Ritz-Carlton, Marina del Rey still in its awkward years

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Like teenagers everywhere, the 17-year-old Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey is working on its identity. It’s tough getting attention when you’re a child of the Southern California Ritz family. The historic property in Pasadena basks in its matriarchal role, while the Laguna Niguel resort is a golden girl of the California coast. Worse, new babies are on the way downtown and in Rancho Mirage.

So it’s no wonder that the teen hotel gave out a rebel yell, Ritz style. It got itself dressed up all sexy and threw open the doors for a high-energy party late last month.

It wasn’t what you’d expect from a place that has valet attendants in top hats, chandeliers in the elevator and china cabinets stationed in hallways. When I stepped out to the poolside party, I had to do a double take.

Well-built men with athletic “shirts” rendered in body paint and women in T-shirts bejeweled with the word “indulge” served cocktails while acrobats swirled on a rope rigged above the expansive pool. Across the way, model-beautiful athletes demonstrated the yoga and spinning workout hybrid called YAS that’s featured in the new fitness center. Champagne glasses in hand, many of the 500 guests toured the hotel’s latest addition, the $4-million gym and Boutique Spa.

As I poked into the eight new spa treatment rooms, I kept waiting to see portraits of hunting dogs or maybe gloved attendants -- the kind of formal decor and service that have been a hallmark of the international luxury chain. Instead, the spa invokes the signatures of upscale Zen: tiles with hand-hewn textures and earthy tones, aromatic candles and a softly gurgling water wall. It even has a manicure salon featuring vegan nail polish.

This hip new spa, I’m told, illustrates the company’s move to be more modern and reflective of each hotel’s locale. Situated mere feet from yachts in the marina and closer to Hollywood’s power elite than Hollywood itself, this Ritz is courting the water-loving A-list.

Naturally, as a member of the J-list, I had to see it firsthand. I checked into the 304-room hotel in mid-September, hoping to enjoy the last warm days of summer by that glorious, 70-by-45-foot waterfront pool.

I pictured myself spending an entire day poolside, ordering lunch from a shaded table at the outdoor cafe, watching boats glide past and sipping iced tea in one of the cobalt lounge chairs while my son splashed in the pool’s 3 1/2 -foot-deep turquoise waters.

When I threw open the curtains on my 10th-floor window, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Overnight and without warning, a dozen vinyl cabanas had sprung up around the key-shaped pool. The place was swarming, not with guests but with walkie-talkie-toting guys in tool belts.

The hotel had courted Hollywood all right. A huge production crew had moved in, and its cameras, cables, light stands and reflectors commandeered the pool for a Taco Bell commercial. They recorded the joys of some 99-cent fast-food grotesquerie from 9 a.m. to past 7 that night. No pool for us. The pool towels and waiters had vanished in the confusion too.

That was the inauspicious low point of a stay that had more ups and downs than a moody teenager. Many of my first experiences with the hotel staff and services were awkward, though on the second or third encounters, the legendary, speedy Ritz service kicked in.

For example, after a thorough check-in, I was shown to my room, where I waited 45 minutes for my bags. Yet only six minutes after calling the bell desk to inquire, the luggage and an explanation arrived. The first night, turn-down service went missing; but the room on Night 2 featured bottled water and glasses on the nightstands, a set-up coffee maker, tidied towels and switched-on lamps and clock radio -- including a blaring alarm set for 5:30 a.m. Gosh, thanks. You know, travelers come to hotels to have a dawn dose of adrenaline.

Wide awake, I checked out the $12-million remodeling job. My 360-square-foot deluxe room cost a discounted $359 on a weekday, $299 on the weekend -- great rates for comparable luxury digs. It featured a king-size bed with Frette sheets, a down-filled duvet and feather bed; and a giant flat-screen television, DVD player, digital thermostat and a desk wired for laptops and cellphone chargers.

In the bathroom, I found Bulgari toiletries, a new cotton shower curtain hung without benefit of pressing and a toilet with the seat up. Though the room felt luxurious in its signature Ritz blues and golds, its layout was standard enough that my 8-year-old, Eli, exclaimed upon entering, “Hey, it’s just like the last hotel.”

My candid and impatient son is often a litmus test for service. Without the pool for playtime, the hotel isn’t hugely kid-oriented, though it offers a children’s menu of $12 to $16 entrees and wondrous $5 breakfasts. Several staffers engaged him cheerfully with balloon animals, homework help and a scavenger hunt handout that allowed us to explore the spacious, soon-to-be remodeled ballrooms with water views, the business center, wedding-planning office, garden gazebo, tennis courts, model ships, gift and jewelry boutiques as well as the lounge fireplace and the front-entrance fountain. He earned a cool magnet for his successful investigations.

Still, the hotel seems best-suited for business travelers, who can network over a choice of 48 vodkas or a sophisticated wine list at the 25-seat bar, entertain in a private dining room or have a team dinner at the 14-foot onyx communal table at Jer-Ne, the hotel’s three-level, indoor-outdoor restaurant.

I was disappointed with the fare and uneven service there. My $39 halibut entree was bland, my $15 flatbread “pizza” was tough, though the topping of Taleggio cheese, prosciutto and truffles was inspired.

Breakfast at Jer-Ne was a highlight. A gorgeous, $18 buffet included fresh fruit, imported cheeses, granola, pastries and salmon smoked in-house with a bagel toasted to order. My $20 room service “fitness breakfast” the next day arrived in 19 minutes, 38 seconds, and was more than I could eat: bran muffin, yogurt and large bowls of fresh fruit and granola.

Stuffed, I waddled outside. At last, the Taco Bell crew had vanished, and I had my chance to enjoy the best of what this hotel has to offer -- an afternoon at the pool after a morning at the spa.

The spa was so new, my beach-blanket-size towel still sported an inspection sticker. The linens on the massage table were so silky, I wanted to wear them. Yet I can’t imagine why anyone would build a relaxation lounge with a distracting TV and stiff seating that forces you bolt upright. Maybe it’s to prepare you for paying the bill.

My 60-minute aromatherapy massage was $198, not the $165 I was quoted or that was published in the spa menu. Oops.

Still, being able to wander outside and flop into a lounge chair post-massage was the kind of soul-restoring indulgence that will keep the A-, B- and C-list celebrities, business travelers and (rich) families happily in residence at this Ritz.

This awkward teenager stuff is, I’m sure, just a phase.

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