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High hopes at San Diego's latest lodging

Estancia La Jolla Hotel's eclectic layout makes for a satisfying retreat amid campus pursuits and Torrey Pines trails.

August 15, 2004|Craig Nakano | Times Staff Writer

San Diego — At times it's a curse, but whenever I hit the road, buried somewhere deep in my baggage is a big bundle of expectations.

Take the Lodge at Torrey Pines, the only San Diego resort with AAA's five-diamond rating this year. I read accolades galore about its Arts and Crafts splendor, but the first time I walked into the underwhelming lobby, I wondered if one of those diamonds was really cubic zirconia.

My expectations were lower for San Diego's newest lodging, the 210-room Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa, open since June. Although marketing materials touted Estancia as a luxury retreat and its developer is the former owner of the Hotel del Coronado, Estancia's website raised a few doubts.

What kind of $60-million development boasts of "luxurious" room features such as "AM/FM alarm clock" and "electronic door locks"? What if that same list of "guestroom amenities" has been padded with examples including -- I'm not making this up -- guest amenities?

Guest amenities as one of the guestroom amenities? Oy.

A month ago, my partner, Todd, grudgingly agreed to board our beloved dog and join me at the no-pets-allowed Estancia. I promised a restful hotel and spa, a show at the nearby La Jolla Playhouse and scenic hikes in Torrey Pines State Reserve. But as we drove toward Estancia one Friday, Todd began inspecting the dubious list of amenities.

"Electronic door locks?" he asked, rolling his eyes. "They might as well list 'electricity' and 'indoor plumbing.' "

The view of Estancia from the road seemed to confirm our fears. My promised diamond of a resort didn't even have the sheen of zirconia -- just the dull glow of scratched glass. The low-slung, white stucco buildings reminded me of a Ramada motel.

Then, finally, a glimmer of hope.

Estancia's blond gravel driveway curved toward a Mission-style fountain and a waiting valet, who whisked our bags away. Inside the lobby, a fire glowed under a slab of Douglas fir that served as an artful mantel. The exposed-beam ceiling, iron pendant chandelier and custom-designed tile floor filled the space with a casual, understated elegance reminiscent of an 1800s California ranch.

The biggest surprise lay beyond. Toward the end of an arcaded walkway, Estancia's clever layout unfolded. What I thought was a single-story complex suddenly opened out to a long, sunken courtyard and a star-shaped flagstone fountain ringed by three-story wings of guest rooms.

We reached our unit and found our bags waiting inside. The room was pleasant, a tasteful palette of neutral tones with punches of color. Nods to the site's previous life as an equestrian ranch came in the form of a cashmere horse blanket draped on the duvet and an entry door painted barn-red. It was an eclectic look, a fusion of Spanish, rustic country and seaside-chic styles that won points for individuality and comfort.

And the amenities? They were fine. I would have preferred softer sheets and fluffier pillows. But c'est la vie. For $219 plus tax a night -- a rate that included a daily breakfast buffet and was less expensive than many San Diego resorts that weekend -- we were satisfied.

Estancia has a 65-year lease on 10 acres owned by UC San Diego, the heart of which is across the street. So, after check-in, we moseyed over to the campus, home of La Jolla Playhouse.

I had high expectations for "Continental Divide," British playwright David Edgar's two-part dissection of American politics. We caught the first installment, "Mothers Against," in which a fictional Republican gubernatorial candidate agonizes over concealing his liberal social views during a fierce campaign. The premise was compelling, but the first act proved frustratingly static. The second act was more engaging, but I left disappointed. Ah, the peril of expectations.

Land and sea

Saturday started with a three-minute drive to the Birch Aquarium, part of the university's Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The biggest crowd pleaser was the shark tank. I liked the spotted wobbegong, which looked more like a catfish on creatine than any great white.

The whisker-like tentacles that hang from its mouth aren't as silly as they look. Woefully naive fish assume those dangling pieces of flesh are edible, so they swim right up to the wobbegong's jaws. Talk about misguided expectations.

We left the aquarium, driving down the hill to Avenida de la Playa and Barbarella, a whimsical French-Italian restaurant. Todd's calzone (sausage) and my sandwich (grilled chicken with sweet fruit chutney and wafer-thin slices of tart green apple) were good.

Then it was back to Estancia for a pina colada, served poolside. We skipped the spa, figuring our money would be better spent on the area's beauty.

Six dollars got us into Torrey Pines State Reserve, about 2,000 acres of coastal bluffs and marshland that start near Del Mar and run south to the crumbling sandstone cliffs above Black's Beach.

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