California Hotel Boom
Published: May 2009
By Stephen Drucker
Three of the most exciting new hotels in America are within driving distance of Los Angeles, and they're all making waves by re-creating styles from California's past. Plus: Two great value options
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.
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.
Don't be too quick to dismiss the Viceroy as yet another Ian Schrager-esque poseur. This isn't New York, and this isn't Paris. You're in Los Angeles now, and the Viceroy never lets you forget it. The property is the most ambitious creation yet of the Kor Hotel Group and interior designer Kelly Wearstler, who caught everybody's attention with her Moo Shu Baroque style at Maison 140 in Beverly Hills. Little Maison 140 was cheap chic; the 170-room Viceroy aspires to a higher-quality thrift shop.
Everybody drives past it the first time. Look for a white sixties slab with no sign. Knowing it's opposite Shutters on the Beach may help. Once through the door, you'll have no doubt you've found it. Officially, Viceroy is described as "British style with a cosmopolitan spirit," but there's so much going on that everybody sees something different. I took it all as an homage to Hollywood Regency, that glamorous moment of ranch houses with statues of Venus in the driveway, last fully appreciated in Beverly Hills 30 years ago. Fasten your ankle straps, it's going to be a bumpy night. Where else but in L.A. could you get away with colors like these?Parrot green chairs. Gray-stained floors. Silver-foil wallpaper in seventies geometrics. Mirrors are everywhere. The mustard-colored study, with its shag carpeting and motel sofa and lamps, is a room you never dreamed you'd see again in your lifetime. Try sitting in there when the Carpenters start singing "Close to You." Shivers.
People love it. Word was out about the Cameo Bar the week it opened, and by my second visit, a few months later, the bar was packed (putting quite a strain on the poor valets). This isn't the Beverly Hills crowd. It's younger: thirtysomethings who look as if they work in soap operas; advertising types from offices in nearby Venice; assorted pretty young things (what do they do?). They sit shoulder-to-shoulder on every ironic surface, looking their best on the rows of winged chaise longues upholstered in white patent leather—quite possibly by Frederick's of Hollywood.
Getting a drink takes some elbowing; getting into Whist, the busy restaurant, requires some determination. Created by Tim and Liza Goodell of Aubergine in Newport Beach, Whist opens off the lobby and is part of the extended party that reaches outdoors to the pool. Its most prominent decoration is 250 pieces of English china propped against a wall of green mirror. You'll find the "oh-wow" school of service—when I inquired about a wine, I was told it was "awesome"—and a menu with flavors as mixed-up as the decorating. The duck breast with turnips and foie gras of my first visit was excellent; the next time, I tried a less successful pork chop, searingly spiced and so huge it seemed to have come from a dinosaur. But who's kidding whom?This is a scene as much as it is a dining room, and unless you're very serious about food, you're here just to take in all that wattage around you.
Don't stay at the Viceroy if you're not willing to be stimulated. You will either love the rooms or find yourself grinding your teeth; there's no in-between. Every comfort has been provided: big, downy pillows; the softest Frette sheets; a bathroom you can't wait to use; and open views toward the city or the ocean. (Beware: it gets noisy on the pool side during warm weather.) But visually it's restless, with dozens of framed mirrors, wallpaper in a cane pattern, giant plaster sconces, and that acidic color scheme. At night it gets even more bizarre, with a bare-bulb chandelier bouncing off all those mirrors.
It takes great courage for a hotel to step out this far on the fashion limb, but the Viceroy is walking the walk. Now is the time to eat here and, if you can handle it, stay here. A look like this has to keep moving forward, or it gets cold fast. So go soon—you wouldn't want to miss it.
Most people come to the Lodge at Torrey Pines to play golf, but have they any idea what awaits them?When you get here, you cannot believe your eyes.
William L. Evans, a local businessman, felt that the celebrated Torrey Pines golf course, known for its ocean views and soulful, wind-bent pine trees, deserved a hotel to match its reputation. He spent $65 million—an astounding amount of money for 173 rooms—to build a tribute to the Arts and Crafts movement. Starting with the most extravagant porte cochère you'll ever see, with more joinery than a temple in Kyoto, every detail is meant to capture those golden years of the early 20th century, when Midwestern millionaires came to Pasadena every winter to breathe the pure air of Old California.
"The lodge is in the style of Greene & Greene, but the spa is in the style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh—are you familiar with them?" the bellman inquired as we walked through dusky, wainscoted hallways on William Morris carpeting. As part of his training, he was taken on a field trip to the Gamble House, the Greene & Greene masterpiece in Pasadena.
Art glass of this period has been done, badly, countless times before—been to an Applebee's lately?—but here it is all studiously and accurately re-created, in many cases by the same factories that built the original houses. The luminous front doors, adapted from the Gamble House, open to another faithful Greene & Greene design, a remarkable chandelier with 2,480 pieces of jewel-like glass set in a frame of wood and leather. The stained-glass panel behind the front desk is an original, from a Greene & Greene house long ago demolished. There are hammered-copper fireplaces and rocking chairs built for the first time from old Greene & Greene blueprints. Torrey Pines doesn't feel like a reproduction; it takes you back to 1908.
