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HOTEL REVIEW

Slow and go in San Diego

There are acres of action at the renovated Hilton resort. Lazy bones should like it too -- if they feel they're getting their money's worth.

August 03, 2008|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

What's a vacationer to do in these times of high prices for fuel, food and fun -- the fundamentals of travel?

Strategize.

It may pay to choose a hotel loaded with lots of extras that make the cost seem less painful. Otherwise, a budget vacation can seem like ordering a decaf, nonfat, soy latte. If I want deprivation, I'll stay home.

That logic may be why the freshly renovated Hilton San Diego Resort & Spa on Mission Bay has been sold out most weekends this summer, even with rates that range from about $219 to $849 a night, with most in peak season at $300 and up.

With its multifaceted appeal, the resort is a crash pad for sightseeing tourists and also a self-contained haven for the lethargy-loving.

The sprawling, Mission-style resort has finished a second phase of renovations that makes staying on the property a more attractive option. The hotel's management company, Noble House Hotels & Resorts, oversaw $8 million in improvements to the lobby, pool area, gift shop and Acqua restaurant and added the Aroma coffee bar.

Last summer, the resort finished a classy $13-million rehab that tidied up public areas and turned the 357 guest rooms and suites into convincing imitations of pricier boutique hotel rooms. Essence, the resort's new $5-million spa, features residential, not clinical, decor throughout the nine treatment rooms and lounge.

But first impressions during my visit on a sold-out weekend in mid-July primed me to expect the worst. After driving nearly three hours from downtown Los Angeles, I had to flag down valets and bellmen at check-in. I had booked, weeks earlier, the least expensive room available ($351 for a total of $417 with tax and $22 for parking), but my sister, Leslie, and I didn't get our promised two queen beds and "villa garden view."

Instead, we were booked into the hotel's high-rise overlooking the noisy freeway -- a cheaper room, with no offer to reduce the rate. After a 45-minute dispute, during which we refused a room with a rollaway bed and witnessed other unhappy guests with the same problem, we were upgraded to a much larger studio room in the villas with the appropriate beds and view. (I never mentioned that I was a reviewer.) We were even happier when the front-desk manager sent a bottle of chilled chardonnay to slake our annoyance.

Lesson: Always carry printouts of your confirmed reservations, study the property map and be sure you're getting what you paid for.

Both the high-rise and studio rooms felt comfortable and featured sophisticated ruby and espresso tones on bedding and furniture, faux-stone bathroom tile. But TVs were CRT, and the storage space was skimpy.

The bathroom was well-illuminated and the beds cozy with lightweight comforters and quilted bed throws. Internet connection ($11.95 a day) is not wireless and may anchor you to an ill-proportioned writing desk and chair.

If you're driving to the resort, you may want to load a cooler with snacks and drinks to save money and hassle. There are no longer mini bars in the rooms because, the desk clerks told me, too many guests disputed charges. But the yard-tall refrigerators are still there, and if you're willing to pay a $2.50 delivery charge, 18% tip, 7.5% sales tax, the hotel will stock it before your arrival from a menu that includes $3.75 sodas and $7.50 bottles of imported water.

Though this hotel doesn't charge a daily resort fee, its room rates tilt toward luxury prices, without luxury service or amenities. A pre-ordered room-service breakfast arrived on a black plastic tray with mismatching, chipped plates and limp toast.

The Acqua restaurant features wonderful views, fire pits, patios and a large, well-priced wine list, yet the food was only a little better than average, though entree prices hovered around $30.

The lack of affordable food options on site and the abundance of nearby entertainment may be why the fully booked resort rarely felt crowded. Yet if you and the kids never ventured to nearby SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo or Balboa Park, everyone would still have plenty of diversions to enjoy here.

In just two days, I couldn't sample every recreational option at the hotel, which is on 18 acres spanning a peaceful stretch of Mission Bay. This resort fits the definition of the word, with two pools, two hot tubs, five tennis courts, a spa, a new Kids Kamp, Ping-Pong, volleyball, an outdoor bar and a private dock where guests can rent kayaks, speedboats, paddle boats and bicycles.

At the new spa, visitors have only a steam room, a tiny dressing area and a mid-size relaxation room to sample before treatments ($130 for an hour of deep-tissue massage). If I could have rolled the heated massage table and its silky microfiber sheets into my room, I would have gladly slept on them.

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