Design as Destiny
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Screaming down the back straight of the Thermal Club in a race-prepped Lamborghini Gallardo Super Trofeo, I easily crest at 130 miles per hour. At this speed, my senses become heightened. I hear the howl of the potent V-10 engine, which sits just behind my head. I feel the heat of the tarmac cooking me through my borrowed race suit. And I am filled with the aroma of racing gas. But as someone who has driven a fair share of tracks, the most notable sensation is that of being alone.
Billing itself as “Private Pavement,” Thermal Club—which sits on 344 desert acres in Southern California’s Coachella Valley—is one of the latest projects from 56-year-old Michael Meldman and his real-estate development firm, Discovery Land Company. Since 1994 the company has opened an exquisite array of members-only clubs around North America: a 13,600-acre Montana ski resort, a mega-yacht-ready Bahamian island destination, a pristine Blue Ridge mountain lake spot.
Given the growing love (and value) of exotic and classic vehicles, and the lack of places to display and enjoy them, a private racetrack-cum-resort makes perfect sense. Slated to be completed by year’s end, Thermal’s 41⁄2 miles of reconfigurable track will be ringed by 204 lots costing six to seven figures. The plan is to build villas (or super-outfitted luxury garages) on the lots to store, pamper, and view more than 20 cars. For those who may want to sleep or live trackside, many lots have been residentially zoned.
A tuning, repair, and detailing shop is centrally located in the main paddock area. Local exotic-car dealers have purchased corporate memberships and set up satellite facilities, garnering a built-in location for full-tilt test-drives. BMW’s renowned Performance Driving School has leased a 32-acre plot for an instructional road course and has dibs on track time 300-plus days a year. The property will also include a clubhouse, a pool, tennis courts, a spa, catering, a kids’ club, and the outstanding level of personal service for which Discovery Land Company is known.
The track itself—which I have driven, over multiple visits, in a Porsche Cayman, a BMW M3, and an Aston Martin Vantage GT4—was laid out by famed South African designer Alan Wilson. Yet the asphalt is wider than typical, as are the buffers and spin-off zones. Aimed at the gentleman racer, it’s the ideal safe space for a novice to explore the capabilities of a high-performance vehicle and to graduate toward more advanced tactics.
The track also exemplifies Meldman’s genius, which lies in combining ultimate exclusivity with ultimate access to the front of a nonexistent line. “No one has to wait their turn,” Meldman tells me during a long lunch near his offices in Beverly Hills. “Because you can always use and enjoy the course. That’s the point. You pay for privacy.”
You also pay for perfection. In order to achieve his romantic thatched-hut vision of Hawaii at his Kuki’o Golf and Beach Club resort, on the Big Island, Meldman planted African reeds—in Africa—and had them harvested, dried, and shipped over. When creating a clubhouse for his Iron Horse Golf Club, in Whitefish, Montana, he told his architect to copy the grand Gilded Age lodges in Glacier National Park, replicating fireplaces and foyers with giant logs, plank floors, and hand-laid masonry.
“I was building a clubhouse,” Meldman says. “And my builder showed me plans where he’d engineered $6 million out of the $20 million building. I told him not to do that because it might cost us $100 million in revenue.” He stabs at his salad. “It’s counterintuitive to normal business because most builders’ jobs is to get money out. We, though, don’t want fake stone.”
As the private playgrounds for celebrities, CEOs, and other high acheivers, Meldman’s properties focus on service. “You can’t just build it as the best,” he says. “You have to operate it as the best.” This meticulousness is seen not just in the obsessive grounds maintenance or the off-hours availability of a pedicure at the salon—attention to detail is also on a personal-concierge level.
If a member wants their house stocked with an obscure bottle of Scotch, a favorite roast of coffee, or a particular brand of bath salts, it appears before their arrival. On-site chefs cater exquisite meals and dinner parties from members’ own kitchens. When I visited the Thermal clubhouse, the arrays of snacks—layered in the drawers of an upright tool chest—had their labels perfectly aligned.
“What’s nice is that you don’t really have to think or do too much,” says entertainment magnate Rande Gerber of his Discovery Land Company home at El Dorado Golf & Beach Club, in Los Cabos, Mexico. “They do everything. It’s like the best hotel you’d ever imagine without there being a hotel. All the amenities you could ever want, but you feel like you’re the only one there.” Gerber’s wife, supermodel Cindy Crawford, concurs, “Mike just does everything to 110 percent. Before we went to Yellowstone, it was, who needs a private ski mountain? Then you go and now I can never ski anywhere else.”
