Heaven Is in the Details

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For Southern California residents, it’s a dream come true: a world-class luxury resort in our backyard. No more heavy-duty packing, interminable airport lines or taxing drives. Just a dream vacation, the level of which might be expected by royal families, heads of state and celebrities seeking solitude—and about an hour away from pretty much anywhere in Southern California.

Inspired by 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio, Pelican Hill rises like an Italian Renaissance masterpiece above the magnificent Newport Beach coast, on 504 acres surrounded by almost 50,000 acres of protected habitat. The Tuscan-style colonnades, arched porticos, rotundas, vaulted ceilings, courtyards and bubbling fountains—all gracefully connected by herringbone-brick walkways and Mediterranean landscaping—look like they’ve always been there. It’s as if the resort was designed to be a legacy.

As for the main attractions, get a pen. Aside from the luxe accommodations, there are two Tom Fazio-designed golf courses (with the most seasoned golf pros); a pool that is a perfect 136-foot-diameter circle of shallow saltwater, inlaid with 1.1 million (not kidding) hand-cut-glass tiles; a 23,000-square-foot spa with treatments rivaling the finest in Europe; and the resort’s elegant signature restaurant, Andrea, a world-class contender.

There’s more. Given that the typical luxury hotel room is 450 square feet, the smallest bungalow at Pelican Hill (there are only bungalows and villas) is 847 square feet (the size of many apartments), and the largest villa is 3,581 square feet (larger than my house). Spacious doesn’t cover it—you feel as if you are living in someone’s luxurious home, not a hotel. All 204 bungalows and 128 villas face the Pacific Ocean and have every amenity: HD flat screens, Bose sound systems, marble soaking tubs, limestone fireplaces and the finest china. The villas, each akin to a two-, three- or four-bedroom home, come with a stocked gour­met kitchen, a garage with washer-dryer and, yes, a butler.

The brainchild of real-estate developer, philanthropist and conservationist Donald Bren, chairman of the Irvine Company, Pelican Hill runs on the motto “The possibility of perfection.” So, how does an ultra-luxe des­tination successfully launch beyond anyone’s expec­tations in an economically challenging time?It’s the people.

The method behind this risky business/madness boils down to details: Out of more than 16,000 applicants who clamored to be a part of the resort’s operations, only 900 were hired. While many of the candidates were culled from Ritz-Carltons, Four Seasons, Westins, boutique hotels, prestigious spas, top restaurants, sports clubs and hospitality services from all parts of the globe, the Pelican selection process was a work of art, as the choices were not limited to the highly experienced. Neophytes were also sought for their passion to serve and ability to grasp the unique philosophy that drives Pelican hospitality—and for their smiles.

As for the attention to detail, it’s as if all the veteran hospitality professionals brought on board sat in one room and asked themselves, What detail would I like to add? What would contribute to the perfect experience? That’s why there are five types of coffee in each villa, a choice of soaps and Villeroy & Boch china; why no guest will ever have to request toothpaste, a razor or shaving gel; and why such touches as orchids in the sitting rooms and expansive patios with chaise lounges and tables contribute to the feeling that you’re staying at a close friend’s vacation home. The details go beyond the guest rooms: Risotto is finished in a 28-inch wheel of Parmesan and served in individual silver dishes; the spa features temperature-controlled beds and a waiting room full of art books; and the lobby is a study in opulent minimalism.

The lengths to which employees will go to provide above-and-beyond service is unprecedented. The answer to every request is “Fine,” “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am,” “My pleasure” when appropriate and “Of course!”—all said with a smile. Every task is executed promptly. Want Variety delivered to your door? It’s there. Canadian Club? Give them 10 minutes. A private Fendi fashion show? Model-ready by the next day. Peace and quiet? Say the word, and no one will disturb you. One guest brought her mother, who had been very ill. Once her mom was settled, she was brought a pair of slippers to make her more comfortable. Because the slippers provided were too large, a hotel staffer went to the store and bought a pair that would fit.

The service, smiles and attitudes are amazing everywhere at Pelican Hill. And here’s why:

Giuseppe Lama, Managing Director
The dinner crowd is about to arrive at Andrea as Lama scrutinizes the room, eyeing the Rene Ozorio china and napkins made from drapery fabric chosen in Milan. He sees something amiss. From his pocket, he whips out three lengths of butcher string: 48 inches, 12 inches and a 20-footer. He uses the first to proportion the tableware—a knife to the opposing place setting’s fork, a fork to the opposite knife. The second gauges space between each setting’s knife, fork and plates. The third aligns all tables, chairs, vases and candles so a diner will see symmetry throughout.

