Terranea Resort: inviting and invigorating

LA Times | Travel

It was a moment that called for a cellphone. As the first-time visitors stepped onto the lobby balcony overlooking the ocean at Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, they couldn't resist calling friends to tell them about the vista. \"It's like the Mexican Riviera,\" one said. \"It's l...

By Valli Herman // 07.24.09

It was a moment that called for a cellphone.

As the first-time visitors stepped onto the lobby balcony overlooking the ocean at Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, they couldn't resist calling friends to tell them about the vista.

"It's like the Mexican Riviera," one said.

"It's like the Mediterranean," another said.

And above all, it's like nothing else in Los Angeles County as the first and only luxury waterfront destination resort.

Terranea Resort

6610 Palos Verdes Drive South, Rancho Palos Verdes;

(310) 265-2800, www.terranea.com.

Rates: Doubles begin at $247.

The expansive resort is at once inviting and invigorating but not so grand that you'll fret if your labels aren't designer. The Spanish Mediterranean styling fits neatly into the area's architecture; the commitment to environmental sustainability fits into the times. With free-standing villas positioned closer to the road, each painted and landscaped distinctly, the resort looks more like a housing development than a commercial enterprise.

Neighbors are already treating it like a home away from home.

With weekend rooms sold out and restaurants booked, Terranea Resort is off to a strong start as locals come for a close-to-home respite, a meal or a drink. Part of the popularity may stem from pent-up curiosity. The public hasn't had access to this scenic swath of the Palos Verdes peninsula since the former tenant, Marineland of the Pacific amusement park, closed in 1986. Now children, not dolphins, jump from the pools, and adults sip drinks where porpoises and penguins once entertained.

On an overnight visit in late June, I joined the many Angelenos and tourists to see what Terranea could offer its range of potential guests -- conventioneers, young couples and multiple generations of families.

Walking through the 14 acres of restored native habitat, I tried to picture how the landscape would look when the thousands of seedlings grow up.

I projected a future when the teenagers who trailed Dad and Grandpa returned for their own family vacations, telling tales about their first visit.

I wondered what the place would be like when the new and sometimes overwhelmed staff got into a rhythm and delivered the kind of service the room rates reflect.

Despite opening in this ugly economic climate, Terranea is well positioned to offer something unique. Most of the region's waterfront lodgings have fewer services and facilities and higher prices. Few are within an hour's drive of downtown Los Angeles and also offer a residential component, ample public access and a broad range of room types.

The $480-million resort aims to have something for almost everyone. That is, everyone with at least $400 for a night's lodging (although it's offering introductory rates as low as $145). Add $30 for parking. And $25 for the resort fee. And the 10% room tax. Suddenly, I was glad I hadn't also paid for airfare.

My ocean-view room cost $200 a night (an introductory rate) and was decorated in a sort of rancho-nautical vibe -- a mix of sturdy Spanish-inflected furniture and rope, pebble and shell accents. The room was spacious at 450 square feet, and it was functional and pretty as well, though conventionally arranged, with the usual corner desk and beds flanking a center nightstand. The bathroom's almost-Tiffany blue walls, big, deep tub and shell-encrusted lamps made it a tranquil haven.

After a decade of planning and two years of construction, the resort addresses the needs of modern travelers. The layout allows space for both detached serenity and social engagement, and guests can control, mostly, when they get which.

The wing with a ballroom that can hold 2,000 people is separated from the hotel by a long lobby. The adults-only pool right on the water's edge is a winding path away from the chatter and splash of the central family pool. The spa pool is a private sanctuary, available only to those who book a treatment (minimum tally $198) or to guests who pay the $40 admission fee.

With several camp programs to occupy children, it's even possible for moms to hide for the day at the well-equipped spa, where an on-site café means you don't have to come back until dinnertime. A special ocean-view spa suite with a copper tub sits at the shoreline.

Guests can choose from eight restaurants and bars and a nine-hole golf course opening this month. The resort's 582 rooms are divided into the hotel's guest rooms, suites, two-bedroom bungalows and 82 condo-like villas and casitas that can be rented like a hotel room, or purchased for a few million dollars.

I could have spent days at the adult pool, in a lounge chair facing the water enjoying the brain cleanse that comes from watching waves. Instead, I joined my son, Eli, 10, at the saltwater resort pool for fun rides down the 140-foot slide. We ambled down the beach walkway to a sandy cove and listened to the rocks rattle as the tide washed in.

Entertainment can be a peaceful and free self-guided walk along hiking trails, or perhaps a paid and guided group bike or kayak tour. The resort's wireless Internet access is also free.

Though I saw no conventioneers on my quick trip, the layout almost ensures that the leisure guests won't be colliding with the busy business types, who occupy the west wing.

The resort has extensive, fee-based programming for children, which may be why every other adult seemed to be in the company of kids. My son loved the pool, the telescopes along the hiking trails, the art gallery and the charbroiled burger at Nelson's, a lively restaurant at the cliff's edge.

The sea air seems to make everything taste better, and it's true at Mar'sel, the fine-dining restaurant guided by chef Michael Fiorelli. His inventive, unfussy and beautifully presented farmer's market fare compares well with similar restaurants (dinner for two was about $150) and provides a welcome upscale experience for resort guests.

Though this luxury development is targeted to upper incomes, the public can enjoy the improved hiking trails, beach access and precedent-setting environmental programs.

The development has unconventional methods to treat water runoff, restore the native habitat and operate under sustainable principles. No land was removed during construction; 65,000 tons of on-site rock was crushed to line roads and walkways; and recyclable or reusable containers are used wherever possible. About 45 mature trees were harvested from Marineland and planted throughout the property.

It may be these invisible-to-guests features that become the most important to this resort and, one hopes, to the next era of hospitality. It's reassuring to see that the concepts of sustainability and accessibility are becoming important to the definition of luxury. That's really something to tell the folks back home.