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Near San Diego, a slice of Welk life

Special to The Times

Escondido, Calif.

Like old duffers stretching out after 18 holes, my boys sipped soft drinks and did that thing golfers love almost as much as the game itself: They talked about golf. Specifically, they rehashed the round just played, the great shots, the bloopers and one dear family member's habitual slice that sent a ball bouncing onto a nearby road and into the path of a California Highway Patrol car.

Errant swings notwithstanding, the course was ideal for casual golfers like my husband, Keith, and beginners like my two sons, Adam and Ethan. Never mind that the Oaks course north of Escondido was at the Welk Resort, a proud haven of anti-hipness that celebrates the memory and "champagne music" of accordion-playing band leader Lawrence Welk. The kids deemed the course "cool," or as another generation might have said, "wunnerful."

"It was like they designed a real course except that they took their shrink gun and zapped it," said Adam, 13.

Golf was the highlight of our visit last month to the resort, just off Interstate 15 in the foothills of north San Diego County. The rest of the resort's offerings weren't quite as impressive. Mediocre food, careless housekeeping and our second-class status, behind the resort's time-share clientele, took some of the sparkle out of our champagne weekend.

Fortunately, we weren't expecting grand luxury. I had told Adam that I had scheduled a family getaway at the "Champagne of golf resorts." His eyes had widened.

"We're going to Augusta?" he had asked.

Uh, no. A visit to the grand Georgia home of the Masters would have to wait for another time. But we would try to indulge my sons' budding passion for golf with a relatively affordable jaunt to a family resort with two courses just right for young players.

So I made reservations at the Welk Resort, taking advantage of the Golf and Theater Jubilee deal advertised on its Web site. For $388 (tax inclusive) we would receive two nights' hotel accommodations, two rounds of golf, dinner theater admission and daily breakfast for two people and vouchers for on-site snack shops. (The package's current price is $434.) A reservations clerk told me the boys could stay free in our room and that we could reserve additional dinner theater tickets at children's rates.

The slow escape from home on Orange County's freeways one Friday gave us plenty of time to brief the boys on Welk history, the late bandleader's waltzy-schmaltzy music, his long-running TV show and that whole "wunnerful" thing.

"People always joked about Lawrence Welk's being hokey, but he always said he was laughing too — all the way to the bank," I explained to the boys. Whatever, they said. When can we play golf?

At check-in I expected a time-share pitch but was spared. We unpacked in our motel-style room, which was a little faded and dated but had a great golf-course view from its balcony.

Adjacent to the hotel was Mr. W's, the resort's main restaurant. After a 20-minute wait, we were seated. Adam ordered steak, and Ethan chose macaroni and cheese from the children's menu. Keith and I started with bowls of chowder from the buffet. Thin, crispy rounds of garlic toast went perfectly with the hearty chowder, loaded with meaty clams. The buffet included an attractive but ultimately bland array of salad, smoked mackerel, sea bass, salmon, pollock, au gratin potatoes, watery clam linguine, green beans and institutional chocolate cake.

Mr. W's karaoke bar overlooked the pool, so we had a serenade for our after-dinner swim. We won't soon forget the experience of splashing to show tunes and lounge ballads. No doubt our presence made the setting less magical for the amateur crooners. It can't be easy belting out "I am I, Don Quixote," to the sound of children's cannonballs. But I watched one silver-haired gent pull it off with aplomb — while waving an imaginary sword, no less.

A secret pass The next morning we ate breakfast at Mr. W's, where I was happy to find real oatmeal, not the instant stuff, on the menu. Everyone else had Belgian waffles.

Keith and the boys left for their 9 a.m. tee time, and I went in search of a tennis partner. Tennis is one of the resort's selling points, so I, ever hopeful, had brought my racket. The golf pros told me that the activities director in the time-share area of the resort kept a tennis interest list and that hotel guests were welcome to add their names.

