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HOTEL REVIEW | RATING: * * * *

Newport Beach's Island Hotel high on hospitality

The hotel in Newport Beach could have settled for cushy good looks, but it didn't. Its service charms and disarms.

By Valli Herman

Times Staff Writer

June 24, 2007

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Sometimes you just have to stop and smell the flowers. Good thing I did, because the pristine blossom in my room at the Island Hotel in Newport Beach wasn't some cheap imitation but a specimen so perfect that it looked fake.

That's the irony of perfection these days: It can catch you off guard, particularly in the flurry of mega-million-dollar remodels that turn hotels into stiff showplaces. The best hotels can balance style and warmth and, better, tip the scales with nearly clairvoyant service.

This 20-story, 295-room hotel hasn't missed a beat since its owner, the Irvine Co., took over a year and a half ago as manager of the property that had been a Four Seasons since it opened in 1986. Lush landscaping has been added, entrances have been updated, and in early June, the Palm Terrace, a new lounge and restaurant, opened under the direction of executive chef Bill Bracken.

Surrounded by busy streets, five densely planted acres set the hotel apart from Newport Center office buildings and help it live up to its island name. With ocean views and lots of greenery, the place feels cozy and remote but also efficient and engaged — a business hotel that likes to party.

That explains why you see guys in name badges and corporate khakis having a drink. It's also why the lowest room rates can zoom to $385 on weekdays but drop to $275 on weekends.

The dual but not dueling personalities also show up in guest rooms that are essentially offices disguised as voluptuous bedrooms. When I entered my 435-square-foot superior king room, I sensed soft furniture, not hard appliances, even though there was an ample array of electronics: flat-screen TV, laptop outlets, iPod jack, DVD and CD player, speakers and multiple phones.

The linens, Italian and high-thread-count, cover a king-size bed anchored by a ceiling-height upholstered headboard.

The room also comes equipped with the road warrior's necessities: in-room coffee maker, a bathroom scale, lighted makeup mirror, laundry line, emergency flashlight, sunscreen in the mini bar, large writing desk with two chairs, ample adjustable lighting. You can even rent a typewriter.

Service is lightning fast: Only 15 minutes, 31 seconds elapsed between my ordering and eating a room-service breakfast of eggs cooked to order ($22 menu price, $32 with service fees). The hotel limousine arrived within three minutes of my calling for pickup after an excursion to Fashion Island.

The hotel's split personalities emerge again at the 2-year-old spa, where the staff exudes the gentle manners of fairy godmothers but the can-do determination of army generals. An example: When trying to schedule a massage ($140 for one hour), the spa manager took the initiative to schedule one for me that wouldn't conflict with dinner. Don't bother, I said; the restaurant is booked. Undaunted, she called and secured a dinner reservation and called me to confirm it.

When I was running late for my spa treatment, I phoned the spa attendant, who rearranged schedules to give me a slot. With just nine treatment rooms, the 4,000-square-foot spa can keep things personal.

Service this accommodating can't usually be taught but often comes from incentives, like money or, sometimes, fear. I like to think that it's because this friendly staff understands the nuances of real hospitality.

The feeling extends to the new Palm Terrace Restaurant and Lounge, where the dining experience is consistent with the hotel's high standards. During dinner on a busy Friday night, Bracken circulated through the tropical dining room, explaining his inventive new menu. It has sizable appetizers and small-bites sections ($4 to $15), and diners can experience in breadth dishes designed to offer bursts of inventive flavors — mushrooms with halibut, Kobe beef scented with clove, 100-year-old balsamic vinegar on heirloom tomatoes.

A water menu, charted by mineral levels, begins the meal. One evening's special ($48) was a 16-ounce bone-in filet so large I decided it was mastodon.

After such indulgences, the fitness center beckons. Workouts are a pleasure in the 2-year-old facility, which has spotless equipment and doors open to ocean breezes. The large pool is 3 feet, 6 inches deep all around, shallow enough to allow playful kids an expansive berth.

But you probably won't see many youngsters here, even though they would like the new tennis courts and the lushly landscaped pool. This is a middle-aged crowd that has earned (or inherited) the dough to shop large at Fashion Island, travel on expense accounts and party in cocktail frocks in the Palm Terrace Lounge, where Vegas-style singer Jimmy Hopper lately presides.

Hopper's classic rock sets have earned a lively, if aging, following who don't mind that the singer with the punk haircut needs glasses to read his lyrics. Guys camouflage their gray with highlights, tuck their bellies into leather pants, and betray their fantasies with age-inappropriate dates. Just watch out for the tipsy middle-aged woman singing along to the Journey power ballads. Turn your back, and she'll hit on your date. She must have taken to heart the poem the housekeeper left on beds at turn-down time. It reads, in part, "The future is an ocean filled with opportunity and delight."

If I had the choice, I'd vote her off this very pleasant island.

valli.herman@latimes.com