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HOTEL REVIEW

In the O.C., surfside sleep deprivation

A visitor finds the luxury-category Surf & Sand in Laguna Beach has its pluses. But the minuses are major: a stuffy room and so-so service.

August 19, 2007|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

How much would you pay for a view?

If the vista stretched from Laguna Beach to the far horizon over a glittering, roaring ocean, would it be worth $672.15 a night? (That's $575 for the room, plus $70.15 in hotel taxes and $27 for parking.)

By my calculations, no, not if you're staying at the Surf & Sand Resort in Laguna Beach.

The 59-year-old resort is a telling example of rate inflation at luxury properties. We're paying dearly for the re-dos that have added plasma TVs, Internet access, high-thread-count linens and floor-to-ceiling marble in the bathrooms.

Yet too often the upgrades are physical and don't inspire an equivalent upgrade in the service culture.

There are many better ways to spend $33.60 an hour for leisure (4 p.m. check-in, noon checkout), and most of them will leave you feeling cooler and more rested than I was after an early-August stay.

Imagine you've just spent two hours lurching 60 miles down Interstate 5 and you've arrived, exhausted, hot and ready for relief in the form of an ocean-view room, only to be asked, "Do you want help with your luggage?"

I'm no 98-pound weakling, but any luxury resort worth its stars discourages guests from toting bags, particularly on sandy, slippery stairs and through multiple passageways.

Using a map, I found my way to my 450-square-foot Surfside room: king-size bed, marble bathroom, whirlpool tub, an infinite, gorgeous view of nothing but water and sky.

And no air conditioning.

The room was stuffy, sticky and at least 85 degrees, and it stayed that way all night. Of 152 rooms and 13 suites, only the six Catalina Terrace rooms have air conditioning. Unlike other rooms in my building, mine had no ceiling fan but instead a puny plastic floor fan. The guest rooms were remodeled a year ago in May. Sorry, but no amount of sculpted, sandy-colored carpeting, shuttered doors or fancy upholstery can make up for losing sleep.

Opening the sliding glass doors didn't help; the sun-baked building was still expelling the day's heat. And let me remind you landlubbers what the ocean at this proximity sounds like: an oncoming train, an earthquake or, for you Midwesterners, a tornado. Every five seconds. All night long.

There was a reason sets of earplugs were displayed prominently on the nightstands, but they didn't help me.

The Surf & Sand may be one of the region's long-beloved properties, if only because every room offers an exceptional ocean view and sits 20 to 30 feet from the beach. There's a lot to like -- if you're not too cranky from sleep deprivation to appreciate it.

On the beach, attendants will tote low, upright chairs, towels and umbrellas for guests. At the pool, children can frolic while parents recline in shaded lounge chairs. In the ballrooms, locals gather for weddings and anniversaries nearly every weekend.

In a lobby courtyard every summer Friday evening, the resort stages a lovely outdoor cocktail reception for all guests, whether they're in swim trunks and covered in sand or wearing a tuxedo pinned with a boutonniere.

From the front door, it's a pleasant walk to the fabled art galleries and shops of downtown Laguna. The Sawdust Art Festival and the Pageant of the Masters are a short drive away. And if you're not inclined to venture out, the on-site Aquaterra Spa offers 50-minute massages or a choice of seven facials for $110, a bargain compared with the room rates.

The spa is in line for a remodel next year to bring it up to the standards of the guest rooms, but it needs not just fresh paint but also cool, quiet spaces that don't share walls with a parking lot and a refresher course for the aestheticians. They could learn from my facial what not to do: Eyelids shouldn't be touched with every stroke, and acid peels, cleansers and exfoliating granules don't belong in the nostrils.

I wish I could extol the pleasures of dining in Splashes, the surf-side restaurant that sits about 20 feet above the beach. It's a stunning setting. Though our server swore the cellar was cooled to 55 degrees, our Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Laurène ($135, about double the retail price) had to be put on ice. The $36 swordfish, the $40 beef tenderloin and the $8 panna cotta dessert were equally forgettable. The $15 heirloom-tomato appetizer featured mushy tomatoes deprived of their peels and texture by overzealous poaching. In a world of bad tomatoes, ruining good ones is a crime.

The good news: The room-service breakfast menu costs about the same as the menu served at Splashes. Yet the room service menu's $16 continental breakfast includes only fresh orange juice, a croissant, a muffin and coffee. Though my order was on time, it included no coffee cup. (You'll pay an automatic 20% service fee, no matter the service quality.) After I called for a replacement, a waiter brought it within three minutes -- but in his hands, not on a tray. And it wasn't fine porcelain.

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