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California Hotels: Casual Elegance

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Photo: Coliena Rentmeester

The houses at the Post Ranch Inn are the heirs to those bungalows. The hotel, opened in 1992, is made up entirely of small buildings set on a ridge high above the Pacific, and this year Post Ranch added 10 new sculptural buildings, spiraling Pacific Suites, cantilevered Peak Houses, and Richard Serra–esque Cliff Houses clad in torques of rusted steel. Christine and I stayed in the largest Pacific Suite, an intersection of circular rooms carefully designed so that wherever you stand you are exposed to the ocean and the sky, but unseen by other guests. Even the tiled bath, big enough for two, has a commanding vista, and a floor-to-ceiling window that opens to let in Pacific breezes.

The rooms are so thoughtfully laid out and well-constructed it took a while to register the architectural style—organic craftsmanship at the highest level. Or, to be more glib, Logan’s Run as a resort, a five-star yurt: the walls are paneled in redwood salvaged from old wine barrels, sheet-metal art adorns the bathroom, and everything that could be round, is—from the writing desk to the fireplace. The woodwork is exquisite, but this was the only time I’ve stayed in a hotel and didn’t think, I’d like that for my place. Even if the design is peculiar, it isn’t jarring. If anything, it’s relaxing, a vacation from décor.

We had our Big Sur day: Sierra Mar, the hotel restaurant, packed us a lunch, and we zipped down the Pacific Coast Highway in a Lexus convertible guests can borrow free of charge; we hiked past redwoods on the empty Coast Ridge Road; and we had a couples massage at the hotel spa, during which my masseuse found and kneaded out the knot that had been living under my right shoulder blade since college.

But mostly we wanted to be in our room, nursing glasses of good San Luis Obispo Cabernet Sauvignon from the complimentary mini-bar (a kid-in-a-candy-shop perk of hotels at this price level) on the balcony, taking in a view so humbling we could read the curve of the earth in the ocean.

Unfiltered Wine Country

Like most men, I don’t worry too much about footwear; when I travel I try to limit my luggage to one carry-on, and this time I brought my hiking boots, a pair of driving moccasins, and my favorite Vans. The trio suited California. But I spent most of my days either barefoot or padding around in hotel slippers, especially at the Post Ranch Inn, but also at Calistoga Ranch.

Situated at the rugged northern end of Napa Valley, Calistoga Ranch has 47 lodges nestled into a secluded canyon just off the Silverado Trail. The area was originally zoned as a campground, so most of the buildings at the resort are, improbably, the same size as a trailer. The architect turned the limitation into an opportunity, creating a striking compound of Modernist boxes with cedar shingles and copper trim, the bedroom of each lodge in one, the living room in another; and since there are no restrictions on outdoor spaces, the two are connected via a comfortably furnished deck with a fireplaces. Calistoga Ranch is visionary, and unlike any other hotel I’ve ever seen.

Actually, it still feels like a campground, only one with a groomed bocce court and Schott Zweisel glasses. Napa hotels can be dangerously themey and overly manicured. But the defining characteristics of Calistoga Ranch are the canyon and the creek, and I was struck by how little the surrounding nature has been affected by the resort. Whenever I walked back to my lodge, my gaze naturally lifted to the trees on the ridge.

Each lodge has an outdoor shower (as well as a luxuriously appointed indoor bathroom), and I began every morning outside in its cloud of steam and cascade of water, with a thick lather of signature bay-and-eucalyptus–scented shampoo and a view of the trees changing color as the sun hit the valley.

Christine had returned to New York, leaving me alone. There was no shortage of diversions in the area: French Laundry was a short drive away, as were the great Silverado Cabernets, such as Screaming Eagle and Stags’ Leap. Instead I played it closer to home and went on a 4 1/2-mile hike up to the 2,000-foot-high palisade that presides over the town of Calistoga, the very barrier that keeps in the morning fog that’s so important to Napa Valley grapes. It was leafy for the first two miles, then the trail opened onto a plateau lined with craggy cliffs, a rocky landscape that could have been lifted from a painting by Bellini. After another outdoor shower, I headed to the Lakehouse, the hotel’s restaurant, a long stone room with a fireplace at one end (one of the few buildings bigger than a trailer, it’s the same size as the old campground’s mess hall). The mood was casual, with waiters wearing crisp cotton shirts and jeans, and guests in faded denim picking wines from the bottom of the list. My dinner unfolded: fluffy ricotta gnocchi, flavorful duck confit with a preternaturally crispy skin more delicious than anything I’ve tasted in France. It was a quiet night, and an exquisite meal, relaxed but pitch-perfect, just like the rest of the hotel. For all the aesthetic differences between Calistoga Ranch and the Post Ranch Inn, they share many similarities: bungalows without a hotel, architecturally distinct buildings so carefully attuned to their environment that the line between outdoors and indoors doesn’t really exist. Even the staff members have the same ethos, unobstrusive but so attentive they call every guest by name—no easy trick with “Schwaner-Albright.”


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