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The whisper of ghosts

In the Carmel Valley, a ‘20s-era estate elegantly combines philanthropy and luxury.

By Matt Katz

The original manor house, Chateau Noel boasts eight luxuriously appointed suites. Twenty percent of revenues and site fees is donated to charity.

Mick and the boys got satisfaction in the rolling hills of Stonepine. Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder teamed up for a murder mystery weekend here. Cruise. Kidman. Depp. Eastwood. Even the shortlist of luminaries who’ve stayed at the Carmel Valley estate is a long list.

And why not? Those looking for privacy—and a taste of the champagne lifestyle—would be hard-pressed to find a better sanctuary. This is a place refined enough to host Saudi royalty, discreet enough to sequester mob hitman Sammy “The Bull” Gravano when he turned state’s evidence against John Gotti. When business magnates like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates need an off-the-radar location for a conference, they speed dial Stonepine Estate Resort.

Built from 1927 to 1929, the Relais & Chateaux property is a fantasy of sophisticated country living, a California gem with Old World polish—think Mediterranean architecture, European service, and details like 18th-century cherry wood paneling in a library where the pièce de résistance is a blazing seven-foot-high fireplace carved from Italian limestone.

This fall, my wife and I were invited to Stonepine to learn about a new charitable giving program established by current owners Gordon and Noel Hentschel, who, in 1983, purchased the 330-acre estate as a mutual wedding gift—an ideal spot to raise their family. Several years later, they met Mother Teresa.

That fortuitous encounter inspired Mrs. Hentschel to create the Noel Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping women and children in need. But it wasn’t until she and her then-teenage son Nicholas joined the religious sister on the front lines of Calcutta that Mrs. Hentschel, the CEO of American Tours International (one of California’s largest woman-owned businesses, generating nearly $3 billion annually) and a mother of seven, truly dedicated herself to philanthropy.

Gordon, too, rose to prominence in the hospitality industry: as a vice president for Hyatt Hotels. And while Stonepine has traditionally been used for private functions and equestrian events, the couple recently opened their doors in the name of charity-oriented tourism. As of 2013, a full 20 percent of revenues and site fees from Chateau Noel, the property’s architectural centerpiece, will be donated to a charitable program endorsed by the Noel Foundation.

So, with visions of Gatsby dancing in our heads we wended our way up the Central Coast, pushing eastward into the utopian Carmel Valley. This is one of the state’s most treasured areas, and Stonepine is cloistered in a jaw-dropping micro-region: a lush, oak-studded dell split down the middle by the easy flow of the Carmel Valley River.

Over the river and through the second of two entry gates. Past a first-rate equestrian center and a handsome 12-foot bronze statue of a horse. At Chateau Noel we were greeted warmly and handed the keys to the Hermes House, one of four freestanding homes. Though the two-bedroom, four-fireplace adobe was designed as a celebrity hideaway, we weren’t always alone.

I happened upon a Frenchman in the foyer one morning. He was just leaving. “Breakfast is on the table,” he pronounced with a quiet air of deference.

His timing was perfect. Indeed, everything was perfect during our weekend getaway. It’s that sort of place, an upmarket retreat where service is refined to a high art, where staff come and go like phantoms, rarely seen, turning down beds, delivering food, addressing guests’ needs with utmost efficiency and barely a whisper.

My wife wandered into our bedroom one afternoon with a pleasantly bemused look on her face. “They were here,” she smiled.

Turns out she’d put some items in the washing machine. We’d then taken a short drive to the coast for cioppino at Phil’s Fish Market in Moss Landing. Upon our return, she was delighted to find neat stacks of familiar clothing—washed, dried, ironed, and folded.

Guests at Stonepine have a range of activities from which to choose. We opted instead to lay low, soaking up the quietude, meandering the oak-studded grounds, occasionally hopping on a bicycle. Virtually everything onsite is available for guests’ use. And with rates at Chateau Noel running from $500 to $10,000 per day, those who can afford to stay here rest assured that their 20 percent donation will go a long way.

Travel-related philanthropy isn’t a new concept, of course. But there are now more options than ever before, from charity-minded tour operators to hotel companies and cruise lines that kick back a portion of their profits to a cause. With its exclusive rates and relatively high percentage donation, Stonepine offers a singular sojourn: a private estate experience that’s not entirely self-indulgent.

Here one finds an unusual combination of history and luxury, activities and tranquility. The grounds are stunning. The equestrian center is world-class. There’s shuffleboard and archery and manicured gardens.

But during our stay, there was mostly silence—cracked intermittently by the shriek of a hawk, or the wind moving autumn leaves about. There was a subtle echo of the 1920s, too. A whisper of ghosts that ultimately faded into more profound silence.

STONEPINE: A PRIVATE ESTATE EXPERIENCE

For detailed information, log on to stonepineestate.com or call 831-659-2245.

The posh interior offers a comfy counterpoint to Carmel’s rugged coast, a short drive away.





Surrounded by lush, oak-studded hills in Carmel Valley, the chateau overlooks an outdoor pavilion where waterfalls connect a trio of tranquil ponds.

10-29-2013

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