Nearly two decades later, the Château du Sureau, a lavish slice of Old Europe perched incongruously at the south entrance to Yosemite National Park, is the embodiment of Kubin-Clanin’s vision. No sooner have prospective guests driven through the Château’s gates and taken in its mini-turret, terracotta-tiled roofs and formal gardens – “straight out of a Grimm fairytale,” says a Fodor’s critic; “the kind of place where Marie Antoinette would have kicked back if she’d had the luck to visit Yosemite,” according to Gayot.com – than they’re being greeted “like old friends” by Kubin-Clanin and her staff. Guests are immediately offered glasses of refreshing elderberry iced tea and escorted around the grounds – “sureau” is French for elderberry, and the Château’s nine-acre hill is garlanded with elderberry bushes. The house itself is stocked with Kubin-Clanin’s antique European furniture and objets d’art, marking a lifetime of collecting; the gardens boast stunning views of the Sierra Nevada, as well as a lawn-sized chessboard with three-foot-high pawns and a set of swings.
Going the Extra Mile
However, it’s on arriving at their rooms that guests will find Kubin-Clanin’s concept of “extra-mile service” really kicking in. There are 10 guest rooms, all named after herbs or wildflowers and dressed accordingly. The Saffron Room is dominated by a king-size ebony and ivory bedroom set from 1834, while the Sweet Geranium room has a private balcony overlooking the flowerbeds. Log fires will have been lit, Mozart or Vivaldi will be playing on the stereo and fresh-cut flowers will have been arranged just so to brighten each room. After a few minutes of settling in – “we try to time it just right,” twinkles Kubin-Clanin – a chambermaid in traditional uniform arrives, bearing a tray of finger sandwiches, cheeses, strawberries and orange-spice tea. Exiting, she indicates the antique cookie tins containing freshly baked almond pockets and Kugelhopf (a sugar-dusted raisin brioche that was a Hapsburg favorite) on a Louis XVI table. For Kubin-Clanin, these rituals of arrival at the Château are vitally important for what she calls “establishing the template and the ambience of any stay with us. What I’m really aiming for is lots of pampering and love, like the hospitality you would enjoy at a special friend’s house. You are there to respond to every beck and call, without being overly intrusive. I wouldn’t like that at all.” She smiles. “It’s just a matter of setting the stage.”
The theatrical analogy is apt, and not just because of Kubin-Clanin’s arresting Austrian accent, undimmed after decades of living in Northern California – she studied theater arts at the Academy of Fine Arts in her hometown of Vienna. Meanwhile, an early appreciation of manners was drilled into her during the twice-weekly etiquette classes at her convent school. But her notion of the ultimate in service really crystallized when, in the late 1950s, she took a job at Claridge’s, the London hotel as renowned for its discretion as its opulence. “I was taken under the wing of an old housekeeper there,” she recalls, “and saw many crowned heads pass through its rooms. I kept my eyes and ears open the whole time.”
Kubin-Clanin emigrated to the United States in 1962, opening her first restaurant, Scorpio’s, in Los Angeles seven years later. She moved to the Sierra Nevada region in the late 1970s, drawn by its natural beauty, and eventually established her Elderberry House restaurant in 1984. The New York Times critic Craig Claiborne lauded her six-course prix fixe menu as “one of America’s best dining experiences,” and soon pilgrims from across the country were paying gourmet-homage. “I had dressed the restaurant in antiques and fabrics from Provence,” she recalls. “I got so many people coming who were saying, ‘Oh, if only you had lodging.’ And when I got the opportunity to do that, I knew I wanted to build a castle. As a young girl, I remember playing by the bombed-out wreck of Lichtenstein Castle. I was always intrigued by it; there was such a mystique about it. Of course, my pockets weren’t that deep; I had to get a loan. But I wanted the whole estate to blend seamlessly together.”
Over the years, Kubin-Clanin’s Sureau estate has grown. The Villa Sureau, a 2,000-square-foot private guesthouse and the culmination of her style, with its 15-foot ceilings, “sitting salon,” 19th-century tapestries and European crystal, was added in 1999, and the Spa du Sureau, where treatments are offered amid Art Deco grandeur, opened recently. It is, according to Kubin-Clanin, “my last hoorah for the property.” The estate now employs 97 staff whom she trains herself, from the busboys to Villa Sureau’s personal butler (who lives-in at the Villa, on 24-hour call) to her manager, an Englishwoman named Lucy Royse who’s worked at the Château for 15 years. “They put our service philosophy into effect,” Kubin-Clanin says. “In a lot of chain hotels, even the pricier ones, service is actually quite superficial. The staff are like robots. Here, I hire people with personality, a spark in their eyes, who want to be a part of something that they can be proud of.”
Kubin-Clanin elaborates on various ways in which the word “no” has been avoided: the guest who forgot her toothbrush and returned from dinner to find a new one, tied with ribbon, in her bathroom; the couple who went hiking without their picnic basket, which Kubin-Clanin dispatched via one of the housemen, who found them just in time for lunch; the guest who was so miserable without her Pekingese that Kubin-Clanin got a staff member to pick it up from San Francisco and drive it down to the hotel. You pay for this level of consideration, of course – rooms start at $350 a night – but even the presentation of the bill is softened by the fact that Royse, a calligraphist, handwrites each one. These are the factors that compel people to return to Château du Sureau and which, according to its owner, will prove a bulwark in tougher economic times. “I think the service we offer is more important right now than ever,” she says. “People need to treat themselves and enjoy life. That’s where we come in.”