In Carmel, three venerable resorts deliver far more than golf

Leslie Williamson

Carmel is the Happy Land. Doris Day is its patron saint; at any moment, half the populace is playing golf while the other half shops to Enya; and the general consciousness is so high that radio ads remind you, "Smoking is hazardous to birds." Carmel-by-the-Sea has the charm. Carmel Highlands has the ocean views. For golf, and more sunshine during the foggy summer months, look to Carmel Valley. Recently, I tested three of the area's best resorts. The challenge, as another famous Carmel resident might say: Go ahead, make my bed.

How long have you been hearing about Quail Lodge?How many "best of" lists have you seen it on?Now I know why.

An attractive crowd, a car fashion show in the parking lot, well-rehearsed service at the front desk—first impressions are everything at this level of resort. I was immediately glad to be at Quail, and curious. A week earlier I'd read that the resort, formerly managed by the Peninsula Group, was now being managed by a partnership more in tune with the clientele of Carmel. "You can't go too Beverly Hills here," one staff member explained to me. "You have the international types, and then you have the fuddy-duddies." He said this with great affection.

Three miles from Highway 1, up the Carmel Valley, Quail feels like Sinatra's compound in Palm Springs. The 97 tightly clustered rooms hug the ground around Mallard Lake. Space abounds, ceilings are high, and even when the resort is full, it's quiet. A redecoration is under way. Out with the blond, in with the dark woods: it's the tailored look inspired by designer Barbara Barry. Chunky is the theme—chunky wood headboards, chunky marble tabletops, and bathrooms that look hewn from Big Sur. About a quarter of the rooms were finished this winter. Those are the ones to ask for.

Sophisticate or fuddy-duddy, you come for golf. The course here rolls gently. "It's user-friendly," a staffer told me, following up on my day. "It's not gonna kill you." All roads lead to the clubhouse, where young bucks order Jack and Coke and reach for big bowls of popcorn. Many guests move on to the new spa. Popular as it is, I found the service there confused, the massage room noisy, and the massage below par.

Dinner turned me around, however. Nobody has to tell you to dress for the Covey, a handsome room on two levels overlooking the lake. The waiters are attentive and the food is excellent. Prawn bisque came under a pillow of puff pastry, and was pure velvet. Abalone was served with citrus quinoa—a superb dish. Chef Jean Hubert says he'll be fine-tuning his restaurant throughout the year, adding more classical tableside preparations like flambés (for the fuddy-duddies), but with a twist (for the international types).

Those of you on the Grand Tour of resorts will want to get your passport stamped at Quail Lodge sooner rather than later.

8205 Valley Greens Dr.; 888/828-8787 or 831/624-2888, fax 831/624-3726;; doubles from $270.

As I played out the rituals of arriving, I had to keep reminding myself that Carmel Valley Ranch is a resort. The porte cochère wasn't bustling with self-actualized doormen saying "Welcome back!" even though you've never been there. There was no lobby scene; there isn't much of a lobby. Sign in, and off you go to your room and your golf game.

Golf rules the day at the ranch, which, compared to Quail, feels less like a hotel and more like a gated community. All the guests are happy and motorized, gliding up and down the swooping Pete Dye course to their rooms. Space and privacy are the reasons to be here. Most of the 144 rooms are big one-bedroom suites with a deck, a fireplace, and a prominent bar. Many come with hot tubs and steam showers. Hunter green and burgundy predominate, along with nubby fabrics, barleycorn legs, and brass studs. It's not the Fantasy Island school of resort decoration; I felt as if I'd rented a pleasant house.

The main restaurant, the Oaks, serves solid country club—style food, like a 10-ton braised lamb shank with sweet potato mash. The five-course dinner is a bit expensive, about $140 for two without wine. People who are serious about food eat elsewhere; guests go to the Oaks because it's where they always go. It's the club.

Tennis courts are plentiful, and there's a well-equipped, if tightly packed, fitness center. Spa treatments take place in your room. My Ranch Classic massage was far better than the usual rub-a-dub hotel version, with as much adjusting as there was kneading. As my therapist, Michael Armstrong, explained, "I like to get something accomplished." He did.

