Southern California's new luxury hotels are ready to pamper

LA Times | Travel

Foreclosures are up, stocks are down and the workplace is awash in pink slips. Amid this economic gloom and doom, at a time when frugality is fashionable and opulence suspect, three Southern California luxury hotels have opened -- the Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Coast, Montage Beverly Hi...

By Beverly Beyette // 01.01.09

Foreclosures are up, stocks are down and the workplace is awash in pink slips.

Amid this economic gloom and doom, at a time when frugality is fashionable and opulence suspect, three Southern California luxury hotels have opened -- the Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Coast, Montage Beverly Hills and the SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills.

In the giddy days of rampant prosperity -- remember those? -- when planning for these properties began, no one foresaw that they were destined to make their debut in a worsening recession. One might assume that these hoteliers, faced with filling $400 and up guest rooms, high-end restaurants and luxury spas, might be in panic mode.

One would be incorrect.

"Hotels are generally one of the first markets that bounce back," said Sam Nazarian, chief executive of L.A.-based SBE, whose quirky and ultra-stylish SLS is its first luxury hotel brand. "People need to come to L.A. to do business, and we still have the entertainment industry, a solid core for our business. [Los Angeles] is notorious for not having the proper amount of rooms at this level. It's the safest and best hotel market in the country."

The luxury market customer isn't hard to identify -- chief executives, captains of industry, major entertainment players -- but a luxury hotel is more than its room rates. Among the musts today: a super-spa; discreet in-room check-in; welcoming perks such as hot scented towels; separate entrances for hotel guests and bar/restaurant guests; high thread-count imported linens; pillow-top mattresses; private poolside cabanas with flat-screen TVs; and state-of-the-art computer and iPod connections.

There are high-tech fitness centers, 24-hour room service, nightly turndown and perhaps twice-daily housekeeping. There may be fresh fruit and flowers.

At Pelican Hill, guests in the spacious villas have 24-hour personal butlers. At Montage, suite guests can use one of the hotel's fleet of 10 Mercedeses. SLS Hotel's JetVan is on call to take guests anywhere within two miles, including SBE's Hyde Lounge and its other clubs.

How else do they pamper us? Based on my December visits, let me recount the ways.

The Resort at Pelican Hill

I turned off Newport Coast Drive in Newport Coast, drove through one of two towering arches and uphill to the resort, pulling into a huge circular motor court. Everything at Pelican Hill seems larger than life, a luxury made possible because it sits on 504 acres of Irvine Co. land.

In the lobby rotunda, a pianist played "Autumn Leaves." From the terrace, I took in the view of the Pacific, the Tom Fazio golf courses and the round Coliseum Pool, which, at 136 feet in diameter, is thought to be the largest circular pool in the country.

Newport Coast? Coliseum? The architecture is Mediterranean, with a nod to 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. There are columns and more columns, ocher-colored buildings with tile roofs, mature fig, olive and pine trees. The parking garage is tucked away beneath an Italian garden.

A bellman in a golf cart led me to my bungalow ($695), and I parked right in front. Inside, I flicked a switch and the fireplace ignited. All of the 204 bungalows -- 847 to 1,639 square feet -- are terraced in the hills, so each has an ocean view. They have large foyers, high raftered ceilings and generous terraces. My bath, which had a soaking tub and stall shower, was bigger than some European hotel rooms (although a ceiling heater would have been nice).

I'd booked for dinner at Andrea, Pelican Hill's premier restaurant. Though dining solo, I was shown to a large banquette. To the accompaniment of live classical guitar music, I studied the menu and as I pondered, a waiter warned me the portions were small.

He wasn't kidding.

I'd have preferred fewer bellissimos from the staff and a few more of those lovely lobster-filled tortellini.

Pelican Hill aims to set itself apart in a crowded luxury field with a mix of California-casual lifestyle and exquisite service. That was largely my experience, anyway. When was the last time a room service waiter pointed out the tip was included?

The spa, which is open to the public, is 23,000 square feet with dramatic water walls. I had scheduled a facial, and afterward, in the idyllically peaceful women's lounge with its gossamer draperies and soft sofas, I sipped chilled cucumber water as I perused an art book. The spa shop has a plethora of beauty products but, thankfully, there was no hard sell.

Pelican Hill is also kid-friendly. Camp Pelican, for 5- to 12-year-olds, has its own pool and a clubhouse with TV and computers. For teens, there's an off-site adventure program.

The 128 villas offer two to four bedrooms, up to 3,678 square feet -- at up to $4,200 a night, no minimum stay. They have their own clubhouse and pool. "These are not a time share," said Ralph Grippo, president of the Irvine Co. Resort Properties, which owns and operates Pelican Hill Resort. "They will never be sold."

Brides and grooms are a target market for the resort. "We seek to be a worldwide destination for weddings," Grippo said. An Italian wedding rotunda overlooks the ocean, an indoor chapel, La Cappella, and several reception rooms.

The resort has shuttle service to nearby Crystal Cove State Beach and to Fashion Island for shopping or dining. Sensitive to the economy, it is offering a $745-a-night bungalow-golf-spa package through mid-March. The recession is challenging but, Grippo said, "This is a resort that's not built for next month or next year."

Montage Beverly Hills

After I pulled into the glass-roofed porte-cochere, an attendant took my name and relayed it to the front desk. A doorman in top hat and waistcoat stood at the alert. I was escorted immediately to my room, to register in privacy.

