The Claremont Hotel and Spa: Grand Dame of the San Francisco Bay Area

It’s been many years since I’ve lived in the Bay Area, but I’ve always remembered the Claremont Hotel and Spa in Berkeley, California.

Like a grand dame holding court on top of the Berkeley hills, the 279-rooom Claremont and its 22 acres of tennis courts, swimming pools, fitness and spa facilities are legendary. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright called the resplendent white building “one of the few hotels in the world with warmth, character and charm.”

Ironically, I had never stepped foot inside the historic place. (At the time, I was attending university and it seemed, well, too fancy or other-worldly for an 18-year-old.)

That was then. As a working, mortgage-paying mother of two, I figured I had earned my right to stay at the Claremont as a pampered guest. I would book a facial at Spa Claremont, dine at Meritage, the Claremont’s elegant restaurant, and send my sons to the onsite children’s club, Plus, I was curious — would the legendary Claremont live up to its reputation?

“A movie star.”

That’s what I felt like the moment I first stepped into the breathtakingly elegant lobby. With two-story high ceilings, arches, and columns, the grand public entrance is a space where one can’t help feeling like you’re about to bump into Hollywood starlets. Mahogany furniture and wood floors are buffed to high shine. Sumptuous blue-and-yellow carpets match the upholstered chairs and soften your footsteps so nothing’s loud or jarring. Chandeliers twinkle overhead, casting an omnipresence golden glow.

And yet, it somehow feels incredibly cozy, not intimidating. Guests can play checkers on oversized game boards that are ever present in public seating areas. A pianist regularly entertains listeners on the lobby’s grand piano. Bowls of hard candies sit next to giant pots of palm fronds. Sepia-colored photos of the Claremont’s yesteryears hang from buttery-yellow walls: a genteel reminder of the building’s storied pedigree.

While the Claremont may be rich in history, but it boasts modern conveniences like Internet access, on-site boutiques, a business center, ATM machine, flat-screen televisions, and in all rooms, coffee makers, mini fridges, and baskets brimming with premium chocolate from Ghirardelli Chocolate Company (another Bay Area institution).

Tempting, but I was eager to work up an appetite for dinner; I headed for the hotel club and spa. It turns out that locals can join as regular members. If I lived in Berkeley, I would, too. (Guests are welcome to participate in activities.)

In addition to its full-fledged tennis program (six of the 10 courts are lit for evening play and private and group lessons are available) there are yoga, pilates, and cardio-fit classes as well as cycling and pranayama, a form of breathing and yoga (it may be the Claremont, but we’re still in Berkeley, folks). Three pools—one for children, tricked out with water jets and other activity features; a 25-meter adult pool; and a perfectly heated, 25-yard lap pool—and the outdoor jet-stream whirlpool satisfy swimmers and splashers of all abilities. A modern and fitness center boasts the usual array of cardio equipment and looks out to the San Francisco Bay. In short, you could stay at the Claremont, exercise all day, then unwind at the spa.

Which is where I headed.

Serene and elegant, the Spa Claremont reflects its California roots by offering unique services such as acupuncture and Tibetan Sound Massage, the Ayurvedic Reblancer Body Treatment, Zen Trilogy Wrap, and an Antigravity Facelift. I decided to try the HydroPeptide facial.

Peptides are compounds made of two or more amino acids and they come in various natural forms– insulin and melittin (honey bee venom) are two examples. Lately, the use of peptides in sports and beauty has attracted a lot of media attention for their ability to burn fat, build muscle, and work miracles on the skin by say, replacing collagen. The HydroPeptide® product line at Spa Claremont uses over 60 peptides designed to boost hydration, protect the skin, reduce lines and wrinkles and buff up its natural luminosity.

I tend to be skeptical about any beauty claim, but after being cleansed, toned, hydrated, and smoothed, my skin felt as plump and soft as a baby’s and it really did glow—even without the benefit of the lobby’s twinkling chandeliers.

I was ready for Meritage. With expansive windows that look out over the San Francisco Bay, the Meritage is one of the prettiest places to eat. It’s also devastatingly delicious. As foodies know, California – and Berkeley in particular – is a place for serious chefs and serious diners. Chef de Cuisine Scott Quinn oversees the kitchen here, and his menu is locally sourced, seasonal, and creative. (A transplant form Los Angeles, Quinn formerly held the Chef de Cuisines spot at Bagatelle and studied with renowned Chef Tomas Keller, but he began cooking for his mother at the tender age of 14.)

I swooned over a salad of local figs, burrata cheese, and tissue-paper thin ribbons of prosciutto de parma before moving onto scallops served with grilled hollow peach, young leeks and verbena. My oldest son took one look at the filet mignon paired with Maine lobster croquette, sweet corn and scallion veloute and asked to be excused from movie night at the children’s club. My youngest son didn’t want to join us. Nevertheless, he got to dine on turkey burgers, organic fruit, and sweet potato fries. (Bravo to the Claremont for steering clear of mac-n-cheese or chicken nuggets that are typically served young people under five-feet tall!) Mom opted for salmon with wilted spinach, jicama and grapefruit remoulade.
Everyone was thrilled.

The wine list at Meritage merits some mention, too. It includes six categories of wine styles, each with three suggested dishes, at varying price points. These thoughtful recommendations make it easy to select a wine that will complement the food you’ve ordered and fit your budget without feeling overwhelmed or intimidated. I loved it, and apparently others do, too. This year, Meritage won the Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator.

After a day of pampering and fine dining, I was ready for adventure. Because of the Claremont’s convenient location, we were able to pop over to San Francisco to visit tourist sites, including the Exploratorium Museum (truly, one of the best science museums in the country). We also took a day trip to Marin to walk through the famous redwood trees at Muir Woods before grabbing lunch in Mill Valley.

Fun for all ages – and every time we returned from a day of sightseeing and stepped into the Claremont’s grand entry, I always felt like movie star.

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