California's best kept boutique-hotel secret
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Chateau du Sureau
By Gary Walther
Photography by Tim Street-Porter
July / August 2006
It is rare to find five-star luxury in a one-stoplight town. At the high end, Conrad Hilton's first rule of successful hotel keeping--location, location, and location--is almost ironclad. Yes, there are restaurants and hotels that have their own gravitational pull, inducing lifestyle connoisseurs to drive deep into Devon, say, to sample Gidleigh Park or across the wheated plains of Emilia-Romagna to dine at Dal Pescatore in Canneto, the home of Italy's only three-star Michelin woman chef. But for most affluent travelers, destiny is still the destination.
In this country one standout exception is Château du Sureau, a European-inflected enclave 16 miles from the southern gate of Yosemite National Park. The château is a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles and a three-hour one from San Francisco. (The closest city is Fresno.) But the property more than repays the effort of getting here. Château du Sureau offers superb food (it started life as a restaurant), service that is slightly formal and unfailingly gracious (more European than American in style), relentless but unobtrusive cosseting, and now a small Art Deco gem of a spa. This explains why people go out of their way to come here: On a visit three years ago, I met a party from Chicago, travel connoisseurs all, who had borne two flights (Chicago-San Francisco, and San Francisco-Fresno) and a 45-minute drive to celebrate Thanksgiving here.
The town of Oakhurst is the dross setting for the brilliant-cut diamond that is the château. Down the road are the Purple Cow, the Clutter Closet, the Somethin' Special Gift Shop--the stock-in-trade of a town that lives off national-park tourist traffic. Inside the château, there are stoked fireplaces, classical music, armoires you can stand up in, and antique beds to curl up on. The house hues are greens, golds, and browns (luxury Italian colors), and the house textures are rich and tactile: needlepoint, tapestry, and toile. The grounds are fretted with topiary, and at first sight the hotel (actually more like a very large home) calls forth associations that are all good--Tuscany in the terra-cotta roof, Tyrol in the small-paned mullioned windows, a Loire Valley château in the round fieldstone tower.
Château du Sureau is the vision of its owner, Erna Kubin-Clanin, whose goal, as far as I can tell, has been to make the château a world of its own. The impulse comes out of her self-avowed romantic nature and her storm-tossed life. She was born in Vienna during World War Two. Immigrating to England in the '50s, she worked as a tea girl at Claridge's, then came to New York planning to study art, only to see her dream dashed. She sold a fur coat to get bus fare to Los Angeles, owned a Greek restaurant there with her first husband, and after leaving the marriage made ends meet by running a sandwich concession in Yosemite, which is how she got up here. In 1984 she scraped together the capital to open a restaurant, Erna's Elderberry House, where she served as the chef until 1996. (That year it was the highest-rated restaurant in the Zagat Bay Area Guide.) In 1991 she opened the ten-room château (sureau means "elderberry" in French) on the grounds, and seven years ago she added the Villa du Sureau, a 2,000-square-foot, two-bedroom hotel within a hotel. Kubin-Clanin says the spa is the end of her architectural career--she actually designed all the buildings on the property, getting a local builder to translate her sketches into blueprints.
She's also the decorator in chief. It was she who assembled the black Napoleon III suite of furniture in the Saffron Room of the château; found (in Florence) 590-threadcount sheets for the villa bedrooms; and salvaged, from various French châteaux, the scroll railings on the villa terrace. She has a surprising penchant for taking decor gambles, often with color. She painted the dining room of Elderberry House Restaurant, including the ceiling, oxblood. ("It makes everyone's skin look fabulous," says the restaurant's former manager, Roland Venturini, who now manages private estates in Los Angeles.) And she did the library of the villa in bishop's purple, not only the walls but also the Persian carpet and the cotton damask on the Napoleon III chaise. It seems to make every guest there feel imperial.
For the new spa, Kubin-Clanin tapped a most unlikely source of inspiration: Art Deco. After all, the style is associated with things spas are not: the go-go life of cosmopolitan cities, streamlined design and the implied worship of speed, and the slightly tipsy naughtiness of Cole Porter lyrics and Thin Man screenplays. "I didn't want to do Zen," Kubin-Clanin tells me, adding that having done a mélange of Provençal and neoclassical in the hotel and late-19th-century Viennese drawing room in the villa, she was looking to try her hand at the 20th century in the spa.
As she did with the other parts of the château, Kubin-Clanin set off on a quest for period furnishings "wherever my travels took me." (The only reproduction is the Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann desk in reception.) She found the six hallway sconces, made of embossed crystal and polished nickel, in Paris and the gorgeous globe lamp, adorned with metal straps in the shape of wheat staffs, that hangs in reception in Fresno. "They had no idea what they had," she recalls. The cascading chandelier in reception is a straight-up purchase from Boyd in San Francisco--"I didn't want to do a waterfall like every other spa," she says--but the Jugendstil (the German term for Art Noveau) mirror and coal stove in the same room were found "way in a corner" of another San Francisco antique shop. "The owner was so glad I bought them," she says.
