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HOTEL REVIEW

Luxury is all in a day's work -- yours

La Costa offers a tantalizing menu of indulgences, but guests have to take the initiative and plan to make sure they get what they want.

July 08, 2007|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

LUXURY hotels are supposed to be places where people like my great-aunts could have thrived. They were so pampered, according to family lore, that they would walk into doors if someone wasn't steps ahead holding the portal open.

I would like to believe their world still exists, perhaps if only within the walls of elegant vacation spots such as La Costa Resort & Spa. Yet during my late June visit to the iconic Carlsbad complex, I found that even if you're paying $350 a night ($409 with taxes and fees), the world demands a measure of self-reliance before those proverbial doors open or wet towels vanish and newspapers appear.

Instead of the anticipation of their needs, guests need to make their needs clear by phoning housekeeping (if you want nightly turndown service, for instance, an in-room card says you must call, but I missed the card and the service) or planning weeks ahead to schedule the many options: spa, meals, golf, swimming, meditation.

Still, when La Costa was good, it was quite good. When it was bad, it was annoying. I have enough annoying in daily life, however, and I don't drive three hours in Friday traffic for annoying. It helped enormously that the check-in desk clerk soothed our arrival with an upgrade to a room with a better view and marble tub (not because I'm a journalist -- they did not know that), a goody bag for my son, Eli, and a swift answer to my sister Leslie's request for running routes.

The upgrade was a good move. A long soak in the huge tub equaled the pleasure of a spa treatment. The combo TV stand/dresser isn't as luxurious: A mini bar and snacks left only two drawers empty, so our shorts shared the nightstand with the Bible.

The Robin Hood redo apparently robbed storage space from the bedroom and gave it to the bathroom. The forest-tone palette gave a gender-neutral and unified look to a 450-square-foot room that felt oddly dark yet moderately spacious, even with two queen beds and a desk with two chairs but no cozy reading chair.

With French doors that opened to golf course views, the plasma TV and that tub, I could have been Herman Hermit and never left. Instead, we immediately went into recreation overload, wedging swimming, yoga, massages, movies, kids' camp and more into a two-night stay.

La Costa is a busy place, made more so since 2001 when KSL Resorts bought the 42-year-old property. A $140-million expansion has added new restaurants, shops, what's said to be the area's largest ballroom, two kids' clubhouses, a 42-treatment room spa, and the latest, Splash Landing, a pool complex with three waterslides.

The bulldozers that have been a near constant presence lately are working on a third condominium development that adds a new category of guestrooms: condo villas, complete with kitchens, private patios and access to the resort's amenities.

Those villas and other new additions have added a level of complexity that many of the twentysomething staff members haven't yet synthesized. That leaves top managers and seasoned employees to set the sterling examples.

And it leaves guests like me alone to figure out where to plug in my cellphone charger (under the hall table), where to leave a spa tip (in cash, post-treatment), where to get pool towels (sign for them, or risk a $25 fee), and where to swim laps. (Of seven pools, none is for real exercise.)

This place is really 400-acre village that supports several independent businesses: the feng shui-based Yamaguchi beauty salon; the Roger Fredericks Golf Flexibility Instruction program; and guru Deepak Chopra's Chopra Center, where guests and disciples alike can have spa treatments, practice yoga or meditation. You might need to learn yogic breathing techniques to face what is becoming a dense, urban-feeling city, not an idyllic retreat.

Vast open spaces have given way to the new real estate development that, by year's end, is to have built 75 privately owned ($600,000 to $1 million) but resort-managed condos that may be rented out as villas all but 120 days of the year to La Costa guests.

La Costa also is a country club where golf memberships cost $95,000 up front and $570 for monthly dues. That buys special access to the championship courses and most activities; a sports membership is $16,500 without the golf. Longtime employees say the stuffy country club bluebloods have died off, replaced by young, fun and rich families. (Bring your 4-carat engagement ring to fit in.)

The 1,000 members help sustain the 50-plus weekly fitness center classes and keep the massage tables turning; they subtly take priority. In the presence of the regulars, fitness instructors neglected to ask newcomers about injuries or modify routines. Members also seemed to fill the slots for Kidtopia, the new on-site "camp" for 3- to 12-year-olds.

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