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Checking in to the Oceana, a Southern California fantasy

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Maybe it's because L.A.'s the town that movies built, but lately, hotels across Southern California seem less like lodgings and more like film sets.

They aren't so much decorated as propped. They adhere less to a design aesthetic, more to a story line that involves a gorgeous cast living an effortless life in dreamy, scenic settings where nothing ever goes wrong.

"If only," you say. Well, for about $500 a day, you can insert yourself into that fairy tale. The Oceana Santa Monica, which opened July 1 fresh from a $15-million overhaul, is the newest local boutique hotel to portray the fantasy Southern California life.

Cue the extras! Preppy tennis pro, you play the waiter. Country club caddy, you park the cars. Spiffy hostess, you're the European-style concierge. Dressed in their country-club tennis whites and seersucker Bermuda shorts, the staff looks outfitted by a wardrobe department. For guests, central casting would call up a model-turned-graphic designer married to a sports network executive. They would live at the beach in perfectly pretty rooms just like these, except when they're house guests in mansions north of Montana Avenue.

The 70-room Oceana doesn't even look like a hotel. Only the valet parking sign on Ocean Avenue hints that the pristine, butter-yellow building isn't a luxury condominium with a doorman. The neighbors are actually locals, habitués of nearby Montana Avenue, Palisades Park and the Third Street Promenade. The Pacific Ocean is their front yard, playground, personal walking path and fashion promenade.

The Oceana story begins immediately in what might be called a lobby, although the shelves of leather-bound books and low, dark desks suggest a library. It looks out onto a pool surrounded by lounge chairs, potted plants, a fireplace and fountain.

The capable restaurant, called the Oceana Lounge, offers a hearty menu created by Jonathan Morr of New York's Bond Street and features comfort food such as turkey meatloaf, grilled salmon, New York steak, and the two $23 entrees I tried, chicken Milanese and spaghetti veal Bolognese. They were proof that simple food done well is often a wise approach, particularly at a hotel.

The room's powder pink walls are decorated with framed vintage bathing suits and historic beach photos. It feels less like a restaurant than what it really is -- a hotel dining room open only to hotel guests because of the neighborhood's zoning restrictions.

The hotel guests aren't supposed to feel as if they are just visiting but that they live here, if only temporarily. At this new hybrid -- let's call it a hometel -- I tried to forget that the cozy setup cost $437 a night. With taxes, $27 valet parking and a $15 automatic service fee for the Internet, pool and fitness center, the daily tally reached $541. That was a special introductory price; soon brochure rates will be $650 to $1,200.

At these top prices, you expect stellar service, not the relaxed approach I saw that made the hotel feel understaffed. Service at the pool was slow, the mini-bar wasn't restocked and maid service came late for cleanup, early for turndown. Although it's standard practice to review the rates and terms of guest reservations at check-in, the desk clerk skipped that step when I showed up in late August for a weekend stay.

After the bellman took my bag to my third-floor room, he hurriedly explained the features of the room and its electronics, including an iPod dock and wireless Internet access.

In the room, nothing looks as if it were ordered out of the "How to Create a Hotel" catalog. The accumulated details produce some upscale version of the Pottery Barn, mixed with quirky finds one imagines were culled from groovy swap meets or the set of "Friends." The unexpected touches give the rooms their charming personality, whether it's the succulents in squat pots or the mixed eras of furniture.

The hotel closed in November while residential designers Chris Barrett & Associates and local architectural firm KAA Design Group transformed the 63 rooms with kitchenettes into 70 rooms and suites, six of which still have the mini-kitchens. (Rooms have free Groundworks coffee, but Fiji water costs $5.50.)

The designers were careful to cultivate a residential sense of space, uncommon among beachfront properties. Here, elbows don't bump at the 20-seat dining room (18 more seats flank the pool); shutters and drapes define private balconies; and the smallest rooms stretch to a spacious 500 square feet. Wide windows in nearly a third of the rooms look out to the Pacific, framing the parade of people along Palisades Park paths.

Angled just so, my floor-length bathroom mirror reflected a beautifully composed beach scene, where a palm frond framed cliffs, clouds, sand and sea. In the white-tiled bathroom, I could actually bathe in a real tub with L'Occitane body products, though the room was slightly dim.

It's quite a comfortable hotel, even though it has no grounds, driveway or spa, but the pool is big and the access to all of Santa Monica's best sites is easy and fast. I just wish the staff had mentioned I could catch a ride to lunch a mile away in the hotel's hybrid Lexus. (Had I been paying less attention to my lunch pal's 1966 Château Mouton Rothschild, I might have avoided a $40 parking ticket too.)

Back in the room, I plopped onto the goose down-covered king-size bed in my ocean-view suite. Watching the sun set, I also marveled at how enormous Oprah's false eyelashes looked on the 50-inch flat-screen TV. For reading, I had numerous options. I could dim the recessed, overhead lights, click three wattages on the bedside lamps or adjust the floor lamp beside a tufted chair. I could prop up the poufy pillows and yard-square shams on the bed, settle next to the window in the upholstered chair, pull up to a built-in desk, or even perch my hardback on a red table built for backgammon, checkers and chess.

I would have ordered room service but not with a $7.50 delivery charge and 20% service fee. I chose the $18 morning buffet, a deal considering fresh-squeezed orange juice and a cup of coffee are each $8 on the room service menu. At the buffet, I feasted on the homemade gravlax, bagels, toasted country bread, artisan cheeses, fresh fruit salad, cashew banana bread and muffins (from L.A.'s Bread Bar bakery).

As you might imagine, it took several plates to carry my haul, yet at least 15 minutes passed each day before the waiters cleared them. They also don't circulate offering to freshen your coffee or bring you a glass of water. Hey, you're home. Get it yourself.

Wait a minute, this isn't how my fantasy story is supposed to end. Get me rewrite!


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