One of the coolest activities offered at Quail Lodge is the Land Rover Experience, the only Land Rover school located west of the Mississippi River.
The school, across the road from the golf clubhouse, has more than 12 miles of off-road trails located right off the parking lot on the slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains.
We had never driven off-road so we were newbies when we were introduced to veteran instructor Phil Sosna. He drove us up the hill into the off-road trails while explaining key skills. It was appropriate that the first and only wildlife we saw was a covey of quail. That was unusual to see just quail, but we were in the middle of the afternoon.
We learned to drive long enough ago that we were taught to cross our hands when turning the steering wheel—not the right technique off road. Phil urged us to maintain our hands at 10-and-2 and move the wheel without crossing our hands and never take both hands off the wheel. He wants the vehicle under control at all times and that means hands on the wheel.
We also learned of the amazing capabilities of the Range Rover, the premier model, thanks to the exceptional computer systems and drive train engineering. We went down steep slopes with the car controlling the rate of descent that we had preset using the speed control. Our feet were planted on the floor so there was no temptation to reach for the brake. We crawled down at 2 ½ miles per hour in low gear. The air-adjustable shocks allow the Land Rover to increase its clearance by 4 ½ inches from street mode.
It was the same for some hill climbs. After Phil coached me up one hill by telling me how much to accelerate, we switched to the all automatic approach on the next hill. My job was holding the wheels in the deep track while the vehicle climbed up at 3 ½ mph. One takeaway was to maintain your speed beyond the crest of the hill—the last thing you want is to ease off and have gravity start to pull the 6,750-pound vehicle back down the slope. I started to make that mistake on the coached climb until Phil urged me to move the vehicle forward.
It has settings for “grass, gravel and snow,” “mud and ruts”, “water crossings” and “rock crawl” that are engineered specifically for that situation.
That said, Phil emphasized that the driver is still critical—the technical capabilities help, but when the vehicle is sliding sideways on a slope, the driver must steer into the skid to avoid flipping the car. The same goes for applying enough power to ensure momentum carries the vehicle up a slope so it doesn’t end up stalling and sliding backwards down the hill.
We enjoyed the two-hour training session that gave each of us ample time behind the wheel to for a variety of off-road experiences. It showed us just how different the techniques are from driving on smooth pavement as we routinely do. The experience operates year-round and you get the feeling that Phil loves the winter when the roads are muddy and there are water holes to traverse.
We also learned how amazingly stable the vehicle is—even when tipped 30 degrees sideways. Sitting in the center seat in the back, I reached over to the door to steady myself. We went up and down hills, as well as on sidehills, that created some nervous moments that were offset by Phil’s calm demeanor and encouraging words.
The school offers one-hour, two-hour, half-day and full-day experiences. The half-day runs $1,200, while the full-day is $1,500. The two-hour experience is $425 for up to three people. The two-hour time gave two of us plenty of time behind the wheel after Phil’s important coaching and demonstration. Anyone who purchases a Land Rover vehicle receives a certificate for the two-hour session.
One different technique Phil emphasized was parking the vehicle off-road. The first step was to engage the emergency brake while in drive and then shift into neutral. That allows the vehicle to settle before putting the gear shift into park.
In addition to sessions designed for couples or friends, the team offers a variety of team-building exercises for corporate retreats. Those have been a popular addition to corporate events at Quail Lodge and complements the golf course and tennis courts.