This winter brought low rates, but less service. Evening housekeeping was discontinued, for example, and although I didn't miss the good-night cookie, I had a bad reaction to finding my bed turned down for the night at 2 p.m., especially since the resort has not discontinued adding $18 a day to the bill for gratuities.

Of course, everybody is here for golf and tennis, so it's lunch in the clubhouse, and drinks—lots of drinks—afterward. Nothing about the impressive course has changed since Dye redesigned some of the holes in 1991. Like its Wyndham cousin the Boulders, this is a self-possessed place. If you don't play golf, you may feel that you're worshiping in the wrong church. Then again, why not take lessons and join the club?

1 Old Ranch Rd.; 800/422-7635 or 831/625-9500, fax 831/626-2574;; doubles from $225.

The Highlands Inn, a Highway 1 roadhouse since 1917, is one of California's great love nests. Crashing water, brawny rocks—it has the view that in old movies was code for sex. The message remains the same, although today it has new dimensions. I sat on my deck overlooking the Pacific for three unforgettable hours, watching whales through binoculars (supplied by the hotel) and listening to "Song of the Humpback" (on a CD also supplied by the hotel), until the sun set with a fanfare seemingly for me and me alone.

I was jelly by the time the masseur arrived. The therapists come to your room here. Mine quickly kicked off his Birkenstocks and set up his table in front of the fireplace. He was partial to chiropractic and cranial work—more adjusting—and clearly very experienced.

By dinnertime I was a puddle. As I entered the restaurant, Pacific's Edge, there was the turbulent ocean below, and a turbulent piano in the bar; when "Laura" comes drifting in, you simply go to pieces. My first thought was, with a view like this, the food must be awful. On the contrary: the "progressive" menu is inventive and fun. Everything comes in first-course portions, and you order three, four, or five dishes ($48, $56, $64, not including dessert). My choices included coriander-crusted swordfish and wild mushroom cannelloni. Who isn't happy to eat this way, especially when the food is so good?

No two rooms at Highlands are alike, and everybody thinks his is the best—which explains why Hyatt Hotels, the owner and manager, is planning to sell time-shares later this year. My room was small but had two decks. Town House Suites have two levels. Spa Suites have bedrooms divided from the living areas by sliding wood doors. Ceilings are low, but views are big, and all rooms come with a fireplace and a stack of fragrant pine to burn. The pinks and purples of the 1980's are giving way to a tawny Starbucks palette, with chic paisley bedspreads and slate bathrooms. By June the redecoration will be complete, and by the end of the year the spectacular public rooms will be new, too.

When it comes to golf, guests usually play Rancho Cañada, Bayonet, or Black Horse, but Spy Glass and Pebble Beach, once out of the question, have loosened up.

Perhaps the nicest surprise came on my final morning. At the moment when housekeepers usually give guests the hustle, I found my room made up bright and early, so I could enjoy those last few hours.

120 Highlands Dr.; 800/682-4811 or 831/620-1234, fax 831/626-8105;; doubles from $205.

Classic Carmel, For Less

Hotel rates peak in summer, when the crowds swell and weather is foggy. In May, September, and October, the weather is ideal and rates come down. There's no better value than a clear, dry spell in winter, when rates bottom out. You can even be alone on Highway 1.

You won't find more style for your money than at the Cypress Inn, a historic hotel in Carmel-by-the-Sea (Lincoln and Seventh Sts.; 800/443-7443 or 831/624-3871, fax 831/624-8216; Doris Day is one of the owners, and her easy good cheer is in the air. So is her love of animals: the staff welcomes pets (add $20 per day for each) and can recommend pet-friendly restaurants. All 33 rooms are different, and while the smallest are small, this inn gets all the details right. Rooms cost roughly half what they would at a full-service resort, starting in peak season at $125 a night; for $245 you can get something quite splendid. Room 217 should make anybody happy.