Hollywood gem ready for its close-up
For traditionalists, the 66-year-old Hotel Bel-Air was perfect as it was. It has always been something of a standout as far as historic mansions in the Hollywood Hills go, with its pale pink stucco exterior and Spanish mission architecture and white swans gliding on a pond in the heart of its leafy grounds. Not to mention the fact that it has hosted presidents, royalty and film stars.
After all, who would want to change a place with a lobby that feels more like a stately home, decked out with comfortable couches, fireplaces, mahogany coffee tables and gilt-framed oil paintings over the magnificent mantelpiece?
But this being Los Angeles, where even the most beautiful get facelifts, the owners of the Hotel Bel-Air, the Dorchester Collection, figured it was time for a bit of cut and tuck.
This is the property's first major renovation since it opened to the rich and famous in 1946. It was shut down for two years while all the public spaces and rooms were gutted out and redone in a sleek, contemporary style. Having recently reopened, the traditional reception and check-in desks have been done away with, to be replaced by attractive and efficient concierges seated at desks with laptops.
Even checking in the old fashioned way - wait in a queue, hand over a credit card, get a room key - has been sidelined in favour of concierges taking the guest straight to his or her room, where check-in formalities are completed with the aid of an iPad. Each room comes with its own iPad, which can be used for everything from ordering room service to checking out.
New York designer Alexandra Champalimaud was enlisted to modernise the 103 rooms and suites, while retaining the hotel's romantic pedigree. Chandeliers suspended from room ceilings are embellished with modernistic wrought iron leaves, and a neutral colour scheme is a perfect backdrop to touches such as graphic black-and-white patterned rugs and black wall sconces.
The Presidential Suite has a grand piano and a dining room that seats 10. There's an air of restrained luxury throughout: rooms look like they might belong in the home of a reclusive tech billionaire rather than the Sultan of Brunei, who owns the hotel through one of his numerous companies. The makeover included the addition of 12 villas, each with its own plunge pool and courtyard.
The hotel is clearly going out of its way to give guests what they want. It carries La Prairie products in its bathrooms. And La Prairie also runs the new 12,000 sq ft spa on the property. Bathrooms have heated floors and flat-screen TVs.
Gone are the couches, fireplace and oil paintings in the lobby. Now everything is cognac and cream, including rounded suede armchairs, smooth pillars, floor lamps that look to be made of thick ceramic rope, and a hooded central fireplace atop a dramatic slab of granite.
David Rockwell, of the Rockwell Group in New York and Madrid, designed the restaurant, ballroom and bar. The restaurant, named the Wolfgang Puck, lets in loads of natural light, and there's a private dining room adjacent with a marble-clad fireplace framed by glass towers holding more than 2,400 bottles of wine. Such has been the buzz about the Wolfgang Puck that 2,000 reservations were made in the first two of weeks after the Bel-Air reopened.
Fans of the old Hotel Bel-Air will be pleased to hear that some things remain the same. The exterior is untouched, as are the pool and Swan Lake, backdrop for many a wedding. The birds did get some new circulation pumps, though. The grounds are intact, and the place is as quiet as it was in the 1950s. That, alone, is worth the price of admission.
Head for the hills
Hotel Bel-Air, 701 Stone Canyon Road, Los Angeles
Tel: +1 (310) 472 1211, hotelbelair.com
Rates: US$575 a night for standard rooms, to US$15,000 for the Presidential Suite
How to get there: Cathay Pacific has daily flights from Hong Kong to Los Angeles