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Weekend Escape: North San Diego County

Not for Members Only

Cottage lodgings, hikes and soothing massages at Warner Springs Ranch

July 05, 1998|SHARON BOORSTIN | Boorstin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

WARNER SPRINGS, Calif. — Early on a sunny Saturday morning in June, my daughter Julia and I headed south to the Warner Springs Ranch, a hot-springs retreat in north San Diego County that has been around as a resort since the turn of the century.

One of our goals was to ride horses on the scenic Pacific Crest Trail that cuts through the ranch's 2,500 acres in the foothills of Palomar Mountain. But we arrived at the ranch equestrian center that morning to find out that unless we were resort members or guests of members, we could only take guided trail rides--something neither of us had the patience for.

A resort with members? Warner Springs isn't exactly a time-share, but since 1980, it has been a private retreat open only to members (and their families and guests), who purchase shares in the property and pay low monthly dues. Membership privileges include use of the 250 cottages (for $29 to $42 a night) and the resort's golf course, swimming pools, tennis courts and various other recreational facilities. The only way nonmembers can sample the resort is by reserving a midweek tennis, golf or equestrian package, or--as Julia and I did--a weekend spa package. For $325 a couple, we got a cottage, three meals and one splendid massage each.

In search of a non-equestrian activity, Julia and I consulted the map we'd been given at check-in before driving through the resort's locked gates. We strolled through the park-like grounds where 100-year-old oak trees shaded ancient Indian-ritual sites and roses and honeysuckle scented the warm dry air.

We most liked the original rustic adobe cottages with names like "Ramona" and "Pala." As package guests, however, we were lodged in one of the newer cottages, a spacious but rather spartan cinder-block duplex with a mini-fridge, a fireplace and a quasi-Early California decor. All the cottages lack telephones, TVs or even clocks. Members, we were told by the concierge, prefer to keep things simple, in keeping with the resort's mountain-retreat tradition that goes back to the time when early settlers--and later movie stars such as Clark Gable and Bing Crosby--came to "take the waters."

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Our noses led us right to the palm-tree-fringed hot springs, where sulfureous waters burble up at 140 degrees. The mineral water is cooled down to 104 degrees before it is fed into an Olympic-size pool that adjoins an equally large freshwater pool at the resort's aquatic center. On this hot summer afternoon, I wasn't surprised to find that the freshwater pool was teeming with people--mostly kids playing with bright-colored Styrofoam "snake" floats--while the mineral-water pool had but one lone soaker. I suggested to Julia that we try the mineral pool, but she said no way was she going to immerse herself in hot liquid that smelled like over-the-hill egg salad.

So, after grabbing a turkey sandwich at the pool takeout window, we headed for the hiking trails. A resort employee warned us to be careful, for it was the height of rattlesnake season. Julia and I cautiously set out past the adobe chapel that dates back to 1893 and a cemetery that's even older, through chaparral that was shoulder-high thanks to El Nin~o's winter rains. Lizards skittered across our path, but we saw no slithering critters. We turned back when the trail dipped through a stream.

Back at the resort, we were pleased to discover a third Olympic-size (freshwater) pool. We took a quick swim, then went to the spa for the one-hour massages that were part of our package. My masseuse used a pungent peach-scented lotion; for one hour, I was in massage-bliss.

Later, as the sun began to set, Julia and I walked over to Gatsby Park, so named, according to ranch literature, because F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote part of "The Great Gatsby" while vacationing here. Country-and-western musicians were performing for guests--mostly families with kids--at a Saturday-night barbecue. Julia and I could have joined the barbecue but decided to dine in the lodge, a rambling old adobe building with a colorful cantina bar. We enjoyed the salad bar but found the mahi-mahi a bit overcooked. Service couldn't have been friendlier.

After dinner, we walked through the resort, observing families doing what they must have done here for generations in the absence of TV or radio: playing old-fashioned board games or listening to music in the lodge, talking on cottage porches and playing ball on the lawn.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Budget for Two

Spa package (including cottage, meals and massages): $325.00

Tips, massages: 20.00

Tips, dining room: 8.00

Gasoline: 21.07

FINAL TAB: $374.07

The Warner Springs Ranch, 31652 California Highway 79, Warner Springs, CA 92086; tel. (760) 782-4200, fax (760) 782-9249, e-mail: wsranch@aol.com, Internet: http://www.warnersprings.com.

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