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Weekend Escape: Santa Monica : Heat Wave Hotel : It wasn't a glitch-free stay, but a room by the bay was a perfect way to beat the soaring mercury

August 21, 1994|SHAWN HUBLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Hubler writes for The Times Metro section. and

There's the image of the quintessential California summer, and then there is the blistering reality. The former can be found daily at your favorite breezy beach town. The latter is available now in our back yard.

We live in Whittier, a placid community with one recurring flaw: Summer there is hotter than heck. The sun shimmers. The baby whines. The dog pants under the orange tree. Run the sprinklers, crank up the fans, crawl in and out of the pool--it's all in vain.

So naturally, as the mercury began to climb this July, it was time once again for our annual conversation about how great it would be to rent a beach house--except that the last two times we rented beach houses, the mattresses were mildewed and the kitchens smelled like cigarettes and beer.

So this year, we tried a different tack: a weekend instead of a week, a nice beach hotel instead of an oceanfront shack. Which was how we ended up at Shutters on the Beach, one of Southern California's nicest--and newest--beachfront hotels.

Shutters is the latest luxurious offering from the former owners of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Situated on the sand in Santa Monica at the western end of Pico Boulevard, it is a homey-looking edifice of shingles, balconies and clapboard, painted a fresh gray with white trim and bedecked with pots of flowers and jacaranda trees.

The whole 186-room, 12-suite setup is scarcely more than a year old, but its neighbors must by now feel it has been around forever. By the time it opened last June, the hotel had been under construction for more than five years.

It was completed in June, 1993, when the owners, hoteliers Edward and Thomas Slatkin, threw open a set of door-sized shutters to admit a throng of invited guests. Since then, the hotel has steadily gained in reputation and prestige (Dustin Hoffman was spotted there during World Cup week). With room rates that range $225-$325 (suites run from $550 to $1,800), it bills itself as "Los Angeles' only beachfront luxury hotel," and the appointments are breathtakingly lovely.

The lobby features two working fireplaces; shelves and shelves of good books; deep, comfy couches and a bank of French doors that open onto a balcony and a view of Santa Monica Bay as you have never seen it before. Blue waves, white sea foam, brown sand, bright sailboats. The beach hasn't looked this good since your dad learned to surf.

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The rooms, too, have a fresh, crisp feel that is almost more Cape Cod than Los Angeles. There are big four-poster beds and pristine linen duvets, and a spa tub--complete with candles!--in every bathroom, not to mention the standard luxury accouterments (mini bars, VCRs, marble-topped sinks, toiletries, etc.).

But if our recent July weekend at the hotel is any indication, Shutters still has some pretty aggravating kinks to work out, some of them correctable, others not so easily solved.

Ironically, one of Shutters' more intractable problems has to do with its location. Yes, it is on the beach (the paved boardwalk running along the sand from the Santa Monica Pier to the Venice border meanders just in front of the hotel), and the beach looks inviting from inside. But step outside, and it's a classic case of bait and switch: Your beachfront hotel is on one of the most polluted stretches of water in all of Los Angeles County, hard by the mouth of the Pico-Kenter storm drain.

True, recent improvements have diverted much of the polluted street-runoff water that comes down Pico-Kenter to the Hyperion Treatment Plant, but it's still a storm drain and you don't want to swim in it or sunbathe next to it--especially with all those DANGER signs posted around warning people in not one but two languages that the bacteria counts in the water are hazardous to their health. Also, the hotel boasts that it is in the heart of bustling Santa Monica, with all the cultural and civic pleasures that implies. The swanky Main Street shopping district and the funky Third Street Promenade are each within a 10-minute walk.

But if you actually are planning to walk, the streets that lead to those destinations are only a shade or two more wholesome than Skid Row after dark. Even the boardwalk, once we got beyond the hotel grounds, was littered with trash and human excrement. The area around the Santa Monica Pier, which is on the way to the Promenade, was swarming with toughs in gang regalia, and the Promenade itself featured the darkly comic spectacle of a woman at a cafe table outside a ritzy trattoria rattling her doggie bag at a beggar crossing the street and yelling, "Oh, yoo-hoo! Mister Homeless Man! Are you hungry? Would you like my food?"

In other words, this is not the world's greatest spot either for a romantic moonlight stroll or a relaxing day at the beach. We began to realize that it was probably best not to leave the hotel. And this would have been fine, if it weren't for those other problems--the ones Shutters can, and should, do something about.

For example:

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