Lisa Richards finds a Californian hideaway with a hilltop location that’s perfect for a chastened politician or movie mogul attempting to escape the lights and cameras of Los Angeles
It’s always the way when you’re planning a press trip – or any trip. Despite best intentions, there’s always the odd property or destination that either slips through the research net or becomes a filler. I’m not sure how it happened, but the Ventana Inn was the only hotel that I didn’t research thoroughly when arranging a two-week trip to Nevada and California with Resource’s Publishing Director. Normally, I’m horribly thorough with such things – some might say my research methods border on the obsessively-compulsive, with each mile, minute, meal and gallon of petrol of a trip being accounted for prior to departure (I’m more fun than I sound, I promise!). My route, from Las Vegas to LA to Santa Barbara to San Francisco had been planned meticulously: I knew that I wanted to drive up the magnificent West Coast Highway, and so found a spot roughly in the middle, between LA and San Francisco, for us to stay in order to break up the arduous drive. My itinerary stated that after stopping for a delicious brunch at the Four Seasons Biltmore in the glorious film set town of Santa Barbara, that we began our intrepid drive. Driving north, some say, isn’t the best route as you’re vehicle is on the right and so not hugging the cliff’s edge as it drops away into the Pacific. For me, having the buffer of a lane to the left meant the drive felt a little less precarious.
Rewind to a week before we departed for the West Coast of the States, and I was finalising my route from the comfort and sheer elegance of my hotel room at the Four Seasons Hampshire. WIth a map of California spread out on my bed overlooking the hotel’s perfect English landscape, I was contemplating staying a little further north, so that the drive on to San Francisco would be short and sweet. Then, later that evening, I was discussing my impending trip with my travel companion in a country pub close to the Four Seasons. Unknowingly surrounded by US guests of the hotel (who’d also been recommended the local pub’s home-cooked fayre), the cheeky Americans had a good old listen to our itinerary and then, table after table started offering me travel tips on where to go and what to see. When I mentioned Ventana Inn was possibly on my list, ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ filled the beamed dining room. Hmmm, sounded good. So that evening, dizzy on cider and champagne (not a cocktail, but the drinks that had been served first at the country pub and then later on in the bar of the Four Seasons), I made a call to Ventana and they booked me a suite for one night.
Ventana was a complete and utter revelation – as was the dense fog which shrouded it at the beginning of July. We’d left Palm Springs early that morning in temperatures of 117F, so to be plunged into cold, damp mist was quite a shock to the system. We certainly hadn’t packed for freak winter conditions. Twain’s quote, “One of the coldest winters I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco,” sprung to mind.
Despite digging around, the word ‘magical’ keeps pushing itself to the forefront of my memory of my short-but-sweet stay at Ventana. Not in the dewy-eyed Disney sense, but in the true, awe-inspiring way when sheer, unadulterated beauty and nature is laid before you. As we drove up, up, up towards the main building, we were greeted by two deer who carried on munching at the grass as we drove past. From that moment on, things were surreal, beautiful and dream-like, as the thick, wet fog swirled around the complex, dulling sounds and rendering us forgetful – the Pacific, after all, on a clear day, lies beneath this hillside complex.
After checking in (with the rather strange, but very friendly Rory, who gave us a bite-size history of his life and in turn interrogated us thoroughly) we were taken to our room by electric golf cart, which whooshed through the towering redwoods. Picture the most perfect log cabin setting, and then squeeze a five-star-plus hotel suite into it, complete with hot tub on the terrace, hammock, massive Kohler bath, enormous king-size bed, high thread-count linen, a wood-burning fire (for which we were oh-so grateful in the chill of this Californian summer) and metres and metres of space. Stunning.
