A secluded hillside haven just above Sunset Boulevard, Bel Air is one of the world’s most prestigious – and private – communities. It’s a place populated by movie moguls and former presidents, where property values only go up, never down. Like its namesake, the iconic Hotel Bel-Air also wears its luster more discreetly than its flashy neighbor one mile east, Beverly Hills, and its sister Dorchester Collection property, the Beverly Hills Hotel. Since it opened in 1946, this pink Spanish Colonial landmark has attracted celebrities who genuinely want to be left alone (Elizabeth Taylor honeymooned here with her first husband, and Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman supposedly mediated their divorce here), as there is a strict no-paparazzi policy past the bridge crossing “Swan Lake” and onto the hotel grounds.
When it closed two years ago for a head-to-toe facelift, regular guests and locals who considered the Bel-Air their “clubhouse” fretted that this gut renovation would gut the hotel’s soul as well. The old money/country club feel of the décor was always part of its charm, with a profusion of floral prints, overstuffed upholstery and the wood-paneled Oak Bar that Humphrey Bogart held up regularly in his day. And, they wondered, what would happen to Hector and Athena, the resident swans?
They needn’t have worried. The renovation was overseen by two world-renowned teams, interior design firm Alexandra Champalimaud, which has re-envisioned such historic hotels as The Algonquin and The Pierre, and Rockwell Group, known for its dramatic restaurant design and theatrical productions including the Academy Awards. It’s as though a breath of fresh air has blown through the grounds. The swans are gliding happily in a new, water-conserving grotto, the lobby lounge is clean and light, with a gorgeous open fireplace at its center, and the main walkways are planted with roses and gardenias that perfume the environment. Landscape designer Jon Goldstein, in charge of all the water features and the 12 acres of gardens, reinstalled many original plants and specimen trees, but he also supplemented the property with privacy-enhancing oaks.
I stayed in one of 12 new, canyon-view rooms built up into the hillside; my suite consisted of a living room, powder room, bedroom, dressing area and an enormous bathroom with heated limestone floors, a glass shower and a deep bathtub – this, on top of a private spa pool and outdoor fireplace on the patio! The décor was modern and warm, with chartreuse-and-crimson pillows accenting the natural linen upholstery, and feminine touches such as a mirrored coffee table in the living area and Deco-inspired wood veneer nightstands. The suite was also wired to the nines, with a total of three flat-screen TVs and an iPad for controlling temperature and lights.
Had I not been planning to attend a Pacific Standard Time soiree at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills (the largest private home in the city, incidentally), I would have happily stayed put the entire weekend. As it was, it was lovely to return from this sensory extravaganza, where a performance piece, art installation or cocktail bar was around every corner, to settle into a table at the dimly lit, sexy bar. The space is open until 2 a.m. on weekends, perfect for a late supper. And since the private hot tubs are heated to a constant 103 degrees, I took full advantage with a midnight soak under the stars.
After greeting a sparkling morning on the patio (did I order that from room service?), I took the Sunday paper for breakfast on the terrace of the Wolfgang Puck restaurant, where old vines snake through the trellises and curved archways reveal hidden dining alcoves. As you would expect from Wolfgang Puck, even a simple meal like breakfast is as refined as they come. I ordered a fresh juice of the day (carrot-canteloupe), French-pressed coffee, house-made preserves, and the most over-the-top egg dish I have ever experienced: 90 Minute Slow Poached “Onsen” Eggs, served over parmesan polenta with a black truffle emulsion.
I had some time between breakfast and a scheduled massage so I made my way toward the large oval pool. The original site of the horse-riding ring built by Bel Air’s founder Alphonzo Bell, it’s one of the few features of the hotel that remains virtually unchanged. Lounging on a chaise as the palms swayed high above me, the sense of comfort and luxury was intoxicating.
The new La Prairie spa is one of only four in the world, and every detail feels carefully considered. There are porcelain flowers dotting the hallway, carved white plaster walls in the treatment rooms and custom music playlists to choose from, depending on your mood. I took a few minutes in the steam room before my massage and I could have stayed there, surrounded by shimmering iridescent tiles and twinkling ceiling lights, for hours. When I told my massage therapist that I might have had one too many glasses of Champagne the night before, she customized my treatment, focusing on my head and neck and using acupressure to alleviate any lingering hangover. It was truly one of the most intuitive, satisfying massages I’ve ever had.
After checking out and heading toward the valet across Swan Lake once more, I felt, on top of an incredible sense of relaxation and wellbeing, genuinely sad to be leaving. Later I read some online reviews, and I saw that I wasn’t alone. A place must be doing something right if one of the few “complaints” patrons have is the simple fact that they can’t stay forever.
701 Stone Canyon Rd., Los Angeles. 310.472.1211 or hotelbelair.com