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 piña 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.
Of the 14 paths running through the park, the Guy Fleming Trail was the best for an overview, a ranger said. So off we went on a footpath that passed the park's namesake trees.
By the time we were ready to leave, the sun was wrapping up its work for the day and a Spanish-guitar player at Estancia was just starting his shift at Mustangs & Burros, the hotel's casual restaurant and bar. An Estancia spokeswoman later told me that General Manager Giuseppe Lama chose its name. Men often enter a bar with the gusto of mustangs, Lama said, but after a night of drinking end up looking like haggard burros.
We didn't stick around that long — just long enough to chow down on an Angus beef burger and ginger-chipotle spare ribs. The food was fine, but what really won me over was the setting: a broad outdoor fireplace that cast a warm flicker on comfy lounge chairs, rustic rockers and Mustangs & Burros' main room, constructed of weathered bricks from the Blackhorse Farms tack room that once stood on the site.
Come Sunday, we made one last jaunt to the campus to view the Stuart Collection, a sprawling assemblage of contemporary sculpture. I had seen most of its 15 pieces before. So this time we returned to my favorites, which, perhaps not coincidentally, are commentaries on how the region's growth has affected its beauty. None is more humorous and incisive than "La Jolla Vista View," by William Wegman, best known for his photographs of sartorially savvy Weimaraners.
Wegman's work here, a long, bronze map on a hillside overlooking La Jolla, spoofs the interpretative displays commonly used at national parks to identify highlights of the landscape. "La Jolla Vista View" emphasizes the human influence instead: Chain-link fences are duly etched with stark sarcasm. Unremarkable housing tracts are labeled "big development." Vast swaths of suburbia are simply marked "barren wasteland."
Ironically, the artwork sits behind La Jolla Playhouse, which is building a larger theater, rehearsal studios and a restaurant. Did Wegman ever expect that his commentary on overdevelopment would be surrounded by bulldozers, piled earth and other construction detritus?
Setting out for home, we drove by Estancia one last time and thought about its place in a city that's still booming at a breathtaking rate. If the march of development here is inevitable, I thought, at least this hotel is a step in the right direction.