RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. — Croquet anyone? Not a boisterous backyard game, but the British six-wicket variety where players wear "whites" and a winning shot draws polite applause.
It's played every Sunday afternoon at one of the Southland's most sophisticated retreats, the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe. Visitors are always welcome to watch the matches--quietly.
The croquet court occupies part of the Inn's shady lawn that resembles a village green in this peaceful residential enclave in San Diego County. Filtering the sun and perfuming the air are thousands of eucalyptus trees that have become a town symbol.
A forest of those Australian natives was planted more than 80 years ago as a source of railroad ties for the expanding Atcheson, Topeka & Santa Fe. But the trees proved worthless for that purpose, and the railroad decided to develop the land as an exclusive community.
Secluded Country Estates
Today, Rancho Santa Fe is home to a gentry of 4,500 people, who live on secluded country estates adorned with fruit orchards and riding horses. They rendezvous for gossip and lunch or croquet in the tiny village center that's anchored by the landmark inn.
It's relaxing to stroll the four-square-block area, peeking in posh clothing, gift and antique shops and pausing for refreshments or a meal in a choice of attractive restaurants.
On the way to Rancho Santa Fe, you can stop by a newer residential community, Lake San Marcos, where a lakeside inn also hosts travelers in north San Diego County.
Head south from Los Angeles on Interstate 5 and exit inland beyond Carlsbad on Palomar Airport Road. This road, County S-12, passes over rolling countryside, where agriculture is rapidly giving way to light industry and housing developments.
Turn right on Rancho Santa Fe Road (County S-10), and soon after go left on Lake San Marcos Drive. After entering the private community, turn left again on San Marino Drive, then right at the shopping plaza to Quails Inn.
Some of its 116 rooms overlook a milelong lake that also borders a country club golf course. Inn guests have privileges on the fairways and are permitted to rent boats to cruise on the lake.
Room rates begin at $55 for weekends, $50 weekdays; lakefront rooms are $20 more. Two-night minimum on weekends. Reservations: (619) 744-0120.
At the water's edge is the Quails Inn restaurant, which is especially popular on Sundays for its all-you-can-eat brunch, from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Adults pay $9.95, youngsters under 8 years, $4.95.
Go back to Rancho Santa Fe Road (County S-10) and turn left to continue south. Just before the Olivehain water district building, be certain to bear left in order to stay on the county highway.
It passes the historic Olivehain meeting hall, built in 1895 by a colony of Germans who settled in the area to raise olives. The shuttered redwood building is on the left in a grove of eucalyptus.
At the next major intersection, turn left on County S-9, which changes names from Encinitas Boulevard to La Bajada, Los Morros and La Granada as it leads to Rancho Santa Fe and the village's main street, Paseo Delicias. The Inn is to the right at the top of that street.
Challenge on the Grass
A long sidewalk leads past flower beds and greenery to a manicured grass court where croquet matches have been played since 1980. Properly dressed in all-white attire, members of the Rancho Santa Fe Croquet Club challenge each other every Sunday from noon until dusk. They also play Tuesdays from 4 p.m.
The Inn's 20 wooded acres are a perfect setting for this 17th-Century game. Guest cottages with red-tiled roofs are scattered among the trees, anchored by the main building that resembles an elegant country lodge.
Its living room is decorated with the owner's family heirlooms and a collection of antique model sailing ships. Meals are served in the library and garden, Vintage and Patio rooms. A favorite is the Sunday brunch buffet ($10.50). After 6:30 p.m., men are requested to wear jackets for dinner.
The Inn has 75 rooms, with rates beginning at $70 in the main building and up to $255 for a private cottage. Accommodations vary with sitting rooms, patios, fireplaces and/or kitchens. For reservations call (619) 756-1131.
Explore more of the village by walking along Paseo Delicias and its side streets.
A Shop Full of Treasures
Not to be missed is the Country Friends, a second-hand shop that seems more like an antique store. In two buildings at the corner of Avenida de Acacias and El Tordo, you'll discover all kinds of treasures. They've been consigned or donated to a volunteer group that gives the proceeds to 80 county agencies.
You'll find silver, china, crystal, linens, art objects and even furniture. During our visit, the highest-priced item was $9,000, a beautiful dining set with 12 chairs and a buffet. Hours at Country Friends are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except Sundays.
Hungry visitors can drop into Ashleys, an old-time market where local folks have been shopping since 1933. You can order carry-out sandwiches at the butcher counter.
For fancier fare, go next door to Rancho Santa Fe's best known dining spot, Mille Fleurs. Choose from the continental menu or inquire about the day's special dishes. Open weekdays for lunch and nightly for dinner.
Other dining spots are a few steps away at Mitchell V and Quimby's Restaurant, both with sidewalk tables where you can observe the relaxed village life.
You'll catch more glimpses of Rancho Santa Fe's expansive estates as you leave town by driving southwest along Linea del Cielo (County S-8) toward Solana Beach. Continue on the same road, which becomes Loma Santa Fe Drive, to rejoin Interstate 5 back to Los Angeles.
Round trip from Los Angeles to "The Ranch," as residents affectionately call their community, is 240 miles.