by Lee Foster
Travel in the United States has become decidedly upscale, for some.
Observers of travel have watched as this measurable trend developed. For a small, but identifiable segment of travelers, price is no object. What is of concern is the highest quality in accommodations, dining, and experience. This is the traveler whom every destination now seeks to woo.
For the majority of travelers, reports on this privileged minority amount to armchair or fantasy travel, an act of vicarious gratification. Nowhere in the U.S. is the phenomenon of upscale travel better expressed than in Beverly Hills , CA . This writer on one occasion immersed himself in this elite travel environment. It is fitting that here the movie industry, the makers of illusion, also finds its home.
Beverly Hills passed its 90th birthday in 2004 and headed confidently towards 100. The old gal isn’t allowing herself to show her age, of course, because plenty of cosmetic surgery is ongoing in the hotels, shops, and restaurants. “We see ourselves as an oasis where the traveler can find the highest quality goods, the best hotels and restaurants, and the ultimate in service,” said the Beverly Hills ‘ mayor.
LODGINGS: STARTING AT RAFFLES L’ERMITAGE
Raffles L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills may well be the choicest lodging in America . Such objective observers as AAA and Mobil have awarded it their coveted five star/diamond ratings, which are tough to get and rarely coincide in one property. L’Ermitage enjoys plenty of competition in Beverly Hills from the Beverly Hills Hotel, Regent Beverly Wilshire, and Beverly Hilton.
When you check into Raffles L’Ermitage, the big and little differences assert themselves. The hotel is located in a relatively quiet residential area, far from main streets and freeways. Each suite includes a fireplace. The caviar in the bar at the evening cocktail hour is free, as is the limousine that will drive you around Beverly Hills . Few hotels equal Raffles L’Ermitage’s commitment to decorate with original art in every room. In fact, the people behind the Raffles L’Ermitage own 4,000 original works of art and distribute them throughout several small luxury hotels. They named their main hotel after the great mu seum in St. Petersburg . At L’Ermitage, every amenity imaginable has been provided for the room, from complimentary French wine and Calistoga water to a state-of-the-art security system, without keys, in which the guest selects a four-number code for opening doors.
The Beverly Hills Hotel was the first major hotel here, dating from 1912, ranking it as the classic hotel by which later lodgings were measured. The pink-stucco edifice has the feel of an urban resort, similar to the Del Coronado in San Diego or the Claremont in Oakland . Rapid changes of ownership postponed a major renovation, but the present proprietor, the Sultan of Brunei, said to be the world’s richest person, sunk megabucks into the property. The hotel’s Polo Lounge is a famous pecking-order place to see and be seen in Beverly Hills The Beverly Hilton underwent a $30 million facelift to bring its 1950s interior into the 1990s. Try a California Suite. The gourmet restaurant here is Trader Vic’s. The Coconut Club is a swing dance spot open on weekends. Owner of the Beverly Hilton is a media superstar, Merv Griffin, creating an only-in-Beverly Hills phenomenon. The Regent Beverly Wilshire, a landmark property at the intersection of Rodeo Drive and Wilshire Boulevard , also invested millions in upgrading its 1928 north wing.
UPSCALE DINING: TRADER VIC’S TO SPAGO
Once you’ve checked into a Beverly Hills lodging, your appetite may well be on edge for some elegant dining, possibly with celebrities at the next table. Or, if you prefer, L’Ermitage can serve you candlelight dinner in your suite, complete with your own captain and violin serenader. Dining here, in or out of your hotel, is a mu lti-course, several-hour experience, including time for food and stargazing. Trader Vic’s, adjacent to the Beverly Hilton, is a good stargazing location. Start with a Scorpion or Mai Tai concoction, basically rum and fruit juices. Then indulge in the inventive appetizers, ranging from beef ribs to spring rolls, which are so tempting that restraint is required to leave room for your entree.
Spagos, Chasen’s, and Obachine are other names that are synonymous here with exciting dining.
Late afternoon high tea at Nieman Marcus would be a fitting upscale rest break for the real or vicarious shopper. Make a reservation at The Club Room on Nieman Marcus’s fourth floor.
UPSCALE SHOPPING ON RODEO DRIVE
The favorite activity of the upscale traveler in Beverly Hills is strolling over to Rodeo Drive and dropping a bundle on designer clothing and jewelry or on art. For all travelers, the three blocks of Rodeo Drive between Little Santa Monica Boulevard and Wilshire Boulevard can be a dream of expensive goods with well-advertised designer labels. Famous names such as Gucci, Cartier, and Polo/Ralph Lauren flourish here. The shop that started it all, over 25 years ago, was Fred Hayman’s Giorgio’s, where every visitor still receives a complimentary glass of champagne or cup of cappuccino. On the day this writer perused their perfume, men’s wear, and ladies clothing, members of the Saudi royal family were shopping, accompanied by burly but nervous bodyguards. Other famous stores include the select Italian men’s store, Bijan, where you need to make an appointment to see the merchandise.
One particularly striking store is that of the California women’s clothing designer, Diane Freis, whose colorful prints, made of washable polyester in a one-size-fits-all style, draws mu ch fashion attention. The Freis store is one block off Rodeo Drive , but still in the so-called Golden Triangle bounded by Little Santa Monica, Wilshire, and Rexford. However, Rodeo Drive , unquestionably, concentrates the most flair. It’s sometimes difficult to park on Rodeo Drive because the stretch limousines that bring shoppers take up so many parking places.
