In the days of the Wild West, there was only one trail into San Diego. Pioneers seeking new land and new lives traversed the desert through Los Peñasquitos Canyon on oxen-pulled wagons until they hit the Pacific Ocean and could go no further.

Rattlesnakes and mountain lions were viable predators, but the travelers’ greatest fear was a raid from nomads. If attacked, it wasn’t for money or food, but rather for shoes and drinking water––their two most valuable possessions. The ocean ended their journey. Once they reached the coast they set up fort and called it home, then later, by its proper name of San Diego.  

Today, the city is a booming tourist attraction––for good reason––and the old canyon trail is all but forgotten. My wife and I recently re-traced the journey during a day’s hike under the blazing sun and discovered the canyon’s rugged beauty has only intensified over the past century of obsolescence. The preserve, complete with 37 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails, is brimming with wildlife and plant species, grassy hills and meadows, trickling streams, ponds and a natural waterfall.

And while it feels as though it’s in the middle of nowhere, the natural beauty of Los Peñasquitos Canyon is tucked away just a few miles from one of the most luxurious resorts in the world: The Grand Del Mar.

We stayed two nights at the modern marvel that is The Grand Del Mar, and explored the canyon as part of an excursion arranged by the resort, which is about 20 miles north of San Diego International Airport. For adventurous guests, the resort also arranges horseback riding, hiking along Torrey Pines State Preserve, whale-watching excursions, sunset sails and access to a private beach. We enjoyed the thrill of sailing into the sunset and seeing migratory gray whales, also courtesy of the resort’s arranging. I must say, however, that the resort itself is so spectacular you’ll find it difficult to pull yourself away from its grounds for even the most sensational of off-site adventures.  

With opulent, Mediterranean-style architecture and design, The Grand Del Mar features an exotic mix of Spanish, Portuguese, Moroccan and Venetian design elements. I don’t call it a “modern marvel” lightly; the creation of this modern-day palace is truly amazing. More than 800 craftspeople spent over a million man-hours in creating the hotel.

There were 120 carpenters who worked more than 150,000 hours designing and installing 16 different wood species––including fine walnut, mahogany, olive, alder, sycamore and maple accents––with 35 different finishes. There are more than 25,000 square feet of handcrafted wood floors. There are also more than 50 chandeliers, 500 fabrics and 1,700 pieces of custom-designed furniture and art.

“When we set out to create The Grand Del Mar, we wanted a fresh, exciting and above all, romantic theme––something completely unusual and unexpected for the area,” said architect Robert Altevers. “We researched resort architecture throughout history and created something, that by its stylized presence and grandeur, has made a major architectural statement––locally, regionally and nationally.”

It’s all incredible––we wandered the grounds in awe for hours––but what struck Jodie and me the most was the marble. The hotel holds over 20 tons of 30 different types of stone and polished Italian marble, including Gallo Cleopatra, Jerusalem limestone and Rojo Alicante. Every ounce was hand-carved by a four-generation Italian family just south of Venice, Italy.

The statistics are staggering, but perhaps this anecdote best explains the sheer volume of marble at The Grand Del Mar: One of the resort’s tennis courts is encased in a Roman-like stone arena and features a spacious bathroom facility filled with marble fit for a palace.

The No. 1 Resort in the U.S.

The incredible masterpiece has not gone unnoticed. Travel + Leisure named The Grand Del Mar as “California’s #1 Resort” in 2013, and also gave the hotel a coveted “World’s Best Award.” TripAdvisor, meanwhile, named The Grand Del Mar the number one hotel in the entire United States for 2014.

Celebrities flock to The Grand Del Mar. While the hotel professionally declines to share the names of any famous guests who visit, locals say Lebron James held his wedding last summer at The Grand Del Mar, taking advantage of the hotel’s 8,200-square-foot event lawn overlooking the golf course.

As physically spectacular as The Grand Del Mar is, its management and staff propel the hotel into the elite stratosphere of resorts. “The most important aspect of any hotel is a gracious and meticulous staff,” said Tom Voss, president of The Grand Del Mar. “We work hard to hire staff with a caring personality and authenticity, with keen focus on individuality, personalization and customized service. Instead of reacting to the needs of guests, we anticipate them upon reservation and strive to customize each guest’s stay.”

My wife and I were impressed by every staff member we met, and could certainly see why Conde Nast Traveler ranked the resort “Best by Service” with a perfect service score of 100. As we lounged and swam in the beautiful serenity pool, thoughtful staff members brought us lemonade, fresh towels, and even adjusted our umbrellas to shade the sun. What a life.

At dinner, it was more of the same, with an attentive staff at the hotel’s Amaya restaurant. Outdoor seating with dramatic flames for lighting provided an enchanting setting for a delicious dinner of ribeye and sea bass. The hotel’s other signature restaurant, Addison, has won so many awards you have to scroll down the restaurant’s webpage just to read them all. You’d have to scroll even longer if you were to read all of Addison’s 3,600 wine selections.

“I take an artisanal approach to cooking, offering contemporary classic French cuisine using seasonal California ingredients––all with my own experience, twists and likes as part of the picture,” said Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef William Bradley. “Colorful and flavorful ingredients drive our menus. I begin by obtaining the very best ingredients, and then applying everything that I know and care about to the execution of each dish.”

After dinner, Jodie and I strolled around outside and admired marble statues and fountains lit-up by gas lamps.  More than a dozen water features punctuate the grounds, including a 75-foot long, 22-nozzle fountain, flanked by towering Italian cypress trees and lined with gold, royal blue and white marble tiles.

The Mediterranean-style modern marvel that is The Grand Del Mar had us walking on clouds during our post-dinner stroll. Our journey was so very different from the early settlers who first traversed Los Peñasquitos Canyon hundreds of years ago. We had escaped to San Diego––during the midst of a historically cold Minnesota winter of polar vortexes––for the same reason most do: to lie on the beach, swim in the ocean and soak in southern California’s sun. But The Grand Del Mar’s magnificent powers transported us to the rolling hills of Tuscany and beyond.

We are most grateful it did.

The website for The Grand Del Mar is For more information, call 855.314.2030.

The Grand Del Mar staff drove us to nearby Los Peñasquitos Canyon for a wonderful half-day hike guided by naturalist Dylan Jones. San Diego is one of the most bio-diverse regions in the U.S. The dry, dusty canyon offers a completely different terrain than the ocean and beaches that come to mind when you think of San Diego.

With his incredible knowledge and great story-telling, naturalist Dylan Jones was the ideal guide for our canyon hike. He showed us how the native Kumeyaay tribe used local cactus to make red dye.

We also went on our own hike around The Grand Del Mar. The grounds are gorgeous.