What has $140 million done for La Costa?

What has $140 million done for La Costa?
A pretty pool area at the La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad and its lush landscaping help keep the world at bay. (Don Bartletti / LAT)
At one time La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad defined the destination spa. Over the years, however, the resort lost ground to a new generation of upstarts around the country and in its own backyard.

Struggling to stay competitive with such resorts as the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort & Spa in Dana Point, the Lodge at Torrey Pines in La Jolla and the Four Seasons Resort Aviara right across the street, La Costa recently underwent a $140-million renovation.

I was curious to see what $140 million could do, having been underwhelmed by the resort during a visit three years ago. So I took my husband, Thomas, with me for a couple of days last month to sample the new and improved La Costa. What we discovered, paradoxically, was too much of the old shabbiness lingering behind the new facade and not enough old-timers among the young staff entrusted with the costly digs.

Spa services

The new spa is a handsome, whitewashed Spanish Colonial complex that joins an ever-growing and arguably overcrowded spa scene in Southern California. First impressions impressed: an airy lobby with a soaring ceiling, ironwork gates, two gleaming wood front desks, tables with artfully arranged spa essentials for sale and a fountain at the back lined with flickering candles. It was enough to make you forget that the 43,000-square-foot spa, with 42 treatment rooms, sits over what used to be a parking lot.

My first stop was the Agua de la Vida room, which has a large Jacuzzi with a picturesque landscape in tile on the wall behind it, dry sauna, steam sauna and showers, as well as a private terrace for sunning. Each customer is offered a free five-minute exfoliation treatment, but there was a line for it, and I skipped it, instead soaking in the Jacuzzi before my first treatment. The men's lounge has a similar area, although Tom found the steam sauna to be out of service.

After a fine if unmemorable Swedish massage, I tried the vegetable clay wrap with a veteran technician who had been at the spa since 1988 and knew her trade. In no time I was salt-scrubbed, showered and slathered with a wrap that looked a little like puréed carrots and smelled faintly of cucumber. As I lay soaking on the heated table, my face, neck and scalp were treated to a relaxing massage.

While I was luxuriating in my wrap, Tom was working up a sweat at the new athletic club in the resort's main building, far better than the spa's cramped gym. The athletic club was well stocked with weight stations, cardio machines and spectacular views of the golf links.

We met for lunch at the Spa Café, a deli-style counter and juice bar overlooking the spa's private pool and grassy courtyard filled with bathrobe-clad guests. We tried a steak-and-grilled-vegetable wrap and a plate of tuna salad with crackers. Then we drank in the scenery. The flowers, fountains and piped-in music did an effective job of keeping the world beyond the courtyard walls at bay, although I could still hear the traffic of nearby El Camino Real.

After lunch came my facial. Here, too, I was fortunate to have a longtime technician with a delightful, playful imagination.

"I like to tell stories," she said as she cleaned my skin and massaged my hands. "You are my Cleopatra, and we are on a barge, and I am making you beautiful to meet Marc Antony."

My Marc Antony, meanwhile, was being twisted into a pretzel by an expert Thai technician who said she practiced daily on her husband, a martial arts instructor. Less of a massage and more of a stretching regimen in loose-fitting clothing on a floor mat, the Thai massage was the most beneficial Tom said he ever had, and not as painful as he expected. "More pain," he said, "Bring it on."

Resort accommodations

If pain is what you're looking for, try getting your room key at La Costa. According to Mobil Travel Guide, check-in at a five-star hotel averages four minutes, 11 seconds. At a four-star hotel it averages six minutes, 16 seconds. At the three-star La Costa, it took us 34 minutes.

The culprit was surly service and a Spa Resorts West (www Internet package — a real deal that saved us dollars but cost us in convenience at check-in. The package included one night's lodging, two spa services (one in lieu of a round of golf) and a meal plan for breakfast and dinner that has been offered in years past but with which the green front-desk staff was unfamiliar.

Eyeing us as if the last place we had checked into was the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, our receptionist, a three-month veteran of La Costa who had all the warmth of a Homeland Security official, demanded that we present our papers and prove that we were not scam artists.

We suggested that she check the details of our reservation on her computer, but she said the resort's computers did not detail "those Internet packages." (We were subsequently told they did.) Our receipt mentioned no meal vouchers. Tough luck, she said. Next.

But we kept prodding until she pointed us to the gift shop next door and said "complimentary" Internet access was available — if we bought something. Two bags of M&Ms later, we had called up our package on the Internet and our travel agent on Tom's cellphone. Then we called over our gal, the Fed, who finally believed us and offered a grudging apology. At last we were in.

But in for what? we wondered as we walked down a familiar hallway. Here the seams of the remodel began to show. The new carpeting and wallpaper couldn't hide the cramped, damp feeling of old. Some hallways were blocked by construction. Grounds crews were still spading dirt in a courtyard. And our standard room, although clean and furnished with comfortable bedding, seemed drab. Later a resort manager said about 75% of the remodel was complete, and there was still "a lot of finishing" to be done.

The golf-clubby Legends restaurant was also hit-and-miss. My shrimp and crab cakes appetizer at dinner was par for the course, but Tom's salty clam chowder in a bread bowl was not. My main course of scallops and risotto bogeyed, but Tom's "cowboy steak" birdied. As for our dessert choice, the banana cream pie — the restaurant was out. The breakfast buffet the next morning offered perfectly edible hotel food. But for future reference we made note of the Starbucks down the street.

Check-out proved as frustrating as check-in. The front desk wasn't familiar with my add-on spa package, which we booked directly through the resort. Tom had to walk over to the spa and have that staff call the front desk and explain the charges and credits. As the spa receptionist said to Tom, "No guest should ever have to go through this." (A manager later said it appeared that the resort had discounted our bill by about $145 because of our troubles, though the staff didn't tell us this and never knew I was a journalist.) Check-out time: 27 minutes.

The bottom line on the still-a-work-in-progress La Costa? Come to the spa for the day. Stay someplace else for the night.

Laura Greanias is deputy night editor at The Times.