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Weekend Escape: Santa Monica : Heat Wave Hotel : It wasn’t a glitch-free stay, but a room by the bay was a perfect way to beat the soaring mercury

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There’s the image of the quintessential California summer, and then there is the blistering reality. The former can be found daily at your favorite breezy beach town. The latter is available now in our back yard.

We live in Whittier, a placid community with one recurring flaw: Summer there is hotter than heck. The sun shimmers. The baby whines. The dog pants under the orange tree. Run the sprinklers, crank up the fans, crawl in and out of the pool--it’s all in vain.

So naturally, as the mercury began to climb this July, it was time once again for our annual conversation about how great it would be to rent a beach house--except that the last two times we rented beach houses, the mattresses were mildewed and the kitchens smelled like cigarettes and beer.

So this year, we tried a different tack: a weekend instead of a week, a nice beach hotel instead of an oceanfront shack. Which was how we ended up at Shutters on the Beach, one of Southern California’s nicest--and newest--beachfront hotels.

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Shutters is the latest luxurious offering from the former owners of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Situated on the sand in Santa Monica at the western end of Pico Boulevard, it is a homey-looking edifice of shingles, balconies and clapboard, painted a fresh gray with white trim and bedecked with pots of flowers and jacaranda trees.

The whole 186-room, 12-suite setup is scarcely more than a year old, but its neighbors must by now feel it has been around forever. By the time it opened last June, the hotel had been under construction for more than five years.

It was completed in June, 1993, when the owners, hoteliers Edward and Thomas Slatkin, threw open a set of door-sized shutters to admit a throng of invited guests. Since then, the hotel has steadily gained in reputation and prestige (Dustin Hoffman was spotted there during World Cup week). With room rates that range $225-$325 (suites run from $550 to $1,800), it bills itself as “Los Angeles’ only beachfront luxury hotel,” and the appointments are breathtakingly lovely.

The lobby features two working fireplaces; shelves and shelves of good books; deep, comfy couches and a bank of French doors that open onto a balcony and a view of Santa Monica Bay as you have never seen it before. Blue waves, white sea foam, brown sand, bright sailboats. The beach hasn’t looked this good since your dad learned to surf.

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The rooms, too, have a fresh, crisp feel that is almost more Cape Cod than Los Angeles. There are big four-poster beds and pristine linen duvets, and a spa tub--complete with candles!--in every bathroom, not to mention the standard luxury accouterments (mini bars, VCRs, marble-topped sinks, toiletries, etc.).

But if our recent July weekend at the hotel is any indication, Shutters still has some pretty aggravating kinks to work out, some of them correctable, others not so easily solved.

Ironically, one of Shutters’ more intractable problems has to do with its location. Yes, it is on the beach (the paved boardwalk running along the sand from the Santa Monica Pier to the Venice border meanders just in front of the hotel), and the beach looks inviting from inside. But step outside, and it’s a classic case of bait and switch: Your beachfront hotel is on one of the most polluted stretches of water in all of Los Angeles County, hard by the mouth of the Pico-Kenter storm drain.

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True, recent improvements have diverted much of the polluted street-runoff water that comes down Pico-Kenter to the Hyperion Treatment Plant, but it’s still a storm drain and you don’t want to swim in it or sunbathe next to it--especially with all those DANGER signs posted around warning people in not one but two languages that the bacteria counts in the water are hazardous to their health. Also, the hotel boasts that it is in the heart of bustling Santa Monica, with all the cultural and civic pleasures that implies. The swanky Main Street shopping district and the funky Third Street Promenade are each within a 10-minute walk.

But if you actually are planning to walk, the streets that lead to those destinations are only a shade or two more wholesome than Skid Row after dark. Even the boardwalk, once we got beyond the hotel grounds, was littered with trash and human excrement. The area around the Santa Monica Pier, which is on the way to the Promenade, was swarming with toughs in gang regalia, and the Promenade itself featured the darkly comic spectacle of a woman at a cafe table outside a ritzy trattoria rattling her doggie bag at a beggar crossing the street and yelling, “Oh, yoo-hoo! Mister Homeless Man! Are you hungry? Would you like my food?”

In other words, this is not the world’s greatest spot either for a romantic moonlight stroll or a relaxing day at the beach. We began to realize that it was probably best not to leave the hotel. And this would have been fine, if it weren’t for those other problems--the ones Shutters can, and should, do something about.

For example:

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We arrived about 3:25 p.m., well past the 3 p.m. check-in time. But we were told by the desk clerk that our double occupancy room with the partial ocean view ($285 per night, plus $34.20 room tax, plus $15 to park) wasn’t ready yet. Our promised five-minute delay turned into a 40-minute wait in the lobby while the housekeeping staff belatedly tidied up.

The seventh floor room was a delight, with a fluffy king-sized bed and lots of lovely little touches--a book of bedtime stories on the night stand; a big shuttered window that opened from the bathtub onto the main room; old-fashioned slipcovered easy chairs. But the partial ocean view turned out to be a window on the old Synanon building across the street, with only a glimpse of beach and a sliver of ocean beyond the roof.

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Then the bellboy arrived with our luggage and my husband’s white shirt, which he had apparently dropped in the dirt. When my husband pointed out the smudge, he was profusely apologetic and offered to have the shirt laundered that afternoon for free, and to return it by dinner time. But dinner (at Wolfgang Puck’s recently opened cafeteria-style pizzeria on a balcony at the Third Street Promenade) came and went without the shirt; in fact, we didn’t hear word one from the hotel staff until the next morning, when they woke us from a sound sleep at 7 a.m. to ask whether we had wanted that shirt washed, or just pressed.

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Cranky, we called the concierge, and again received abject apologies, plus an offer of a free breakfast in the hotel cafe, Pedals--a true peace offering because the food was just excellent. Shutters serves one of the best beachfront breakfasts around, and the smoked salmon with peppered cream cheese and bagels was particularly delicious. But then, when it was time to sign the bill, we asked the maitre d’ whether the front desk had told him this meal was to have been free; he knew nothing about it, and we had to explain the situation, which he accommodated graciously once his confusion had passed.

We spent the day relaxing by the hotel pool--a lovely affair with plenty of whitewashed chaises and vine-covered trellises and umbrellas for shade. When it got windy late in the day, we worked out at the well-appointed hotel health club.

Then, after they finally returned the missing shirt, we headed down for dinner at One Pico, the hotel restaurant. Once again, the food was some of the best we’ve had in Los Angeles. It was capably served in an airy beachfront room with a massive fireplace, high, beamed ceilings and panoramic views of the beach.

But then, at checkout time, the goblins struck again when the bellboy accidentally put one of our bags on someone else’s baggage cart. We were all the way home when we realized that we were missing some of our luggage; we had to drive back across town to retrieve it Monday morning.

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“Geez,” laughed my husband’s teen-age nephew afterward, as we related our tale to relatives. “It sounds like a dream hotel, if it weren’t for all the glitches.”

Which pretty much summed it up.

Budget for Two

Gas: $10.00

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Double room, two nights: $638.40

Parking, two nights: $30.00

Dinner with wine, One Pico: $112.15

Pizza, Wolfgang Puck Express: $30.00

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Room service dessert: $16.05

Assorted drinks, other meals: $60.00

FINAL TAB: $896.60

Shutters on the Beach, 1 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 458-0030.

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