When the winds or rains are just right, the mountain ranges of Southern California come into view and tempt us to travel their winding roads. Yet our reward for twisting and turning up those two-lane alpine highways too often is a rustic lodge with amenities as rough-hewn as the splintery timbers that frame the walls.
Dear travelers, the world has changed, and you now can expect gourmet room service, designer linens and an organic clay facial at the mountain aerie known as the Lake Arrowhead Resort & Spa.
Fresh from its own celebrity-worthy makeover, the resort is now in line with the former logging town's status as a leafy retreat for wealthy urbanites. The $18-million renovation that began in March 2006 traded its bland '80s beige look for mountain minimalist sophistication: soft lighting, rich upholstery and judicious use of antler chandeliers. With a new spa, gourmet restaurant and on-the-spot staff, the resort now offers an opportunity for more upscale, full-service lodging in the San Bernardino Mountains.
Had the new approach failed, the effect could have been huge on a town where nearly half the population draws a paycheck from the service industry. With 235 employees, the resort is the area's second-largest employer, and nearly every waiter, maid or clerk seems personally invested in making the experience good. This is their town, and they want you to like it, although the resort still needs some fine-tuning.
During a visit on the July 4th holiday, I secured one of the lower-priced rooms ($225 to $250, with tax and fees, depending on the night). From the moment I entered the soaring lobby, I felt far away from Los Angeles, though it's only 85 miles distant. The granite counters, wood-plank floors and tree-lined lake views shift you into another climate and an almost rural state of mind — if the great outdoors had a wine bar.
The lobby's centerpiece is the curving, floor-to-ceiling wine wall that defines the new restaurant, BIN189, so named for the resort's 4,400-bottle cellar and location on California 189.
About half the 173 rooms and suites face Lake Arrowhead or peer into the treetops. The other half, I'm sorry to say, mostly surround the parking lot — as mine did. There is a world of difference between the two, even though they are decorated in identical modern-lodge décor: stone, tree tones, faux-Navajo patterns.
Lake-view rooms feel like a remote mountain resort (except for the live music from the pool area below), but the asphalt-adjacent rooms just don't leave the city far enough behind. You can use the thick curtains to block the view of the SUV grilles.
Inside, the 395-square-foot rooms embrace guests with the accouterments common to more expensive resorts. Besides waffle-weave robes, wine glasses and signed prints, there are the now-obligatory plasma TV, ample electric outlets, on-demand movies and a kid's dream selection of Nintendo games. The linens are sultry Italian, the pillows down and the duvet a bark-brown suede micro-fiber (as unbreathable as a Ziploc bag).
Broad stone tiles and dark granite counters define the bathroom, which retains the curtained combo shower and tub. Even the ballrooms have a rustic elegance with their abstract acorn-print carpets and earthy palette.
A kind of masculine swagger runs throughout the resort, with framed vintage hunting photos, leather upholstery, bracing eucalyptus-scented toiletries and a manly menu of steaks and chops. But the designers haven't completely forsaken the requirements of visiting princesses: The bathroom has thick white towels and a lighted makeup mirror; the new Spa of the Pines has 10 treatment rooms.
It's easy to choose one of the no-nonsense spa treatments: There are only 17. The 11,000-square-foot spa, on the lower level by the pool, hair salon and fitness studio, includes a whirlpool and steam room but no dry sauna for women, a victim of the redesign. At $120 for the signature massage, the prices are in the middle of the luxury scale, though a day pass to the spa or gym costs guests $12 (free with a treatment).
Unlike other hotels that reach for a new, upscale clientele, the Lake Arrowhead Resort didn't stuff itself into an ill-suited role. It plays to local and visiting families seeking casual comfort and low-key activities. More often, the patrons were extended families — a baby stroller following Grandpa in the wheelchair to dinner — not logo-slathered hipsters swilling cocktails.
The resort is easy to navigate physically and financially, whether you're looking for a free Los Angeles Times (at the check-in counter), a latte (about $3 at the in-house coffee shop) or a place to park the kids cheap.
My 8-year-old son, Eli, happily spent most of the day at the 40-foot pool with a new friend, unbothered that he didn't have more play options at the hotel. (Lake Arrowhead Village next door has a toy store, playground, carousel and bumper cars.)
I liked the no-rip-off structure of room service and the mini-bar. There's no automatic delivery charge, and a bottle of Arrowhead water costs $1.50. At $22 to $39, entrees are moderately priced and better than I expected but not as good as I'd hoped. My room-service spa breakfast came with good fresh fruit, limp toast, yogurt and French-press coffee, which was forgotten but arrived 14 minutes after I called.
My restaurant lunch Caesar was gritty from unwashed leaves. Blecch. The poolside burger and grilled fresh tuna sandwiches were so forgettable that we abandoned them for the tasty $4 kids' grilled cheese at BIN189.
At least there's wine. You can spend $309 on a bottle of Opus One or run wild through the 12-page list with the many $30 to $40 selections.
You can hang by the pool for free all day or pay for your fun. The resort issues a list of weekly activities that may include wine tastings ($20), cooking classes ($45) or no-cost cinema nights, walking tours and pool parties with gratis chips and dips. It also arranges $28-per-person lake excursions, which offer visitors one of the few opportunities to get on the water: Lake Arrowhead is privately controlled, and only certain homeowners can cruise it.
Though visitors can feel blissfully removed from hectic daily life, it's only 300 steps from the edge of the lodge to the Stater Bros. grocery.
Perhaps it's natural that here, in this other L.A., reality sometimes swings toward the absurd. The town has long been a popular celebrity haunt and filming location, a point the resort promotes with framed stills from movies shot there such as "Just for You," with Bing Crosby and Jane Wyman, and "I'll Take Sweden," with Bob Hope and Frankie Avalon, or portraits of visiting stars: Roy Rogers, Carole Lombard, Gary Cooper, Mary Pickford.
Yes, Hollywood hasn't come knocking in quite a looong while, but Lake Arrowhead Resort & Spa is ready for its close-up but with a little gauze over the lens.
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