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The Coast is Clear

Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Resort at Pelican Hill sets a new standard for luxury in Southern California's posh Orange County

By: Hunki Yun

Tiger Woods grew up in one Orange County and lives in another, having moved from Southern California to Orlando, Florida, after turning pro in 1996. His current address in Central Florida is a golfer’s haven, home to dozens of tour pros and many more courses that attract millions of tourists every year.

Woods’ former home on the other side of the country is not much of a golf destination, but that could change with the new Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Coast, just down the freeway from his childhood home in Cypress.

Opened in November, Pelican Hill offers a resort experience that would be impossible to find in Florida—or pretty much anywhere else. With its Classical architecture and views of the Pacific Ocean from each of the 204 bungalows and 128 villas, the 504-acre Pelican Hill more resembles a Roman city overlooking the Mediterranean Sea than a golf destination.

The architecture, inspired by the 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, is a
departure for an area of the country so associated with the Spanish Revival style. To visit Pelican Hill is to be transported to another time and place, and the transition begins with the drive into the entryway, set in a courtyard that resembles a Roman forum.

Driving around to the porte cochere, I half expected to be greeted by men with togas. Instead, a pair of doormen wearing golf shirts and khakis welcomed me as I parked my rental car and saw me to the door.

Inside, four staffers waited on me during check-in: the pair behind the desk, an attendant who emerged with a cold towel for my hands, and a manager type who offered me a tour of the lobby after I had received my key.

As ornate and opulent as the hotel is, the physical features are almost mundane when compared to the surroundings: Pelican Hill overlooks the 453-yard 18th hole of the resort’s Ocean South course, with the Pacific beyond that. No photo can offer the same kind of breathtaking awe that the scene inspires. On an unseasonably warm, clear day in February, Santa Catalina Island, 30 miles off shore, was in clear view, and it was even possible to see San Clemente Island, nearly 60 miles away—a rare sight, I was told.

It would have been easy enough to sit in the lobby until the sun set over Catalina, but there was plenty else about the resort to check out. After dropping off my bags in one of the bungalows, which range in size from 847 to 2,486 square feet (mine was the smallest, but still felt incredibly roomy, thanks to the private patio with a view of the ocean and the vaulted 16-foot ceiling), my first stop was lunch at the Coliseum Pool and Grill.

As the name indicates, the complex was inspired by the Roman landmark. But instead of gladiatorial contests, this Coliseum has at its center a placid 136-foot-diameter swimming hole that is the largest circular pool in the world. When I first saw the pool, I
noticed how impossibly blue the water looked. I learned later that the color was the result of 1.1 million hand-cut glass mosaic tiles lining the bottom.

 

After gawking at the pool for a few minutes, I sat down at one of the outdoor tables for lunch. I perused the simply casual menu and bit at the special recommended by my server: Kobe burger with truffle mayo, accompanied by truffle fries. When it arrived, I instinctively asked the waiter for ketchup.

His face flashed horror for an instant, as if I had just sent back the tuna carpaccio because it was too raw, before he recovered, nodding.

“Of course. I’ll be right back.”

“Just in case,” I quickly added, sheepishly.

He complied because that’s what he is supposed to do, regardless of how outrageous the request. No condiment was necessary, of course, but that’s the kind of place Pelican Hill is. Luxurious enough for the Kobe beef and truffles crowd, the resort also has a casual atmosphere that invites ketchup on the filet (or at least not make you feel stupid for such a request).

I was careful to avoid mentioning my faux pas to the resort’s executive chef, Jean Pierre Dubray, when we met for breakfast the next morning. Especially after he explained just how a croissant was to be consumed in his native France: at room temperature and without butter.

Classically trained, Chef Dubray enrolled in culinary school when he was 15 and moved to the U.S. when he was 20 to take a job in Orange County. So his current position forms a perfect bookend for his career, the majority of which was spent with Ritz-Carlton, helping to open new hotels and resorts around the world.

Dubray’s background was perfect for a new endeavor like Pelican Hill and its signature restaurant, Andrea, which features Tuscan-themed cuisine. It would be a huge mistake to forego the hand-made pasta dishes like my order, sea scallops ravioli. If Dr. Robert Atkins had eaten at Andrea, we may never have heard about his diet.

The management staff is like an all-star team of hospitality, and Dubray’s golf counterpart is Steve Friedlander, formerly the director of golf for Herb Kohler’s properties: Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin, and the Duke’s Course in St. Andrews, Scotland. Unlike Dubray, Friedlander’s task was not to start fresh, but rather to re-invent a pair of Tom Fazio courses dating from 1991.

Both courses were renovated and re-opened in 2007, a year before the resort’s debut. The two courses, Ocean North and Ocean South, have been regional favorites for years, and the addition of the resort should help give them national attention.

Ocean North sits higher on the hill and is more open, offering better views of the Pacific Ocean. Several greens, like those at the 411-yard 14th and 558-yard 17th, have infinity-edge greens that seem to sit in the sky.

Ocean South is tighter but sits closer to the water, none closer than the back-to-back par 3s, the 159-yard 12th and the dual-green 131-yard 13th, which lie along the coast. This is prime Orange County real estate, and the two holes alone probably are worth more than entire 36-hole complexes elsewhere.

To illustrate that point, our forecaddie, Shawn, ushered us over to a fence near the 13th green and pointed to a large house on the water. “That’s the Portobello Estate,” he said. “It’s on the market for $75 million.”

So if anyone reading this is looking for a 22,000-square-foot residence with a three-story grotto and an entertainment level designed to look like a town’s Main Street, Shawn and I will be glad to earn our finders’ fees.

Friedlander is also in charge of Oak Creek Golf Club in Irvine, another Tom Fazio layout owned by the Irvine Company, Pelican Hill’s parent. Oak Creek is the first off-site fitting center for the Scottsdale, Arizona-based Cool Clubs, and I made the 15-minute drive from Pelican Hill for a session.

My fitter, Bronson, watched me hit some balls, performed some calculations in his head and quickly whittled down the driver options to three. After hitting all three, we were able to decide which head and shaft option worked best, thanks to the TrackMan ball-flight monitor, which measures data I didn’t even know existed, from maximum height to landing angle.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t take that driver with me when I played Pelican Hill the next day, but I did have the advice of the resort’s instruction director, Glenn Deck. The two courses are different, but what they have in common, besides the ocean views, are tricky greens that are tough to hit, especially in the wind. Understanding that you’ll have plenty of chances to hit pitches, Deck offers a few tips on page 45 about how to execute crisp wedges that sit close to the hole and offer good chances to save par.

After playing golf, hiking at nearby Crystal Cove State Park, deep-sea fishing from Newport Harbor or just sitting by the Coliseum pool, there is no arrival so welcome as opening the door of my bungalow. I could turn on the fireplace, sit on the terrace, listen to Mozart on the Bose audio system with MP3 port, or just lie on the 500-thread-count sheets.

But as plush as the bungalows are, Pelican Hill’s villas take luxury to another level. An enclave within a resort, the two- to four-bedroom villas range from 2,193 to 3,581 square feet, and guests enjoy exclusive access to a 10,000-square-foot clubhouse. In addition to physical accoutrements like Sub Zero refrigerators and monogrammed bathrobes, the villas come with a staff that is on call for any need or request.

Honestly, after a stay at Pelican Hill, there isn’t much else that’s left to ask for.   

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