La Jolla's La Valencia Hotel Puts Big Arms Around the Future

La Jolla's La Valencia Hotel Puts Big Arms Around the Future
A promenade across the street from the hotel looks down to rock outcroppings and small sandy beaches. La Jolla Cove is an ecologist’s dreamscape. Harbor seals, sea lions and an immense collection of fish including California’s official state fish, the bright orange garibaldi share the turquoise water with scuba divers, kayakers and swimmers. On the white stained cliffs above, sea gulls, pelicans, cormorants and a host of seabirds watch with seemingly no interest until they swoop into the water hunting for a noonday meal.

During La Valencia’s almost hundred year history, La Jolla has expanded from an isolated coastal village into one of California’s most prestigious towns with first-class shopping, good restaurants, dozens of art galleries and world-class museums. A few minutes drive from dynamic San Diego, upscale La Jolla is home to the University of California, San Diego and a complex of scientific and medical institutions including Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Jonas Salk Institute.

La Valencia has witnessed these changes and more. The La Jolla Playhouse, first opened in the local high school by Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and Mel Ferrer as a place where their Hollywood pals could have some cultural fun at night after they had spent the day enjoying the pleasures of nearby Del Mar racetrack. Now the Playhouse has a beautiful building of its own where a who’s who of successful Broadway plays have had their tryouts.

La Valencia Hotel pool

A Water Paradise

At the picture perfect swimming pool, a small bar serves up snacks and beverages. The plush cotton towels are white with black stripes. The chaise lounges have thick cushions. Pool side at La V is the kind of place where it is easy to imagine Hollywood stars in the 1930s lounging, reading magazines and sipping frothy iced cocktails.

My wife and I happily spent whole days at the pool catching up on our reading, hanging out, talking and napping. To stretch our legs, a few minutes from the hotel, we strolled on the bluff-side promenade, stopping to watch dozens of harbor seals lying on the rocks. To observe seals in their natural habitat usually nature lovers have to sail to remote rocky outcroppings. Not here.

A dozen feet below the promenade, within sight of La Valencia, the brown seals dozed in the warm sun. Pressed so closely together, they obscured the rocks underneath. Every so often, a seal would sleepily shake her heavy, slow moving body and slide into the cold water. In an instant, she exploded with energy. A flick of her tail and that sluggish-on-land body became a miracle of aerodynamic efficiency. Down she plunged into the depths, then quickly, playfully, popped above the surface only to dive again and swim effortlessly out into the middle of the cove.

Back in our spacious, comfortable villa, we appreciated our own water paradise. In an all-tile bathroom, the shower was outfitted with two Grohe showerheads. Overhead the Rain Bird created a waterfall that cascaded water in a steady stream. The other, a Relexa, located on the wall, aimed an equally forceful water stream at face height. Using both together was amazing. Maybe I’ll never experience water the way a seal does but in our villa shower, I certainly enjoyed water as never before.

La Valencia Hotel villa room

Keeping True to the Past and Being Thoroughly Modern at the Same Time

Undergoing a modernization and restoration, pet friendly La Valencia, a member of the Preferred Hotel Group, is one of those rare hotel properties that preserves the past as it moves solidly into the future.

Because the earliest buildings were constructed on Prospect Street, the street level lobby is on the seventh floor. Several floors rise above the lobby while the remainder cascade down the hill to Coast Boulevard. A half dozen buildings were added over many decades. But you would never know it. Each new addition blended seamlessly with the distinctive Mediterranean-Spanish pink stucco of the original building.

There is a room for every kind of traveler from compact, European-style rooms with efficient bathrooms and larger junior suites to luxurious, spacious villas adjacent to the pool. More than half the rooms have ocean views. Many rooms also have terraces. The best way to find the room that best suits you is to look online and then call the hotel to discuss availabilities and options.

The public spaces at La Valencia are iconic. Not just the pink façade and the distinctive Spanish style dome over the entrance but the lobby, restaurants and bars as well. For eight generations, special moments have been celebrated at La V--weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, first dates, reunions, births, promotions, Father's Day, Mother's Day, graduations, Easter, Christmas and New Year's Eve.

La Valencia Hotel lounge

In 2011 new owners assumed the management of the hotel. As Mark J. Dibella, managing director explained, they understood that in modernizing La V, they had a responsibility to protect an icon even as they changed it. The goal was to stay true to the hotel's charm and traditions even as modern amenities were added.

Some changes have been subtle. In the La Sala Lounge next to the lobby, the wooden beams high overhead were painstakingly cleaned and hand-painted to bring back the crisp colors that had been dulled by weather and time. The tile mural that defined the large fountain in the same area was restored but to improve the room’s flow, the catch basin for the fountain was tucked back against the wall.

Visitors who loved every inch of the old La V at first were uncomfortable with the alteration of familiar details. So too when the Whaling Bar was revamped, some lamented the loss of a beloved watering hole, revered for its cozy charm.

