There’s a bit of LA where LA is the last place you’d think you were. Country lanes dappled with sunlight, houses that could be in the Beckham bit of Gloucestershire, trees that meet overhead, little bridges with swans gliding under them… all this a short drive from the Elizabeth hurly burly of Santa Monica Boulevard.
Bel Air, the celebrity enclave that makes neighbouring Beverly Hills feel like the Holloway Road, has been a getaway for movie stars since the 1940s, even if you could actually probably walk here… if anyone walked in LA. And seeing as not everyone can own one of those immense houses on the hills all around, there’s a little nook, Hotel Bel-Air, with its 12 acres of gardens, where a global superstar can hang up her slingbacks, unzip her sheath dress and just kick back.
Ask Marilyn Monroe. She would know, she did her last ever photo shoot here. In fact, it’s been a veritable gay icon magnet over the years with Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Judy Garland, Bette Davis all ordering up Bloody Mary’s for breakfast in the sweet little outdoor terrace… we imagine.
Dating back to 1922 – 100 years! That’s ancient history in LA terms! – the enclave was originally imagined as riding stables but was eventually converted into the luxury hotel we see before us today and the fact that it was converted probably adds to the higgledy-piggledy nature of the place.
Go over the little bridge to reception, then through the terrace, past the salons with big Bert Stern pictures of Marilyn from that last shoot, outside through gardens, up a little lift, past flowers (there are 4,000-and-odd plants dotted around) and eventually you get to your suite – more or less half the accommodations here are suites – where, in our case, we now need to recruit eight men to help populate the 10-man Jacuzzi, or we could just sit by our outdoor fire and drink wine. We thought we might go out, but we couldn’t drag ourselves away.
But though the Hotel Bel-Air may be classic, that doesn’t mean it has ever rested on its laurels, as they sure are pretty laurels. Refurbs are extensive and fairly regular while the addition of superstar chef Wolfgang Puck to the staff list has kept the F&B – that’s food and beverage, hotel speak for, well, food and booze – side of things up to the minute.
Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air – because when you have two globally revered names you just stick them together, you don’t go inventing restaurant names – has exactly the right laid-back atmos you need here. Anything fancier would jar. Take a little modern booth or a wicker chair in the shade of the planting, maybe through a little archway for extra privacy, and tuck into a menu based on the simplicity of wonderful ingredients: tortilla soup, Thai carrot and ginger soup, Italian summer truffle pasta… dishes culled from around the world and finessed. And where, at breakfast, Ella and Billie and Nancy (Wilson, not any of the others) tickled the air as we ate, what’s this, the best avocado toast in the world? Probably.
And if you need a dip, there’s the world-famous 75-year-old oval pool that started life as a ring to trot horses when this was still a stable. Now it’s surrounded by sky-high palms and loungers, famous from Bryan Ferry’s Another Time, Another Place album cover, from a bunch of Marilyn photos taken here, from where Robert Wagner used to be the pool boy… and he was damn good at it. Just lie back and wait for one of their frozen grape skewers to make its way to you.
It’s a tough juggling act, respecting the history of a landmark hotel without allowing it to slip into the past. At Hotel Bel-Air, they know what they’re doing. They celebrate the Hollywood connections that stretch well into the present day but those refurbs have kept everything classy and new.
Now, does anyone know eight men willing to come over and get this Jacuzzi scene going?