Meldman’s commitment to perfection seems destined to create an unobtainable standard. But at Discovery’s properties, every detail really is considered. When I return to my car after a day of driving on Thermal’s private track, the valet has cleared the empty water bottles and the protein-bar wrappers from my door pockets and tucked my dangling charger cord into the center console. I brag about this to Meldman, who says, dryly, “They should have washed and waxed the car, as well.”
The original plan for the Discovery Land Company enterprise was, according to Meldman, to cater to the baby boomers, and in the 20-plus years since the company was founded, he has tracked and fulfilled the needs of that group. Yet this cohort’s requirements are evident to Meldman not from market research, but from examining his life and the lives of his friends. “I’m very fortunate,” he says. “I am the demographic.”
Health and wellness are the current priorities. Discovery Land Company has already increased the offerings at its on-site spas to include total wellness programs. The kitchen is next. “Today the change is basically about food,” Meldman says. “Farm-to-table, and organics, is not only a big trend nationally—it’s actually a bigger trend for our demographic. Our chefs farm and harvest and use the produce, but a lot of the members actually want to be involved as well.”
Despite this emphasis, Meldman’s properties will remain known for their indulgence, particularly their incorporation of comfort stations—little cabins along the golf courses or ski runs where members can pop in and treat themselves to hot chocolate, warm cookies, or cold soft-serve. “Most people who are healthy are fairly disciplined,” Meldman says. “But every now and then, you don’t want to be disciplined. If you go to my freezer, it looks like a 7-Eleven of ice cream in there.” He pauses. “You never know if you’re going to be hung-over and what you might want.”
What might Meldman want, moving forward? First, let’s address that hangover. When we meet, he is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an agave plant. This turns out to be the icon for his ultra-premium tequila, Casamigos. He developed the brand with two good friends—Gerber and George Clooney—because they like to drink together at El Dorado, where they all have houses. It has become one of the most successful top-shelf tequilas ever launched. “We’ve been growing at probably 20 percent a month,” Meldman says.
Beyond that, he has a three-pronged approach. “What I’d like to do is start a boutique-resort brand,” he says. He suggests that these sites could be built contiguous to upcoming Discovery Land Company developments or as stand-alone properties elsewhere: “We could do that and give amenities that no one else can give.”
Taking Discovery’s exclusivity to a larger audience might seem counterintuitive, but Meldman has built his empire on doing things differently. Plus, he imagines that such an endeavor may actually be simpler than his current model. “It’s probably easier to do everything in one central resort,” he says. “When you go to our places, we send personal chefs, butlers, and maids to each house. It would be easier to have standard staffs.”
Meldman would also like to do more urban projects. “Maybe something in Manhattan,” he says, “with residences and a club component.” He has circled closer to the city recently with a new 800-acre equestrian-and golf-centric project, Silo Ridge Field Club, in rural Dutchess County, New York, which should begin sales this summer, and with the Dune Deck, a beach club on Long Island’s eastern end, which should begin construction this fall.
And what about extending Discovery’s reach internationally? “I think what we do here translates all over the world,” he says, “especially in emerging markets. There is an attraction there to American luxury, and everyone would rather have it closer to home.” He says that he is “looking pretty hard in Dubai” and discusses a recent trip to Sochi, Russia: “They spent a lot of money building what is obviously an Olympic-quality ski mountain. So there could be opportunities around that.”
Meldman’s reach seems limitless, so I ask if there’s anywhere he wouldn’t go—undersea, into space? His good friend Clooney’s fate in Gravity weighs on him, and he demurs, chortling: “I’m not so sure about the space thing.”
I follow up on the question of Discovery Land Company Intergalactic with Crawford and Gerber. “If Mike thought it was worth it,” Crawford says, her trust implicit, “I would for sure check it out.” Gerber concurs. “I probably would follow him to space,” he says. “Though I’m not sure George would.”
Discovery Land Company’s Other (Non-Racing) Offerings
Yellowstone Club, in Big Sky, Montana, is worth a visit year-round, but its 2,200 acres of powder are the true highlight. The club’s 60-plus runs, coupled with Discovery Land Company’s signature exclusivity, means it feels like you have the mountain—and treat-loaded warming huts—to yourself. Homes start at $2.5 million; yellowstoneclub.com.
In the Bahamas, Baker’s Bay has the amenities of a resort and then some: spa treatments, fitness classes, and a place to park your mega-yacht. Homes start at $3.5 million; bakersbayclub.com.
HUNTING AND FISHING
Silo Ridge, an 800-acre hunting, fishing, and hiking field club located 90 minutes north of Manhattan, opens this summer. Homes start at $2.6 million; siloridge.com.
Image Credit: Peter Bohler