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Why is Pelican Hill the Top-Rated Resort on the US Mainland?

Courtesy of Pelican Hill

A giant replica of a Roman aqueduct glows warmly outside the windows of the Pelican Grill. Backlit by the fading twilight of a December evening along the Newport Beach coast, it’s a symbol of the same idea tonight that it was thousands of years ago: the luxury of personal service.

Of course, the arching design originally brought water to the lucky denizens of ancient Rome. But as it ran through the countryside to its eventual destination, it was a reminder to others of just how well the Romans had it over everyone else. Here, it’s a walkway between the restaurant and a world-class golf course. It’s also the entry point to Newport’s The Resort at Pelican Hill. The point is the same.

On our side of the window, I’m boring my girlfriend with this historical detail while I sip tortilla soup and she samples the ahi appetizer at the Pelican Grill. I’m here in search of why the resort was voted tops on the U.S. mainland by Conde Nast Traveler readers in 2011. It just picked up the “Grand Resort” honoree in the January issue of Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report as well. I have another delicious spoonful of soup and mull over that aqueduct thing some more.

The things that separate Pelican Hill from a Holiday Inn are obvious. And at a glance, it was also clear what separates a resort from a five-star hotel. But what puts a place like Pelican Hill over the top from other high-end resorts – I mean the difference between first and second or third – simply required more time.

This started several hours earlier when we arrived at The Spa. My girlfriend went off for her Amber Gold Signature Massage and I headed for the sauna. Trying to see through the eyes of other travelers in the poll, I fixated over the matter of degree.

As I defrosted alone in the quiet of the sauna, I take a mental inventory of the toiletries available on the bathroom counter and I’m already kind of missing the point. Relaxing in the lounge area of the spa after a little time in the whirlpool or Acqua Colonnade and a friendly chat with one of the attendants, I begin lightening up. A lot. And work on a theory.

The ocean view bungalows look over the red tile rooftops of the resort, whose design is influenced by 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, providing the distinct feel of a seaside Italian village. What’s perhaps more important is the sense of seclusion and quiet. Though Pacific Coast Highway is just down the hill and we’re bookended by Newport Beach proper to the north and Laguna Beach to the south, we might as well be in Avalon. Not long ago, some cast members of the TV show “Glee” hung out here and the combination of seclusion, seaside views and service had to be keys in drawing these and other celebrities and even royalty.

The Italian theme continues inside the bungalows, though it’s never overplayed. Beneath the high open beam ceilings, rooms are comfortably modern and feature high-end amenities like extra large showers and bathtubs, dual vanity, fully stocked snack bar, flat-screen TV, DVD/CD players, and fireplace. As we watched the sun set over Catalina, the space felt laid back and comfortable, and with the fire roaring at night, it was warm and cozy.

Maybe the best thing about the Pelican Grill was not our salmon and sea bass, tender and delectable though it was, but how suitably Orange County the experience. Certainly upscale enough for a resort but designed to be also casual enough for lunch after the 18th hole. For the more formal dining experience, Andrea Ristorante & Bar was just a few minutes away next to the spa and concierge. And at the other end of the spectrum, the Caffe offered quick snacks, but more on that later.

We wandered over to the Great Room, as it’s called, for an after-dinner drink. We sat at an outer corner to take in the usual Saturday night music scene as we waited for our cocktails. I expected a lowly tinkerer at the piano, playing to a largely empty room and indifferent audience. But this was festive. Next to a luminous Christmas tree a tight band covered well-crafted pop hits to a crowd that was remarkably engaged with the band and each other, talking and laughing in the overstuffed sofas, knocking back their martinis and getting up to cut the rug ever third song or so.

The next morning, the Coliseum Pool and Grill is cleaning up their breakfast buffet as we rush in. The waitress agrees to extend the breakfast menu a few minutes for us and I inhale one of the best breakfast burritos I’ve ever had and a perfectly pulpy glass of orange juice.

We check out of our room and head to the Caffe, near the concierge for some gelato. We indulge in a few samples before we each decide on a cone. The dessert has really lived up to the hype. Fresh and flavorful, if a frozen treat is this good in December, I might make a pilgrimage back during the summer. As we look out the Caffe windows over the 18th Hole and Pacific Ocean, we’re adding things up to see if that theory was right.

Again, all the key ingredients are here to place Pelican Hill into elite status for American resorts: location, design, PGA-quality golf course, spa and pool, restaurants, Camp Pelican for the kids, and the even higher end private villas up the hill from the bungalows that provide a certain resort-within-the-resort feel that attract the celebrities.

What ultimately sets Pelican Hill apart is the variety of ways you could personalize your visit, whether you were staying for the night or for the year. In big ways and little ways, the degree with which one could be pampered seemed almost laughably infinite, where staff could provide any service that wasn’t “immoral, unethical or illegal,” we were told. I think that’s what experienced travelers in the poll voted for.

Back to the aqueduct thing one more time.

There’s still a lot of the original Roman work standing. Good ideas last and personal service is one of them. I don’t know if the Romans invented it, but based on personal service, they would have voted for Pelican Hill too.

Pelican Hill Tips:
*The resort offers a variety of packages, and those are usually the best way to go in finding excellent deals to the resort for holidays or special occasions. Typically rates are cheaper during the week as well. Always check the website before you book.
*Hotel insiders recommend asking for tables number 14 or 20 at the Coliseum Pool & Grill for meals. It offers the best combination of quiet and views.
*If you book a poolside cabana during the warmer months (highly recommended), insiders also say cabana number nine has the best ocean view.

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