A parental splash of luxury in Surf City

When you have little kids, you forget why God invented the Jacuzzi. It's not so a 3-year-old can practice a jellyfish float or so the mother of a cannonball-happy 5-year-old can fulfill her hotel pool duties, even in winter. No, the Jacuzzi was invented so two grown-ups can sit half-naked next to each other under the guise of "relaxing" and make out amid the frothing water.

My husband, Richard, and I were poignantly reminded of this fact as we unleashed our two children into the "spa grotto" of the new Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa. At 8 at night. On Valentine's Day. In the dimly lighted waters, twinned silhouettes suddenly parted as Danny Mac and Fiona whizzed by. Fortunately, amid the palms were three sizable whirlpools, irregularly shaped to offer some privacy, so the kids didn't wind up on a stranger's lap. Still, I might as well have stood up and belted out, "So don't forget, boys, that's what you get, boys, for making whoopee."

With 517 rooms, the spa grotto, the separate Pacific Waters Spa, three restaurants, a shopping plaza, tennis courts and a swimming pool, the Hyatt opened in January as the latest charm in a bracelet of resorts strung down the coast from Santa Monica to San Diego. In our own defense, the resort does market itself as a getaway for families as well as couples. Its atmosphere of casual luxe seemed perfect for us, and though Huntington Beach may not be the most exotic destination on the globe, at least you can get there from L.A. in less than an hour.

We left after 7 p.m. on Friday and got in a little after 8. The lobby clattered with high heels clicking on stone floors as romance-seeking couples went to dinner or their rooms.

"Is it always this frenzied?" I asked the young man behind the front desk.

"We've never seen anything like it," he said solemnly.

This would prove to be a problem for the rest of the weekend. Although the staff was friendly and hard-working, there just weren't enough of them.

The young man explained that the weekend package I had booked, the Surf City Experience, included breakfast in the main restaurant, the Californian, and a box filled with the makings of s'mores. I gathered up my family and an obliging luggage attendant, and we set off.

Fifteen minutes later we were still walking; 517 rooms are a lot of rooms, and there are many lovely courtyards around which they are arranged. We quickly learned that you don't need to use the gym to get your aerobic activity at this Hyatt. All you need to do is accidentally leave something in your room.

Our room was worth the walk, though, spacious and pretty, looking out across Pacific Coast Highway to the ocean and filled with roses by my husband. My family needed 15 minutes to turn it into a disaster area.

Short staff, long faces

The next morning the Californian's buffet featured breakfast's greatest hits: made-to-order omelets, French toast, bacon, blintzes, sausage, gorgeous fresh fruit, muffins, cereal and great granola. The waiter produced crayons and lidded cups for the kids and endless coffee for the adults, and we were feeling fine when we left around 9 -- better than the crowd waiting for a table.

The Pacific Waters Spa was just as popular. When I called Friday morning to book treatments, there was just one 25-minute massage session open. I gave it to my husband because it was Valentine's Day weekend and I wanted to write this sentence. Instead I planned to work out in the well-equipped gym (free) and use the steam room, sauna and waterfall shower in the spa ($35 for an all-day pass). So after another wonderful dip in the grotto -- at 9:30 a.m. the day after Valentine's Day, we had the place to ourselves -- we checked out Camp Hyatt, a program for kids 3 to 12.

In an activity room full of books, games and craft supplies, an energetic young woman explained that eventually staff would take kids to the beach and on small walking field trips, but because the camp had just opened the previous day, the fun was limited to the hotel grounds for now. She didn't charge for taking care of Danny and Fiona for a couple of hours while Richard and I enjoyed the spa. Even if she had, the usual $28- to $35-per-child fee would have been money well spent. Richard and I got to relax and work out; the kids got to paint and make necklaces, and when we picked them up, they got goodie bags.

Lunch was at the hotel's Surf City Sunset Grille, where a re-creation of Peter Mallory's surfboard factory kept the kids' attention. The children got peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Richard had grilled prawns and pad Thai, and I had an excellent chopped salad with smoked chicken and champagne vinaigrette. Before we ordered, a server brought the most miraculous pretzel bread with sweet and spicy mustard, and the kids' meals included dessert.

We played Frisbee on grassy grounds, walked across the new pedestrian bridge that spans PCH and strolled up the beach to the Huntington Beach pier. Even though it was gray and a little chilly, inline skaters and cyclists filled the path. At the foot of the pier was a craft market, and across PCH was bustling Main Street.

Richard and I figured that when we got back to the room, the kids could nap and maybe we could head back to the spa in shifts.

Alas, at 4:30 we found the room had not been made up. It took some effort to get someone to clean it, and in the meantime we all trooped to a quiet corner of the hotel's Red Chair Lounge for hot chocolate.

When we got back to the room, the plan was to order room service and watch a movie. We called at 6, and they said they would get right back to us. They didn't call until 6:30 and told us the wait would be an hour and a half. The hotel restaurants were full, so we called down to have the car brought out.

Half an hour later, the line for valet service was post-awards-show deep and our car still had not shown up. The woman at the front desk was apologetic and said she would waive the $15 daily parking charge for our entire stay. (In the end, the hotel only comped us one day, and we had other problems with our bill.) By the time we headed toward Main Street, it was 8:30, the kids were hungry, and the effects of the spa's steam and hot water had completely worn off.

Then we found the Shed. Among the two couples sitting at tables chatting were husband-and-wife owners Bill and Phil Gallegos. Fiona ordered scrambled eggs, Danny went with a cheeseburger, I got pozole and Richard wanted Caldo Gallegos, chicken stew in a cast-iron crock.

The ambience was homey. The food was terrific. One of the desserts -- a concoction of whipped cream, chocolate pudding, cream cheese and nut crust that Phil called "fluff" -- is about the best thing I have eaten.

Back at the resort we settled into bed and tried to order a pay-per-view movie, only to be told that the system wasn't working. Thanks to the fluff, we just laughed.

The next morning we had breakfast in the Californian and made the mistake of ordering a waffle off the menu for Danny. Forty-five minutes later, it arrived with the waiter's profuse apology. The waffle was comped.

The day was a little chilly for the pool, although it is heated to 80 degrees. So we spent the morning at the beach, which, under a cloudy sky fighting toward blue, was full of seabirds and serenity. On the way home, we stopped for a stroll through the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve and for lunch in Seal Beach, and there was no wait for either.

Mary McNamara writes for Calendar. Her column, "L.A. Centric," appears Tuesdays.