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Hometown Tourists in Pasadena

A seasonal package lets a couple receive the royal treatment where princes have played.

November 11, 2001|DIANE WEDNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PASADENA — Until recently, I hadn't considered this city a vacation destination. Although its charming Old Town has always offered a welcome escape from Southern California's indoor shopping malls and chain restaurants, it's only 20 minutes from my house, not exactly enough to bring out the adventure traveler in me.

What a difference a weekend makes. Seeking respite from recent world events yet loath to stray far from home, my husband and I jumped at the chance to pamper ourselves practically in our own backyard at the Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa, which is enticing visitors with an "Escape to the Country" promotion through Dec. 28.

For $390 plus tax (based on availability), the package includes two nights in a deluxe room, dinner for two in the hotel's Terrace restaurant, a $25 gift certificate for its spa and two tickets to the Norton Simon Museum or the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

Ron and I knew that a stay at a Ritz-Carlton anywhere means digging deeply into the pocketbook, but we justified the restful weekend away last month by reminding ourselves that we didn't have to pay for air fare or spend much for gas. Also, we've attended weddings at the hotel and have long admired its architecture and place in Southern California history.

The hotel opened in 1907 as the Hotel Wentworth but closed after its first season because of rain damage. Railroad tycoon and art collector Henry Huntington purchased the Wentworth in 1911 and renamed it the Huntington Hotel. Los Angeles architect Myron Hunt redesigned the main building and grounds, and the hotel reopened in 1914 as a winter resort.

During the 1920s, wealthy visitors from the Midwest and East Coast flocked to the elegant Huntington, as did writers, entertainers, religious leaders and politicians. Teddy Roosevelt was a guest, as were Albert Einstein and the Dalai Lama. The hotel also has been a magnet for royalty, such as Prince Philip of England and Queen Noor of Jordan.

By 1926 the hotel was opened year-round, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool was added for summer guests. At the onset of World War II, the Army rented the property for $3,000 a month and used it as a training facility. In 1954 the hotel was sold to the Sheraton Corp., which ran it until 1985, when it was forced to close for earthquake renovations. It reopened in 1991 as the Ritz-Carlton with 387 guest rooms, 22 suites and seven cottages.

We arrived at 8 on a Friday evening and entered a nearly deserted lobby. The low occupancy rate that weekend worked to our benefit, as the clerk upgraded our accommodations from a standard deluxe room to a corner room with a view of the Horseshoe Garden, where weddings are held nearly every weekend. The room was spacious and elegant, the bed cushioned with a feather mattress and topped with a down comforter.

We headed over to the Terrace restaurant for dinner and were escorted outdoors, where only two tables were occupied. The indoor section of the restaurant was dark.

Our table had a view of the swimming pool and the Picture Bridge--a walkway that displays 40 original California-themed murals painted in 1932 by a local artist. We quickly forgot about the view, however, once we delved into the mouthwatering cuisine: smoked salmon and endive for appetizers, pancetta-wrapped monkfish and scallops with spinach and mushrooms for entrees. The final tab totaled about $100, but the food was included in our weekend package, so we only paid the tip, $16.

The next morning, after strolling the hotel's Japanese and Horseshoe gardens, we drove to Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard, where we ate outdoors at the quaint Old Town Restaurant and Bakery. The breakfast was less expensive than it would have been at the Ritz-Carlton, where a piece of toast can set you back a small fortune, and a Spanish-style fountain provided a casual, eye-pleasing setting.

After a leisurely meal of chicken chorizo and eggs, served with black beans, homemade tortillas and fresh pico de gallo (we also bought a couple of colossal cinnamon rolls for breakfast Sunday), we headed to the Folk Tree, a store on Pasadena's Fair Oaks Avenue that specializes in the folk art of Mexico and Latin America. We timed our visit for the store's annual "Day of the Dead Altars and Ephemera" exhibition, a tradition established 18 years ago by proprietor Rocky Behr. The altars are designed by local artists and dedicated to loved ones, pets or even rock idols they wish to celebrate.

We were most touched by an altar created by Rita Almanza for the Rev. Mychal Judge, who died while giving last rites to a fallen firefighter at the World Trade Center. The altar featured tiny red "bricks" made of foam, on whose surfaces were pasted the names of the "firefighters who gave their lives for others." Names of the jet passengers, crew members and other victims of the terrorist attacks were written on slivers of paper and scattered about the altar.

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