Los Angeles: Find Zen in Hotel Bel-Air

Your first moment of Zen occurs when you stroll across a graceful bridge and are riveted by the sight of two swans swimming below. This is the entrance to Hotel Bel- Air — and a signal that everything here is out of the ordinary.

There is no doubt where you are: a botanical garden, a secret enclave. But it’s neither the California nor the Los Angeles we’re used to seeing. Nothing about the Bel-Air is.

The hotel is spread throughout the 12-acre garden, which cossets the visitor along its winding trails. Once California chaparral shrubbery, this oasis is now home to plants from around the world, some familiar (Ginkgo biloba) and others seldom seen on such a scale (gigantic fig trees). There are even some signs identifying the most interesting large plants. For instance, there is a sign on the Ginkgo biloba apologizing for the odour; it’s a female tree and carries the fruit, which can have a rotten smell to it.

For the plant lover, what better place to park every stress in the world than in this historic haven, which was a sanctuary for Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly decades ago and, more recently, Oprah Winfrey. Elizabeth Taylor (a neighbour) still sends for the famous tortilla soup, and no wonder — the kitchen is justifiably famous. From the killer cr�me br�l�e French toast for breakfast to the Colorado lamb for dinner, the menu is superb.

The herb garden, a secluded formal garden in traditional style, is where they grow herbs such as rosemary for that incredible Colorado lamb. Several times a day, you can see the chef wandering about with his secateurs, and I, for one, did not want to disturb that kind of concentration. They use everything they pick in the kitchen. The garden is also a lovely spot to sit and just take in all the scents.

Eventually, you discover the joys of the swimming pool and a second moment of Zen: eating a plate of lobster salad while gazing across the surrounding canyon hills — you know this is paradise.

But it’s not just the facial in your room or the glorious food that makes for an indulgent weekend. It’s not the fountains that are everywhere or the long walks you take through the gardens trying to identify plants and marvelling at such exotica as Australian tree ferns (Cyathea cooperi) and birdof- paradise plants mixing it up with yews, elms and sycamores. Nope, it’s the stillness of it all. In an increasingly raucous world, this is a refuge from the brutality of noise. No thumping music disturbs the tranquility. Just plants and peacefulness and an infinitely kind staff. It’s the essence of grown-up civility.

–Marjorie Harris