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California Hotel Boom

Have you lost that old enthusiasm for the bowl of green apples on the reception desk?Tired of the sight of yet another bellman in black Chinese pajamas?Take heart. There is a small revolution under way in southern California that promises a respite from boutique-hotel ennui. A new generation of hotels and resorts has been built along this glamorous coast, spectacular structures inspired by the history of California. Arts and Crafts cottages from the turn of the century, shingled Laguna Beach bungalows from the twenties, a swinging Hollywood Regency pad out of 1969: staggering amounts of money and an extraordinary passion for design have gone into creating these odes to other times and other Californias. It's the beginning of something really new—and it's as refreshing as a plunge in a Hockney pool.

Montage Resort & Spa

LAGUNA BEACH

If you aren't blond when you check into Montage, you might be when you check out.

Here's a Montage moment: A young woman takes her seat in the restaurant. She is wearing a short-sleeved white cashmere turtleneck. Her smile is perfectly whitened and her hair is expertly lightened. (Nowhere is the power of a hair toss better understood than in Orange County, California.) On her wrist is not just any watch, but The Watch, a jeweled number with a pink leather strap. With nails visible across the room, she extracts the most up-to-date cell phone from just the right evening bag, flips it open, sets it on vibrate, and lays it next to her fork. What a performance. I almost applauded.

Here's another Montage moment: It's sunset, and wrapped up in my favorite cotton sweater I make my way down a wood staircase to a beachfront cove, to California in all its natural glory, and have the indescribably colored sea and sky all to myself.

Everything exciting about southern California comes together in this resort, which opened in February. The location is exceptional, on a bluff with a 280-degree view of the Pacific. The shingle-style architecture, all twists and turns and gables and porches, is incurably romantic; it's a re-creation of the world of the California Impressionists who gathered in Laguna during the teens and twenties, lived in humble beach bungalows, and painted this coastline. And still Montage manages to be a life-imitates-TV California stage set. Why, really, does anybody come to Orange County?To step out of a white convertible and have the valet hand you your teeny shopping bag containing some extravagance, then have the door held for you while you breeze into a drop-dead lobby.

Designed down to the pens by the telephones, the rooms here have all the luxuries, yet are surprisingly relaxed. The furniture—cottage-style, dressed up with plaids and stripes—captures the feel of the beach outside. California Impressionist paintings remind you of why you're here. Grooming being a major activity in this part of the world, a lot of thought has gone into the bathrooms: there are soaking tubs and pillar candles, and a bath caddy ready with a loofah and a sumptuous soap. It's assumed you will be bathing for hours.

There are two swimming pools, just where you want them, with clear views of the ocean. One of those pools belongs to Spa Montage, a large facility with many ocean-based treatments. The one I couldn't resist was Vichy Shower Rain Therapy. I lay facedown on a massage table. Many showerheads were strategically aimed. It started raining, gently. The treatment began with six minutes of hot water, followed by 10 seconds of cold water, then made a gradual transition to one minute of hot and one minute of cold. At first you dread the icy water, but soon the pleasure/pain principle takes over, and you begin to look forward to the bracer. I emerged as if shot out of a cannon.

Montage has two dining rooms. The Loft is one of those California places where the ocean view makes you want to stay all afternoon, talking about life, and the pan-seared grouper with white beans in lemon sauce couldn't have been lighter or better. Studio, in a Craftsman bungalow a few steps from the hotel, is the more serious restaurant. The executive chef, James Boyce, came from Mary Elaine's at the Phoenician in Scottsdale. He cooks on a staggeringly expensive Molteni range—the other one in the United States is at Alain Ducasse in New York City—and has this country's only Molteni rotisserie, a brass-and-steel wonder that cooks different parts of the rotating bird at different temperatures. His food relies on a few clear, contrasting flavors, and you can taste it just by reading the menu: citrus-marinated Dungeness crab fillets with avocado, pink grapefruit, and toasted capers. Studio is popular, so reserve a table as soon as you book your room.

At a resort with rates like these (more than $500 a night), it's largely about the views, of course. A modern slab of a building would have given everybody the same big view, but it would also have had much less heart. As it is, those cozy twists and turns give all 262 rooms some slice of the Pacific, although not always as dramatic a slice as you might think. (Rooms are categorized as Horizon, Coastal, or Surf View, but that doesn't quite tell the whole story.) Marcus R. Jackson, the resort's manager, has learned that every guest has his own notion of a good view: some need to see the beach, some like breaking water, some insist on an expanse of sea and sky. Matching a guest to a view can take a few tries. But if you make it to Montage and that's the biggest problem in your life, you are a lucky person indeed.

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