It has been a surprisingly long time since any of the Andrew Harper editors have taken a trip to the San Diego region. But I was ready to feel an ocean breeze again, hike the coastal bluffs and play some tennis. So I made a plan. I would land in San Diego, head straight for La Jolla and drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to Carlsbad. Along the way I’d visit five hotels: a longtime member favorite, two that had recently been refurbished, a brand-new property and one that we dropped but might have renewed promise.
Set in downtown La Jolla about 25 minutes from San Diego, the storied 114-room La Valencia was built in 1926 and rose to fame as a Hollywood hideaway. By 2012 it had lost its luster and members were complaining of clogged drains, dated décor and worn furnishings. But since the hotel is still associated with La Jolla luxury and glamour, it seemed a good idea to reinvestigate.
Driving up to the rosy stucco exterior of the “Pink Lady,” we found no one there to receive us at 6 p.m., and we were obliged to park on the street in order to check in. Following the breezeway into the Spanish-style lobby, we were welcomed by a friendly clerk who took our temperature and asked if we needed help with our bags. Valet service was unavailable due to the pandemic, so considering we’d have to find a parking space and then lug the bags to our rooms, the answer was a resounding yes.
While waiting for a bellman, we noticed a cute touch: a bone-shaped chalkboard with the names of the four-legged friends who were guests that night (Ozzie, Buddy, Zoe, Fiona and Pepper). Ten minutes and one reminder later, a young man materialized to help us with our bags and escort us down several flights of stairs to our villa. We passed terraced gardens filled with bright bougainvillea, potted geraniums and palm trees backdropped by the Pacific.
With 425 square feet and a vaulted ceiling, our Villa King Ocean accommodations felt roomy and relaxing. Two sets of sliding glass doors opened to a Juliet balcony and a furnished terrace with a view of the pool. The bedroom’s white walls were partially covered with gray-and-white tiles, both behind the bed and on the gas fireplace surround. Unfortunately, the fireplace remote did not work. And given the location of the television above the fireplace and perpendicular to the bed, it could be watched only from the club chairs set in front of it. The king-size bed was flanked by a marble-topped end table on one side and a desk on the other; modern globe lamps provided accent lighting. I didn’t care for the nondescript tan-and-brown chevron-patterned carpet covering the floor, nor the painfully slow Wi-Fi. Also a bit annoying was the coffee maker, which worked only by holding the button in the “on” position.
A large-patterned trellis wallpaper in black and ivory dominated our sizable bath, while the floor tiles were earth-toned travertine. The long white vanity, with double sinks and two mirrors, offered C.O. Bigelow toiletries and plenty of space to spread out. Across the room was a soaking tub surrounded by matching travertine, and a glass corner shower with a built-in bench and dual showerheads. The rainfall shower had quite intense water pressure, but it continued to drip on my head as I toweled off.
At the time of our stay, the hotel’s bistro, Café La Rue, was closed. The hotel lobby bar, La Sala, was serving only drinks, but the Monday night we were there it was positively buzzing. The elaborate hand-painted ceiling, wrought-iron chandeliers and terra-cotta tiles evoked an Old World elegance, while at the far end of the elongated space, a picture window captured the blue of the sea, matching the Capri-blue accents of the décor.
The oceanview Med restaurant was offering only a limited 12-item menu. (Caesar and Cobb salads, burgers and crabcakes, for example.) Outside on the terrace, the view was splendid, and we toasted the sunset with a Pink Lady, consisting of Glendalough Rose Gin, St. Germain elderflower liqueur and rosé Champagne, and a Rhubarbie, made with Green Mark vodka, Giffard rhubarb liqueur and lemonade. We began with a pleasing appetizer of Mediterranean flatbread, piled high with wild arugula, goat cheese, prosciutto, capers and zingy paper-thin slices of lemon. But our entrées were more like lunch staples: a fresh ahi poke bowl, with brown rice, lychee, an edamame-wakame salad and avocado, and unfortunately, a not-so-fresh lobster sandwich.
Before checking out the next morning, we walked across the street to La Jolla Cove, where we watched seagulls land on the breaker wall and harbor seals bask in the sun. La Valencia couldn’t ask for a better setting, but numerous little problems had severely dulled its sheen.
The downtown location; the fact that it’s pet-friendly; the calming views of the Pacific; the room-darkening shutters that cover the sliding glass doors.
The inability to watch TV from bed; the uncomfortable sitting area; non-guests can buy day passes to the pool.
