Home on the Range

Hiding away at the new Villa Sureau, an ultra-luxurious French Empire château on the edge of Yosemite National Park.

We had been itching to do it since we arrived. We talked about it before going to bed; we woke up during the night and briefly discussed the possibility of doing it then (but felt too embarrassed); and now, on Saturday morning, our first full day at the Villa Sureau, there was no more delaying. We flipped a coin, it came up tails, and so I crossed the bedroom to the marble-topped dresser, stuck out my thumb, and pushed the ivory-white butler call-button. Then I hustled out to the living room and with all the nonchalance I could muster stood at the terrace window and waited, as if having staff were second nature.

And with that I had mentally stepped across the threshold of the Villa Sureau, a 2,000-square-foot villa on the grounds of the wonderful Château du Sureau in Oakhurst, California—the last strip mall before Yosemite National Park. I admit that sounds flip, but this town is the most unlikely place for a hotel of this caliber, not to mention a villa completely done in Empire style.

Both hotel and villa are the vision of Erna Kubin-Clanin, who hails from Vienna and combines a prodigious drive for perfection with an equally strong romantic longing for the late 19th century. Its offspring have been, in succession, Erna's Elderberry House Restaurant, established here in 1984. It was the highest Zagat-rated restaurant in America in 1996; based on the three meals we had, I'd say it's better than most Los Angeles dining rooms. Château du Sureau, a 10-room Relais & Châteaux, followed in 1991. (Sureau means elderberry in French.) And now there is the two-bedroom Villa Sureau, a hotel-within-a-hotel finished late last year and designed to provide maximum privacy and service, hence the around-the-clock team of butlers.

The tone is set as soon as the door is opened for you, for in the foyer is a full-length portrait of a turn-of-the-century Viennese socialite. Kubin-Clanin tried to buy the original at auction. She was outbid but not outdone and simply had the work copied. The rest of the pieces in the villa, all sought out personally by Kubin-Clanin, are antique. Thus, the fabulous scrolled railings on the terrace are 19th-century, salvaged from various French châteaux, and the heavy black-walnut-wood front doors are Parisian, circa 1860. Kubin-Clanin found them in a San Francisco antiques shop "covered in spider webs."

Villa Sureau avoids the pitfalls common to projects like this. Either the decor isn't up to the architecture, or the decor turns a hotel room into a period room. Kubin-Clanin's relentlessness ensured the first would not happen: Even the window glass in the bedrooms is from the 19th century. And her drawing-room romanticism—I think she really imagines people will have tea on the 18th-century-style settee and fauteuils in the living room while listening to a recital on the baby grand piano—is the catalyst that turns an eclectic collection of antiques into a setting that really is quite livable. (The only drawback we found was that the living-room furniture is, in fact, more suitable for a tea party than for curling up on a crisp fall evening.)

"She's gutsy," said my companion, referring to Kubin-Clanin's orchestration of color, pattern, and style—for instance, the all-purple study and layering of Persian rugs in the living room. "But it works." And indeed, the greatest pleasure in staying here is reveling in the vision of someone who takes Mies van der Rohe's dictum "God is in the details" seriously; who knows restraint is more beautiful than excess; who even went to the trouble of designing angles into the living room "to give it more interest." Perhaps that's why it was so easy to summon the butler after my maiden ring. I had stepped into character, just as Kubin-Clanin intended. For as she says, "If you put important pieces into a room, people will feel that it's real."

Château du Sureau is a 4.5-hour drive from L.A., three hours from San Francisco. The closest commercial airport is in Fresno, an hour away. Villa: $2,500 per night; Château du Sureau: $325-$525. Dinner: $68 prix fixe. 48688 Victoria Lane, Oakhurst, CA; 559-683-6860; fax 559-683-0800.