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Down the Garden Path | Bacara Spa

Hiking past groves of avocado and lemon trees, a writer works up an appetite for a luxurious dinner at a splendid California spa.

Bacara was the perfect getaway for my athletically inclined boyfriend, Michael, and lazy, omnivorous me—and not just because it's a place where jocks can golf, run, ride, cycle, swim, hike and play tennis while the rest of us lounge poolside, thinking about the next meal, as waiters keep the Pellegrino flowing. And not just because this sprawling oceanside retreat in Santa Barbara, California, has a 42,000-square-foot spa and gym as well as a restaurant, Miró, where the talented chef Rémi Lauvand, formerly of New York City's Montrachet, recently arrived to do the cooking. At Bacara, the notions of good food and fitness truly intersect.

Consider, for example, our Saturday-morning trek through Bacara's thousand-acre ranch, with its views of the Pacific below. Nearly half the property is cultivated, providing Lauvand with fruits, vegetables and herbs. It has been operating as an avocado and citrus orchard since the turn of the last century; S. M. Spalding, the first mayor of Beverly Hills, once owned it and experimented with different crops. "In a way, we're taking the ranch back to how it was used long ago," says ranch manager John Hunt. As Michael and I hiked past a blood-orange tree here, a row of Cinderella pumpkins there, it became clear that the ranch has evolved into an enormous kitchen garden—and Hunt's personal laboratory. The vegetable-herb farm began as four fledgling acres when the resort opened two years ago; now it's a robust, colorful 10. Lauvand is anticipating the harvest of purple artichokes this month—"They're the kind you see in Burgundy," he says, "and they're really hard to find here." Hunt just brought back papaya seeds from a trip to Hawaii; if they stand up to the climate, there will be more papaya on the menu. Wasabi root (for which they've been paying $100 a pound up to now) is another experiment that has both rancher and chef excited.

"Pick anything you like," said our guide, Karen Prechtel, the resort's fitness manager. "As you can see, we have an overabundance." There were trees laden with lemons and trees laden with even more avocados—the ranch produces two million pounds a year, and those that don't go to Bacara's restaurants are sold commercially. I plucked a fig then tasted fraises des bois, teardrop-shaped strawberries as sweet as jam. We sniffed the fennel, then the mint; we checked out the 20 or so different varieties of heirloom tomato. After two hours of hiking and tasting, I felt the burn in my legs—"It's a real workout, isn't it, Michael?" I nudged—but serious hikers can walk the trails all the way up to Condor Peak, 2,500 feet above sea level, which offers views as far as Malibu. And the truly fanatical can run.

Later we checked out the spa-and-gym complex— fitness central. Like all the public spaces and guest suites at Bacara, the Spa (with a capital S) is housed in a Spanish colonial casita with cool beige interiors, high ceilings and open archways. Dress varies, but the resort's white terrycloth robe is popular, especially when accessorized with a Louis Vuitton bag. Michael and I just wore sweats. We decided to try some yoga, since the yoga options at Bacara have proliferated as rapidly as its avocados. Name your style of practice and Prechtel will find you the right guru. We did hatha on the beach and Iyengar in the exercise studio, then tried Pilates, something I'd always thought I would despise. But I ended up liking it, not least because all that stretching and ab work got rid of a nagging backache.

Predictably, though, my favorite part of the Spa was lunch. The dishes at the Spa Café, like those at the resort's casual Bistro restaurant, were created by chef David Reardon, who's also the food and beverage director for the entire resort, and whom I'd seen at the ranch that morning filling a basket with lavender, sage, arugula and Okinawan spinach. The choices on the menu were so varied that it was easy to forget that less than 10 percent of the calories in every dish comes from saturated fat. That goes for the delicious "lobster martini" (a salad of large lobster chunks with bits of mango, served in a martini glass), the hearty tortilla soup (made with yogurt instead of cheese) and the Chilean sea bass with heirloom tomatoes and a rich-tasting Champagne vinaigrette sauce (only 344 calories).

Dinner was even better. The cuisine served at Miró is officially French-Californian: sumptuous foie gras cromesquis (an ultrarich croquette, battered and deep-fried); buttery lobster, slow-baked for four hours, then roasted with licorice jus and paired with handmade squid-ink farfalle. Lauvand started out studying physics, then worked in some of the best kitchens in New York City, including those of Le Cirque and La Grenouille, before taking over at Montrachet in 1998. People who remember him from Montrachet may think his food is morphing from French to Californian—"but," explains Lauvand, "what I'm doing now is true to what I've done for many years. The difference is that I use everything I can from the ranch." And so, for instance, Michael's appetizer of foie gras gnocchi was scented with fresh thyme and verbena. Pea tendrils brightened my chèvre pasta, which was served with a white port sauce and a dollop of wild mushroom fricassee. And zesty tomato confit cut the richness of that slow-cooked lobster just enough.

The sommelier, Gillian Ballance, was lured from New York with the prospect of creating a 10,000-bottle cellar from scratch. She deftly mixes Santa Barbara wines with international bottles. With the last course she suggested the Château des Fesles Bonnezeaux "Lex Deux Allées," which brought out a tinge of butterscotch in our desserts: a caramelized banana-and-praline cake and an apple-and-spice meringue, each quite sweet but tempered by tart, bright fraises des bois from the patch we'd sampled just a few hours earlier. Knowing where the ingredients came from—and having hiked all the way up to examine them—made the desserts seem less indulgent, more... healthy. "That counts, right, Michael?" I asked.

Amy Young is a health writer who lives in New York.

Published January 2003
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