During the High Renaissance in Northern Italy, Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) held the esteemed role of being the most celebrated architect, known for his aesthetically pleasing churches, villas, and palaces, all designed in harmony with their surroundings. Influenced by Greek and Roman building principles, Palladio has been called the first architect of Venice and the most influential individual in the history of Western Architecture, as his impact can been seen all over Europe. Today, many of his works in Italy are protected as World Heritage sites.
For US domestic travelers hoping to experience a taste of this High-Renaissance style without the long haul, an architectural gem awaits in Southern California’s Orange County that serves as an homage to Palladio. Though opened 500 years after Palladio’s birth, Pelican Hill gracefully adapted many of his aesthetics and principles such as elegant proportions, classically designed porticos, barrel- vaulted ceilings, and corniced columns to name but a few.
Architecture buffs and sybaritic seekers alike will appreciate this opulent resort, and for my family, it felt like a welcomed mini-adventure in Italy without the jet lag.
Upon arriving at the resort, tucked into the coastal hillside between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, we drove under an imposing aqueduct, reminiscent of the Italian countryside. The manicured foliage, long driveway, grandiose entrance and telltale rooflines of the buildings felt unmistakably Italian. Through the heavy glass doors of the main entrance, the Pacific beckoned. Crossing the marble foyer with views of emerald fairways, we enjoyed the subdued yet striking ambiance in the main lobby. The resort’s living room was equally inviting, featuring a massive fireplace flanked by 17th century tapestries and at least a dozen plush sofas. The floor-to-ceiling windows enhanced the sense of the indoors and outdoors merging seamlessly, a feeling we experienced throughout the resort.
Rather than a single monolithic edifice of rooms, Pelican Hill is marked by a grouping of bungalows, each luxuriously appointed and nestled among palm trees, birds of paradise and vines. Our ocean-facing bungalow looked out over tile roofs, transporting us further into the Tuscan Hills. The cathedral-style wooden ceiling enhanced the spaciousness of the bungalow, and effectively hid the lighting fixtures. Once unpacked, we were torn between relaxing on the chaise lounges with a Campari and soda or further exploring the resort.
Shuttling to the golf course, I was impressed by the vastness of the resort. Noted designer Tom Fazio redesigned his two courses after two years of closure, and the results are spectacular. I discovered that the ‘aqueduct’ over the main entrance is actually a golf cart bridge, cleverly taking me to the first tee. Every hole has a view of the Pacific, and three holes in the south course border the ocean. My loss of many golf balls seemed to be a combination of my skill pitted against the challenging course, and the easy distraction of the beautiful surroundings. Leveraging the spectacular location of the rugged hills rolling toward the ocean, both courses lie between the sea and the resort. The greens are particularly well-tended, and most are protected by an array of bunkers. I was pleased to learn that the irrigation of the course has been praised for its thoughtful conservation of water and the protective use of cisterns to prevent runoff into the ocean. While open to the public, it is privately and meticulously maintained by the resort.
While golfing, I was afforded an even better perspective of the resort’s magnificent architecture. Andrea Palladio’s signature style stood before me in all its grandeur.
After a satisfying round on the north golf course, I further explored the architectural details of the resort. Not since spending hours at the renovated Getty Museum on the coast of Malibu have I been as impressed in California with an ambitious, recent architectural statement. Pelican Hill is only two-and-a-half years old, but it has the unique feeling of being old and new at the same time. The mature foliage belies the modern touches that underlie the architecture. Most notable are the 750 Italian olive trees, from which olive oil is handcrafted and bottled. In juxtaposition are modern touches like the heated floors found in the valet area and outdoor dining terraces, and the special Starphire glass affording undistorted viewing through the vast windows. But it is the classic Palladian architecture that expresses that pervasive attention to detail. I was amazed by the rows of arched porticos, solid Doric columns, and barrel-vaulted ceilings.
The Coliseum Pool evokes Rome’s most famous landmark. Because of its vast size, I was unsure if the shape of the pool was oval or circular. After standing in the middle (and making an inquiry) I discovered that the pool is indeed perfectly round, 136 feet in diameter, and one of the largest such pools in the world. Filled with heated salt water, this beauty has a glorious sky blue bottom created by hand-setting 1.1 million hand-cut glass mosaic tiles.
After the enjoyable sensory overload of golf and architecture, I was ready to experience The Spa at Pelican Hill. One of only two dozen Five-Star spas in the world, the attention to detail, comfort and renewal was superb. I discovered that the subtle yet pervasive aromatherapy emanates from plants, herbs, extracts and botanicals that are organic and grown in California. The massage oil I enjoyed was amber honey-based, in keeping with The Spa’s seasonal approach (figs in the fall, pomegranates in winter, honey in spring and lavender in summer). I unwound before my treatment in the mellow relaxation room, mesmerized by a lighted water wall, hand-carved by local Laguna Beach artisans.
We relished brunch at the Coliseum Bar and Grill, overlooking the magnificent pool, the golf course and the ocean. Though unable to dine at Andrea, the stunning fine-dining restaurant, we had a tour of the kitchen. A return visit is in order, if only to sample one of the many pastas handmade daily in a separate temperature controlled pasta kitchen and to taste the 100-year-old balsamic vinegar. Andrea’s chef du cuisine, Luca Cesarini, sources many of the menu’s ingredients locally and is a specialist in Northern Italian cuisine.
Like Palladio, Pelican Hill excels at attention to detail and is devoted to elegance and aesthetics. This resort pursues the “possibility of perfection,” following Palladio’s ethos, and by most every measure, it has succeeded.
All photos courtesy of Pelican Hill.