2006: La Costa Rejuvenation

When La Costa Resort and Spa opened in 1965, it defined the destination spa experience in America. But La Costa, located in this scenic coastal town a half-hour drive north of San Diego, had started to show its age, particularly when compared with the nearby Four Seasons Resort Aviara.

KSL Resorts, which purchased La Costa in 2001, spent $140 million to restore the resort to its former glory. As one frequent guest told me, “It was time.”

Rooms were remodeled, the two golf courses were spruced up, and a clubhouse and spa with 42 treatment rooms were added. There’s also a fitness center with a 270-degree view of the golf courses.

But despite a laudable commitment to upgrading, there’s still room for improvement.

La Costa makes a good first impression. The lobby is lovely – all marble and mahogany and pleasing open space. I had selected a “budget” golf package, which cost $500 per night and included a plaza level room. Customers are hit with the dreaded “resort fee” that is not only onerous, but oxymoronic. At check-in, visitors receive a card that says the $20 fee covers “complimentary” Internet service, a daily newspaper and health-club access. I’d hate to see what the fee would be if it weren’t “complimentary.”

My room had a Days Inn feel with a few enhancements. There was no overhead lighting, the bathroom had a combined tub-shower, and the only notable amenity was the plasma screen TV, which was wider than my golf travel case.

But other guests were quite pleased with their dwellings. Sandra Erickson of Pacific Palisades, Calif., stayed in a spa level room. Her bathroom had a separate tub and walk-in shower, not to mention French doors.

“We love it,” she gushed. “We want to move in.”

La Costa has hosted a PGA Tour event since 1969, but this was its final year as home of the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship. The pros played a composite of the North and South courses, so visitors can’t play the layout shown on TV.

My playing partner at the South Course insisted on playing the tree-lined course from the pro tees. There was one pleasant surprise. Mike Kelly, a jovial course marshal, came out to the fifth green, tended the pin, then showed us how to read the Poa annua greens. When was the last time a marshal did that for you?

Not that it helped our cause. By the turn, we were beaten as badly as Stephen Ames, who was steamrolled 10 and 9 earlier this year by Tiger Woods in the Match Play and didn’t see much of the South’s famed back nine. Lucky for him because Nos. 15-18 are called “The Longest Mile,” and when played into the prevailing northerly wind it’s the equivalent of hitting the wall in a marathon.

The Dick Wilson-designed North Course may be more forgiving off the tee, but its multitiered greens are as treacherous as the 405 freeway. I was paired with two other singles, Mike and Chip. The starter sent us off the second tee so we wouldn’t be stuck behind a foursome. Someone bless that man. We had the course to ourselves and finished in less than four hours.

For years, the pros complained about the diminutive practice range. Even I rocketed rainbow drives over the net that was only 225 yards away. Just before my visit in early May, the $1.6 million renovation to the range was completed. They built a new wing, increasing the size of the range from 41⁄2 acres to 10 acres. A short-game area consisting of two greens and bunkering also was added.

I liked the layouts, especially the bunkering and elevated greens, but neither course was in top shape.

The greens, which had been aerated three weeks earlier but not yet verticut, were bumpy and inconsistent. Soggy conditions meant several holes were cart path only, a no-no at a world-class resort. Yardage in the fairways was hard to find – La Costa still uses color-coded yardage flags – and the bare-bones carts had no GPS, windshield, cooler or ballwasher. Given La Costa’s fees and stature, those are essentials. The rough was ankle-high, as if the superintendent didn’t get the memo that the pros aren’t coming back. Those guys may be good, but this 9-handicapper was relegated to hacking errant drives back to the fairway.

While La Costa always has been a popular golf destination, it perhaps is more renowned for its facials, massages and herbal wraps. I entered the 43,000-square-foot California Colonial-style building for my golfer’s massage and woke an hour later in a state of relaxation. A single treatment entitles you to spend the day relaxing at the spa. I didn’t know that ahead of time. Neither did my golf partner, Mike. But the spa granted Mike and his wife access the following day. (Take heed: Local members fill golf and spa slots, making advance appointments mandatory).

I made time to enjoy La Costa’s Agua de la Vida (“water of life”) circuit, which consists of a cedar sauna, steam room and whirlpool.

In between, take a 65-degree plunge. Then step outside for the capper: the Roman waterfall, which provides shoulder-pounding relief. And you can heal the body and the mind at the Chopra Center, founded by Dr. Deepak Chopra.

The resort’s wellness theme extends to the menu at Legends California Bistro, which offers dining inside and out. I opted for breakfast alfresco style in the garden setting, close enough to the first tee to hear the crack of a drive.

Chef Hans Wiegand has designed a menu of classic American cuisine, specially created with your health in mind. Rest assured, French toast and waffles still can be had. I tried the ginger elixir, which promised to jumpstart my metabolism and aid in digestion. “Do it as a shot,” my waitress recommended.

This confirmed my belief that if it’s good for you, it probably tastes bad.

For dinner, the BlueFire Grill is the newest restaurant on property. A bottle of Calera pinot noir and an order of calamari that might have leapt from the Pacific Ocean into the hot fat and then onto the plate put my dinner companion and me in a festive mood. The rest of the meal produced mixed results. My Caesar salad was tasteless, but the steak fritte had a perfect ruby hue.

That meal captured my impressions of the refurbished La Costa: good effort, but spotty execution.

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