Apparently the gate guards had been told otherwise. They stopped me at the time-share entrance and said only owners and their guests had access. After some explaining, they reluctantly gave me a day pass and said, "Don't tell anybody." (Oops.) Not that it mattered. Most of the tennis crowd had checked out the previous week.

But I left wondering whether the activities described on the resort's Web site were exclusive to time-share owners. The concierge at the resort's administration building wasn't sure and called the activities director. Turns out hotel guests can, for a fee, participate in any activity that time-share owners also pay for. So we could enter the $1 putting contest or take an $8 tie-dye class, but we couldn't pop into water aerobics or join the family scavenger hunt.

This was contrary to the impression I had gotten from the Web site, but at that point all I wanted was to get a latte from a snack shop, settle on the balcony with my book and await the golfers.

They arrived happy, already planning another round the next morning. The Oaks, they reported, was a fine par-3 course, with shorter yardage and gentler slopes. Other families seemed to agree; the course was busy all weekend.

We cooled off with a short swim, trying to ignore a pile of cigarette butts, a dirty bar glass and an abandoned pair of socks and shoes that lay scattered on the deck from the night before.

More pleasant was the historic 71-year-old Ferrara Winery in downtown Escondido, where Keith and I enjoyed chatting with the winery founder's daughter-in-law. Tasting at Ferrara is free. (Employees pour prudent portions and remind drivers to sample lightly.)

After a quick lunch at a roadside burger spot, we went back to the resort for more swimming and a reunion with the orphaned shoes. The pool was sparkling clean until the wind blew in some of the cigarettes butts.

That evening we walked over to Mr. W's for the theater buffet included in our package. The food included a salad bar, carved roast beef, baked ham, mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables and rolls — all OK. But shark filets swimming in a mystery sauce tasted metallic, and the pork loin roast was as dry as toast. Coffee refills were hard to come by, as an understaffed crew struggled to serve beverages to the pre-show stampede.

Then it was curtain time at the Welk Resort Theatre, where the Irving Berlin musical "Annie Get Your Gun" continues through Nov. 8. I'm not a big fan of musicals and was almost dreading this one, given the mixed impression we had of the resort so far. But we were pleasantly surprised. (OK, three of us were. You can take a teenager to a musical, but you can't make him like it.)

The show was well performed by members of the Actors' Equity Assn. and the American Federation of Musicians. Joy Yandell (Annie Oakley) gave as lovely a performance of "Moonshine Lullaby" as I've ever heard.

Par for the boy Early Sunday, Keith and the boys played the Oaks course again after deciding that the adjacent 18-hole Fountains course might be a reach for Ethan. That was followed by a late-morning visit to the Sunday breakfast buffet at Mr. W's.

The weekend had certainly fit our budget, but as Keith and I drove home, we decided that the resort's shortcomings would preclude another visit.

But perhaps 10-year-olds have different standards. Back at school, Ethan's first assignment was to write about favorite times spent with his family. This is a kid who has snorkeled in Maui, witnessed Barry Bonds' 500th home run at San Francisco's Pacific Bell Park and kayaked among harbor seals. So what did he write about? Golfing at the Welk Resort. I guess Lawrence Welk is still getting the last laugh.

*

BUDGET FOR FOUR

Expenses for this trip: Welk Resort

Two-night golf-and- dinner theater package for two people: $388.00

Dinner Friday: $83.58

Kids' breakfast Saturday: $11.52

Supplemental greens fee for one child Saturday: $8.00

Kids' musical tickets: $52.00

Kids' breakfast Sunday: $14.66

Sunday greens fees for one adult, two children: $30.00

Other drinks, tips: $19.16

Saturday lunch: $18.00

Gas: $15.36

Final tab: $640.28

CONTACT:

Welk Resort San Diego, 8860 Lawrence Welk Drive, Escondido, CA 92026; (800) 932-9355 or (760) 749-3000, www.welkresort.com/sandiego.

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