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Old-World Classics

Just where you'd least expect them, three California boutique hotelsaAi in the Sierra, Palm Springs and San DiegoaAi are taking their cues from Europe

September 16, 2007|Susan Spano; Beverly Beyette ; Craig Nakano

The Chateau du Sureau and Erna's Elderberry House restaurant nestle near the town of Oakhurst, a 30-minute drive from the south entrance of Yosemite National Park. It's God's country, all hay-colored Sierra foothills and thickets of stately pines in a place where nature trumps nurture.Which makes finding a classic European inn that discreetly displays the Relais & Chateaux logo all the more surprising.

No roughing it here. With a slate tower and Spanish Colonial red tile roof, the Chateau du Sureau sits like a fairy-tale princess on its Sierra hillside. A walled swimming pool separates the chateau from Erna's Elderberry House restaurant, and a Mediterranean garden spreads around it. The path below takes guests past two ponds, a gazebo, boccie court and wooden swing. The inn's 10 guest chambers are named for herbs and spices. Sweet Geranium, where I stayed, has a tile-lined fireplace, an antique desk and armoire, a settee in a window embrasure, a dreamy king-sized canopy bed and a bathroom with an oval tub.

The decor is definitely old-fashioned country French, but without the creaks and inconveniences common in Old World hotels. And the service, including a butler on call 24 hours a day, is flawless.

Visits from privacy-loving stars (Barbra Streisand, among them) prompted the addition of a secluded two-suite villa, sumptuously decorated with antiques. Next came the spa, where I had a 90-minute Hikers Repose massage using elderberry-eucalyptus oil that took the pain out of the four-hour drive from L.A.

Inevitably, the main event is dinner at Erna's Elderberry House. When Austrian-born owner Erna Kubin-Clanin arrived in the area in 1978, she brought her Viennese convent-school culinary training with her and quickly earned recognition from Craig Claiborne and other food critics. Later, she turned the kitchen over to James Overbaugh, formerly of the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans.

His French American fusion cooking features the inventive use of local produce, with sophisticated European flourishes--think kale soup with corn-truffle souffle. On my visit in July, I drank a Calera Pinot Noir from the Central Coast with the six-course tasting menu, highlighted by baby-soft pork tenderloin and a raspberry Linzer torte.

Kubin-Clanin, a stylish 65-year-old brunet with an accent like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's, routinely makes the rounds at dinner or talks to guests on the breakfast terrace, accompanied by Sophie, a Coton de Tulear white puff-ball of a dog.

At the inn, Kubin-Clanin's vigilant hand, European politesse and fanciful nature are apparent everywhere. All that's missing is the castle, but Yosemite's El Capitan is just up the road.

--Susan Spano


Chateau du Sureau, 48688 Victoria Lane, Oakhurst, Calif.; (559) 683-6860, Doubles $375 to $575, including breakfast and 24-hour butler service. Erna's Elderberry House, (559) 683-6800,, has six-course tasting menus for $95, paired with three glasses of wine for an additional $38.

Desert Oasis

Just when you think you can't take it--one more piece of biomorphic furniture or aluminum louvers or any of the ubiquitous hallmarks of Midcentury Modern celebrated in Palm Springs (no offense, Mr. Neutra), along comes the Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn.

The Italianate mansion once was the desert hideaway of Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst's amour. Later owners subjected it to a ghastly 1970s redecoration, but it was rescued in 1994 by Tracy Conrad and Paul Marut, L.A. physicians (and husband and wife) who spotted it one night and thought the 1924 mansion would make a nice boutique inn.

"The bones were good," Conrad says, "but the house really needed some love."

Mahogany paneling had been painted over, and plastic pink flamingos were installed in the pool of the rock waterfall, which was painted blue. Red carpet covered the wood floors, and a Budweiser sign hung from the dining room ceiling. One set of French doors was obscured by a giant TV. Renovation took two years.

The Willows is now a period gem whose eight rooms feature gleaming woods, original painted ceilings and wrought-iron detailing and are furnished with hand-chosen antiques and Oriental carpets. In the spacious desert-view veranda off the elegant drawing room, guests enjoy complimentary wine and hors d'oeuvres.

Breakfast (included in the room rate) is presented with proper linens, silver and china in the open-air dining room, where guests look out on the cascading waterfall. It's delicious--homemade scones or muffins, eggs, pancakes and sausages, fresh fruit.

My room, Acanthus (the former maid's quarters), was charming, with a small sitting area and a wonderful pillow-top queen bed. Water and snacks were complimentary. Bath amenities were in silky little pouches tied with ribbon.

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