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California Hotels: Casual Elegance

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Photo: Coliena Rentmeester

Camelot Meets California

The San Ysidro Ranch, a Rosewood Resort, just outside Santa Barbara, is older and more traditional—this is where John and Jackie Kennedy honeymooned, and where Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were married—but there’s the same spirit of seclusion and comfort, of knowing what the haves want. Reception is little more than a place to sort out your keys and grab a tangelo.

The 500-acre property, fresh from a $150 million investment, gives the impression of stretching on forever (even if a few neighboring mansions creep into the picture), and when you arrive at the long driveway lined with olive trees and lavender, you have the sense of being on the frontier, at the last citrus grove before civilization gives way to the scrubby Santa Ynez Mountains. Most of the cottages are simple but refined, their board-and-batten walls covered with flowering vines, unchanged since Jackie was a young bride.

The cottages are made for staying in, and made for couples. Santa Barbara is a five-minute drive away—and now, post-Sideways, the local wineries have national followings—but to judge by the Porsches that remained parked throughout the day at the cottages on either side of me, most guests come to San Ysidro Ranch less to take advantage of the local attractions than to uncork a bottle of wine and listen to the creek outside. My shower was a glass box that had access to the outdoors, and outside on the stone patio there was another shower, a hot tub, a table, and some rosemary bushes. It was open to oak trees and the sky, and completely private.

As breakfast and lunch are room-service only, the ranch is quiet during the day. I saw a couple play croquet, but after whacking the ball once or twice they plucked some oranges from a nearby tree, then retreated inside.

Dinner draws a subdued crowd to the Stonehouse restaurant. At night the ranch glows like an Italian village, the paths lit by terra-cotta lamps twinkling in the trees. Half of the restaurant’s tables are outside, where a fireplace (and radiant heat in the floor) takes the edge off the Santa Barbara air and couples continue the conversations they’ve been having all day in hushed tones.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Los Angeles came into its own in the 1920’s, when a once-dusty agricultural crossroads with a population of 100,000 swelled to a cosmopolitan 1 million residents. It was a decade of explosive growth, and the hotels built during that time—the Roosevelt, Biltmore, and Beverly Wilshire all opened within eight years of one another—still define the city’s identity.

The Chateau Marmont was completed in 1927. Designed as apartments, then converted into a hotel two years later, the building was inspired by a Loire Valley castle and constructed with the then-new technology of reinforced concrete, a typically Los Angeles pastiche of nostalgia and modernity that, when planted with lemon trees and bougainvillea, becomes a Shangri-la. It might be artificial but it’s intoxicating.

At first the Marmont, as it’s known, was bungalow-less, but in the 1940’s the hotel started acquiring neighboring cottages. What it lacks in acreage it makes up for in discretion. Now 13 houses are hidden in a jungle of trees and flowering vines, and they range in style from Craftsman to Case Study, including two airy 1956 buildings by Craig Ellwood, one of the great Midcentury architects. There’s a reason why boldface names feel safe here. You can literally disappear.

My mother still lives in Los Angeles, and about the only excuse she would accept for my not staying in my old bedroom is that I had booked myself into the Marmont. We had a reservation for dinner next door at Bar Marmont, and I told her to arrive early so we could first have a drink on my patio.

Only I gave her the wrong room number.

As she later told it over Negronis, she knocked on what she thought was the right door, and an extremely famous, extremely funny actor answered. (In the spirit of the Marmont, I won’t name names.) She looked at him and said, “You’re not my son.”

He was friendly, and helped her find my room, which, she noted, was nicer than his, though I was incognito. Not that any room lacks for style. Hotelier André Balazs bought the hotel in 1990, and his famous attention to detail is apparent at every turn. My room held a grand piano old enough to have ivory keys; a rechromed O’Keefe & Merritt stove in its vintage kitchen; porthole windows in the dining room; and so many other well-chosen objects that I felt like I was on the set of Chinatown. The hotel stands at one of the busiest curves of Sunset Boulevard, and despite the banana trees you’re still in the middle of a teeming metropolis. But a little landscaping works wonders to create a sense of detachment, and by the end of the Negronis, Los Angeles, with its 4 million residents, almost seemed like the sleepy Mediterranean city it claims to be.

The quickest way to get to Bar Marmont is via an unmarked gate by the cottages. It’s one of the most exciting spots in Los Angeles (we had light-as-air gougères, crisp artichokes battered and fried like oysters, a rib eye, halibut with chorizo and romesco sauce), but despite the designer denim–clad, Fred Segal crowd drawn from all over the city, Bar Marmont is, strictly speaking, a hotel restaurant, and when the check came I signed my name and room number, a visitor in my own hometown. I wasn’t the first local boy to hide out at the Marmont. And I wasn’t really hiding, at least not by the standards of the hotel—I wasn’t writing a novel, having an affair, or plotting a comeback. In flashing my room key at the guard outside, I was claiming membership at the most exclusive club in town—for the night, anyway.

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