Despite doing the job of reviewing hotels for a living, there are still some hotel designers whose work makes us jump around and squeal as if it’s the first time we’ve ever experienced a luxury hotel. Ventana did that job. As we opened up the door of our suite, and sunk ourselves into the hugest, softest bed and then excitedly lit a fire in our hearth (not that the room was cold, but the dark and murky conditions outside lent themselves rather well to a roaring fire), we felt truly lucky to have found this place. Despite it having been open since 1975, we felt that we’d wandered into a well-kept secret. And despite its age, the place felt as fresh as a newly-opened hotel, yet with a well-oiled, mature confidence to its operation. This is the spot to which burned-out celebrities, media moguls and chastened politicians run for time away from the grind of daily life and the flash of a paparrazo’s bulb. Whether they’re desperately trying to get in touch with whatever lies beneath, or just need a few days away from the constant pinging of their BlackBerry, within just an hour of being here one can see its appeal. And somehow the descending fog and the pull of the nearby ocean make the prospect seem all the more attractive. While an ocean view would have been possible on a clear day – thanks to the property’s 200-odd acres above Big Sur – the cosiness, the bleakness and cold made us feel even more cosy and cosseted.
After cracking open a rather delicious bottle of local wine that had been thoughtfully left in our room, we dressed for dinner at Ventana’s restaurant, Cielo. A superb eatery with an excellent and extensive wine list, focussing on Central Californian vintages, naturally. The service is highly efficient and passionate (and also very sweet: our handsome waiter insisted I take my leftover tiramisu back to my room for a ‘midnight snack’), and the menu focusses on local, seasonal produce, as you’d hope for in a hotel of this calibre. At warmer times of the year, there is an outdoor patio proffering expansive views of the Pacific stretching for some 50 miles, but tonight we can barely see beyond the panes of glass in the cedar wood-lined restaurant. Luckily, there’s a log fire roaring in here, too. The Sonoma duck was a stand-out dish, while we particularly appreciated the inclusion of ingredients organically grown in their own garden – these guys were championing local food before it ever became fashionable.
Back to the room on the golf cart (it’s a good 10-minute walk from restaurant to room, and on a warm night this would be an ideal way to walk off a meal, but tonight we just want to get back into the warm), with a perfectly wrapped leftover tiramisu safely on-board, we throw another log on the fire and choose a DVD to be delivered to our room. Mid-July, and we obviously opt for the contemporary festive favourite The Holiday. A bath is poured in the sleek, über-luxurious slate-clad bathroom and we open the shutters so that the bather can watch the TV from their position of suds-and-comfort. After thoroughly testing the bathroom, we hit pause on the DVD player and head out onto the terrace to make use of the hot-tub. We dash, robe-clad, to the bubbles (with a glass of Champagne in hand, irresponsibly ignoring the heath and safety notice of no glass in the hot tub) and then dash back again into the warmth.
Before breakfast, we decide to continue our thorough use of the facilities – and due to being in residence for less than 24 hours, we certainly had to pack it in. Despite the cold and mist still clinging to the hillside, we headed to the outdoor pool and sauna rooms. Steam was rising from the heated pool, but despite this the temperature was still a waking shock to the system. By the time we’d finished braving the pool, we were ravenous for breakfast. And we’re glad we were as this was one of the (many) highlights of our stay.
The morning breakfast room is a delight – a great way to people watch and snatch some fascinating tidbits of conversation. We were surrounded by politicians, members of the media, art collectors and Californian dignitaries, who had all travelled up from LA or down from San Fran to escape the trappings of their glamourous, stressful lives. Despite the LA TImes open in our laps, we couldn’t help but take it all in. And as well as the esteemed company, the breakfast on offer was delicious. It’s one of my favourite times of the day when staying in a luxury hotel, and standards need to be high in order for a property to position itself on my breakfast leader board. Ventana did well to make my top 10 with a delicious buffet on offer – the breakfast company certainly helped raise its score.
I wish we’d stayed more than one night – to leave, even though we were heading for San Francisco, one of my favourite American cities – was a real wrench. We’d spent the previous night and the morning of our departure racing around every inch of the place to take it all in. Another few nights would have meant we could have truly enjoyed this place for the thing that it’s best at: taking you away from your life and allowing you to leave feeling refreshed, revitalised and recharged.
Ventana Inn, Big Sur, California, 93920, USA
Tel: +1 831 667 2331
Date of review: July 2011.
Lisa Richards stayed as a guest of Ventana Inn.