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Two Rounds of Country Swing

WEEKEND ESCAPE: SOLVANG

Golfers tee off in the bucolic beauty of Rancho San Marcos and La Purisima, where well-manicured and challenging holes are par for the course

July 02, 2000|LUCRETIA BINGHAM | Lucretia Bingham is a freelance writer who recently moved from Los Angeles to Old Lyme, Conn

SOLVANG, Calif. — There was no sign of human habitation, not even a tower or a telephone wire--just an endless series of folded hills, with mountains beyond and green, green grass below. Only the caw of a crow and the purr of our electric cart broke the silence.

This place fit golfers to a tee: a new course called Rancho San Marcos, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and one of Golf Magazine's "top 10 you can play."

My golfing buddy, Garrard, and I had seen an ad for the Royal Scandinavian Inn in Solvang that promised golf packages with Rancho San Marcos or La Purisima, both nearby favorites among aficionados of the sport. We decided to book the Purisima package and precede our stay with a round of golf, paid for separately, at Rancho San Marcos.

So early on a Saturday morning last September, after a 1 1/2-hour drive from L.A., we arrived at Rancho San Marcos, off California 154 halfway between Santa Barbara and Solvang. The course was built on the grounds of a working ranch established in 1804.

The clubhouse is simple and elegant, with outside tables under canvas umbrellas and a pond filled with ducks, coots and a few herons. The service was anything but simple; it was solicitous.

The staff made sure we understood the workings of our state-of-the-art carts, with built-in ball and club washers. The employees offered unlimited buckets of balls on the practice range and heaps of balls next to the chipping greens, all at no additional charge.

The vast putting green had bumps and gullies, something rare for most practice greens but welcome because it more closely resembled course conditions. Even the ashtrays had freshly swirled sand rather than a stand of butts.

Rancho San Marcos starts with a wide-open par five. The fairway turf was excellent, and the undulating green rewarded a gentle touch. The hole proved to be a good harbinger. All 18 holes were in fine shape, and everything was nicely targeted; the 150-yard markers were highly visible, even from the tees.

The second hole was a sweet par three nestled under old oaks, the surrounding rough as thick as a bear's pelt. No. 3 was called River Run. "They should call it 'It's a Wash!' " Garrard said, because the river that ran alongside the hole was as white and dry as a bone.

On this hole we began to realize, with a foursome in front of us, that we were averaging 18 minutes a hole, which would make the round a stunningly slow 5 1/2 hours. But we slid into a molasses mode, and the day slipped past pleasantly.

As the afternoon waned, the sand traps grew finely etched shadows. Our approach shots stayed clear, though, rolling toward each green as if funneled away from the rough.

The back nine climbed precipitously up into the hills overlooking lovely Lake Cachuma. Holes 13 and 14, both par three, straddled the apex. We hit down to a green with falloffs hundreds of feet deep on either side. Hole 17 ran along the original stagecoach route. Riding a few hundred feet on this bone-shattering road made us grateful for asphalt and concrete. We swooped back down to the clubhouse on 18 around 5 p.m.

Then we headed toward Solvang, 25 minutes to the northwest. We stopped at Mission Santa Ines, next to our hotel. A crowd was worshiping in the high-beamed main chapel, beautifully painted in pale greens and pinks, but the side chapel was my favorite. Its paintings depicted three figures: one a dolorous soul, the other two brimming with life. One wore a floral dress. The other's skirt had tendrils of ivy. The colors of the paint matched the lavender, pink and deep red of the sunset outside. Three children knelt in a row beneath the Virgin of Guadalupe and sang along with the Mass next door.

We checked into the Royal Scandinavian Inn--more than a charming motel but slightly less than a boutique hotel.

The rooms are decorated with Danish hand-painted furniture, and the lobby is large, with a huge stone fireplace. The staff reviewed the details of our golf package, which included golf balls and tees, drinks, buffet breakfasts and a round for Garrard and me at La Purisima the next day. (Accommodation-only rates through Sept. 8 run $104 to $154 per night.)

When I added up the prices, I realized we would have spent $75 less if we had taken Rancho San Marcos as part of the package and paid for La Purisima separately.

We retired to the poolside hot tub, which had a somewhat obstructed view of the surrounding hills and a better view of the other guest rooms, many with balconies. (They looked as if they had great views, but our package didn't include a room with a balcony.)

For dinner we drove five miles north on California Highway 246 to the Santa Ynez Feed & Grill. The restaurant is in a barn-like structure, an old feed store that is all whitewashed and elegantly distressed.

Chef Norbert Schultz's four-course dinner was superb. The watercress salad was "so fresh it must have screamed when it was yanked from the stream outside," Garrard said.

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