There is live music on Friday and Saturday nights, and at brunch on Saturdays and Sundays at Patio Sol.
From La Jolla, we drove 40 minutes northeast to Rancho Valencia, nestled in the affluent community of Rancho Santa Fe, with its manicured lawns and gated estates. The 49-casita hotel has been a member favorite since it opened in 1989.
After checking in a little earlier than expected, we waited on the veranda of the Veladora bar for our room to be ready. Promptly at 4 p.m., a bellman arrived to lead the way by golf cart as we followed in our car. Inside our 1,000-square-foot Olive Grove Suite, we were given a thorough orientation. The rustic furniture was made of dark wood, but in a room with high vaulted ceilings and abundant light, it did not feel heavy. Beneath a wrought-iron chandelier was a California king bed as well as a small dining table and desk. A low wall that provided counter space and storage defined a sunken living room. We’d spend much of our time in this comfortable space, reading books while the gas fireplace warmed the cool spring air. Two sets of sliding doors opened onto our private furnished terrace, complete with a whirlpool.
In our splendid bath we found almost full-size bottles of fragrant orange-and-tangerine Natura Bissé products, a deep soaking tub with bath salts and a large glass shower that doubled as a steam room. Besides double sinks, there was a makeup mirror, a seating area and even a small television. Overall, the bathroom lighting could have been brighter. The closet offered enough room for two pieces of luggage to open comfortably, and the soft Frette bathrobe enveloped me, which was a nice change, as hotel robes are invariably too small. The most impressive piece of equipment was a Toto Neorest with a heated seat, an automatic lid and 13 customizable functions.
During our stay, the spa and fitness center were closed for refurbishment (they are now open), but I was able to book a massage in one of the poolside casitas that had been converted into an individual treatment room. This was the first treatment I’d had in a year, and masking procedures were still in effect. However, I was able to be unmasked while lying facedown, and most important, I was able to relax under the therapist’s soothing hands.
That evening, it appeared as if the hotel was hosting an outdoor wedding. However, the chic open-sided tent we spied was the new home of the Pony Room. Due to indoor dining restrictions, the restaurant had been temporarily moved to the hotel’s croquet lawn. Basket-weave chandeliers, amber mood lighting and draped-fabric ceilings made for a romantic setting. On the drinks menu, as well as the expected wines and beers, were three mocktails, seasonal cocktails and eight kinds of margaritas. Dishes ranged from salads and “Baja Street Plates,” like tacos and taquitos, to more-substantial entrées such as Dover sole meunière and short ribs. My partner enjoyed ahi poke with avocado, ginger, soy, cucumbers, wakame salad and hot chile aioli, and I quite liked my peppery 10-ounce prime filet mignon with creamy horseradish potatoes au gratin and haricots verts. The only downside of the evening was the service. Our waiter was harried and more attentive to the table of older gentlemen nearby. He rarely checked on us, and when he did, his timing was off: He asked how our drinks were after the glasses were empty, our hand sanitizer napkins didn’t get removed until we asked, and our water glasses were never refilled. Still, that was the only hiccup of our entire stay, and our server at breakfast the next morning was on point.
I wouldn’t hesitate to return to Rancho Valencia; I’d just be sure to stay much longer.
The huge accommodations; the privacy of our suite; the beautiful grounds; the exceptional tennis program.
The lack of signage pointing to the temporary spa.
Both the resort pool and adults-only spa pool are heated; tennis memberships and spa-and-fitness memberships are available to the community.
We drove past the turn into our next hotel. The property had been designed to blend into the bluff on which it was built, but we mistook it for a blocky residential apartment building. Only after we had entered the driveway did we see the sign for the 130-room Alila Marea Beach Resort, the first new-build resort in the U.S. from the Alila chain, which is now part of the Hyatt Hotels Corporation. As we pulled into the circular drive, a cadre of valets awaited us.
Inside, the lobby was dramatically designed, with a curved wall of wood, but it was predominantly a space to pass through on your way to reception rather than an area in which to linger. Friendly clerks offered us welcome drinks of ginger, turmeric, lemonade and vodka; gave us our keys; and showed us to the elevator. The hallway that followed the length of the bluff was dark and oppressive and seemed inappropriate for a beach resort. The only light came from narrow vertical windows and the glowing green “EXIT” signs. (At one point I could see nine of them; they seemed to be sending a message.)