Wanting to enjoy the spa the next day, I asked for 4 p.m. checkout. No problem.

Within minutes, a bellman brought my luggage and explained the room features, including bedside control to open and close the draperies.

The 201-room Montage, a sister hotel to Montage Laguna Beach, was built to evoke Hollywood's Golden Age. Room d├ęcor in this $200-million edifice is traditional, with dark woods and a gold and white palette.

My spacious king-bedded room ($395) had a pleasant interior courtyard view, a small terrace and a sitting area with a diva-worthy fringed chaise longue.

I found a silky terry-lined robe in the closet off the foyer. Brown velvet slippers were set out in the decidedly luxurious bathroom, which had double sinks, good lighting and a stall shower. A flat-screen TV was recessed in the wall at the end of the deep soaking tub.

I poured bath salts, ran a hot tub, nestled my head against the bath pillow and clicked the waterproof remote control. Alas, from my low angle, the people on the screen were either green or fuchsia (a hotel-wide problem that hadn't been fixed).

One other little glitch: At lunchtime, the sun streaming through the filigree divider between the rooftop pool and the Conservatory Grill had guests fumbling for their sunglasses and maneuvering their chairs to avoid the glare. As a stopgap measure, someone had tacked up a blanket.

But overall there was little with which to find fault. I loved the wide corridors and the lobby loggia with its inviting seating area. The Spanish Revival architectural influences reminded me of the grand hotels from South Florida's Gilded Age. There is exquisite attention to detail; even the bathroom glasses are set on little linen napkins.

The lobby lounge is far too grand to be called a bar -- a lovely big room with a garden view and sink-into sofas. A harpist plays during afternoon tea; in the evening, a pianist takes over.

The mezzanine restaurant, Muse, seemed a bit rich for my blood, so I chose Parq, where I was served an expertly prepared sea bass and had a pleasant view of topiary gardens. If I were a captain of industry, I would choose the Chef's Table, a cozy 12-seat room tucked behind the glass-walled kitchen. There, guests relax by the fireplace and watch the preparation of their custom meal.

The next morning I was at the spa, a 20,000-square-foot, two-level oasis that, with its arches and mosaic tiles, brought to mind a sultan's hamam. As soft music played and a filigree lamp cast a web of light on the walls, Miss Victoria's magic hands kneaded out the kinks. I hadn't yet had coffee and jumped at the offer to have continental breakfast brought to the spa's coed lounging area. The coffee was hot, the orange juice freshly squeezed, the china Villeroy & Boch.

Seven years in planning, Montage is new from the ground up but decidedly Old World. In a few months, people "will think the hotel's been here for centuries," said Ali Kasikci, managing director.

It already feels that way.

SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills

Paris-born designer Philippe Starck's signature touches abound in the whimsical décor of SLS. A horse sculpture balances a lamp on its head. The 177 chairs and 20 not-so-serious chandeliers are delightfully mismatched. Undulating curtains divide public spaces into cozy nooks. I loved the outdoor living room with its illuminated Plexiglas deer head.

My room ($395) had a nice terrace opening onto an interior courtyard. It was contemporary and so sleek that the bellman had to tell me that the Sony flat-screen TV was hidden inside a wall of smoky mirror. The king bed had Porthault linens, and tucked behind its glass headboard was a desk. The room, which had a tufted leather settee and table in one corner, was nicely arranged.

The 297-room SLS, a $225-million top-to-bottom renovation of the former Le Meridien, is decidedly playful. Looking closely at my white armoire, I saw that one of the bronze reliefs was sticking out its tongue.

The bathroom, with a mirrored wall that opens onto the bedroom, was a bit iffy. SLS is dark by design; as I stood at the sink under dim light, the mirror was about 3 feet away and almost useless. (I was told lighted makeup mirrors were on order.) Also missing: a shower cap and a guest directory.

Books are everywhere, though. The visitors-only entrance leads directly into the Bazaar by José Andrés with its two tapas restaurants -- Rojo y Blanca -- created and overseen by the Spanish-born celebrity chef. Blanca is light and airy with blonde woods, Rojo red and black with photos of famous matadors. The Bazaar is a big, nominally defined open space. Entering guests are greeted by an on-screen maitre d' miming a welcome. The Bazaar opens at 3 p.m. daily for tea, at 6 for cocktails and dinner.

At Bar Centro, a communal table encourages mingling. Some nights there's a palm reader or a caricaturist. Saam (as in Bazaar), an intimate high-end restaurant that will have a prix-fixe menu, was not yet open during my visit in December.

On a weeknight, the bar and restaurants were lively, the crowd young. I ate tasty small plates at Blanca: wild mushroom soup, a chilled mélange of eggplant, red pepper and onion, little medallions of lobster. I was then escorted to the Patisserie area where, seated on a hot pink chair, I ordered a flan. Three desserts arrived, two of them complimentary. (The pear sorbet with hot chocolate sauce was divine.) No one knew I was a journalist, so the attention -- including two visits from Andrés -- surprised me.

The rooftop pool is a triumph of style, with an infinity pool and a shallow reflecting pool. Huge picture frames propped against the walls frame views of Beverly Hills. Guests may lunch in a private cabana while watching flat-screen TVs ($250 a half-day, $400 a day).

Looking ahead, Nazarian said, "We're definitely in a realistic mode that 2009 will be a tough year. But this is a family-owned hotel, a very long-term investment."