2003: Destination - Toast of Coast

Carlsbad, Calif.

So, Rob,” I said, through the thick, slimy layer of sage and lemon grass paste creeping up my nostrils, and otherwise covering my body from face to foot. “I’m guessing that not too many golfers go in for treatments like this.”

“Not many . . . of the men,” said Rob, my clinician at the Lodge at Torrey Pines. Then, politely correcting the implicit sexism in my remark, he added, “But the women golfers love them.”

I’ll bet they do, I thought. But for me this puréed herb-immersion business was an absolute novelty, related to, but quite unlike, the more familiar post-round internal administration of barley and hops. Is this, I joked to myself, what all 19th holes will be like when Martha Burk gets finished with us?

If so, then my assignment for the week had placed me at the very avant-garde of the game. Over five days I would visit the Southern California coast’s top four golf resort and spas – Aviara, Torrey Pines, Monarch Beach and La Costa – spending equal amounts of time with golf clubs and goopy plant emulsions.

My session with Rob was the second spa visit of the journey. Those first two treatments – not incidentally, my first spa treatments ever – didn’t do much for my sense of machismo. Still I already was starting to notice their benefits. My muscles, ordinarily sore after two consecutive days of golf, were as pliant as Jell-O. Despite 12 hours of sun, my scrubbed and burnished forearms looked like something out of an Estée Lauder ad. My feelings about this kind of pampering were changing, hovering between the famous European spa towns of Don’t Evian Ask and Hey, This Isn’t So Baden-Baden.

I had little doubt, at least, that coastal Southern California was the right place to test this newfangled approach to a golf trip. The region recently has come to boast the finest collection of spas this side of the continent.

During most of its history, La Costa has been the standard-bearer of the American spa world. During the three decades following its 1965 debut, it was one of the few places in the country offering European-style spa self-indulgence.

The past five years, three AAA Five Diamond golf resort and spas have shouldered in on La Costa’s turf. The Four Seasons Aviara opened in 1997, the St. Regis Monarch Beach in 2001 and The Lodge at Torrey Pines, in its freshly remodeled incarnation, last April.

It was La Costa that fired the idea for my tour, though not for obvious reasons. By all accounts the resort had lost more than a little luster under its previous owners, Japanese conglomerate Sports Shenko, and been caught and passed by its trio of new neighbors.

But the grande dame is poised for a comeback. Immediately after purchasing La Costa in November 2001, KSL Resorts began a $50 million renovation of the property. Changes to its two golf courses, prioritized so as to be finished for the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship later this month, have been relatively minor: 200 yards and a few overdue fairway bunkers have been added to its hybrid tournament layout. The hotel, conference, tennis and spa facilities are still in the midst of extensive makeovers (for a timeline of renovation plans, visit www.lacosta2003.com).

La Costa’s renovation, in business terms, is part of a four-resort fight for the same tourism dollar. But this contest will see no clear-cut winner because each of the resorts has its own personality, suited to a particular breed of visitor.

Like La Costa, Aviara sits on a bluff overlooking Batiquitos Lagoon, a mile-long inlet spurring off the Pacific Ocean in Carlsbad. Though unmistakably elegant, Avaria’s ambience is surprisingly casual. After I checked in I stepped onto my balcony and was presented with the image that would sum up the resort. In the moonlight, a 30-ish couple was walking across the courtyard from the spa back to their room. Carrying tall glasses of lemon-infused mineral water, they were wearing spa robes, flip-flops and wide, satisfied smiles.

Aviara’s course, a superbly conditioned Palmer-Seay design, boasts the most picturesque collection of par 3s in Southern California. But that’s not to say it isn’t challenging. There’s no such thing at Aviara as a straightaway par 4. Each of its treeless doglegs presents two tee-shot possibilities: a 3-wood directly in the turn, or a driver that has to be shaped – and struck a precise distance – to finish in the fairway around the turn. Most delightful, however, is the layout’s uninhabitedness: In comparison to the other courses in my rota, it was the easiest for a hotel guest to just walk out and play.

My treatment at Aviara’s spa, my first, put me in perfect karmic harmony with the couple I spied from my balcony. Christened the Four Seasons In One (a nod to the hotel’s parent company), it took me clear through the calendar: Winter featured cool towels and a peppermint scrub, and spring a buttery floral wrap. Summer consisted of a Thai Lomi Lomi massage and vanilla-oil aromatherapy. Fall was an herbal scalp treatment. Afterward, blissed-out and thoroughly relaxed, I too wore a spa robe back to my room.

The Lodge at Torrey Pines, next on my itinerary, was the most distinctive hotel of the four. It is, perhaps, the last outpost of the woodsy serenity that once defined portions of the Southern California coast, but is now associated mostly with northerly locales like the Monterey Peninsula.

