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Buffing O.C.'s Gold Coast

The Irvine Co. is turning Pelican Hill golf facility in Newport Beach into a seaside resort, the latest in a series of luxury hotels in the county.

October 01, 2005|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

Striking ocean views, luxurious villas in classic architectural styles and top-notch cuisine.

The Mediterranean? Caribbean? How about Orange County.

Continuing a local bid to become a world-class seaside resort destination, the Irvine Co. this week broke ground on Pelican Hill at Newport Beach, a 115-acre playground for the rich built around its signature golf courses with time-share villas, hotel bungalows and restaurants.

The project marks the latest in a string of luxury hotel developments overlooking the ocean that have popped up in recent years -- from the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort & Spa in Dana Point to the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa -- that are quickly redefining Orange County's image and its multibillion-dollar tourism industry.

For decades, Orange County tourism was largely associated with a single marquee attraction: Disneyland.

But several developers are betting that Orange County's picturesque coastline will offer another draw.

"People want an experience," said Eric Prevette, the Irvine Co.'s vice president of resort properties. "Sophisticated travelers expect a great room. They expect a nice restaurant, and increasingly, they expect spa facilities. But they want a unique experience, and that's what we will offer."

And outright pampering: At the St. Regis, for example, "surf butlers" check water temperatures and wave conditions before escorting guests to the breaks.

At Pelican Hill, the Irvine Co. also is counting on the draw of its two acclaimed golf courses that for $250 on weekends offer players panoramic ocean views. The resort, which cleared county approvals in November, will include 128 time-share villas, a 204-room hotel and 20,000 square feet of meeting and banquet space.

The Irvine Co. won't say how much the resort will cost, but the project includes renovation of the golf courses and is expected to take a year or more. Grading of the land began Monday.

Orange County's beaches have long been a tourist draw. Day-trippers have been coming in their packed station wagons and then SUVs for decades, and small motels and mom-and-pop beach concessions still cater to travelers on a budget. For the wealthy and the Hollywood stars, there were a smattering of upscale hangouts, such as the Surf & Sand Resort in Laguna Beach and the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach.

But just as the multimillion-dollar mansion has supplanted the beach bungalow, the Orange County coast is no longer just a popular place -- it's an attraction.

The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, located in Dana Point, presaged the current boom when it opened in 1984.

What is different today, said Joseph DiMento, a professor of planning and law at UC Irvine, is not the presence of wealthy residents and tourists, but how wealth has come to dominate the landscape and define the image of the coast.

"Now you are seeing this becoming a truly international destination," DiMento said.

To help cement that image, most of the new resort owners have invested in a marketing campaign that recently sent 80,000 mailings to moneyed travelers outside of the state, according to Cormac O'Modhrain, who is heading the campaign.

"Orange County has been viewed traditionally as a conduit for people going to San Diego or Los Angeles, not a tourism destination in its own right, outside of Disneyland," said O'Modhrain, a vice president at the Robert Mayer Corp., which owns two hotels in Huntington Beach: the Hyatt Regency and the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort. "The French Riviera has identity. South Beach has identity. We want our identity."

That identity, in many ways, has been crystallizing for years. From agricultural empire to suburban enclave, Orange County now is home to major job centers, several Fortune 500 companies and critically acclaimed cultural venues.

It is winning tourism acclaim as well. Several of the area resorts have received glowing reviews from travel magazines, and occupancy rates have climbed about 5% since 2003, when half of the eight seaside resorts opened, according to research firm PKF Consulting.

"If you lived in San Francisco and told your friends you vacationed in Orange County, I don't think people would say 'Where?' They'd say 'Where did you stay?' " said Marguarite Clark, a public relations consultant who until recently worked for the Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach, which opened two years ago.

But not everyone is welcoming Orange County's growing popularity. The same things that make the coastline attractive -- seclusion amid azure ocean waters and rugged bluffs -- are falling victim to developments that claim an ever-larger piece of the coast, said Penny Elia, a Laguna Beach resident and local Sierra Club volunteer who has battled the Montage over traffic and environmental issues.

"I am not saying we don't want others to come," she said. "But they don't live here; they don't have any feeling or aptitude to take care of where they are. I want other people to enjoy it, but I want them to respect it."

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