Just when you thought the era of palatial hotels had ended with the robber barons, along comes the Grand Del Mar, a 2-month-old resort, golf course, spa and great big guilty pleasure. Enjoying the near-decadent levels of luxury made me question my commitment to democratic ideals.
While the rest of the hotel industry seems intent on harnessing hip for profit and pleasure, the developer of the Grand Del Mar in northern San Diego County has focused on old-world grandeur for grandeur's sake. The glittery luxury here is a smoothly integrated blend that's filtered through Spain, California, Italy's Venice and architect Addison Mizner's 1920s perspective of upper-class hotels.
San Diego developer Douglas Manchester spent $300 million to buy and refurbish the former Meadows del Mar golf course and build the 249-room resort, reportedly one of the most expensive new hotels in California.
Built to last, with no opportunity for ornamentation overlooked, the resort draws from the past to be part of the future. The history here is stylistic, not authentic -- not yet. Like a young wine, the place needs some age and experience to have deep character and smooth the sometimes-brash flavor of nouveau-riche excess. I, however, was happy for a taste.
Off I went, driving the 110 miles from downtown Los Angeles to spend Thanksgiving at the then-47-day-old retreat. Heading up the long entrance off Carmel Country Road, past the resort's golf course and guardhouse, I expected, based on the rugged fence of wood beams and limestone chunks, a lodge sculpted with adobe and timbers.
Once the valet, dressed like a British colonial soldier, ushered me and my companion inside, I wanted to repack my wardrobe to include an evening gown.
A chiffon train would have looked appropriate drifting across the broad lobby's intricate marble mosaic floors and beneath the soaring, hand-stenciled and vaulted ceilings. I could have sashayed into one of the elegant dining rooms or bars and felt myself part of a rekindled Jazz Age.
Instead, in my squishy trainers and Nike hoodie, I followed a peppy bellman to another fantasy come to life.
"Is this room OK?" he asked, pointing out the view of one of four pools, this one large enough to irrigate Zaire.
It was more than OK.
Many unexpected features of the $395-a-night, nearly 600-square-foot room, done in creamy earth tones, set a high standard of luxury.
The 20-foot entry hallway runs alongside the deep bathroom, the room's center of splendor. Three gold-framed mirrors reflect marble counter tops, golden fixtures, dual sinks, oversized towels, a separate marble shower, 13-inch flat-screen TV and a tub that could immerse a family of five. A set of mirror-paneled windows swings open above the tub to views of the room and beyond.
Sinking into 2 feet of hot water, my bath-loving companion said, "I feel like a potentate of an oil state." Meanwhile, I felt transported to Paris or maybe Venice. No, make that Boca Raton, Fla. If I couldn't put my finger on the architecture or decor, it's because the resort is a fusion of elements and eras.
Beneath the windows on the bedroom side sits a delightfully extravagant, mirrored writing desk, similar to those at the Hotel Regina, my Art Nouveau Parisian haunt. I perched in this chip- and crud-free version, then shifted to the arched, curving couch covered in pristine white Jacquard.
I tried the chair (leather, swivel) at the desk to watch the 40-inch flat-screen TV (also ornately framed in gold), then reclined on the bed, padded with down, draped with a custom damask spread and outfitted with embroidered Pratesi sheets.
No mere mini-bar would suffice in such a place. Instead, there is a wet bar with a marble counter top, a selection of Schott Zwiesel barware, private-label wine and 200-milliliter bottles of premium spirits.
This must be how the other half lives -- or, perhaps more correctly, the other half of 1%. This may help explain why the resort was virtually empty.
For three days and nights, I saw more staff than visitors and consequently had speedy, expert service. Only one large group was in residence -- the members of the Manchester clan, as in San Diego developer Douglas Manchester. The visitors had come to celebrate Thanksgiving in the top-floor private dining room, the Manchester Salon. A table for nearly two dozen hardly filled the space, flanked on each end by tall fireplaces and attached to a wide outdoor terrace.
The owners could have invited 300 of their closest friends to dine in one of the ballrooms, where they could orate from the velvet-curtained stage. With five children and 10 grandkids, surely Papa Doug, as Manchester is known, will be hosting weddings in the nondenominational chapel, the Elizabeth Capella. With Gothic-arched windows, stained glass, marble columns and 28 removable, hand-carved pews, the 3,340-square-foot room could belong in St. Mark's Square in Venice. It costs $10,000 to rent it for a wedding, $5,500 if you book the reception in-house too.