Monday, October 11, 2010

Yosemite Region

If ever there was a Once Upon a Time land in the Kingdom of California, I think I just discovered it commanding a small hillside near Yosemite. It's a castle that provides luxury accommodations for those wishing to visit the mountain cathedrals of Yosemite, or for those who just wish to be treated like royalty in a quiet, European-like setting.

The book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die, mentions two hotels in its Yosemite section. One is the Ahwahnee, Yosemite’s legendary 1927 hotel, selected by the AIA as one of America’s favorite structures. Though it may seem dwarfed by its surroundings…

Photo by photo by Carol M. Highsmith

…the Ahwahnee’s scale is quite impressive

For our dates of travel, rooms at the Ahwahnee were quoted at $465 per night. That’s significant pocket change for non-virtual travel. The one-size-fits-all rate, however, did not differentiate between rooms whose windows would frame Half Dome (really, really good) or rooms that would merely look out onto some trees. Also, as part of a national park, the Ahwahnee allows guests and non-guests alike to avail themselves of its lounges and freely roam its halls (including the halls that lead only to guest rooms). Without doubt, the Ahwahnee Hotel is a renowned piece of architecture and “location, location, location,” but guests may not feel they’re getting a 5-star experience in exchange for their $465.

Located in Oakhurst, the other hotel mentioned in 1000 Places to See Before You Die is Chateau du Sureau, included especially because of its restaurant, Erna’s Elderberry House, which the book says “draw[s] foodies the way El Capitan lures rock climbers.”

The main concern of this blog, of course, is the hotel. The book lauds the Chateau’s “exquisite 19th-centry-style European sophistication, gracious service, and an air of romance you don’t expect to find in such a tiny hamlet.”

So, though we did lunch at the Ahwahnee, the Schecktrek pick for accommodations in the Yosemite area is the Chateau du Sureau.

We quickly reserved the Ciboulette room, the hotel’s one “cheap” room (the only one less than $400/night). The next least expensive would have jumped the price another $60 (still less than the Ahwahnee), and it went up from there.

I’ve had the opportunity to be a guest in some very good hotels (also some pretty crummy ones!), but there have not been many times when I’ve stayed in a Relais and Chateaux property – in fact, I could count them on one finger. What a treat it was!

This was one of the most gracious hotel experiences I’ve experienced anywhere on earth. Other than going to Aunt Nita’s house, I don’t think I’ve ever been more pampered. If this castle is good enough for some of the Hollywood royalty who have stayed there, I think it’s fair to say that most of us would be blown away.

Chateau du Sureau (“Castle by the Elderberries”) is of recent construction, but every detail suggests the longevity of a restored 19th century structure. Having only 10 rooms plus a butler-serviced villa, helps to create an intimate ambiance that one might experience at the private country estate of a friend. It is perfect.

A decorative gate intercepts the driveway, and a discreet sign asks that non-guests would respect the privacy of guests and not continue farther.  For guests, there’s a call box.  “Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Scheck.  We've been expecting you.”  The gate opened.  (When we later returned to the property after an outing, we were greeted with, “Welcome home.”)

The property evoked a magical quality, especially at night.

As we proceeded to the chateau, we were met by two staff members: Keith, who parked our car and put the luggage in our room; and Leslie (in a French maid’s uniform) who escorted us inside the chateau for a glass of lemonade and a tour. There’s something about those French maid’s uniforms that added even more to the feeling that we were guests in a friend's private chateau.

Tour of the Property

Side view of the chateau.  This day may have been gray, but the architecture, designed by Erna (the Vienna-born owner) and builder Gary Browns, is brilliant!

The doors throughout were amazing.

Room #9, on a brighter morning.  I don’t know if a star was born here, but I understand that a major one has stayed there.

Entry of the chateau

The salon.  “Please think of it as your living room,” Leslie told us.  (As if that were possible!)

I can only imagine how wonderful it would have been on a cool evening to have a fire in that big fireplace.

Such a beautiful piano.  “If you can play, we’d love to hear you,” Leslie offered.  “You probably wouldn’t,” I assured her.

Ceiling above the piano

As the tour was ending and Leslie was showing us to our room, she asked if she could bring us some snacks.  “Would chicken salad be good?  And some wine?  Do you prefer cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay or a sparkling blush?”  (Though I didn’t request the sparkling wine this time, they got points with me for offering it.)  I even appreciated that she volunteered, “It’s all complimentary” – as was every courtesy extended during our stay.  (One never knows, otherwise, what one might be obligating oneself to in some of these places – a lesson I learned the hard way some years ago.)  A baked goodie and two cookies were already waiting in our room. 

It didn’t take long for Al to feel that this was something he could get used to!

As for the room itself, Ciboulette (Room #10) was absolutely charming!   With its own entry, it felt that we were in a private guesthouse.  Plastered walls, a beamed and vaulted ceiling, corner wood casement windows, and a small nook for the writing desk – all belied 20th century origins.  Our view was of the spa building, nestled in a pine grove.

Obvious care was taken even in the selection of the phone.

That lone lily lent such a sweet scent to the bathroom, without being overwhelming.

The bottled Tuscan water was complimentary (and replenished with a new bottle the next day), as were the two bottles of domestic water left with the turndown service.  The nightly service also included wonderful chocolates (a different type each of the two nights of our stay).  And if we’d remembered to leave our shoes outside the room at night, “elves” would have polished them.

Because the Ciboulette is their smallest room, it has no tub.  However, this was the best shower ever.  In addition to the hand-held or height-adjustable shower head, water came out horizontally from the two black nozzles seen in the photo.  I could become a shower convert!

The acclaimed restaurant, Erna’s Elderberry House

Earlier in the evening, this restaurant was full of diners.  I have been to restaurants where the dĂ©cor equaled this one, but none that surpassed it.  It just felt good, and the service was impeccable.

ScheckTrek writer Vicki Scheck; our good friends, Ron and Levonia; and Al Scheck

Here and below, the breakfast room.  I think they must have imported some ancient tiles for the floor in this room.

Such a cute fireplace!

Plenty of food

The first day we requested some scrambled eggs, which they were happy to do for us.  On day two, breakfast included the most wonderful baked, soufflĂ©-like creation that included assorted fruit and nuts.  Sorry, no photo of that, but it was one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth!!

If it appears that the tablecloth doesn’t match the others in the room, it’s because the china, showing the Chateau crest, was photographed on Day 2, when the linens had a more Country French look.  This is another small example of the care given, in which things are not done in the same way from day to day.

Another option for breakfast

The terrace provided a better prospect for viewing the yellow finches as they eat their breakfast.

According to Erna’s story, it was her dream to create “an enchanted ten-room Castle-Hotel to accompany her restaurant.  Much like the country manor houses of Europe, she envisioned sharing a complete and private world with very special guests to revitalize their senses and soothe their souls.”

That dream has come true at Chateau du Sureau.

And may it live happily ever after!

Overview of Erna’s dream, from the chateau to the restaurant, Erna’s Elderberry House.


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