Pelican Hill – Italian Perfection in OC

Pelican Hill

Italian Perfection in OC

In travels around the world, it is evident that the most commonly used design for resorts is Italian, specifically Tuscan. Any image conjured of a Tuscan village includes rolling countryside, satisfying architecture and pleasing cuisine. Pelican Hill is no exception, and it is a sterling example.

Upon arriving at this resort, tucked on the coast between Newport Beach and Laguna Niguel, we drove under an imposing aqueduct, more than reminiscent of scenes from the Italian countryside. Winding up the long driveway, the foliage was carefully tended, perhaps more than what we’d see in Italy. But the telltale rooflines of the buildings were unmistakably Italian.  The grand entrance to the resort was of course ringed with the cream of the guests’ cars (Bentley, Jaguar, Benz).  Through the heavy glass doors of the main entrance, the Pacific beckoned.  But between us and the Pacific were a lovely foyer and many fairways. A subdued aura was noticeable in the main lobby, with only a single counter for check-in.  We later discovered that the concierge works from a separate library. The resort’s ‘living room’ is off the lobby, with a huge fireplace flanked by 17th century tapestries and at least a dozen plush sofas.  The floor to ceiling windows enhanced the indoor/outdoor feeling we saw throughout the resort.

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Upon being taken to our room, it became fully evident that this was no ordinary resort.  Rather than a single monolithic edifice of rooms, Pelican Hill is marked by a grouping of bungalows, each luxuriously appointed and nestled among palm trees, birds of paradise and vines.  Our ocean-facing bungalow looked out over tile roofs, transporting us further into the Tuscan Hills. The cathedral wooden ceiling enhanced the spaciousness of the bungalow, and hid subtly effective lighting fixtures. The solid doors to the patio slid open with astonishing ease, and we were torn between relaxing on the chaise lounges with a Campari and soda, or further exploring the resort.

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The vastness of the resort is overcome with easy access to shuttles, which I used to bring me to the stunning two 18 hole golf courses.  Noted designer Tom Fazio redesigned his two courses after two years of closure, and the results are spectacular.  I discovered that the ‘aqueduct’ over the main entrance is actually a golf cart bridge, cleverly taking me to the first tee. Every hole has a view of the Pacific, and three holes in the south course border the ocean.  My loss of many balls was a combination of my skill pitted against the course, and my easy distraction at the beauty of the surroundings. Leveraging the spectacular location of the rugged hills rolling toward the ocean, both courses lie between the sea and the resort. The greens are particularly well-tended, and most are well protected with an array of bunkers. I was pleased to learn that the irrigation of the course has been praised for its thoughtful conservation of water and the protective use of cisterns to prevent runoff into the ocean.  The course is open to the public, but privately maintained by the resort.

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While golfing I was able to get a better perspective of the resort’s magnificent architecture. The resort draws fully on the work of Italy’s famed Andrea Palladio, the most acclaimed architect of the High Renaissance.  His work was based on the classic building principles of ancient Rome and Greece, with a foundation of symmetry, proportion and grandeur.

After finishing a satisfying round on the north golf course, I had time to explore the architectural details of the resort.  Not since spending hours at the reopened Getty Museum (further north up the coast in Malibu) have I been as impressed in California with an ambitious, recent architectural statement. Pelican Hill is only 2½ years old, but it has the unique feeling of being old and new at the same time.  The mature foliage belies the modern touches that underlie the architecture. Most notable are the 750 Italian olive trees, from which olive oil is handcrafted and bottled. In juxtaposition are modern touches like the heated floors found in the valet arrival/departure area and outdoor dining terraces, and the special Starphire glass affording undistorted viewing through the vast windows. But it is the classic Palladian architecture that supports the pervasive attention to detail. I was amazed at the rows of arched porticos, solid Doric columns, barrel-vaulted ceilings and the multi-story entry rotundas.

The Coliseum Pool evokes Rome’s most famous landmark, but because of its size standing near it I was unsure if the shape of the pool was oval or circular.  After standing in the middle (and making an inquiry) I discovered that the pool is indeed perfectly round, and is one of the largest such pools in the world. Because the pool fits so well in its surroundings, I was never put in mind of Las Vegas pretentiousness.  The pool is 136 feet in diameter, filled with heated salt water and its sky blue bottom was created by hand-setting 1.1 million hand-cut glass mosaic tiles.

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After the enjoyable sensory overload of golf and architecture, I was ready to experience The Spa at Pelican Hill.  It is one of only two dozen Five Diamond spas in the world, and the attention to detail, comfort and renewal was complete.  I discovered that the subtle yet pervasive aromatherapy emanates from plants, herbs, extracts and botanicals that are organic and grown in California. The massage oil I enjoyed was amber honey based, in keeping with The Spa’s seasonal approach (figs in the fall, pomegranates in winter, honey in spring and lavender in summer).  I chilled out before and after in the mellow relaxation room.  I was mesmerized by a lighted water wall, hand-carved by local Laguna Beach artisans.

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Brunch was had at the Coliseum Bar and Grill, where we overlooked the magnificent pool, the golf course and the ocean seeming both near and far.  We were unable to dine at Andrea, the stunning fine dining restaurant, but we were given a tour of the kitchen. A return visit is in order, if only to sample one of the many pastas hand made daily in a separate temperature controlled pasta kitchen.  Executive chef Jean Pierre Dubray sources many of his menu’s ingredients locally.

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The resort also combines the burgeoning trends of ‘resort within a resort’ and residential accommodations.  The 128 villas are fully equipped, with everything from garages, modern kitchens to 24/7 butler service. The clubhouse, used exclusively by villa residents, is nicer than most any hotel lobby I have seen.  After a lucky strike at the lottery, I will bring the extended family for a stay in one of the villas.

On balance, there is nothing overlooked at Pelican Hill. The ‘possibility of perfection’ is what the resort pursues, and by most every measure, it has succeeded.


Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment and technology scene for many years. He has written for Time Out London, Village Voice, LA Weekly and once upon a time won a New York State College Journalism Award.

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