The Whaling Bar faced Prospect Street. Many a visitor to the bar never ventured past its doors into the hotel. Now Café La Rue, a bright, airy, modern bistro, is a gateway into the lobby.

La Valencia Hotel balcony view

Where the old space was dark and mysterious, Café La Rue is a quiet spot where diners can enjoy a casual meal with a glass of wine, an ice cold beer or a classic cocktail. The eclectic menu is bistro-friendly. Burgers, salads, sandwiches, French onion soup, mussels, Mediterranean hummus, French Canadian poutine, seafood paella, steak and fries, a reimaging of a pot pie with a bone-in lamb shank instead of filleted chicken, fresh fish, pastas and a half dozen house-made desserts.

When I told a friend I was eating at Café La Rue, she said if I ordered nothing else, I had to have the Brussels sprouts. I cook them all the time at home, so I didn’t see why that one dish was so special. The sprouts arrived in a large enameled dish. Sliced into quarter-sized disks, the darkly charred sprouts were joined by a generous portion of house made crispy pancetta. Tossed together with an aged balsamic vinegar dressing, they were finished with a drizzle of creamy Parmesan cheese.

One bite and I understood. The sprouts were sweet and delicious beyond what you’d expect. My wife, a Brussels sprouts aficionado pronounced them as the best she had ever eaten. In fact, she ate so many, she barely had room for the rest of dinner.

The next evening, we sat at the La Sala Lounge bar and enjoyed the late afternoon light pouring into the high ceilinged room. The large arched window at the end of the room with a view of the ocean is frequently used as a backdrop for wedding portraits.

La Valencia Hotel ocean view

The wine cellar has a good selection of wines curated from around the world. Taking a new direction, the wine list is shifting toward featuring California wineries like Jordan, Camus and Grgich Hills. As much as we were tempted by the quality wines-by-the-glass, we decided on cocktails because the hotel prides itself on its mixology.

My wife ordered her favorite, a vodka greyhound with a splash of cranberry juice. Sommelier Peter Powlovich encouraged me to try mixologist Michael Cavanaugh’s Blackberry-Jalapeño Margarita. Cavanaugh had me with the first sip. The salty, blackberry-sweet, lime-bright cocktail was well balanced with a memorable clean heat-finish. I obsessively sipped the cocktail until only the Jalapeño seeds were left on the bottom of the glass.

La Valencia Hotel cocktail

The fine dining restaurant at the hotel entrance, the Med was also updated. An open, well-appointed room, with large windows facing the ocean, the Med serves an upscale, locally sourced New American, Mediterranean influenced menu. We enjoyed a dinner on the Terrace, the Med’s outdoor dining space with a view of the water. An ideal spot any time of the day, at sunset it is “priceless.”

We shared appetizers that showed how carefully the kitchen under chef Daniel Barron curates ingredients. The crab cakes were just that, cakes of crab. Breading, which so often dominates, was used only for texture. The dish was all about fresh, sweet crabmeat with a modest amount of saucing.

The second appetizer was a shrimp cocktail. Not exciting, but I am a sucker for shrimp cocktails. When I was little, my father loved to splurge by taking the family to fancy Los Angeles restaurants. No matter where we ate, when it was available, my starter of choice was a shrimp cocktail.

La Valencia Hotel shrimp cocktail

A shrimp cocktail succeeds or fails entirely on the quality of the shrimp. If they are not fresh, there is literally no place to hide. Chef Barron starts with fat, pink shrimp, their shells peeled back to the tails. His cocktail is the essence of simplicity. Five jumbo poached shrimp cling to the rim of a martini glass gazing at the cocktail sauce below. Sweet tasting, those shrimp might have been the best I’ve ever eaten. Of course, the spectacular sunset and my dear wife sitting next to me probably helped make the dish seem so perfect.

The Med’s menu leans toward seafood. Crispy calamari, white wine steamed clams, albacore tuna sashimi and lobster bisque are served as starters. Mains include grilled salmon with a vegetable mélange, scallops, Maine lobster and local sea bass. Rounding out the offerings, the seasonal menu that evening had a farro-mushroom dish, an aged New York strip steak with bone marrow butter, filet mignon and gratin potatoes and locally sourced chickens with cauliflower-yam puree.

For our mains my wife and I shared the salmon and the seared sea scallops. I especially enjoyed the tender scallops because they were accompanied with chewy-salty bits of ham, a sweet puree of butternut squash and an edgy balsamic-brown butter. I loved the combination of flavors and textures.

La Valencia Hotel creme brulee

And desserts. Don’t get me started. We had a crème brulee with fresh blue berries and a housemade chocolate ice cream. We also could have ordered the hazelnut bread pudding, the chocolate peanut butter bar, cardamom panna cotta and the generously large cheese platter with local cheeses, dried fruit and bits of honeycomb. We could have, but if we had, we would not have made it down the stairs to our beautiful, poolside villa.

La Valencia Hotel, 1132 Prospect Street, La Jolla, CA, 92037, 858.454.0771,