Over the last few years my love of travel has seen me in the strangest positions; from racing the sheik’s horses across deserts in Dubai and living on vegetable broth at torturous Austrian detox retreats to canoeing down deserted mangroves in The Gambia at sunrise, with only the sound of popping oysters for company.
Yet somehow, amidst all of my ridiculous experiences, America has escaped me. Now, with my tiny baby Rosie in tow, my travel checklist has changed somewhat… Is it near a hospital? Does it have safe roads? Can I take my steriliser? Rock and roll.
But, despite my ravishingly exciting list of practical must-haves, the curious explorer and luxury spa-trekker still lurks within… Do I really have to give up boutique bolt holes, adrenaline-fuelled adventures and fancy restaurants for generic ‘family resorts’, or can I have my luxury cake and eat it? I’ll certainly give it a go—pack your bags Rosie, we’re off to California.
In my previous life, Four Seasons was easily my favourite luxury hotel chain: they just get it. I’ve ridden around their lush Hampshire estate, stood naked overlooking Hyde Park at their rooftop spa, danced the night away at their iconic George V hotel in Paris and stood breathless overlooking the Indian Ocean in the Seychelles. But, in all of my time spent indulging in their blissful company, I have never noticed a miniature human in sight (thank god, those noisy little buggers used to drive me mad. And my London antics would surely have seen me locked up).
However, on paper the stylish villas at their residences resort just outside San Diego looked perfect for my new life as a grown up. Located in the laid-back coastal community of Carlsbad, 30 minutes north of San Diego, the luxury resort mixes the style and service you expect from a Four Seasons hotel with the extra space and practical amenities of a fully equipped holiday villa. But would they really let us through their pearly gates with a messy, noisy, unpredictable baby? Any doubts I had were quickly extinguished on arrival as the charming receptionists cooed over Rosie and arranged for staff to drive with us to our villa to unload our suitcases… all 10 of them. Yes, 10—it’s not easy packing an industrial size express machine next to your Choos and ramming your LBDs into a steriliser!
Voila! We arrived to a pristine baby-proofed villa; safety cushioning thoughtfully surrounded the tables, a cosy cot stood in our enormous bedroom, baby toiletries nestled alongside our delicious L’Occitane goodies, ‘welcome Rosie’ was proudly painted across the bathroom mirror and even a cuddly toy pelican sat awaiting her arrival! After all, little touches matter when it comes to travelling with a mini humanoid.
The resort’s 246 Spanish colonial style villas are scattered across two ‘villages’, each with their own restaurant and pool. We were in the Meadows Village, in a beautifully styled one-bedroom villa overlooking the golf course just moments from the resort’s main reception, Driftwood Spa and Seasons Restaurant.
In my past life the sight of an oversized marble bath got my heart racing and luxury toiletries made me weak at the knees… But I have raised my game chaps, oh yes, it was the addition of the fully equipped kitchen and a washer dryer that got me excited on my first family holiday—yes, really. You try keeping up with a mini reflux monster’s outfit changes!
On our visit, San Diego was experiencing their worst storms in 17 years, naturally. And despite it not stopping us exploring the area, with its countless restaurants and hiking trails, for the first time in my life I was actually happy to spend time in my room.
There are two onsite restaurants, Summits Grill and the more formal Seasons Restaurant. I am not sure if me getting up at 4am each day was jet lag or excitement at the epic breakfast that was to follow… Well, how can you not get distracted by Lobster Benedict? (come on King’s Road, sort it out!)
As delicious as breakfast was, our culinary highlight was our ‘kitchen counter experience’; an evening spent with the resort’s chefs as they created a playful five course tasting menu with matching wines. My favourite dish was the salmon belly sashimi with torched yuzu meringue, so glisteningly fresh that it melted away in my mouth. However, what really made the night was the theatre of it all, each chef proudly presenting their dish with wit and knowledge and the chatty sommelier excitedly pairing each creation with a delicious wine. Watch out Saturday Kitchen, these guys have banter.
