapes grown on the ranch property and crushed last fall. The public is invited to the release party, wine dinner and harvest celebration taking place that day.

Some of the other local artisans who contribute their talents to Carmel Valley Ranch, include organic gardener Mark Marino, lavender grower and bee-keeper John Russo and salt maker Bob Kirkland.

IMG_7601Marino, who studied with Alan Chadwick at UC Santa Cruz, has built and maintains the resort’s colorful two-acre show garden—a popular wedding venue.

He works closely with chef Tim Wood to grow special ingredients needed for the chef’s seasonal menu. Some of his favorites include sweet torpedo onions, bronze fennel and lemon verbena. Marino also works with Dick Swank to make sure that the same vegetables in the show garden are grown at Swank Farms in Hollister to ensure a steady stream for the restaurant kitchen. He also guides guests in classes on composting and vegetable gardening.

IMG_7593Bob “the salt guy” Kirkland adds another dimension to the ranch-to-table experience. He is one of the only people in California permitted to take nutrient-dense seawater from the Monterey Bay and use it to make sea salt. He dries it in a crystal-caked salt house in the organic garden and shows guests how to make seasoned salts for use at home.

Russo planted the lavender fields and set up an apiary, which is home to 60,000 Italian honeybees. Guests and locals can suit up for Russo’s “Bee Experience” and taste honey scooped straight from the hive, while learning about how important honeybees are to the eco-system.

-images-photos-experience-tour-us-photo-tour-8He also teaches how to distill lavender essential oils from the dried flowers and make it into soaps or scented candles—all signature ranch products that are stocked in the gift shop and used in the spa.

With its local artisans, Carmel Valley Ranch aims to touch visitors through all their senses, whether it’s a relaxing lavender-scented spa treatment, a stroll in the colorful garden or a shared feast at Valley Kitchen.

Finally, one insider tip for local kids and families: The equestrian center at Carmel Valley Ranch is a good place for pony rides and horseback riding in the hills. And it’s also becoming a popular birthday party spot, where kids can paint the pony with washable colors. Kids have a blast and, they say, the pony enjoys the attention.

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