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Pool-centric Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa emerges from a makeover

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Like those misguided victims on extreme makeover TV shows, so many hotels and resorts these days are renovating themselves into properties that have been "improved" beyond recognition. Happily, after a $35-million makeover, Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage has emerged carefully refreshed -- and you can hardly see the scars.

The nearly 30-year-old desert resort carefully balances its upscale additions with an approachable, family atmosphere. Yet the new resort can now claim to be one of the more luxurious offerings in the Coachella Valley.

Already hugely popular, the 444-room resort was sold out on most weekends this spring, so I beat the spring-break crowd with an early March visit. From the moment of my arrival, however, it was clear that management knew my identity and purpose, even though I never announce my visits and try to travel anonymously. Perhaps that's why my son, Eli, and I had great service, but also the distinct feeling that we were being observed for opportunities where the resort could show its best face.

Rancho Las Palmas, a former Marriott, owes its new look to KSL Capital Partners, which purchased the 240-acre property in June 2006. The company and its management arm, KSL Resorts, also recently purchased and renovated La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad and the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. They're big on pools. Rancho's best new feature? Splashtopia, a mini water park with two 100-foot water slides that are wickedly fast (and scary to my 8-year-old son), a large swimming pool, a sand beach, kid-sized fountains and sprayers and, my favorite, a 425-foot lazy river -- a canal pumped with water jets that propel inflatable tubes and their riders in slow circles.

Guest rooms are grouped into two-story, Spanish-style villas and surround Splashtopia, a lake and a central-but-narrow golf course. My $290-per-night second-story room comfortably held two well-appointed queen beds, a desk, a plush reading chair, a six-drawer dresser, a mini bar and a bathroom with a full-size tub and a separate vanity table.

Although with taxes and fees my room cost $341 a night, its design sophistication, paired with the resort's new features, made the price seem fair. (The $109 midweek summer rates look attractive.) But it doesn't take long for your hotel bill to grow.

Added to a 10% occupancy tax is a $20 resort fee that covers phone calls, fitness center use, in-room coffee, Internet access, self-parking and a daily newspaper (which I never received). And as with a lot of hotels, check-in time is moving ever deeper into the day: It's 4 p.m. here, allowing barely enough time to squeak in a swim before dinner. Checkout is noon.

At the pool, if you need more than an umbrella to shield the desert sun, renting a cabana in peak season costs a hefty $125 a day midweek to $165 on weekends (more on holiday weekends).

Prices for room service items seem average at first -- $14 for a full American breakfast and $7 for a six-cup pot of coffee -- until you read the fine print: You pay a $3 "trip charge" delivery fee, 7.75% sales tax and a 22% service charge. I walked to the hotel's Palms Cafe for Starbucks and pastries for two for about $11.

The resort's restaurants have been given an impressive upgrade, and prices show it. At the signature restaurant, bluEmber, appetizers and salads range from $7 to $16; main courses run from an $18 gnocchi to a $48 lobster tail.

Chef Todd Claytor prepares his satisfying meals using organic ingredients, inventive presentations and tweaks on classics such as "mac and cheese" with duck confit.

The food quality is partly why I thought Las Palmas seemed like a better, smarter version of its sister resort, La Costa. The resorts share a similar layout, renovation plan and operations, but Las Palmas had a mellower vibe and was easier to navigate.

Las Palmas may benefit from several other factors. An older, quieter clientele seemed to congregate here, whether they were members of the adjacent, KSL-owned Las Palmas Country Club (members can buy golf and social memberships at the resort) or locals who come to drink and dine. (About half of the restaurant guests are locals.) The pool and water features have centralized sightlines that allow parents to keep a watchful eye on kids from one location. Also, convention traffic is corralled on one end of the resort, which helps vacationers feel separate from the badge-wearing crowds. By June, the resort hopes to open a supervised kids' camp, and by late 2009, a greatly expanded fitness center.

The spa's smallish sauna, whirlpool and outdoor pool were lovely and serene, but with only three makeup stations for more than 100 lockers within its 20,000 square feet, competition for blow dryers is going to be fierce during busy periods. The spa also seems undersized to adequately serve hundreds of guests and the country club members.

During my visit, the Rancho Mirage resort felt less frenetic and overrun by non-hotel guests than La Costa, though that may change when Las Palmas launches a new resort membership program this spring.

Its age may be working in its favor too. Built in 1979, Las Palmas has been surrounded by development, so the new owners couldn't shoehorn too many new features into a fully built-up neighborhood. For better or worse, Rancho Las Palmas also sits just feet from a main thoroughfare, Bob Hope Drive, and a busy shopping complex, the River, but the grounds and rooms are peaceful. Its central location means you can send the teenagers to the movies at the River, grab necessities at the grocery store or walk to a restaurant.

During my stay, however, we wanted for nothing outside the resort walls. Perhaps that was because the staff went to great lengths to ensure our comfort. At check-in, general manager Victor Woo greeted me at the front desk and gave Eli a beach pail. That wasn't so strange, because other resorts give kids welcome amenities, and Woo is said to be a hands-on manager. Yet my son asked: "How'd he know my name?"

Evidently, Woo is a careful reader of my column and my son is one perceptive kid.

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