The first thing you’re handed when you walk into the elegant and inviting lobby of Bernardus Lodge & Spa is a glass of wine from the Bernardus Winery—not a credit card slip to sign, not a reminder about check out time, not a photocopied map of the grounds. In place of the usual stuffy, buzz-kill check in process a staff member escorts you to your room in one of nine single and two-story buildings sprinkled across the sloping hills on the property.

Painted in shades of terra cotta, ochre, celadon and chocolate to mimic the color of grapevine leaves in the fall, each of the buildings is so beautifully situated that I couldn’t decide which one I hoped my room would be in—but at Bernardus Lodge it hardly matters.

All of the property’s 57 rooms and suites (from a generous 525 square feet to a palatial 1,875 square feet) features a limestone fireplace (flat screen TVs will be installed above every fireplace by the end of 2007), French doors that open onto a private patio or deck with views over the hills in the distance (particularly stunning at sunset), a two-person bathtub (it takes a while to fill up, but it’s worth the wait), fresh flowers, Italian linens and a re-stocked fruit bowl plus complimentary beverages and  gourmet snacks (think artichoke salsa and organic ginger snaps) and complimentary wine from the Bernardus Winery.

Other noteworthy touches include Elemis toiletries, a loofah, bath salts and homemade soap in the bathroom and fresh half and half in the mini-fridge so you can cream your coffee or tea. There’s even a separate kettle to boil water in so you don’t have to make tea using coffee-flavored water from the coffee maker. Turndown service on your first night includes another bottle of wine along with a cheese plate that was generous enough to constitute dinner—perfect, since nothing (not even my grumbling tummy) was gong to convince me to leave the swanky comfort of my deck and the soothing sound of a bubbling fountain in the garden below.

I ventured out the following morning and discovered a fitness room, a Bocce lawn (Leo DiCaprio has tossed a few balls here), two outdoor tennis courts, an outdoor swimming pool that’s heated to 82 degrees and is open 24 hours a day and a full-service, 5,300 square foot spa (some treatments incorporate antioxidant grape seed extract from the Bernardus Winery) with a warming room heated by a huge fireplace and a private patio with a dipping pool.

Bernardus Lodge has been on the Conde Nast Traveler Gold List since 2004, voted one of the 500 Greatest Hotels and Resorts in the World by readers of Travel & Leisure since 2003 and has received a Mobil Four-Star Rating since 2004.

While the rooms, suites and facilities are certainly world class, the food at Bernardus Lodge deserves a heaping portion of the credit for the property’s accolades. The lodge has two restaurants including Wickets, a casual bistro/bar decorated with fascinating memorabilia documenting owner Bernardus Marinus Pon’s days as a race car driver for Porsche and his feats as a member of Holland’s Olympic skeet shooting team. It’s a lovely spot for breakfast or an evening cocktail, especially when the weather is warm enough to open the doors onto the patio.

The lodge’s fine dining option is Marinus—and I do mean fine. Marinus ranks number four on Zagat’s 2007 list of the top restaurants in the San Francisco area, just one point behind the likes of Gary Danko  and The French Laundry. Allow up to three hours for dinner in Marinus’ ultra-romantic dining room, or book a private Chef’s Table meal in a nook just a few feet away from the action in the open kitchen run by chef Cal Stamenov and his exceedingly able staff.

Here come light-as-air parmesan puffs and salmon topped with bergamot and lobster foam and oyster soup with a homemade potato chip topped with caviar as a chaser (bye, bye blinis!) and foie gras with sautéed pineapple and Kobe beef tenderloin and mini s’mores and more all paired with a cavalcade of free-flowing wines. No wonder the walls surrounding the Chef’s Table are covered with glowing thank-yous from equally sated (but far more famous) diners including Julia Child, Daniel Boulud, Goldie Hawn and Clint Eastwood.

Chef Cal tries to source all of his food from within a 100 mile radius of his kitchen in order to support local agriculture and to ensure the freshest, tastiest ingredients. He even grows some of his own vegetables. He also works with nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium to promote and use sustainable fish. I’m not sure when he finds the time, but Chef Cal also runs the Bernardus Kitchen Blog, joining a growing number of hotel staffers who are using the internet to share casual insights and news about their work.

Like a ying to Cal’s yang (or is it the other way around?), sommelier Jay Madrid oversees a Wine Spectator Grand Award winning collection of 1,850 different wines and more than 35,000 bottles. The million dollar inventory is housed in one of the most organized cellars I’ve ever seen, including a large, dramatic private dining room.

For obvious reasons, you’ll be tempted to eat every meal at the lodge, but break away for dinner at the casually elegant Passionfish in nearby Pacific Grove and you’ll be glad you did. Known for excellent food (the menu goes way beyond fish) prepared with an emphasis on sustainability, the restaurant also boasts a varied, playful and approachable wine list at prices that are never marked up from retail. It’s a culinary combination that has earned the restaurant a loyal following (you’ll need a reservation) and a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence every year since 1998.

Reminiscent of check-in, the check-out process at Bernardus Lodge is also relaxed, personal and involves a beverage—the valet placed two chilled bottles of water in the cup holder console of my Chevy Silverado before handing me the keys.

Rates: $275 to $1,890 ($20 resort fee per room, per night is additional)

Bernardus Lodge
415 Carmel Valley Road
Carmel Valley, CA 93924
Phone: (888) 648-9463


Our review of this luxury boutique hotel was originally published by iTraveliShop

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