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Since the pandemic has begun, I’ve visited a few medical offices. After complimenting one physician for her office’s impeccable implementation of health and safety protocols, she smiled (with her eyes, because she was wearing a mask) and said her office goes over the protocols each week, tweaking them to perfection.
“As you know, there’s no one mandated set of guidelines,” she said. “But we’re doing what we think is right.”
Hotels are finding themselves in a similar position. Though a few industry associations have published protocol suggestions for hospitality, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, and there’s certainly no government body inspecting hotels for their compliance to best practices.
And just like how consumers are tasked with educating themselves on — and implementing — prevention measures such as wearing a mask and social distancing, they must also decide what kind of travel is low-risk enough for them.
On the spectrum of comfort levels related to traveling right now, I am admittedly on the very cautious end of the range. Before my hotel stay, I had spent approximately 134 consecutive nights sleeping in my bed at home — undoubtedly a record for my decade working in the travel industry.
But like many who work in travel, I have had a nagging feeling that I need to know how businesses are approaching COVID-19 protocols in order to sharpen my recommendations. And I became increasingly more comfortable with the idea of staying at a hotel where my risk of exposure would be about the same, if not lower, than my daily life, which mostly entails working from home and taking masked walks around my neighborhood. Occasionally, I go out for groceries, takeout and outdoor dining; hike on lesser-known trails; and reunite with loved ones — always while wearing a mask.
For my first foray into the outside world, I wanted to stay somewhere I felt comfortable and had previously visited and loved: Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa, a Relais & Chateaux property, in Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County, Calif., a two-hour drive south from my home in Los Angeles.
Here is what made me comfortable during my stay. I recommend consideration of these criteria when looking for a low-risk travel option.
Smart Entrance and Check-InRancho Valencia has a gated entrance attended by a staff member. After welcoming my husband and me back to the property, he asked to take our temperatures. I was impressed that this was done by the literal gatekeeper to the hotel. He was also there to ensure that only guests were able to enter the hotel.
Upon arriving to the resort’s porte cochere, a masked attendant asked if we wanted to do a contactless check-in, which can be done via email. Unfortunately, there was a tech glitch for me (though I was assured this option had worked all day otherwise), so I checked in at the registration room, which is a standalone unit in the courtyard. There, a single staff member completed the process swiftly and safely, using a napkin to hand back my credit card and my key card.
Shelter-in-Place-Worthy GuestroomsWhen I had previously dreamed about the ideal room for social distancing, I immediately thought of Rancho Valencia’s 1,300-square-foot Valencia suites. Each Valencia suite is a beautifully appointed casita that encompasses a large living room complete with a sofa and two chairs, a fireplace, a TV and a minifridge full of complimentary snacks; a comfortable bedroom with a TV and elegant touches such as a wrought iron chandelier and a pitched roof with beams; and a massive bathroom that includes both an oversize shower and tub, a walk-in closet and an upscale Toto bidet toilet.
Best yet — especially for me, whose current home lacks outdoor space — is the private patio that runs the length of the whole suite, giving the room an indoor-outdoor vibe that is key for guests who prioritize social distancing. The patio has a private Jacuzzi, two chaise lounges and a dining area. Lush palms and foliage, along with the Spanish architecture (terra-cotta floor tiles, wrought iron upholstered furniture and a fireplace framed by tiled vases), transports guests to another place — one that our passports currently won’t let us visit.
Inside the room, Rancho Valencia provides a travel-size hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes. Perhaps most importantly, our casita shared only one wall with one other unit, and rooms are sprinkled in clusters throughout the resort grounds, so guests really don’t see (or share air space) with others.
Human KindnessPerhaps guests are not like me and already live in the house of their dreams — one that inspires with its transportive foliage and architecture. But, still, they will likely miss the outstanding service they can only get at some of the best luxury properties. Rusty from not having to pack a suitcase since March, we forgot deodorant and ear plugs. A staff member quickly delivered them to our door. I am hopeful that the time away from travel will make folks more thankful for how hard hospitality staff work — even when things are hard for them, too.
Like-Minded Guests and StaffThough we kept our interactions with guests and staff very limited by staying in our suite and patio for most of our stay, I was happy to see that the folks I did observe when walking the entire property complied with rules set by the hotel. These rules are posted on blackboards throughout the public spaces and remind passersby to maintain at least 6 feet from others and to always wear a mask.
Pool RulesWhile our suite had its own Jacuzzi, we did want to visit the spa pool when temperatures rose in the afternoon. We made a reservation for pool time at the adults-only pool located in the open-air spa complex. At its peak business, the pool had about 12 people, coming in pairs and one group of five, though for most of my visit we shared the ample space with only three other couples. Distancing was maintained even in the pool.
Luxury ReimaginedDuring my last stay at Rancho Valencia, I stayed busy playing tennis on one of 18 courts, taking yoga classes in its Balinese-style studio, joining a group fitness class and enjoying an intricate spa treatment.
Today, the resort is still offering a robust fitness schedule (all outdoors). This time around, however, I opted against classes — which still seemed busy — and spa treatments and instead decided to lounge and be outside. (The property’s award-winning spa is closed, but clients can schedule an outdoor massage.)
My husband and I got our steps in by purposely getting lost in the lush 45-acre property. We happened upon features that we didn’t see on our last stay — such as a forested trail that leads to pickleball courts and an organic garden where kale grows abundantly.
While I loved walking the property’s gardens, I would have been content just to order room service from the hotel’s The Pony Room kitchen and to spend the day slipping in and out of our personal Jacuzzi. Our first morning was spent this way, complete with the freshly squeezed orange juice that staff delivers to each room every morning with two newspapers. We enjoyed the experience so much that we decided to order room service for most meals, which staff can set up contactless by entering through the patio’s side entrance gate.
The one meal we did enjoy outside our room was unique. Instead of serving indoors, the hotel has transformed its croquet lawn — usually reserved for weddings — into a tranquil and safe outdoor dining extravaganza with seating set far apart (beyond 6 feet). A variety of seating types (tables set with rugs; around fire pits and inside cabanas), along with a live musician and fun decor such as tiki lamps and string lights, made the dinner feel elevated.
Rancho Valencia did not stop at figuring out how to comply with protocols; the resort delivered a special occasion experience that would have wowed even in normal times.
The DetailsRancho Valencia Resort & Spawww.ranchovalencia.com