The Lodge’s new design ethos draws on the early 20th-century work of Charles and Henry Greene, the Pasadena-based exponents of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Exposed beams and joints in mahogany, dark cherry and Jutuba woods frame common areas and guest rooms; hardwood floors, fireplaces and Stickley furniture deepen the restful, intimate feeling. The renovation is so impressive, and so perfectly suited to its surroundings, that it is likely to change the way people think about all coastal California resorts. Anyone who has visited the Lodge at Torrey Pines and the Lodge at Pebble Beach, for example, may well find the latter’s bold white Colonial trappings garish and out of place.

At the Lodge, my view featured no strolling spa couples. Instead it overlooked the South Course’s 18th green, and an endless procession of muni golfers. The polar opposite of Aviara’s, Torrey’s city-owned courses are two of the busiest in the country, an important consideration for potential lodge guests: The hotel holds only 20 tee times per day for guest play.

The quality of Torrey’s courses, however, is beyond question. In the wake of its naming last summer as host course of the 2008 U.S. Open, the South has become the most sought-after tee time in Southern California. Already it feels like an Open layout, largely because of the Rees Jones renovations completed in 2001. From the back the South now plays a behemoth 7,600 yards, and many of Jones’ new greens have been tucked into dicey spots close to the property’s innumerable canyons and gorges.

My third stop, the St. Regis at Monarch Beach, is located 30 miles north of Torrey in Dana Point. As close to Los Angeles as San Diego, the little beach town recently has displaced Santa Barbara as the favorite weekend retreat of Hollywood glitterati. Recently, when a celeb-journalist friend had to arrange an interview with Sarah Michelle Gellar, the spa at the St. Regis was the young vampire slayer’s venue of choice.

It’s easy to see why. Everything about the St. Regis is grand, from its butler-serviced luxury suites to its quarter-mile stretch of private beach. View check: Working out toward the horizon, my third-floor terrace overlooked the hotel’s magnificent central gardens and pool; the second half of the dogleg-right second hole of its golf course; a broad vista of what seemed like a billion square miles of the Pacific; and, in the distance, Osaka, Japan.

Panoramas from the Trent Jones Jr.-designed course aren’t quite as sublime, but they’re no less impressive. Two bluff-top holes on the front nine are so close to the ocean that if you play your ball into the wrong places, you’ll wind up feeling like a Hawaiian cliff-diver in one of those old episodes of “ABC’s Wide World of Sports.”

At 6,600 yards from the tips, the course isn’t long. Good players may feel confined: You’re never obliged to hit driver, and couldn’t if you wanted to, because landing areas always run out at about 240 yards. Still, scoring is a challenge: All the pin positions are tricky, and the greens, invariably true and fast, feature bold, hard-to-negotiate slopes. If your game from 100 yards in isn’t razor sharp, pars are hard to come by.

Having subjected my skin to two consecutive days of scrubbing and buffing, I chose a basic Swedish massage from the St. Regis spa menu. The expertise of Suzanne, my masseuse, was unrivaled. After 15 minutes I was so relaxed that I must, unconsciously, have been transported back to early childhood. Introducing aromatherapy into the proceedings, she dabbed a series of essential herbal oils below my nostrils. But to me, everything smelled like Maypo.

Arriving at La Costa, I made a beeline for the courses, if only to clear my mind of a hangover-like preoccupation with warm breakfast foods. It worked: The two layouts haven’t looked so good in years. All the greens’ tattered edges have been cleaned up, and there are far fewer areas of patchy grass along the fairways.

Later that afternoon I toured the rest of the grounds, starting, naturally, with the spa – although the facility will be torn down when the new spa building, scheduled for completion in 2003, rises from behind its present Pardon Our Dust plywood shroud.

The current spa is inviting enough: The men’s and women’s divisions feature airy, sunlight-soaked atria, a far cry from the usual basement-dwelling hotel spa facilities. Still, the tile-work – brownish, with pink and turquoise accents – was more than a little out of date. Had the patrons been wearing pants, they might have had Jimi Hendrix tickets peeking out of their pockets.

Next I visited the clubhouse, much of which was populated by men in hard hats. Most impressive was the new fitness center, which, in addition to being the poshest gym I’ve ever seen, boasted the resort’s best views of the courses. (The view from my room at La Costa was . . . well, mostly other people’s rooms at La Costa.) The fitness center’s golf-specific training programs operate in tandem with the spa’s Ayurveda yoga and meditation program, also golf-specific, and designed – believe it or not – by New Age guru Deepak Chopra.

I myself didn’t take a treatment at La Costa’s spa, largely because of threats from my friend Erin. If she didn’t get to sub in for at least one of my spa visits, she said, there would be heck to pay.

That night Erin eagerly reported back to me about her treatment, the La Costa Glow, and its various components – an exfoliation, a wrap in essential oils, firming creams and moisturizers, and three different kinds of massage. “It was really great,” she raved, pausing to offer one qualification: “once you get over the ’70s decor.

“Seriously,” she said, “all the products were terrific, and the staff was great – really attentive without being overbearing. I’ve been to a lot of high-class spas, but this was really top of the line.

“But I still don’t get why you didn’t stay and get a treatment, too,” she added.

Looking back, neither do I.

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