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WEEKEND ESCAPE

Easier on the wallet in Santa Monica

Ocean views come with steep price tags, so we hunt for hotels that offer ambience at more affordable prices.

August 03, 2003|Craig Nakano | Times Staff Writer

Santa Monica — In the urban symphony that is Santa Monica, second fiddle doesn't sound so bad.

Take hotels. Amid the squawking sea gulls and rattling roller coasters on the pier, you can practically hear the heavy thud of hard cash being plunked down by visitors for a night at such top-tier resorts as Shutters on the Beach, Casa del Mar, Le Merigot and Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel -- $260 to $400 on the weekend of my recent trip. That's for one night, in the most basic room, no ocean view. No wonder the median nightly hotel rate in Santa Monica, as figured by hospitality specialist PKF Consulting, has increased to $198.90.

But a second group of lodgings -- places such as the historic Fairmont Miramar and the new Craftsman-inspired Ambrose -- delivered some of the same luxe appointments and pleasant service for $140 to $195 per night during my visit. That some of these properties had recently completed multimillion-dollar makeovers was a bonus.

I'm a hotel hound, an analytical geek who finds inexplicable pleasure comparing minutiae like: Is the bed short-sheeted, made up with linens that leave my toes touching a bare mattress? That alone is enough to, well, make my toes curl.

So, during a weekend last month, I explored a dozen hotels, all with prices starting below Santa Monica's $198.90 median, all unaware that I was a writer on assignment. I had some fun too, eating, shopping and sunning.

My first stop was the Fairmont Miramar, whose past is part of its allure. Santa Monica founder and former U.S. Sen. John Percival Jones built his mansion, Miramar, here in 1889. By 1921 the home had been converted into a 40-room hotel, followed by a six-story apartment building for long-term guests, including Greta Garbo, who lived there for four years.

Those apartments became the Fairmont's 94-room Palisades Wing. It is joined by 32 poolside bungalows and, in the spot where the senator's mansion was torn down, the 10-story Ocean Tower. Most of the 176 Ocean Tower units have unobstructed views of the Pacific.

The resort's age hardly shows, thanks partly to a $16-million renovation started when Fairmont assumed management from Sheraton in 1999. The weekend of my visit, standard rooms started at $209 a night for the older Palisades Wing, $229 for the Ocean Tower and $239 for a bungalow. AAA members could knock $15 off those rates, so I splurged for an ocean-view room at $214.

That's a good value in pricey Santa Monica -- where the Holiday Inn, friendly but generic in design and undesirable in location -- was $173 and up. The Shangri-La, a step down in decor, was $170. At the modestly furnished Best Western Ocean View, rooms facing the Pacific start at $219 on summer weekends, the desk clerk said, and usually sell out.

Upon our arrival at the Fairmont, my partner, Todd, and I were offered a choice: the Ocean Tower room we had booked or a non-ocean-view suite in the older wing for the same price. Though the suite usually costs $75 more, I balked. So the clerk threw in the breakfast buffet -- worth $34 for two -- at no charge. Off to the suite we went.

Our top-floor corner unit had a comfortable living room and a spacious separate bedroom. The renovation was evident in the still-fresh carpeting, pristine British colonial mahogany furniture and fabrics in rich golden tones accented with deep reds and mossy greens. The bathroom floor was Spanish marble, the counter granite.

The bed passed inspection. The feathery comforter was coddled between Frette Egyptian cotton sheets. The mattress was properly covered.

A bellman took me back to the Ocean Tower for a peek at the room I had given up.

"You're better off in the suite," he said as he opened the door. "These rooms are a little small."

That was the understatement of the weekend. The balcony did have a fine view of the water and, off in the distance, the Ferris wheel turning on the pier. But the room had space for only a bed, love seat, armoire and little else.

"The men, they always choose the suite," the bellman said. "But the women? They want the view."

The non-view suite suited me fine, as did the next night's hotel, the Ambrose.

The 77-room Ambrose had its grand opening a month ago. The hotel aims to fill the dearth of affordably chic Santa Monica lodgings with a Craftsman-inspired construction that incorporates Asian touches.

A colleague visited the Ambrose with the $350-per-night Lodge at Torrey Pines, a 1-year-old Arts and Crafts gem in San Diego, still fresh in her mind. She found the Ambrose a mediocre facsimile, likening its furnishings to a Crate & Barrel knockoff of a Greene and Greene original.

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