“Perfection does not take a day off,” he says. “I tell my staff if they can’t produce perfection that day, then don’t show up to work.” It was just that “perfection” gene Lama was seeking when he met prospective mana­gers. “It’s evident in how a person carries himself: standing straight, head erect, chin up, firm handshake and—most important—the ability to look me in the eye.” His most memorable lesson—which he uses at Pelican—came from a managerial stint at the Westin Century Plaza, where he served lunch to former pres­ident Ronald Reagan every day. “Reagan once told me whenever he met someone, he would look at the color of their eyes. The instant connection makes a deposit in a person’s emotional bank account,” says Lama. “That’s what I teach every employee. Once you do that, the rest is easy.”

Toby Moll, Guest Services Representative
Because he had taken an American sign-language class when he broke his jaw and had it sewn shut, when Moll observed a couple strolling through the grounds signing to each other, he was able to lend some assistance. “I ended up helping them retrieve their car,” he says. “Glad to be of service.”

Kimberly Erickson, Villa Coordinator
Like a “pre-concierge,” Erickson oversees the needs of villa guests. “I call them about a month prior, just to say hello,” she says. She notes each wish or request and follows through by organizing children’s activities, making spa appointments, stocking refrigerators, booking tee times and explaining transportation, email and phone systems. “That way, people won’t be overwhelmed by instructions and decisions when they arrive,” she says. And that half-and-half? Order it once, and it will always be in your fridge.

Kevin Kovac, Villas Assistant General Manager
The villas are like “a boutique hotel within a hotel,” says Kovac. The Orange County native learned the main trick of his trade from his mother. “She always told me, ‘Do what you would do even if someone wasn’t watching you,’ ” he says. “Before Christmas, one guest requested a tree in her villa. Her sister-in-law owned a tree farm, so I coordinated with her and had it delivered on the 24th. The guest had ornaments, so one of our concierges, a butler and I put them up. After she checked out, we took all the ornaments down. Since she lived near me, I drove them back to her house.” No problem at all.

Matt Rydell, Valet Supervisor
“Our valets are like Michael Phelps,” Rydell says. “It’s all about timing and passion. It starts when your vehicle pulls up under the porte cochere, and a valet immediately greets you with open arms.” He even has a valet philosophy: “If a guest has to wait 20 minutes for their car after they’ve had a wonderful dinner at our resort, they won’t remember their dinner at all. We strive to get their vehicle in under five minutes.” And if you don’t want the resort’s Bentley to pick you up? “We have plenty of golf carts. And blankets when it is chilly.”

Jordan Wilson, Pool Attendant
A 25-year-old Cal State Long Beach TV and journalism grad, Wilson went from a promising production job at America’s Funniest Home Videos to setting up lounge chairs, placing cucumber slices over sunbathers’ eyes and dispensing Evian facial misters. “One day I heard a man way out in the pool say, ‘I wish I had my sunglasses.’ So I waded out there with them. I love being able to surprise guests by anticipating their needs.” But the best perk? “Just look at my office view,” he says, gazing out at the massive pool, golf fairways and sweeping Pacific. “It beats any corner office in the world.”

Mike Ahmer, Water Quality Manager
Ahmer conducts walking eco-tours of the 50,000 protected woodland acres surrounding the resort. Each guest may request a disposable camera to snap the sights as he lectures. Throughout, Ahmer identifies every plant, flower, tree and herb—edible and non—and points out endangered species like the California gnatcatcher. But the UCSB aquatic biology grad wasn’t initially hired to provide eco-tours. As water-quality manager, he also works as an environmental consultant, overseeing two water-quality systems, one to pump rain runoff onto the golf course and another to take dry-season flow and funnel it into a well for reclaimed-water use.

Marie Friedlander, Certified YogaGolf Instructor
“Breathe through your nose,” says Friedlander in smooth, even tones. High atop the course at the Pacific View Tee, three middle-aged male golfers stand barefoot on mats with their arms stretched overhead and palms together. “Become aware of your stance. Stack your spine. Stare at your drishti.” The two-hour session concludes with the men remarking how much more flexible and relaxed they feel. One golfer, who had complained of lower back pain, heads to a canvas tent, where his swing is videotaped. He compares it with a previously taped swing playing on a nearby laptop. He smiles.

Christopher Bellot, Butler
One guest requested morning delivery of all the country’s top newspapers. Bellot delivered a spate of them, but the New York Post was missing. While the guest was fine with going Post-less, Bellot borrowed one and did what any good butler would—Xeroxed all 72 pages, ads included, and delivered it promptly.

Morgan Chadwick, Children’s Activities Specialist
For little ones, even the bathroom at Pelican is a good time—the Kids Club restroom is wall­papered with a world map. But more fun than finding Peru while on the potty is Chadwick, a concierge to the kiddies. He doesn’t have prestigious academic or hospitality credentials. It was his passion for entertaining children that sold management on the idea that he’d be the perfect person to deliver a power-packed experience. Chadwick learned about creative engagement from his mother, an art teacher. “I love arts and crafts, ceramics—all of it.” And the seasons are often his muse: His idea to make heart-shape pillows for Valentine’s Day is currently on the docket. One of his most admirable goals is music to a parent’s ears: “I don’t want them watching TV.”