This is the only spa I've ever been to that has authentic Mercury glass lamps and mirrored cabinets in the treatment rooms--mirrors are certainly a mainstay of the spa design vocabulary but not in this jazzy form--and in the couple's treatment room a Deco-style fireplace of black marble, mirrored on one side and fluted on the other. The two massage tables are separated by a semitransparent gold curtain--a kind of spa lingerie--and the walls are salmon and finished in beeswax, which gives them the glow of a banked fire.
You could easily spend a few hours in this room reading by the fire or canoodling on the semicircular divan, which Kubin-Clanin designed. But otherwise the spa's small size (only three massage rooms and one for wet treatments) precludes before-and-after lounging. The menu covers the bases (massage, body, and beauty), and the treatments I had were first-rate, particularly the deep-tissue massage by Way Ettner, who included a marvelous stretch of my piriformis, a muscle that runs from the sacrum to the top of the femur and that for me is a constant source of minor pain. Way has been a therapist for 13 years, and she told me, unprompted and with utter conviction, that she had never had a day when she didn't love the work.
I'm sure the château is wonderful at this time of year. I've only visited in early winter and early spring, however, and the place has always conjured up associations of brisk days and inglenook dusks. I remember in particular one moody November afternoon when the mountains already had comb-overs of snow and the clotting clouds presaged more. In the living room of the château, it was curling-up time and the high-backed armchairs and herringbone-pattern brick chimney were the only cues that guests needed. A man studied a tome of chess strategy, 280 Mate-in-One White Moves, while his wife contentedly knit (and gamely tried to share his enthusiasm for arcane pawn sacrifices). Two newly arrived couples came in and took up niches by the hearth. The fire crackled, cymbals crashed in the finale to some romantic symphony, the Syrah flowed, hands were held.
It conjured up that old saw about the quintessential great hotel experience: that it's like staying in the home of a worldly, well-traveled friend. And that ultimate travel surprise: that the cliché sometimes proves true.
SPA HIGHS AND LOWS
High The Art Deco decor, all except one piece original
High The couple's treatment room for its slightly racy, low-lit atmosphere
Medium The small changing room with half lockers, but it's understandable given the spa's small size
High Deep-tissue massage with Way Ettner
High The Hydrostorm treatment, a coating of mud or algae followed by 20 minutes in the Hydrostorm, a hydro- and color-therapy chamber that delivers a rain shower, body sprays, and steam in succession
Château du Sureau Resume
Forte Wrapping you in a cultivated cocoon: beautifully decorated rooms, fine food, and European atmosphere.
Location Oakhurst, on the south doorstep of Yosemite National Park.
Getting There Fly to Fresno, then make the hour-long, very scenic drive up into the Sierras.
Best Rooms Saffron, done in Napoleon III (love the mammoth black armoire with ivory inlay); Lavender, "the coziest," according to hotel directrice Lucy Royse; and Elderberry, which has a four-poster bed and a very good view of the mountains.
The Villa A 2,000-square-foot hotel of its own with butler service. In the master suite, 14-foot-long streams of sheer golden silk organza curtain the bed, and in the adjoining bathroom the Jacuzzi tub is framed by a classical-style portico of ebony.
Service Attentive, unfailingly gracious, and often invisible. Returning to my room after dinner, I found the change I had left strewn on the dresser sorted by denomination, my Dopp kit stowed in a drawer, and my work files stacked neatly on a chair.
Food Six-course prix fixe menu ($89 per person) offered at dinner--although chef James Overbaugh happily accommodates dietary restrictions and dislikes. In 2003 the San Francisco Chronicle's food critic, Michael Bauer, wrote that Overbaugh's food rivaled anything in San Francisco. I'd say that's still true.
Getting to Yosemite It takes 90 minutes to two hours or more (depending on season and traffic) to reach El Capitan and Yosemite Valley. The Mariposa big trees are closer, just within the park's south gate.
Neighborhood Natural Wonder Nelder Grove, a stand of behemoth white firs, ponderosa pines, incense cedars, and giant sequoias. The drive up, on Route 632 or Sky Ranch Road, offers epic panoramas, and if you continue on, the road takes you to Fresno Dome (elevation 7,500 feet), the stone pate of which is visible from the front door of the château.
Rates $375-$575, includes breakfast; Villa du Sureau, $2,800
Reservations 559-683-6860 or email@example.com