2006: Service lags setting at Torrey

By David Weiss

La Jolla, Calif.

Minutes from smoke-choked Interstate 5 stands a smiling young man in a Tartan kilt, announcing your arrival at the Lodge at Torrey Pines. That faint whispering you hear is the Pacific Ocean.

That the bekilted one looks more like a surfer than a career valet reinforces the Southern California vibe. Here, you’re just 20 minutes north of San Diego and roughly two hours from Los Angeles. But once you step into the lobby, you are in a stunning and meticulous recreation of Arts and Crafts architecture and interior design.

Inspired by several famous turn-of-the-century, Greene and Greene houses in Pasadena, Calif., the Lodge goes all out to create the post-and-beam woodwork, leaded glass and metal details that stood in contrast to stuffy, Victorian opulence 100 years ago. A real fireplace crackles in the lobby, where you can sit in Stickley-inspired chairs and marvel at the care and expense that hotelier Bill Evans brought to bear on this five-story, 171-room resort built in 2002. The view is a killer, too – pool, golf course, sea and blue-gray horizon in one panoramic glance.

The Lodge’s pristinely gardened 61⁄2 acres are adjacent to 36 holes of San Diego County’s finest municipal golf and also abut the Torrey Pines State Reserve’s 2,000 acres of coastline. A small stretch of sand is reserved for lodge guests to dine, recline and indulge in massages.

My wife and I arrived early one October morning and quickly hit the first of several small snags. Hoping to get 90 minutes of shuteye before my tee time, I scheduled an 11 a.m. wakeup call, which arrived about an hour late. Fortunately, I already was at the golf course, preparing for a midday tee time on the North Course.

The peace and seclusion of the Lodge is fast left behind at the pro shop. The North and South courses are home to a staggering 180,000 rounds per year, about 60 percent of those played by locals, who pay $30 to $40 to play tracks that are home to the Buick Invitational. Lucky stiffs. (The Lodge gets only five proprietary tee times per day, so book ahead – way ahead.) Those of us from elsewhere pay north of $150.

Many locals don’t appreciate how good they have it. (There has been a long-running dispute between Torrey Pines’ local clientele and area nongolfers who don’t want to subsidize multimillion-dollar improvements to the facility.) My playing partner, a local lawyer, said that anytime rates go up there’s a “revolution. There was a guy signing up the other day who said, ‘Twenty-two bucks? It used to be $15! I didn’t fight the Korean War for this!’ ”

The William F. Bell-designed North is high-grade muni golf, albeit a bit scruffy around the edges. The poa annua greens are left fairly hairy to withstand heavy play, and the rough varies.

Ah, but the views! You could almost forgive the high tariff and unkempt conditions after hitting toward the signature sixth green, the cobalt sea and daring paragliders serving as the backdrop for this downhill par 3. The 206-yard tee shot makes par feel like birdie. The North’s fairways are spacious, but trees come into play frequently on errant tee balls.

I called my wife at the turn, and learned that another rules infraction had taken place at the Lodge. I had informed housekeeping I wouldn’t need service that day, and left the ‘Do Not Disturb’ pine cone hanging on the latch. That didn’t stop an unknown intruder from attempting to enter, only to shut the door when my wife called out.

A security staffer initially fingered another guest – alarming me and my wife – then laid the blame on the mini-bar attendant. I relayed this story to the manager on duty, who was mortified and credited our account $150 by way of apology.

Our “Signature” room, like the rest of the hotel, was laden with leather-lined chairs and dark-wood accents but only afforded views of the shadowy courtyard (or “botanical reserve,” as it’s euphemistically called), which is meticulously designed but could be in Nebraska. The more expensive “Palisade” rooms let you peer seaward.

We assuaged our pain that evening in the Lodge’s celebrated gourmet restaurant, A.R. Valentien with a Chez Panisse-like menu emphasizing fresh, even organic, regional ingredients and prices reflecting the fuss of raising animals without hormones or antibiotics. My wife chose the roast chicken, “not quite half” a bird, according to the server. It was succulent and moist but seemed pricey at $32. My “Guerrero Negro Scallops” were rotund and flavorful, with hints of salty pancetta accenting the mildness of the flesh. The staff was ultra-attentive without being obsequious, always appreciated.

The next day I had a morning tee time on the South Course, which Rees Jones redesigned and lengthened to 7,607 yards in preparation for the 2008 U.S. Open. My playing partners were a couple from Vancouver, Wash., who relayed a horror story about securing a tee time – over an hour on the phone and disconnected twice. Our fourth was a gentleman from New York who loved Torrey Pines. The South’s conditions could be better given its status and price, but one must remember it is a jam-packed muni.

Jones’ devious $3.5 million handiwork became apparent on the second hole where the bunkers, as is the rule throughout, have been deepened yet lacked enough sand to allow for a soft, high egress. Fairways are generous and bunkering is done laterally, leaving some to wonder whether the course will be exacting enough for the big guys in 2008. It was plenty tough for our group, where the men played from the 7,227-yard blue tees and sometimes found sodding instead of grown-in turf on the blotchy fairways. The back nine borders some unsightly loading docks for a few holes but fast turns seaward.

Back at the Lodge, the better half availed herself of a massage at the 9,500-square-foot spa, and was impressed by the therapist, complaining only slightly that the desk staff was less than warm and fuzzy. That evening’s meal was at The Grill – described as “casual fine dining” yet hewing to the same standards as A.R. Valentien upstairs, but with lower prices. The delicious pork tenderloin was just pink in the middle, the calamari light and crispy and the onion rings hands-down the finest this cholesterol-seeking journalistic missile has ever honed in on. The Grill also is an excellent breakfast spot.

All told, the Lodge at Torrey Pines struck me as a world-class resort with some minor, if conspicuous, gaps in the service department. A last missive from the cheapskate files: valet parking is $22 per day. I chose to leave my car 500 yards down the road by the golf course, then found I’d been charged $16 per day to “self-park!” After mild carping, the fees were deleted from the final bill.

­– David Weiss is a freelance writer from Tarzana, Calif.

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