Orchard Hill Country Inn Celebrates 20 Years

11/15/2014

Orchard Hill Country Inn in Julian has turned 20. With its special brand of sophisticated country charm, the 22-room, Craftsman-style inn presents itself as the place “where San Diego goes to say ‘I love you.’”

The popular romantic getaway, which Sunset Magazine named “one of the top six lodges in the West,” launched in 1994 with nine cottage suites atop a hillside lot in Julian’s historic district. A year later in 1995, Orchard Hill expanded to its current form through the construction of a 6,500-square-foot lodge and an additional cottage.

Owners Darrell and Pat Straube had no hotel experience when they started Orchard Hill Country Inn in 1994. Darrell was the chief financial officer for Hughes Aircraft Company’s Ground Systems Group in Fullerton, overseeing $900 million a year in sales. Pat owned and ran Serendipity Interiors, an interior design firm. The couple lived in Orange County and grew tired of, as Pat put it, “the invasion of privacy, lots of traffic, and a world of speed bumps, guards and gates.” Instead they sought what she calls “an environmentally pristine place,” which they found in Julian.  

However, it wasn’t a business they originally set out to build in the backcountry; it was a retirement home. While looking at property one day, the Straubes’ real estate broker showed them a four-acre hillside lot on Washington and 2nd Streets with three cottages in bad shape. Though the Straubes weren’t interested in the location as the site of their own home, they began to envision building an inn there.

As Pat explains, she and Darrell were in their mid-50s at the time and wanted an active retirement. She says they are both creative and had a desire to put that creativity to use by embarking on a business endeavor together.

Driven by that vision, the Straubes bought the land in 1991 knowing they’d have to face a major challenge: water. Due to groundwater contamination from gas tank leaks, there was a building moratorium. In order to circumvent it, the Straubes had to find their own water source. They drilled down 475 feet and tapped into clean water and built a well that could pump 62 gallons a minute. The Straubes allowed the Julian Community Services District to connect their well to nearby District-owned tanks, thereby providing the District with uncontaminated water at no cost.

In April 1992, phase I plans were approved to reconstruct the three existing cottages into a nine-unit inn with a management office and residence. The Architectural Review Board required that the buildings maintain their original style, a 1930s California Craftsman bungalow design. That design mandate, rather than personal preference, is how Orchard Hill acquired its overall look.  

Shortly after receiving phase I approval, unexpected opportunity presented itself in the form of a county offer to increase the townsite’s sewer capacity, which would allow the Straubes to expand their accommodations. Darrell and Pat decided to seize the opportunity and began phase II. They worked with architect Erika Goetz-Harris to design the inn in the Craftsman style in such a way that it would match the look of the existing cottages, blend in with the natural surroundings, keep a low profile and provide lots of privacy.

Pat explained, “It was important to us to create more than a place to put a head on a bed. It had to be an experience.” Because of the lack of upscale lodging available in Julian in the early 1990s, the Straubes decided the high-end was the best niche to pursue. Yet they wanted to make sure that the inn fit the environment well and felt relaxing. As Pat says, “Good taste mandates that you stay within the parameters of the surroundings.”

The main lodge was designed with wraparound decks, a two-story fireplace, and floor-to-ceiling windows in the “great room” that let in the soft glow of western light. The dining room features colorful murals of Julian scenes painted by plein-air artist Tony Trasport. There are ten guest rooms in the main lodge and twelve more in the surrounding cottages.

Very much in keeping with Coco Chanel’s famous line, “Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury,” Orchard Hill’s elegant country décor manages to seamlessly blend sophistication with coziness. The inn has a coveted AAA 4-diamond rating assigned to only about 5% of AAA-approved hotels nationwide. Four diamond is defined as “refined and stylish with upscale physical attributes that reflect enhanced quality throughout.”

The hillside location provides a feeling of seclusion as well as views of the surrounding countryside and town. Downtown Julian, however, is just a short stroll away. The grounds at Orchard Hill are tranquil. There are reading benches and hammocks scattered throughout the property for the wandering guest to enjoy as well as natural landscaping featuring over 2,000 types of native plants and seasonal gardens teeming with roses and irises.

A two-night stay includes a four-course dinner for two. All guests also receive a complimentary full breakfast and hosted afternoon hors d’oeuvres with wine and beer in the great room.

With chef Calvin Canine at the helm, Pat describes Orchard Hill’s cuisine as “really good, wholesome food that is attractively presented and memorable.” When they first opened the inn, the Straubes had to frequently drive to San Diego to get food supplies. Now they support small food purveyors and try to purchase most of their kitchen goods within a 60-mile radius of Julian. The dinner menu features local wines from wineries such as Orfila, Shadow Mountain, Woof’n Rose and La Serenissima.

Running the inn is a “huge job,” Pat said, “and very hands-on.” She and Darrell put in 12-hour days and believe they have to be present daily to stay on top of things. Although Pat’s background is in design, that’s not her favorite part of the job. She likes the business aspect of running the inn and finding better ways of doing things and meeting new challenges. She and Darrell have the help of 17 employees, though only seven of them are full-time. Many of those employees have been at Orchard Hill for over 10 years.

Pat says the inn is the first business she’s had where she feels a true sense of ownership. “The music will be just right and all the little details in place, and I’ll get this welling up of happiness. It feels like I’m floating. Darrell and I consider ourselves very lucky. We truly love Julian.”

Guests must greatly enjoy the experience, too, as some have returned to the inn over 100 times, according to Pat. She describes the inn as a gift that spouses, for example, give each other in the form of a birthday or an anniversary getaway.

With the help of their daughter and son-in-law, Darrian and Collins Lum, the Straubes hope to continue running the inn for the rest of their lives.

By Carey Blakely