Thankfully, our second-floor Ocean View Room was brighter. A wall of sliding glass doors opened onto a nicely sized balcony with two comfortable chairs and views of the pool and the Pacific. The décor of the 457-square-foot room was neutral and understated. The bedding was white; the walls were a soft gray; the wide-plank floors were light wood. A round natural-fiber rug with offset black stripes contributed to the minimalist California Cool aesthetic. The room contained two seating areas, a small dining table with two chairs and a short upholstered bench that was cute but uncomfortable. Unfortunately, when I went to embrace the “barefoot luxury” vibe that the hotel promotes by taking off my shoes, I found dirty floors underfoot.
Our bath lacked a tub, but the walk-in shower was spacious. A wooden ladder leaned against one side of the shower, which was useful for holding towels and toiletries. The vanity had a single sink; the natural-stone countertop was pretty, but its matte finish showed every drop of water until it dried. The heavy sliding door of the bath was a space saver, but it wouldn’t stay closed. On one odd occasion, the lights in our bath decided to join forces and turn on and off as if they’d been thrust into dance-party mode. The strobe effect was headache-inducing and lasted awhile before stopping on its own.
The hotel has three food options: poolside Pocket for Southern California and Baja cuisine; Coffee Box, which features local roaster Lofty Coffee Co.; and Vaga Restaurant & Bar, helmed by award-winning San Diego chef Claudette Zepeda. Drawing inspiration from local ingredients and Grandma — not just hers but everyone’s — she makes dishes that are relatable and easy to like. When we visited, the menu was a short one-pager, but it focused on quality not quantity. My grilled Baja black seabass wasn’t showy, but it was moist and flavorful, even without the Mexican-style green goddess sauce that accompanied it. And my partner’s crispy octopus with green mole was mild and tender, without a hint of chewiness. I was particularly impressed by our patient server, who went to endless trouble to find me just the right glass of white wine. The Familia Torres Albariño from Rías Baixas, on the coast of Galicia, proved a bright complement to my seafood entrée. (The menu also featured a few Mexican wines, and I still regret not trying the Henri Lurton orange Chardonnay from the Valle de San Vicente.) After dinner we had a nightcap at the bar’s open-sided terrace, which has three fire pits and chairs facing the ocean. It provided a view of the hotel’s architecture, dramatically lit and jutting into the distance like a backward comma, a perspective that finally did it justice.
The hotel also features a spa with five treatment rooms and separate saunas for men and women. We enjoyed a workout in the well-equipped fitness center, but our Peloton bikes had screens so grimy we had to clean them first.
Alila Hotels is dedicated to environmental sustainability, which shows in ways large and small. Bellino linens are made of beechwood fibers, air-conditioning turns off when the sliding glass doors are opened, and there is no plastic on the property. Bottled water is provided in aluminum Proud Source containers, and the rosemary-and-chia Votary toiletries come in metal containers like an artist’s paint tubes. Local influences include San Diego-based Ashland Hard Seltzer in the mini-fridge, fine art by surf photographer Aaron Chang, handcrafted furniture by David Alan of Solana Beach and coffee table books by Roy Kerckhoffs.
I appreciated the sense of authenticity created by these homegrown touches. But the stark design and oppressive hallways felt far removed from the hotel’s beachside setting. Only time will tell if the problems we experienced were systemic or because the hotel had opened only three weeks earlier.
The hotel’s sustainability practices; the food at Vaga Restaurant & Bar; the complimentary welcome pastry.
The dark hallways and exit signs; the grimy screens of the gym’s Peloton machines; blaring music in the elevator to the pool.
The resort fee is $49 per day and parking is $52 per day; guests can rent Electra Go! bicycles to ride in a dedicated lane down North Coast Highway 101.
Three miles inland lies the Park Hyatt Aviara, a sprawling property set on 200 acres in Carlsbad. A friend visited the hotel a few years ago and had thought it “a little old.” But it had reportedly undergone a “transformation” that included refreshed guest rooms and suites with reimagined public spaces and a new restaurant; I wanted to see what $50 million could do.
Driving up to the entrance, I was struck by the sheer scale of the place. The hotel has 327 rooms and 83,000 square feet of event space — a very different kind of property from the others I’d visited on this trip. Upon entering the massive lobby-lounge, we were met with soaring ceilings and a coastal breeze from the veranda’s open doors. A whimsical steel sculpture overhead, by local artist Jennifer Gilbert Asher, looked like a flock of birds that had blown in with the wind.
