Foreclosures are up, stocks are down and the workplace is awash in pink slips.
Amid this economic gloom and doom, at a time when frugality is fashionable and opulence suspect, three Southern California luxury hotels have opened -- the Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Coast, Montage Beverly Hills and the SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills.
In the giddy days of rampant prosperity -- remember those? -- when planning for these properties began, no one foresaw that they were destined to make their debut in a worsening recession. One might assume that these hoteliers, faced with filling $400 and up guest rooms, high-end restaurants and luxury spas, might be in panic mode.
One would be incorrect.
"Hotels are generally one of the first markets that bounce back," said Sam Nazarian, chief executive of L.A.-based SBE, whose quirky and ultra-stylish SLS is its first luxury hotel brand. "People need to come to L.A. to do business, and we still have the entertainment industry, a solid core for our business. [Los Angeles] is notorious for not having the proper amount of rooms at this level. It's the safest and best hotel market in the country."
The luxury market customer isn't hard to identify -- chief executives, captains of industry, major entertainment players -- but a luxury hotel is more than its room rates. Among the musts today: a super-spa; discreet in-room check-in; welcoming perks such as hot scented towels; separate entrances for hotel guests and bar/restaurant guests; high thread-count imported linens; pillow-top mattresses; private poolside cabanas with flat-screen TVs; and state-of-the-art computer and iPod connections.
There are high-tech fitness centers, 24-hour room service, nightly turndown and perhaps twice-daily housekeeping. There may be fresh fruit and flowers.
At Pelican Hill, guests in the spacious villas have 24-hour personal butlers. At Montage, suite guests can use one of the hotel's fleet of 10 Mercedeses. SLS Hotel's JetVan is on call to take guests anywhere within two miles, including SBE's Hyde Lounge and its other clubs.
How else do they pamper us? Based on my December visits, let me recount the ways.
The Resort at Pelican Hill
I turned off Newport Coast Drive in Newport Coast, drove through one of two towering arches and uphill to the resort, pulling into a huge circular motor court. Everything at Pelican Hill seems larger than life, a luxury made possible because it sits on 504 acres of Irvine Co. land.
In the lobby rotunda, a pianist played "Autumn Leaves." From the terrace, I took in the view of the Pacific, the Tom Fazio golf courses and the round Coliseum Pool, which, at 136 feet in diameter, is thought to be the largest circular pool in the country.
Newport Coast? Coliseum? The architecture is Mediterranean, with a nod to 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. There are columns and more columns, ocher-colored buildings with tile roofs, mature fig, olive and pine trees. The parking garage is tucked away beneath an Italian garden.
A bellman in a golf cart led me to my bungalow ($695), and I parked right in front. Inside, I flicked a switch and the fireplace ignited. All of the 204 bungalows -- 847 to 1,639 square feet -- are terraced in the hills, so each has an ocean view. They have large foyers, high raftered ceilings and generous terraces. My bath, which had a soaking tub and stall shower, was bigger than some European hotel rooms (although a ceiling heater would have been nice).
I'd booked for dinner at Andrea, Pelican Hill's premier restaurant. Though dining solo, I was shown to a large banquette. To the accompaniment of live classical guitar music, I studied the menu and as I pondered, a waiter warned me the portions were small.
He wasn't kidding.
I'd have preferred fewer bellissimos from the staff and a few more of those lovely lobster-filled tortellini.
Pelican Hill aims to set itself apart in a crowded luxury field with a mix of California-casual lifestyle and exquisite service. That was largely my experience, anyway. When was the last time a room service waiter pointed out the tip was included?
The spa, which is open to the public, is 23,000 square feet with dramatic water walls. I had scheduled a facial, and afterward, in the idyllically peaceful women's lounge with its gossamer draperies and soft sofas, I sipped chilled cucumber water as I perused an art book. The spa shop has a plethora of beauty products but, thankfully, there was no hard sell.
Pelican Hill is also kid-friendly. Camp Pelican, for 5- to 12-year-olds, has its own pool and a clubhouse with TV and computers. For teens, there's an off-site adventure program.
The 128 villas offer two to four bedrooms, up to 3,678 square feet -- at up to $4,200 a night, no minimum stay. They have their own clubhouse and pool. "These are not a time share," said Ralph Grippo, president of the Irvine Co. Resort Properties, which owns and operates Pelican Hill Resort. "They will never be sold."