Still reigning: Southern California

Boats and multi-million dollar real estate in Newport Beach, the capital of the real Orange County

Boats and multi-million dollar real estate in Newport Beach, the capital of the real Orange County

It takes a brave investor to create a new multi-million-dollar resort in southern California — and not just because of the recession.

No other holiday playground is already so well endowed with five-star hotels, and in this star-studded state, many of those come with an extra frisson. 

Only in the land of movie legends can you sleep in bedrooms once occupied by Oscar-winners and then eat breakfast at their favourite tables.

With the Beverly Hills Hotel, now approaching its centenary and still as glamorous as when Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and Taylor and Burton made it their home from home, it’s hard to make a case for tourists to turn right out of Los Angeles airport towards Orange County instead of left towards westside LA. 

The glitzy shops of Beverly Hills, buzzy restaurants of West Hollywood and clean air and beaches of Santa Monica are a hard act to beat.

Yet this is just what the creators of Pelican Hill in Newport Beach are hoping visitors will do. 

They are banking on the great exposure the real OC has had from the television programme, that show starring a surf-mad Jewish lawyer which so gorgeously showcased Newport, Orange County’s own capital of glitz, buzz and beach life. 

Perhaps buzzy is not quite the right word for the tasteful collection of Tuscan-style villas which comprises Pelican Hill.   But buzz is certainly what you do find in Andrea, its elegant Italian restaurant, where pasta and gelato are made in-house and the finest buffalo mozzarella is imported from Sicily.

Service is attentive to the point of being faintly ridiculous, as when my waiter solicitously requested to “revisit” my ravioli with fresh pepper and Parmesan.   But the food was truly delicious, and there is also an excellent on-site spa.

City Hall Beverly Hills

City Hall Beverly Hills

Pelican Hill is close not only to Newport Beach, which has all the yachts, well-heeled blondes and trendy cafes which populate the OC soap, a beautiful marina and shopping mall, but the quirkier delights of Crystal Cove.  Built as a seaside colony in the 30s and 40s, the historic cottages lining this quiet beach have survived the demolition ball and are being authentically restored.

It’s a charming place to stroll or sip a coffee, getting a rare sense of southern California in the golden age before  the developers carved it up. 

Equally atmospheric is the three-mile Balboa Peninsula, whose retro houses, urban beaches and yacht harbour are the highlight of any trip to the Newport area.

A couple of miles further down the coast, Laguna Beach remains a charming and authentic small coastal town, one well-endowed with galleries, cafes, shops and a terrific little art museum; the resort segues into a full-blown artists’ colony during the summer months.

Given all the southern half of California offers, it’s worth incorporating a peek at the OC into a full-blown odyssey, stopping awhile to enjoy the highlights of westside LA before continuing north to the Monterey Peninsula. Beverly Hills must-sees include not just the shops of Rodeo Drive and the eponymous hotel built in 1912 to cater for the film industry, but within it the famous Polo Lounge. 

Here Marlene Dietrich shocked the matire d’ by coming to dinner in trousers, Frank Sinatra threw a chair through the plate glass window and Peter Finch dropped dead in the entrance lobby.

Today, the star-makers rather than the stars come for power drinks or breakfast, with the latter among the best in town.

West Hollywood is altogether younger, buzzier and less remote than  Beverly Hills, and has its own star stories to tell.  The Riot House, as the Hyatt was known in the bad old days when The Who threw TVs from their balconies, has been reborn as the sleek, stylish Andaz, with a great location in the heart of Sunset Strip.

A great touch are the private lounging areas with flat-screen TVs which have replaced those dangerous balconies, enclosed during the rebuild, preserving the fabulous views with floor-to-ceiling glass. The glory days of the Riot House are celebrated in the restaurant, which serves today’s musos and pays homage with its RH monicker. In Santa Monica Madonna’s favourite, the Shangri-La, is another legendary old hotel which has had a makeover.

This art deco jewel is perfectly placed for the beach and within walking distance of both the neighbourhood’s best and buzziest restaurant, the Border Grill, and its newest hot eatery, Fig in the Miramar Hotel. 

It’s also within a 10-minute stroll of the Annenberg Beach Club, a great new asset for Santa Monica with its swimming pool, seaside cafe and drop-in yoga classes.

If the Club’s evocative pictures of Hearst and Marion gambolling with Hollywood greats whet your appetite for the glory days of California history,  plan an overnight stop near Hearst Castle on the way to Monterey.

It’s less than a five-hour drive to San Simeon, where the Morgan, named for the female architect who built Hearst’s fantastic hilltop compound, makes a comfortable oceanside base. Nip along early to the castle, where the Imax film offers a fascinating introduction to the man and property on which Citizen Kane were based, before making the actual visit.   After drooling over the Roman pool, the antique furniture and the fabulous vistas from one of the world’s great houses,  drive 90 minutes north past fantastic vistas of coast and clifftop to Big Sur, where an outdoor lunch at Nepenthe may well be the most atmospheric meal you will enjoy in California. 

It’s worth waiting for two seats at the bench with heart-stopping views of the Pacific and blue jays diving in and out of the intervening trees.  Leave enough time to explore the New Age shop, one of the best in the state.    

Half an hour north lie the many joys of the Monterey Peninsula, including the quaint town of Carmel by the Sea, where stars actually own hotels rather than stay in them.   Clint Eastwood has taken over the modest Mission Ranch, while Doris Day has made the laid-back Cypress Inn a haven for dogs and their owners - the joint positively jumps during tea-time Yappy Hour!

No stars were in evidence, just luxury and very fine food at L’Auberge Carmel, the best reason to stay in rather twee Carmel apart from the beach.

L’Auberge is the first Relais & Chateaux property to arrive on the peninsula and has brought a touch of chic to Carmel it hitherto lacked.   Less pricey is La Playa, a little closer to the beach; its woodsy self-catering cottages may be a better bet for a family than the hotel rooms.

Two great cultural attractions which have made the peninsula a must for tourists are the fabulous Monterey Bay Aquarium — surely the world’s best, with an unmissable display of glowing jellyfish — and the National Steinbeck Centre at Salinas, the hometown so evocatively portrayed by the author in East of Eden.  

Do follow the aquarium with dinner at C,  the wharfside restaurant at the new Intercontinental Hotel, a few steps along on Cannery Row.    Salinas catering options are more modest, but lunch at the Steinbeck House charmingly recalls the era of the author’s heyday.

Getting there

British Airways (0844 493 0787, www.ba.com) serves Los Angeles from London from £449.80 return.  Look online for best deals at Pelican Hill (www.pelicanhill.com);  Beverly Hills Hotel (www.beverlyhillshotel.com); the Andaz (www.westhollywoodhyatt.com); Shangri-La (www.shangrila-hotel.com); the Morgan www.hotel-morgan.com); L’Auberge Carmel (www.relaischateaux.com) and La Playa (www.laplayahotel.com).

    Last updated: 4:51pm, October 28 2009