We had given the hotel notice of an early arrival, but our room was not ready, so we toured the property. At the Pacific Point bar, I ordered an “Activated Charcoal Lemonade” cocktail, made with 3 Olives Vodka. It was delicious, but my doctor probably would not have agreed that it was “detoxifying” and “for my wellbeing,” as the menu suggested. Other inventive drinks included a “Yuzu Jalapeno Popsicle” and a “Coconut Taro Boba” with “illegal mescal.” We found a table on the third-story veranda and took in the expansive views of the 3-acre Heron Lawn below. Lined on both sides with mature palms, the area hosted families playing a giant Connect 4 while others gravitated to the majestic fountain for pictures.
Our upgrade from a King Coastal View Room, at 540 square feet, to the Fireside Terrace Suite, at 855 square feet, was a lovely surprise. The color palette was a soothing cream and gray, with rose and blue accents. In the living room, an ivory-colored sectional sofa faced a flat-screen television and was angled over a round rug topping charcoal-gray hardwood floors. A small table and two chairs were tucked in the corner, and sliding glass doors opened onto one of our two patios, this one with a fire pit and view of the tropical grounds, great lawn and fountain.
Our spacious bedroom, featuring another set of sliding glass doors and patio, was carpeted in an understated geometric pattern of cream and taupe. The extra-long headboard flared out at the ends to bracket the single-drawer nightstands on each side. And as a tribute to the Batiquitos Lagoon nearby, the hotel’s bedrooms were inspired by the great blue heron, which was featured abstractly in a vintage-inspired bronze sculpture over the bed. Our marble bath was spacious, with a deep soaking tub, double vanity and aromatic Le Labo Bergamote 22 toiletries. My only qualm was the small corner shower.
The Park Hyatt Aviara has three dining options: the aforementioned Pacific Point; Ponto Lago, which serves breakfast; and Ember & Rye, a formal restaurant a short shuttle ride away. Throughout our trip, the chef’s name, Richard Blais, kept coming up, as he is well known in the area, not only for his stint on “Top Chef” and his San Diego restaurant Juniper & Ivy but for his ubiquitous fried-chicken chain, the Crack Shack. Ember & Rye is his newest venture. With its green walls and golfers who’d apparently found their 19th hole, it felt a little like an upscale clubhouse. There must have been something in the water the night we dined because the evening started with a gregarious man at the next table singing — not quietly — to his tablemates and ended with our waiter enthusiastically belting out a few lyrics from “Faithfully” by the rock band Journey. Ember & Rye is primarily a steakhouse. There were seven choices of beef, including a whopping 40-ounce beef rib chop from a local producer. Lobster, arctic char, sea bass and 12 vegetable dishes rounded out the menu.
As its full name implies, Park Hyatt Aviara Resort, Golf Club & Spa has something for everyone. It’s a place to spread out, take in the views and truly relax.
Our spacious suite; the lovely view from our patio; the substantial and beautifully plated breakfasts and array of fresh juices.
The thin ceiling between us and our upstairs neighbors.
A hike at the Batiquitos Lagoon is an enjoyable way to spend a morning; children will love that there is a waterslide on the property; golfers will appreciate the interactive Topgolf Swing Suite.
On our last two nights in the area, we booked the 121-room L’Auberge Del Mar. We probably should have waited. The property had been undergoing renovations, but at the time of our stay they weren’t yet complete. The lobby bar and restaurant were open, but the latter was still unfinished. The pool was being resurfaced, the hot tub was closed, stairwells were taped off, and the slow-as-molasses elevators were in bad shape, undoubtedly from construction.
In fact, the whole north side wing was closed, but because of that we received a complimentary upgrade to the Pacific Suite with a partial ocean view. It was comfortable and came with two small balconies, a fireplace and a separate living room, but it was missing softening touches like accent pillows and a blanket. It was hard to know if this was standard or if the room was still in the process of being decorated. The prints on the walls were inexpensive reproductions of seaside vistas. Our marble bath was bright but small, with a walk-in shower and a single sink — not enough room for more than one person at a time — and the toiletries were in refillable containers.
We’ll have to get back to L’Auberge Del Mar when renovations are complete, in order to make a balanced assessment. Right now, the jury is still out.
The location, in the heart of Del Mar; our comfortable suite; the vintage photos in the public spaces showing the history of the site.
The small bath; the inexpensive prints adorning the walls of our room; the laid-back hosts at the restaurant.
The resort has undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation that will enhance all aspects of the property; the hotel hosts the after-party for opening day of the Del Mar Racetrack.