Three things I liked:
Lobby with ocean views
Elegant décor in public and private spaces
Three things I didn't like:
Small rooms with low ceilings
High room rates
On any given night inside the stately Casa del Mar hotel in Santa Monica, a lively crowd of locals, hotel guests and tourists settles in the lobby bar's plush couches and oversized leather chairs to watch the parade of people inside the expansive bar and outside along the wide beach.
Mere feet from sister property Shutters on the Beach, Casa del Mar is within easy walking distance of a cluster of upscale hotels, restaurants and shopping districts, each of which seems to trade clients like a slo-mo game of musical chairs. It's a frequent setting for celebrity interviews, a popular weekend late-lunch spot and an enviable location for weddings and society fund-raisers.
That constant flow of fresh energy, along with stunning interior décor, makes Casa del Mar one of the most intriguing beach hotels in Los Angeles County. Few are more luxurious, closer to the water, offer better food, have a ballroom with better views -- or charge higher rates, which begin at $520 a night.
In February, the hotel completed a multimillion-dollar remodel of all 129 guest rooms and suites that added new furniture, artwork, flat-screen TVs, functional windows and enough new paint, wallpaper, mirrors and drapes to give the rooms a new look.
Now it shares the beachy but homey sensibility of siblings Shutters and Santa Barbara's Canary, all part of the Edward Thomas Collection of Hotels. The 9-year-old Casa del Mar is poised to better appeal to travelers who want ocean views along with cutting-edge design. It's so up-to-date that it's hard to believe that for 18 years it was the Pritikin Longevity Center and, before that, the Synanon Foundation, a drug rehab center.
The hotel, built in 1926 as the Casa del Mar private beach club, is a rare surviving L.A. artifact of a time when public spaces took precedence over personal ones. Rooms were merely for sleeping, which may explain why, by today's standards, they seem uncomfortably compact.
Hoping to start the summer season early, I booked a "discounted" $485 room in late May -- a non-ocean- view king room, the least expensive. With taxes, fees and $32 valet parking, the nightly tally was $585. For those prices, I expected a room as grand as the hotel's fabled lobby.
Instead, I got a nearly 400-square-foot, second-floor room, with a 11 1/2 -by-19 1/2 -foot bedroom that faced the public walkway to Santa Monica Beach and had a perpendicular orientation to the water. I could just barely see the beach, ocean and bike path a few yards away.
Sitting up in the tall, king-size bed, I could touch the wide, deep ceiling beams that created an off-center cross. The edge of the bed sat 2 feet from the curtains or wall on either side.
For $585 a night, I had hoped my car wouldn't be left out in the rain and delivered to me with a filthy windshield. Yet all parking is in an open lot. And the hotel charges extra for any newspaper other than USA Today: My Los Angeles Times cost $1 a day.
Though the quarters were tight, the desk and sitting chairs and bed were spaced enough apart to spare my shins. If the room had been less intelligently decorated, I'd have been a grumpy traveler.
Soon, I succumbed to the room's soothing blue hues of ocean and sky, plopped atop the down comforter, Fili D'Oro sheets and pillow-top mattress and proceeded to be my very classy self: I tore open some potato chips and watched the "Beverly Hillbillies" on the 42-inch flat-screen TV. Who cared that it rained all weekend?
Inside my private zone of indulgence, I could plug in an iPod, a laptop or thumb through the room's sea-themed books of prose and poetry. Designer Darrell Schmitt updated his original décor with a slip-covered chaise longue, ivory drapes and beds with dark wood spiral posts.
A wall of built-in shelves and drawers provided a residential feel and neatly contained the television, writing desk, shelves arranged with sea-themed items, and cabinets for the coffee maker and mini-bar refrigerator, mine a barely cooling unit.
The longer I stayed in the room, the less I wanted to leave it. Double-paned windows kept it silent. And then there's the bathtub, a gigantic Bain- Ultra, a brand that's been getting a lot of ink in spa journals. I could program cycles up to 30 minutes to deliver heat and varying intensities of jets. I chose a gentle bubble bath, lighted the provided candle, dimmed the wall sconces and dropped in the rubber ducky.
From the tub, one can watch a foot-wide television suspended from the ceiling, look out the double windows that open into the bedroom or stare into the glass-walled shower.
Oddly, a nook for the toilet has no door, but it does have an illuminated medicine cabinet stocked with items for sale: $7 toothbrushes, men's and women's underwear and Murad skin products that are also featured at the spa.
The spa is next in line for a remodel, and that's fitting, given that it offers no sauna, steam room or whirlpool and that the check-in desk shares space with the "fitness center," a guest room lined with mirrors and outfitted with Technogym cardio equipment. Still, my $150 basic massage was pleasant, and none of the gym noise traveled through the walls.
I can't imagine why anyone would prefer a treadmill in a windowless room to the sidewalks of the beach. Yet the luxuriousness of the place makes entering it as sand-speckled beachcomber unappealing. Perhaps that's why I found not a grain of sand in my room or anywhere on the property. I suspect that most of the sunbathing is done from the remove of the hotel's private pool deck, which was deserted during my blustery weekend.
Yet service wasn't always perfect in the lobby bar or the guest rooms. Housekeeping skipped turndown service one evening, and several items listed on the lobby bar menu weren't available.
At Catch, the re-christened and remodeled ocean-view restaurant, however, the waiters were swift, savvy and professional. Chef Michael Reardon's cooking has won consistent kudos from food critics, particularly for his handling of pasta and seafood.
The dining room is beautiful, as well, with its woven white leather chairs and sushi bar covered in mother-of-pearl tiles. My waiter said few hotel guests eat there, preferring to explore the neighborhood.
In the end, guests' willingness to leave and outsiders' willingness to enter may be the best measure of the hotel's success.
The happiest, most inviting hotels are best at integrating themselves into the neighboring community. Although Casa's room rates make it unreachable for many, it opens its best features -- the lobby and restaurant -- to an appreciative public. We may not all get an ocean-view suite, but we can sample the sweet life with a martini, a sunset and a great hotel lobby.