Shannon Gibson, Pool Attendant
One sunbather remarked to her husband that she wanted to watch the USC game but didn’t know what channel it was on. Gibson approached her before kickoff and said, “I understand you want to watch the USC game. There’s a TV in your cabana, and the game is on channel 38. When you’re ready, I can turn it on for you.”

Tina Brommer, Spa Esthetician
To Brommer, treatments embrace more than just skin care. It starts the minute her client enters the spa’s 28-foot-high rotunda. “I’ve already called to discuss their skin type, get special requests and describe procedures,” she says. “I help create an intention—to relax, replenish or reinvigorate. I know ahead of time what they want to get out of their treatment.”

Deborah Keillor, Fashion Stylist
With her style chops developed as a fashion expert and guest stylist on the Style Network’s How Do I Look? Keillor says, “If a woman wants a makeover, I come to her room and take measurements. We discuss color, style, designers and budget. Then I’m off to nearby Fashion Island.” She pulls clothes everywhere from Forever 21 to Neiman Marcus, depending on preference. “Then I either pick up my client to go to the stores with me or bring everything back to her room.” In the works for spring is a retreat for a major corporation. “On the day of their awards banquet, I will pull looks for the women at designer boutiques. The best part is watching them reveal their new looks at the dinner. It’s all pretty glamorous.”

Jean-Pierre Dubray, Executive Chef
How many chefs does it take to run four restaurants, nine kitchens, four bars, two cafés, 322 residences and a multitude of banquets, meetings and indoor and outdoor weddings? One: Dubray. After his culinary education in France, a guest-chef honor at the James Beard Foundation and opening 17 Ritz-Carltons over 23 years, the Frenchman thought he’d done it all until he came to Pelican Hill and met his biggest challenge: room service. “I had to design meals that could travel from the kitchen to the farthest residence, a drive of up to a half mile—by cart,” he says. Dubray aims to please. “I once asked a gentleman about his meal, and he told me his steak was medium instead of medium-rare. So I took it, returned to the kitchen and asked my chef to cook one medium rare, then take it to him and apologize. This blows people away. We’re not perfect, but we go back and make it right. That’s what we do every day.”

Gianluca Re Fraschini, Chef at Andrea
With his blond ruffled hair and white coat, Re Fraschini looks a bit like a mad scientist—one who works in his very own pristine, 68-degree pasta room. Recently, a diner asked for filet mignon. Re Fraschini pursed his lips—after all, the customer should get what he wants—but couldn’t resist: “The filet will be excellent,” he told his guest, “but if you want a more flavorful cut, you might try a cut close to the bone, like osso buco.” The suggestion was taken, and Re Fraschini chalked up yet one more devoted fan.

Jamal Diab, Villa Butler
When villa residents pull up to their personal driveway for the first time, they are greeted by a white-uniformed butler standing at attention, with a white-gloved hand extended toward the appropriate residence. Diab is one of them. His duties can be mundane—brewing coffee, unpacking luggage, doing laundry, lighting the fireplace, drawing the bath (which includes light dimming, temperature testing and putting on mood music). Or—and this is where Diab really shines—“If we have Muslim guests, I can give them directions for the Kabbah in Mecca, where they must face for their prayers. I supply them with the Koran and a prayer carpet. I can direct our Jewish guests to kosher grocery stores if they’d like to cook, or I can prepare kosher meals.”

Jay Calimlim, Villas Club Chef and In-Room Dining Chef
Calimlim takes a simple drink and makes it sublime: “Lemonade ice cubes in lemonade, or iced-tea cubes in iced tea make for a visual and taste sensation.”

Thierry Grandsire, General Manager
Grandsire is a natural at making people feel welcome, beginning with his family’s restaurant in Nice, France. He polished his style at Le Méridien in Newport Beach and earned his stripes as the manager of Qatar’s Doha Ritz-Carlton, receiving, he says, “every person in the Middle East who was a player: four U.S. presidents, Shimon Peres, Alberto Gonzales, Condoleezza Rice, all the presidents of the -stan countries—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan—the prime minister of Japan, royal families.” Today, Grandsire is attending the morning housekeeping lineup. “How do you motivate a lady who has four kids and takes care of her own household?” he asks. “By sitting with her, talking about those kids, hearing her concerns. If I can do one thing for them, I’m having a good day.” But he is far from lax. “I’m clean crazy. I look at my fingertip everywhere, make sure the back of the house is just as clean as the front.”

Reginald Thomas, Server
The former LSU linebacker may look intimidating, but his laugh and smile are infectious. “How are you?” asks a guest. His reply? “Best day of my life.”

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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