The rooms are huge, spare, and eerily spiritual, with Stickley-style furniture and excellent reproductions of Louis Comfort Tiffany lamps. Japanese wood-block prints, framed in oak, hang by thick leather straps from a picture rail. William Morris wallpaper and ocher marble worthy of some swish London club make for rather luxurious bathrooms. No terry cloth here; instead, you get a Craftsman-inspired homespun robe. The tissue holder is Craftsman-style. The wastebasket is Craftsman-style. In the event of an earthquake, you evacuate following instructions in a Craftsman-style frame. After a while it all begins to seem normal.
The restaurant, A. R. Valentien, is small, like a fin de siècle tearoom, and there isn't a design misstep, down to the bread plates with the feathered glaze of old Fulper tiles. You'll wish you were wearing a crushed-velvet cape. Executive chef Jeff Jackson, formerly of Shutters on the Beach, produces very good food, and the service is attentive and unflagging. So many on staff! There was the person who brought the amuse-bouche (halibut mousse and beet purée on toast), the person who introduced me to the bread ("Tonight we are serving country bread..."), the person who ladled the white-corn soup (with a little disk of black-truffle flan), the person who served the roasted ivory salmon, the person who gathered my crumbs. Yet, hooray, they knew when to back off: you pepper your food yourself.
In the spa you get acquainted with Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Scottish Art Nouveau master whose snow-white interiors shocked Glaswegians out of their grimy Victorian row houses a century ago. It's so ethereal, unlike any spa you've ever seen—what other locker room has an inglenook?The steel Art Nouveau fireplace and the iridescent mosaic-tile floor may make you forget what you're here for: a wide selection of water-based treatments as well as several signature extravaganzas that run more than two hours.
What an odd style to have picked for a luxurious modern resort. The Arts and Crafts movement had its origins in Bible-thumping and homilies extolling humility. For a long time it was considered the essence of dreariness; some people still look at it and think, electric chair. But today it is the height of fashion once again, especially in California. Its message of the simple life, wrought in straight backs and oak slats and the mark of the chisel, seems terribly romantic now. If you're going to live the simple life, it's nice to know that every creature comfort has been quietly taken care of.
TWO NEW VALUE OPTIONS
Hotel Oceana, SANTA BARBARA
Cabrillo Boulevard in Santa Barbara is an oceanfront strip like oceanfront strips everywhere, with a fishing pier and a parade of motels. Oceana used to be one of those motels—in fact, four of them—which trailed down the busy street and around little courtyards and gardens. Two years ago, they were unified into a single property by the owners of another Oceana, in Santa Monica, and the interior designer Kathryn Ireland—no, not the model Kathy Ireland. This Ireland is known for dreamy fabrics in stonewashed reds, blues, and yellows; they have a sunbaked feeling that captures this Mediterranean climate beautifully. You can practically smell sage and chaparral just looking at them.
In some ways Oceana is still motel material rather than a luxurious resort. But the 122 rooms are cheerful and much more stylish than the average in Santa Barbara. There's nothing in them you're not happy to look at. I just couldn't get that yellow-checked bedstead out of my mind, or the artwork of pressed flowers, or the staff in shirts run up in Ireland fabrics. The rooms vary widely in both age and feeling. Among the better bets are those in Building Five, some overlooking a pretty courtyard, others, on the second floor, with views of the small swimming pool and the ocean.
Oceana has a strong following among young couples from L.A., who come here to go sea kayaking and mountain biking. You might find a room of similar size in Santa Barbara for less, but if you look for style wherever you go, this is where you'll want to be.
Doubles from $155. 202 W. Cabrillo Blvd.; 800/965-9776 or 805/965-4577; www.hoteloceana.com
The Ambrose, SANTA MONICA
The new Ambrose, in a modest residential area of Santa Monica, is another temple to Arts and Crafts style, with the same mossy color palette and dark woods as the Lodge at Torrey Pines but a younger point of view, more urban and Asian. It's a little like a Japanese ryokan.
Organic is the word here: the continental breakfast (included in the price) is organic; the wines are organic; the mini-bar offerings are organic. There's no restaurant, but 24-hour room service is offered from the kitchen of local restaurateur Celestino Drago. And although the location isn't glamorous, it's convenient and blissfully quiet, and quite nice to come home to. There are just 77 rooms, all much larger than in the average boutique hotel, but also 27 room types, with those on the top floor having higher ceilings. Some are oddly shaped, so don't take the first one you're given unless you're certain it's right. The rest is easy: What could be cozier than hanging your clothes in a Craftsman armoire impressed with ginkgo leaves, climbing into a big, deep Craftsman bed, and sipping a Virtual Buddha Elixir?Makes you want to curl up with an illuminated manuscript.
Doubles from $150. 1255 20th St.; 877/262-7673 or 310/315-1555; www.ambrosehotel.com
Montage Resort & Spa Doubles from $540. 30801 South Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach; 888/715-6700 or 949/715-6000; www.montagelagunabeach.com
Viceroy Doubles from $189. 1819 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; 800/622-8711 or 310/260-7500; www.viceroysantamonica.com
Lodge at Torrey Pines Doubles from $375. 11480 N. Torrey Pines Rd., La Jolla; 888/826-0224 or 858/453-4420; www.lodgetorreypines.com