The coastline near California's Newport Beach is a tapestry of beach towns, luxury enclaves, pristine beaches and spectacular sunsets, so it's no surprise that some of the country's best beach resorts have been built along this inviting strip of land.
One of the newest resorts here is a doozy. Opened in 2009, the Resort at Pelican Hill is the first major resort built from scratch by the Irvine Company — they do have one other hotel in the area they bought and refurbished — and it's obvious they have pulled out all the stops.
Of course, they had a pretty nice piece of property to begin with. The resort is spread out over a total of 504 acres on the hills south of Newport Beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In essence, they've transplanted a piece of Italy to the Newport coastline, replicating the olive and fig trees, the over-size Italian architecture — incorporating the styling of Andrea Palladio, an architect from the 16th Century -- right down to the Italian plaster finish on buildings that look like they belong in Tuscany.
Arriving for our getaway weekend, it was hard not to notice the Bentleys, Mercedes and BMW's in the circular driveway. Not that we got any less attention in our standard 4X4 SUV — the service begins from the moment you arrive, with staff obviously trained to pay attention to every last detail. We were quickly checked in and then directed to follow our bellman on his golf cart as he showed us where to park our car.
The accommodations at Pelican Hill are residential style, but none of them are privately owned. There are the bungalows that are between 847 and 1,694 square feet, and then there are the more expensive villas, which are really like vacation homes that range between 2,000 and 3,073 feet. All have great views of the Pacific and the latter even come with their own private butler. Staying in a bungalow suite, we were just going to have to do without.
It was tough duty, all right. Our suite was divided into two main areas, with a full set of couches, lounge chairs, big-screen plasma TV and entertainment center and dining area on one side, and master bedroom on the other side, complete with a king bed, another big-screen plasma TV entertainment center as well as a fireplace and small kitchen nook with counters and small refrigerator. The bath area, all done in travertine and rich dark woods, included a double vanity, walk-in shower and an over-size tub with peek-a-boo shutter doors opening out to the master bedroom.
The overall impression is one of elegance and craftsmanship. Everything is larger than you might expect — which is what Andrea Palladio was all about — from the bungalow's square footage to the high wood ceilings. The piece de resistance was the wide deck area accessible through sliding glass doors from both sides of the bungalow and large enough to accommodate two ultra-luxurious lounge chairs, a four-place dining table and plenty of space in between to just linger by the see-through deck railings and drink in the gorgeous views of the Pacific, including Catalina Island.
It's one of those places you wouldn't mind just holing up for the weekend and never leaving your bungalow, but Pelican Hill makes a point of offering a wide range of activities including swimming in one of the three pools, bike and hiking trails, a state-of-the-art fitness center, a major spa, a scenic golf course and Camp Pelican, a place for the kids to spend days and half days while their elders get a short reprieve from parenting. We took advantage of this one afternoon and our eight-year-old pronounced her time spent there a complete success — especially because she got to play Wii much of the afternoon with her camp counselor.
One of the swimming pools deserves special mention because it is so unique. The Coliseum Pool is circular and, at 136 feet wide, is reported to be the largest circular pool in the world. More than a million glass tiles were used to cover the pool's bottom. And we were especially impressed by the poolside cabanas — solid walls on both sides with curtains that can be drawn for privacy as well as television, music and lounge chairs. It would be really easy to hunker down here for the entire day.
We didn't sample dinner at the resort, but we did have breakfast brought into our bungalow — a wide assortment of pastries, egg dishes, fruit, cereal, bacon and chicken sausage, and probably way too much for our family of three. But everything was hot and cooked to perfection and the service, as you might imagine, was impeccable. The resort actually has several dining locations: Andrea, the resort's flagship restaurant, the Pelican Grill, two cafes and the Coliseum Grill.
When you do decide to leave the resort grounds, there is much to see and do in the area. Just to the south is the ritzy beach community of Laguna Beach with its restaurants, shopping and great beaches. To the north is Newport Beach including chic shopping destinations such as Corona del Mar and, about three miles away, Fashion Island shopping complex. Just a bit further is one of the biggest shopping centers in the country, South Coast Plaza, where you will find L.A.'s top fashions and designer accessories.
Balboa Island is just a five-minute drive and will give you hours of enjoymentas you visit the quaint shops and restaurants and view the enchanting but expensive homes on this small piece of island real estate. The island has a tiny, but busy Main Street — actually it's called Marine Avenue — which is just a few short blocks with about 70 shops and restaurants to explore. This little example of Small Town Americana offers a wide selection of shops in all price ranges as well as several boutiques and galleries.
The downtown shopping area is just part of the attraction on Balboa Island, an island small enough that you can walk entirely around its perimeter in less than two miles. It's fun to observe life on an island that remains exclusive because it is so expensive. There is no denying that the ever-present sunshine and the harbor views create a quiet respite from bustling city life and clogged freeways. The colorful villas and vacation-style homes on the island are opulent for their size — with these prices, no one's going to skimp on their home maintenance.
We also enjoyed a quiet afternoon down at Crystal Cove, a historic beach area just across the Coast Highway from the Resort at Pelican Hill. It's a state park that gives you access to some of the best beaches and tide pools in Southern California. A few dozen dilapidated beach cottages were taken over by the state in 2005 when their leases expired, and the process of restoration has begun. An afternoon down at Crystal Cove is like visiting a small Mexican beach town where there is no real tourist infrastructure — just rustic old buildings, one very popular beachfront restaurant and about three miles of gorgeous beach. It's well worth a visit.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: The Resort at Pelican Hill is just on the southwest outskirts of Newport Beach, which is located in Orange County, south of Los Angeles.
WHAT: The resort — as well as Newport Beach — is a playground for the rich-and-famous, but not so expensive that you can't sample the good life for a weekend.
WHEN: Year-round, with blue-sky weather virtually any time of the year. The ocean views and climate make this area seem like the Mediterranean — especially at Pelican Hill, where the architecture is designed to look like Tuscany.
WHY: This place that combines so much — luxurious accommodations, sunshine, Italian architecture, great views, excellent service, lots of amenities and nearby activities.
HOW: For more information, contact the resort at 800-315-8214 or visit www.pelicanhill.com. You can also contact the Newport Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-94-COAST or visit www.visitnewportbeach.com.
Photos, from top: Coliseum pool is largest circular pool in the world; views from the terrace of your bungalow are breathtaking; Camp Pelican is popular with the kids; Crystal Cove is just across the highway from the resort
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway, Resort at Pelican Hill
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles onYosemite National Park, Idyllwild, Julian and Sequoia National Park.