Where to begin? Let’s start with the awe inspiring drive to the Carmel Valley from our hotel in Carmel-by-the-Sea. One of my favorite things to do in life is to take the top down on my 911 Carrera Cab to drive the 16 minutes from the ocean to the valley. Long stretches of a relaxing winding road, fresh air that moves it’s way through the low languid mountains, and the warmth of the valley embracing my shoulders as we leave the misty cliffs of Carmel to meet the vineyard and spa retreat that is the Carmel Valley.
During a weekend in Carmel, my partner-in-crime and I decided to book massages as the Bernardus Lodge and Spa along with an All Day Pass to soak up some pool or hot tub time, grab a light lunch, and relax. Unfortunately, we arrived a little too late so only had time for lunch by the pool before our spa appointments were to begin at 3pm (spa closes at 5pm). Alas, we headed to the pool.
Thankfully, it wasn’t crowded. A decent amount of people around gave it some liveliness with couples and a few families. We sat in the full warmth of the sunlight and the spa attendant told us that she would send someone out to take our order. After waiting 20 minutes, we realized that they may have forgotten about us. They had. Instead, they told us to place our orders via a phone by the side of the pool. A little odd that they wouldn’t offer to make the call for us after forgetting about us, but mistakes happen. We dialed in an order for two glasses of New World Sauvignon Blanc and two salads, the Roasted Beet Salad with chicken and a Caesar Salad with chicken.
The wine was cold and the salads substantial, but the chicken, oh the chicken! It was a quarter of a chicken grilled with the skin on, a massive thigh and attached drumstick. Not exactly easy to eat in the hot sun nor as tasty as it may have looked on a salad. We both wished they had served the salad with thin slices of grilled chicken breast. The brunch menu promoted “Where Old World Craft Meets New World Creativity,” but it lacked inspiration or any creativity – Caesar Salad, Burger, Eggs Benedict, Fried Chicken Sandwich, Crab Cake, a few pizza choices, and Huevos Rancheros. Had the chef brought in more thoughtful, interesting seasonal touches like grapefruit, fennel, strawberry, lemon, or kohlrabi and a bit of flair, it has potential based on the beauty and expanse of the property alone, but it wasn’t the sort of menu where you had a hard time deciding what to get because they’re weren’t any stand out choices. It was, for lack of a better word, basic.
Onto the spa where the environment was an almost perfect Pottery Barn beige sense of calm. We were kindly welcomed and the spa attendant pointed out candied ginger to aid with digestion, assorted teas, fruit-infused water, and salted nuts as she ushered us inside. When we asked about our lockers and a robe, we were told that daytime spa guests didn’t receive them. That was when, after the large cavegirl leg of chicken on our salads and the spa forgetting to call the server, I realized that Bernardus, as stunning as the property may be nestled in the cozy rustic chic of Carmel Valley, isn’t quite at the level of service nor luxury that you would find at a Ritz Carlton, St. Regis, or Four Seasons.
We headed to the spa for the treatment, took a quick 10 minute dip in the deliciously heated small pool, and were then called to our appointments. The treatment did not disappoint. We had the Bernardus Essential Massage for 50 minutes ($185, approximately $250 with tip; it’s included). My therapist was excellent and the massage was just the perfect amount of Swedish relaxation with a bit of pressure. When we went to pay, the spa director told us – Strike 3 of the experience – that she noticed we had enjoyed the spa pool (this was a mere 10 minutes prior to the massages) and, although trying to be nice, both my friend and I felt slightly scolded when she said, “It’s okay this time, but next time, if you booked a spa appointment for the day, daytime spa guests aren’t permitted to use the facilities.” Not your standard 15 minutes prior nor following the massage that is custom at luxury properties? Que raro! After our confused looks, no doubt because my friend and I, in all of our jaunts to 4 and 5 star properties, had never heard of such a ridiculous rule before, the spa director mentioned something about Covid. It didn’t make much sense as the mask mandate was ending and capacity was minimal. There was no one in the spa pool and we only saw two others in the spa throughout the entire time we were there. It seemed as if it was one of those poorly drafted “rules” that properties implemented to cut corners during Covid to charge the same for less.
Net net: we had a lovely time because the environment was well kept and beautiful, but we’re not sure we would come back for a meal or a massage. Perhaps if I brought my kids for a mini-vacation as the pool was nice. Apparently, the spa facilities are complimentary for hotel guests. Note to Bernardus Lodge & Spa: you have all the makings of greatness, so leverage seasonal California ingredients and bring thoughtfulness to your menu. Don’t disregard the value of loyal Bay Area locals with stingy spa rules that feel a few stars less than what you’re aiming for.
Rating: 8-/10 for the massage and nice spa amenities (points deducted for the chunk of chicken leg and odd very un-luxe spa limitations for day spa guests)