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WEEKEND ESCAPE: BEL-AIR

Queen for a Day

Secluded suites and glorious grounds greet a surprise guest at the posh Hotel Bel-Air, an unabashedly romantic retreat

May 14, 2000|LISA MARLOWE | Lisa Marlowe is a freelance writer in Malibu

LOS ANGELES — My mate, Brian, never makes much ceremony about our anniversary. Sometimes, if he's away, he sends flowers. Once he enclosed a card that read, "In deepest sympathy." Such a kidder.

So for our 16th anniversary in September, I was genuinely surprised when he conjured up something magical and managed to keep it secret: a night at the devastatingly romantic Hotel Bel-Air.

Hidden high in the hills above Sunset Boulevard, this serene enclave proffers up an authentic touch of old L.A.

Tropical foliage covers 11 lush acres studded with 200-year-old oaks, plus redwood, orange, lemon, lime and ginkgo trees. It's a tiny village of 92 rooms (40 are suites) housed in pink Mission-style bungalows draped with trumpet vines and trailing wisteria.

I've visited for alfresco lunch and afternoon tea at the beguiling Terrace restaurant, which overlooks a babbling brook with gliding swans. But this would be the first time I would stay the night.

Although the hotel just completed a sprucing-up, it retains that golden-age-of-Hollywood feel. And what a Tinseltown pedigree: Throughout her career, Marilyn Monroe spent months living in her favorite rooms, 133 and 135.

Elizabeth Taylor and husband No. 1 Nicky Hilton made it their first "home," living in the hotel for an extended period. Howard Hughes closed big deals in the dark, clubby bar.

Our anniversary fell on a Saturday, but Brian and I were busy during the day, so he asked to meet me for a celebratory libation at the hotel's intimate, mahogany-paneled bar. Winding up Stone Canyon Road past faux-Tudor mansions and white-columned colonial estates, I arrived just as the sun was setting.

As I crossed the bridge over "Swan Lake," reality seemed suspended. Gardenia and ginger blossoms closed in, surrounding me with their heady perfume. I heard the soothing sound of water tumbling over rocks; a breeze rustled the leaves overhead. Inside the bar, with hearth blazing, a pianist tinkled tunes on a baby grand.

Brian waited at a quiet table by the window, decked out in a blue blazer and tie. (Jackets are required in the bar after 5 p.m.) I think he had even combed his hair. As we raised glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice, he revealed his little surprise: no going home to dirty dishes and the 11 o'clock news tonight. A candlelight dinner was reserved. He'd even remembered to bring everything he hoped I'd need: my toothbrush and black Calvin Klein maillot swimsuit. What a guy.

Since he had already checked us in, Brian found a chatty bellman to show us to our digs. Passing through porticoes and gardens with trickling Mediterranean fountains and cherub statues peeking from between pink azaleas and purple princess flowers, we came to Suite 415.

Inside, we found pastel country-French furnishings, fresh flowers and a low-burning fire on the hearth. Beyond the simple but elegant sitting room, double doors opened onto a bedroom with a queen-for-a-day, gold-trimmed bed, a dressing room, two bathrooms stocked with Bulgari green tea bath products and perfumed soap in the shape of swans.

TVs, a CD stereo and a long wet bar completed this sophisticated dwelling. On a low table rested the hotel's signature welcome: a covered basket cradling a Japanese tea service and dainty slices of lemon poundcake and shortbread.

"I love it here," I said, pouring golden tea into thimble-sized cups. "This is all wives really want: to be pampered, coddled and spoiled rotten."

Rooting through magazines in our suite, I opened the hotel's own publication, which provided a history of this enclave. In the 1920s, millionaire oilman and real estate developer Alfonzo Bell owned 22,000 prime acres of L.A. turf, from Beverly Glen all the way to Pacific Palisades. He envisioned 4,500-acre Bel-Air as the most desirable estates-only neighborhood on the Westside.

How ironic that he originally refused to sell to "movie people." He constructed two gates at Sunset Boulevard, still standing today, and staffed them with uniformed guards who escorted visitors to their destinations. When the Depression descended, the guards were removed and film folk were allowed to move in. Tyrone Power, Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock bought mansions, and a galaxy of stars followed suit.

Enter Texas investor Joseph Drown, who purchased the land in 1940 and later opened the Hotel Bel-Air. It was 1946: "The Best Years of Our Lives" had just swept the Oscars, a steak dinner in the dining room cost $1.25, and double rooms went for $10 a night. (Rates now start at $325.)

For the last nine years, the hotel has been overseen by Frank Bowling. With a distinct lack of pomposity, he shrewdly observes the passing parade of princes, philanthropists and poseurs who enter his domain.

At our appointed hour, 9 p.m., we strolled to the dining room, honeysuckle and wood smoke scenting the cool night air.

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