Far East Carmel
Tradewinds celebrates a half-century of family-owned hospitality in Asian-influenced style.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Tradewinds Carmel’s owner-operator made her debut at the old Carmel Hospital the same year her late father opened their beautiful bungalow hotel. The platform beds in its 28 rooms arrived from Bali, where they were custom made. Its star designer, meanwhile, made his name in Vegas, but hails from Pacific Grove. And the black-and-white ambassador at the entrance came from a Salinas shelter.
Fit these elements and their divergent origins together and they tell the story of a special place, one of only two hotels in hospitality-heavy Carmel-by-the Sea that remain independently family-owned, a unique Eastern-leaning boutique hotel celebrating its 50th birthday this week.A 1958 handshake loan gave Richard Catlin the 10 large he needed to acquire the property perched on the rise at Mission and Third, atop a modest elevation that affords many of the rooms vistas that glide over the forested hamlet and settle on the storied-meeting-of-land-and-sea that is Point Lobos.
Its inspiration, however, began stirring earlier, when Catlin, after working in post-WWII Germany liquidating national banks, was stationed in Japan for the better part of a decade while aiding reconstruction efforts. It was there that he fell in love with the elegant simplicity that defines the island’s aesthetic.
Upon his return, the Renaissance man (in addition to his work in real estate and insurance, he also was an expert sailor, skier and photographer) saw the opportunity for a small motel. After securing the loan from longtime Carmel pillar J.O. Handley, he designed the building with Japanese sensibilities – though he was unlicensed, Stillwell says her father designed some 30 homes in Pebble Beach – prioritizing clean lines and components like bamboo rails and iron Japanese lamps. (“It was boutique before boutique was boutique,” says its current designer.)
Little Susan and her brother were soon playing in the pool; before Stillwell was out of junior high, she was helping run things. So when she returned to help her folks manage the hotel after a 14-year law career that moved from San Francisco to D.C., she was pre-qualified to take over its operation; today she handles what she calls “back office” work – from marketing to workers comp.
The front office work, it appears, is delegated to polished GM Yuriko Weathers and the feline named Sweetie.An orchid helps welcome guests into their rooms from a bamboo wall sconce next to the door. Antique Chinese cabinets, each one different, house TVs in every room. Water trickles from a bamboo shoot into a basin when the lights come on; flames leap from a sleek gas fireplace.
“I’m obsessive over details,” Stillwell says. “The live orchid, having tea delivered to the room. Everything… it’d drive me crazy to go to hotels and see a bedspread you know they didn’t wash.”
Hence the duvet covers, which snuggle up to Thai silk pillowcases, which are bordered by vintage end tables from mainland Asia. But the details do far more than prevent Stillwell from inviting insanity: They construct a setting that generates the calm that defines the place.
“It’s very peaceful, clean and simple,” she says. “Eastern design just makes you feel good. More natural. It’s an overused way of describing the place, but it is ‘Zen-like.’”
A sense of place brought a crucial variable to the Tradewinds equation: a design star whose high-ranking resumé – including Las Vegas’ Four Seasons and Mandalay Bay – would suggest an anthill-sized hotel would be a steep step down.When Stillwell decided she wanted to update her father’s vision with a sweeping renovation – “people advised me to make more money selling it, with less headaches, but this place is sentimental; I have a complete passion keep it preserved” – she remembered a connection he had shared with one-time local designer Charles Gruwell and forged her own.
Born and raised in Pacific Grove, Gruwell leapt at the opportunity to deploy his favorite influences – he had been working in Singapore, Bali and Japan regularly – in Monterey County.
“Having it on the Peninsula, my home, was a huge plus,” he says. “To have Susan be as enthusiastic about renovation, she was the inspiration for me being so inspired, paying homage to her father and the tradition of hotel. And there’s something about the spirit of the place and its history that’s inspiring.”
The reconstruction would bring the building down to the studs, yank the pool, take 18 months and cost $4 million. Stillwell and Gruwell collaborated closely on everything from custom bathroom vanities designed to look like Tansu chests to the lush garden that fills the space where the pool once splashed. There the Zen sensation rivals that of the jet bathtubs: A life-sized Buddha atop a triple-tiered fountain gazes serenely over soaring bamboo, fragrant ginger, sago palms, tree ferns and a stream framed by Carmel stone.
The cumulative effect has earned Tradewinds a spot on Carmel’s Inns of Distinction tour, a feature profile from Architectural Digest and repeated permutations of what one guest murmured last week: “It doesn’t feel like Carmel.”The cat sits next to the foo dogs that guard the lobby, her dainty paws tucked into invisibility under her chest.
Sweetie is more than a charismatic greeter – she’s a furry metaphor for the hotel: small, impeccably groomed, perfectly welcoming. (Her rescue-redeemed past also speaks to Stillwell’s passion for animal rights: She uses only no-animal-testing-avowed Aveda products in her rooms, and volunteers her legal skills for humane causes that move her.)
Even amongst a half century of stories – of Bing Crosby’s family’s stays during the Pro-Am, of surprise proposals crafted in collaboration with staff, of couples returning for decades’ worth of Jazz Festivals, sometimes toting the original Tradewinds brochures (advertising a room rate of $19 a night) – it’s Sweetie’s anecdote that leaps out, like she did off the third story, soaring after a bird before landing 30 feet below, right on her bloodied feet.
Beyond the views and the slate floors, the chocolate-dipped strawberries (pictured) and the Balinese robes, Sweetie’s another reason 75 percent of clients, as Weathers estimates, are repeat visitors. Still, even after 50 years, Stillwell says few locals seem aware of Tradewinds.
“I ask locals if they’ve heard of us and they have no idea – even in Carmel,” she shrugs. “We’re like a secret gem.”
Sitting Zen-like on a hill, after all, is no way to get noticed.