If you want to observe the passing parade for some time, take lunch or a glass of wine at Cafe Rodeo and request an on-street table. During this writer’s sojourn on Rodeo Drive , an only-in-Beverly Hills event occurred. A few elegant people paraded around with miniature pigs on the end of leashes. TV camera crews recorded the event carefully. The elegant people described how these specially bred pigs, as pets, had merit. They passed out brochures. The person managing the event gave this writer her card, which listed her profession as Idea Consultant. What was going on here? There was talk in the gathering crowd about these pigs being valenswines for upcoming Valentine’s Day, the perfect gift for your male chauvinist pig. This could have been performance art, a complete put-on, by people who would kiss an old Chevrolet tomorrow for you for $5. A rumor swept the crowd that the event was staged for taping for a late-night show. No one quite knew where illusion and reality met, which was appropriate, after all, for Rodeo Drive .
The best way to get a feel for any com mu nity, as a traveler, is to walk it extensively on foot, so this writer turned down Wilshire Avenue from Rodeo Drive . Walk a few blocks and you begin to notice the 43 banks and savings and loans, which locate here their prominent branches, if not headquarters, complete with statuary of the family (Home Savings) or John Wayne (Great Western). It’s instructive also to see the number of used car dealers devoted exclusively to Maseratis. This writer then walked up Foothill, a quiet residential street, to return to L’Ermitage. This street, typical of the 5.6 square miles of the city, is peopled by some of the 33,000 city residents. These favored residents happen to have an extraordinarily high average household income. Houses here, due partly to location, sell for seven figures. In the hillside region, known transactions of $20 million have occurred. The land has clearly appreciated since the days, around the turn of the century, when lima beans were the main crop. Along these peaceful, palm-lined streets the American dream has arrived, at least for a few. And, amidst the tranquillity, the Westec Armed Response signs on lawns assure a walker that the American dream will remain undisturbed in these homes.
Beyond walking, the visitor might want to participate in one of the van-filled drive-bys of the stars’ homes. The former bus tours have been discreetly reduced to van tours so as not to impinge on the serenity of the stars. Inquire at the Beverly Hills Visitor Bureau about the drive-bys. If the opulent style of the region becomes too weighty, lighten up with an evening of humor at Improvisations comedy club.
UPSCALE ACTIVITY: TH E GETTY AND O TH ER MUSEUMS
An excellent outing for the upscale traveler here is a visit to the Getty Museum , which suggests just how quickly you can develop a world-class art mu seum if you start with world-class financing. The Getty Museum opened in 1997, benefiting from a huge endowment left by oil tycoon J. Paul Getty. Getty had acquired artifacts throughout his adult life. Be sure to call ahead to the Getty, which is located on a hilltop in Brentwood , to get a parking space, which is required. Within this hilltop extravaganza, the art objects compete with the building itself as an artifact. Among the paintings, the Dutch Renaissance works of Ruysdael, Steen, and Rembrandt are exquisite. Illuminated manuscripts from the early medieval period are priceless. French decorative arts from Louis XIV through Napoleon are also strongly represented.
The Getty isn’t the only prominent art mu seum for this Beverly Hills visit. Down Wilshire Boulevard from Beverly Hills is the Los Angeles County Art Museum , with its strong collections in many fields, from rare Roman Alexandria glass to Frederick Remington’s bronze sculpture of a Bronco Buster. In its special exhibits, the Museum also sometimes reflects its com mu nity, such as a show of David Hockney’s paintings, showing a preoccupation with illusion and reality, or a retrospective of studio photographs of movie stars, 1920s to the present.
Between mu seums, a suitable activity in Beverly Hills would be a walk through one of the elegant estates and gardens. This is possible, by appointment, at the Virginia Robinson Gardens , one of the first major estates built in Beverly Hills . This Beaux Arts house and six acres of adjoining gardens are a living history of the Beverly Hills lifestyle, bequeathed to the Los Angeles Parks Department by Virginia Robinson, who died in 1977 just a few days short of her 100th birthday. Mrs. Robinson was a remarkable lady, whose daily swim in an unheated pool, daily tennis exercise, and reading diet of six books per week made her a legend in the region. Her spirit was sustained with the millions generated by her mercantile-prince husband, who nurtured the J. W. Robinson stores originated by his father. She spent mu ch of her time involved in gracious entertaining at her house from the 1920s to the 1970s.
Today the house remains intact, as she left it. Since 1978 the house has been on the National Register. Virginia Robinson was one of the great ladies of the region. Her gardens are particularly pleasurable to stroll with a guide. Camellias, azaleas, and palm collections were her major passions. Be sure to call ahead because the guided tours occur only on selected days and times. The facade of the house can be seen in a drive-by. Great estates have been a major attraction here since Mary Pickford and Doug las Fairbanks developed their Pickfair estate in 1919. For the average traveler ready to splurge, an upscale visit to Beverly Hills can be a memorable experience. For the true upscale travelers, and you know who you are, put Beverly Hills on your list of upcoming trips.
BEVERLY HILLS : IF YOU GO
The Beverly Hills Visitors Bureau is at 239 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90212; 310/248-1000.
Among hotels, main choices in Beverly Hills include: Raffles L’Ermitage, 9291 Burton Way, Beverly Hills, CA 90210; 310/278-3344. Regent Beverly Wilshire, 9500 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212; 800/421-4354 or 310/275-5200. Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows, 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210; 310/276-2251. Beverly Hilton, 9876 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210; 800/HILTONS or 310/274-7777. The Peninsula Beverly Hills, 9882 Little Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210; 310/551-2888.
The great mu seums here are: J. Paul Getty Museum at Getty Center, 310/440-7300. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036; 213/857-6000.
The major garden and estate experience in Beverly Hills, available by appointment for a guided tour, is: Virginia Robinson Gardens, 310/276-5367.