We also tried out the resort’s weekly ‘crust and craft’ pizza making session, where the chef helped us create our dream pizza—including spinning the dough, as tasters of local craft ales were brought to us throughout. San Diego has a thriving craft brewery scene and is home to more than 120 independent breweries—but beware, 9% alcohol isn’t uncommon around there!
We also had a memorable dinner at A.R. Valentien; a fine dining restaurant located within The Lodge at Torrey Pines. The timber hotel is perched on a cliff top overlooking the ocean about 25 minutes from Carlsbad. Its curious facade gives way to a grand entrance hall, with well-dressed guests contently sipping Californian reds around the numerous roaring log fires. The restaurant itself was fully booked on our visit and as we waited we heard a couple begging for a table as they ‘just had to eat the confit duck again before leaving…’ They were so desperate they were debating an outside table (remember, California was in the middle of a trio of storms at the time; soaking up a year’s worth of rainfall is serious dedication to the duck).
The buzzy restaurant is peppered with cosy booths and serves market-to-table dishes, changing the menu daily depending on which ingredients take the chef’s fancy at the market that morning. I enjoyed a deliciously smoky and plump trout filet to start followed by the infamous confit duck (how could I not). The chef also proudly sent out a portion of crispy spiced sprouts. Now, in England these stinky morsels would’ve been promptly pushed to the side, but Californians seem to have managed the impossible… they’ve made sprouts sexy… and tasty!
The generous portions left us too full to empty our plates—this is one restaurant where you will regret nibbling on bread! Everything was perfect, but it was the restaurant’s character that made it so memorable.
For a more casual dining experience head to George’s at the Cove in La Jolla. The upmarket seaside town is a short drive from the hotel, close to Torrey Pines. The restaurant has three floors, including a rooftop terrace which, thanks to the manic winds and rain, was closed on our visit. We arrived starving, following a steep hike through Torrey Pines nature reserve, and ordered the fresh mahi mahi ceviche, which we enjoyed while staring out at the surfers battling the frenzied waves below. The rooftop terrace must be bliss when the sun is out.
Who goes there?
Affluent families who appreciate the fantastic facilities and faultless service.
Out & about:
It can be hard to drag yourself away from the Four Seasons, but we decided to attempt a hike a day to get a feel for the local coast and mountains. The Double Peak trail proved particularly… interesting, with the schizophrenic weather throwing us a different wardrobe requirement around every corner—it was like an NCT team building exercise. By the summit Rosie looked like the ultimate San Diego gangster, wearing a gleaming white snow jacket and oversized shades.
Torrey Pines nature reserve, on the other hand, was a pleasant stroll. Famous for being home to America’s rarest pine tree, it offers various short trails leading to viewpoints and the beach.
However, our most epic outing had to be Iron Mountain, which saw us reach almost 2,700ft, literally climbing above the clouds to a cluster of idyllic picnic benches before hurriedly legging it back down again as we saw a storm heading straight for us. Every baby climbs their first mountain at four months, don’t they?
For those who prefer pristine French Soles to muddy hiking boots, San Diego has a wealth of world class attractions for families, including their famous zoo, Legoland and daily whale watching trips (a little intrepid for us given the weather).
The worst thing:
Located almost half an hour from San Diego, this peaceful retreat is not designed for travellers who want to be at the heart of San Diego’s cultural scene. For us however, it offered great access to local beach towns and both coastal and mountain hiking trails. The only negative for us was that it set the bar very high for the hotels we were next to encounter, and staying in a normal hotel room further down the coast was somewhat deflating.
The best thing:
Despite my initial concerns, the residences welcomed us and our teething tiddler with open arms. The resort lived up to the intuitive service and impeccable finish that I have come to expect of a Four Seasons property and the extra room and amenities made our stay hassle-free.
It felt like home, so much so that we have already rebooked. So it seems I can have my decadent family-size pumpkin pie and eat it after all.