Since 1969, restaurant, hotel, travel & other witty reviews by a handpicked, worldwide team of discerning professionals—and your views, too.

Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa
9700 N. Torrey Pines Rd.
La Jolla, CA 92037
858-550-1000, 877-437-8262

Relaxed Rancho Living
By Kim Fay

Sunny courtyard

Eternal sunshine and endless beaches: the vaunted symbols of the Southern California dream. They are the elements most coastal hotels capitalize on when luring guests, which is why Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa stands apart. It chose a different, inland route... despite being just a short walk from the surf.

Fourteen miles north of San Diego, the Estancia La Jolla—which opened in June 2004—draws from the region’s rich rancho heritage. Hence, distinctive accents such as a small decorative pool are reminiscent of a horse trough. The property was inspired by the architecture of Southern California’s early Spanish colonizers, and the low-rise adobe structures are spread out across the former Blackhorse Farm, a thoroughbred training ranch established in 1948. Three of the buildings are modeled after the old farmhouse, caretaker’s cottage and tack room, and the white bricks incorporated into their façades were preserved from the original buildings.

To be frank, despite its attractive design, the resort is unimpressive upon arrival. This is mainly due to the surroundings: it’s across the street from UCSD’s Eleanor Roosevelt College, adjacent to the Salk Institute and embraced by the planned Blackhorse residential community. If this sounds a little too crowded for comfort, withhold judgment until you’re inside. The nine-and-a-half-acre grounds feel surprisingly secluded, thanks to strategically planted trees and a well-calculated layout that begins when you enter the lobby, where a casual living room features terracotta floor tiles, eco-friendly Douglas Fir exposed beams and hand-troweled plasterwork. Check-in is tucked off to the side.

Friendly colors  

Rather than built up to keep the world out, the design is linear. In regard to privacy, this is quite effective. It’s also successful in preventing business from mixing with pleasure. The Estancia La Jolla is a full-service conference hotel, although it makes a great effort to keep this from being evident at first glance. All business facilities—in the same low, adobe style as the rest of the structures—are on one side of the property, separated by Mustangs & Burros restaurant from the guestrooms and spa.

The Little Spa That Could: Estancia La Jolla Spa

The resort has earned International Association of Conference Centers (IACC) certification thanks in part to its 6,000-square-foot ballroom, permanent break stations, executive boardrooms (complete with ergonomic chairs, non-glare work surfaces and tackable walls) and 125-seat learning theater. But despite its top-notch business facilities, it caters to a diverse clientele that includes leisure travelers, as well. You won’t find the extravagance of on-site activities normally associated with a holiday resort (tennis, water sports, etc.), but there’s definitely everything you need to relax, including a spa, a nice swimming pool with cabanas and proximity to the beach, golf courses and San Diego.

Pool with cabanas

For those seeking a little peace and quiet, the grounds are the star. They are landscaped with 600 types of plants, including eucalyptus, lavender and citrus trees—it was tempting to swipe a lemon or two while wandering around. We enjoyed simply lazing in the postmodern Adirondack chairs in the main courtyard, a fresh breeze coming in off the ocean, listening to the silence—it’s unbelievably quiet here. In the evenings, you can take a glass of wine from the lounge to one of the outdoor fireplaces. There’s even a fireplace at the spa, which makes a late afternoon treatment all the better, as you can wrap up in a cozy robe and relax in front of the fire afterward.

The 210 guestrooms and suites encircle two sunken courtyards (the larger with a fountain) on three floors that have been built down into the property—you approach from the third story. They were designed with residential living in mind. The front door opens onto a small foyer with a table for keys and such, and from here you enter your bedroom or, in the case of the suites, a very comfy living room. All accommodations are tastefully decorated in cocoa, caramel and clean white tones, and amenities include laptop size safes, great customized bath products, an iron and hair dryer hidden away in tidy cloth bags in the closet and coffee makers whose enormous glass cups were hand-selected by GM Giuseppe Lama, formerly of the Hotel Del Coronado. His attention to detail (as well as many of his old staff) can be found throughout the property. We particularly loved the bedding—these are beds for living in. All of the rooms have balconies, we highly recommend getting one that faces one of the courtyards.

Outdoor massage area

Among those who came with Lama are sous chef Chris Bennett, whose Grilled Grasslands Rib Eye Steak in a Zinfandel Emulsion wowed us at Adobe El Restaurante, and executive chef Jesse Frost, who brings his Mexico City upbringing and training in France and Spain to the Estancia La Jolla’s tables. Frost has come a long way from his days of rebellious skateboarding through the Hotel Del Coronado grounds. Experiences such as buying live grouse from hunters in France have influenced his philosophy, which relies on building relationships with local farmers and purchasing the freshest produce possible.

Along with the main restaurant, there is Mustangs & Burros. Its welcoming, casual vibe is boosted by the large, al fresco fireplace and immense trestle table (Lama’s doing, once again) that brings to mind convivial family gatherings in the European countryside—just the sort of atmosphere Frost wants to encourage with his “breaking bread with friends”-style dishes. A wide selection of margaritas are served in colorful, Chihuly-esque glasses, and although we could do without the sports bar aspect, we’re comforted by the fact that this will never be the kind of place to attract a rowdy college crowd. It’s too low-key. And this is what we like best—not only in the restaurant, but throughout the whole hotel. In overcrowded Southern California, Estancia La Jolla is a real retreat.

Going to San Diego? Check out our 72-Hour Trip. Also visit San Diego Restaurants and Hotels.

(Updated: 06/24/08 HC)

Sip your way through wine country with GAYOT's list of charming inns and resorts, featuring vineyards from Napa Valley to Long Island, New York.
Go off the beaten path and explore GAYOT's Top 10 Extreme Hotels, which feature one-of-a-kind accommodations for a truly unforgettable experience.