BLAINE — The choice is yours: Would you accept some shortcomings at a newly reopened luxury resort for a quick getaway at a reduced rate — and maybe a round of golf before winter weather hits?
Or would you rather wait out completion of a $7 million renovation to Semiahmoo Resort, putting off your visit until next spring, and pay a higher price?
If you ponder that question as you watch a rosy sunset over Northwest Washington’s Semiahmoo Bay, with a chunk of grilled halibut on your plate and a crisp Pinot Gris in your hand, you may conclude there’s no wrong answer.
“It’s gorgeous up here, and it only takes us two hours from home,” said Michael Fox of Kingston, Kitsap County. The newly retired school counselor is a regular visitor to Semiahmoo Resort with his wife, Sandy. “Sure, they don’t have everything down yet, but you can see they’re working on it.”
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Anyone with fond memories of this former AAA Four Diamond destination, 110 miles north of Seattle, likely felt a certain sadness last winter to hear the 25-year-old resort had closed, falling victim to an uncertain economy.
But in June came good news: A Seattle-based ownership group with solid hotel connections stepped in to purchase the resort for $19.5 million. The sale included the resort’s two highly regarded golf courses, Semiahmoo and Loomis Trail, which had remained open during the hotel’s closure.
“Our vision is to turn it into the great resort it once was,” said Stuart Rolfe, president of Wright Hotels and managing partner of Resort Semiahmoo LLC.
To run the 213-room resort, the new owners turned to Coastal Hotel Group, which also manages the partnership’s 110-room Cedarbrook Lodge near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
In mid-August, with many improvements still in the planning stages, Semiahmoo Resort reopened.
But was it — and is it — ready?
Checking it out
I had stayed at Semiahmoo for a Seattle Times travel article in 2007, so editors sent me north for a return visit two weeks ago.
It’s clear this is a property in transition. During my stay, workers on industrial lifts were placing brackets to hold new gutters on the four-story building. The building’s exterior gleamed with a new coat of paint. In one ground-floor area, large fans were blowing air across a hallway carpet,
A combination gift shop and coffee bar had yet to reopen. But the spa was open, with hair styling, manicures, pedicures and waxings. Massage seekers can choose the “Sea-renity” massage or a beach-stone version — 50 minutes for $98.
The fitness center, included in the $15 “resort fee,” was in good condition, with a dozen treadmills and elliptical trainers and an array of weight-training equipment. And the year-round outdoor heated pool was in service.
Various niceties around the property spoke to the resort touch: An ice-cold glass of lemonade on check-in. Wine glasses, bathrobes and a Keurig coffee maker in the room.
Missing from the room was any list of resort services, partly because the offerings have been changing during the renovations.
Although the hotel’s former fine-dining restaurant, Stars, had not reopened, its less formal counterpart. Packers Oyster Bar, was open, with a changing menu of land and sea options.
I had the halibut over chanterelle mushrooms and rice in a mild garlic sauce with fava beans ($26). My wife had Manila steamer clams ($18) with crispy toast to soak up a rich broth of herbs and garlic. Both were very good.
Location and renovation
I took a break between courses to step outside to shoot a photo of an Oscar-caliber sunset. And the moment served as a reminder of the resort’s finest asset: its stunning location.
At the tip of a narrow finger of land between Drayton Harbor and Semiahmoo Bay, near the Canada/U.S. border, the resort has views of White Rock, B.C., Peace Arch Park, Point Roberts and British Columbia’s Gulf Islands.
Nearby is Semiahmoo Park, a Whatcom County park with 300 acres of tideland and about 1.5 miles of trails.
The strength of this location helped drive the resort’s appeal for decades, even as the building itself showed signs of wear. On my visit in 2007, I noted nicks, scratches and a fading countenance in my room and public areas that blurred the line between rustic and tarnished.
Many of the nicks and scratches are still there, but the building is cleaner than it was on my earlier visit.
Immediately after Semiahmoo’s “soft” reopening in August, the resort took a few knocks in travelers’ online reviews, with some guests mentioning features that didn’t work and staffers who seemed unable to help.
In response to one TripAdvisor review, a Semiahmoo manager posted an apology, saying the “aggressive reopening schedule” had been set to help create jobs as soon as possible, and in retrospect had not allowed sufficient time to train employees.
Those kinks seemed largely worked out by the time of my visit, 3½ weeks after the reopening. Everything in my room seemed to work fine, and the staffers I encountered were friendly and helpful.
I did not identify myself as a reporter until I was ready to check out, and later interviewed Yogi Hutsen, CEO of Coastal Hotel Group, by phone. Some details from him:
• Improvements so far have included repainting and structural repairs to the building, new bedding and new televisions in most rooms, upgrades to spa and fitness facilities, including new surfaces on the indoor and outdoor tennis courts.
• Yet to come is the makeover of guest rooms, including carpeting, furniture, countertops and décor. Ground-floor public areas will also be redone. Work will be done in stages, with the resort operating through the project.
• The Stars dining room is not likely to reopen. Instead, plans are to offer three-meal-a-day service in another waterfront space, called Pierside.
I began my recent visit to Semiahmoo where many golfers do, one of the resort’s two golf courses, Semiahmoo Golf & County Club.
An unusual alternating schedule gives the public (including resort guests) a crack at each of the two courses: On odd-number days, the Semiahmoo course is open to public play, while Loomis Trail, a few miles away, is reserved for members. On even-numbered days, the roles are reversed.
The two courses have often appeared on golf publications’ lists of best Washington courses open to the public.
The Arnold Palmer-designed Semiahmoo course follows a gentle hillside through high-end housing developments. Loomis Trail meanders through a birch forest, with some water to negotiate on every hole.
It was at the Semiahmoo course I met Fox, the visitor from Kingston. He has stayed at Semiahmoo at different times of the year, “and the only time I didn’t play golf was when there was snow on the ground.”
While he golfs, his wife uses the spa, relaxes by the pool or finds other ways to enjoy the scene.
Fox said some services he’s used on past visits weren’t operating yet, such as the fitness center’s steam room. But he still enjoyed his stay and looks forward to returning.
“We consider it our special place,” Fox said. Those are words the new Semiahmoo owners have heard from other guests, and ones they hope the reborn resort will once again be able to earn.
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or email@example.com