Few beaches in the world are more iconic than those of Southern California. This stretch of coast has been celebrated for decades in music and film. Tanned youth keep the local beach culture alive, but for those of us who no longer quite count as youth, the coast of Southern California has other draws.
In many places, dramatic bluffs or towering sea cliffs back the soft, golden sand. If you time your visit well, you can see wildlife in rocky tide pools, or massive marine mammals on whale-watching cruises. Parks reaching from the coast inland to mountain foothills offer superlative hiking. Restaurants serve impeccably fresh seafood, and hotels can arrange umbrella-shaded beach picnics. In short, the coast of Southern California is an ideal place to relax, an activity that’s increasingly absent from ever-more-purposeful American vacations nowadays.
In many places, dramatic bluffs or towering sea cliffs back the soft, golden sand.
After assessing several small hotels in the congested heart of Los Angeles, a little time along the coast seemed like just the thing. We put our convertible’s top down, turned the radio up and headed west. Malibu entered the luxury hotel spotlight in 2017 with the opening of the 16-room Nobu Ryokan, a hotel about which I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm. Rooms start at about $2,000 a night with a minimum two-night stay, and that price doesn’t even purchase a sea view. I have trouble believing that a “Garden” room could possibly justify such an expenditure, however attentive the hotel’s service might be. Staying at the Nobu Ryokan makes sense only for privacy-hungry celebrities, or those who want to see them.
A few doors down, the Malibu Beach Inn has quietly reinvented itself. After owning the property for 10 years, media magnate David Geffen sold the 47-room hotel to the Mani Brothers Real Estate Group, which put its own stamp on the hotel. Now the rooms and restaurant have been refreshed. Rates, not incidentally, are less than half the Nobu Ryokan’s. We booked a two-night stay, hoping for a relaxing spell of low-key beachside chic.
The drive along the Pacific Coast Highway to the hotel is, alas, uninspiring. The main Malibu thoroughfare functions as an alley for the multimillion-dollar mansions sandwiched between it and the beach. Beneath periodic utility poles are the garage doors and trash bins of homes pressed together like marshmallows on a string, allowing only an occasional glimpse of the ocean. The Malibu Beach Inn stands at the end of such a string. The next major structure, about 500 feet away, is the picturesque Malibu Pier.
Our third-floor King Premier Ocean Front room had a splendid view of the pier and distant Catalina Island, both from our sofa and our glass-fronted balcony. We had espresso there each morning as the sun turned the sea to gold. Inside, the spacious room mixed beachy and Danish modern styles, with wood floors, wood paneling and a vaulted wood-beamed ceiling, hung with surprisingly attractive track lighting. I very much enjoyed relaxing on the sofa in front of our gas fireplace with the complimentary bottle of excellent wine the hotel provided. The room’s one closet felt tight for two people, however, and the bath felt even tighter. It had all we needed — a tile shower, a double trough sink and an elaborate Japanese-style toilet — but the elements barely fit in the space. Soundproofing, as at so many of the hotels in the Los Angeles area, was also a problem. We had no trouble hearing the whoosh of cars on the Pacific Coast Highway, or the occasional conversation in the open-air hallway outside our door.
Still, such was the beauty of our view, the comfort of our room and the thoughtfulness of the staff, it felt difficult to summon any lasting feelings of irritation. In addition to the complimentary bottle of wine, we received a selection of macaroons one evening, as well as nightly chocolate truffles at turndown. Instead of price tags on the slippers and denim beach tote in the room, we discovered notes encouraging us to take them home.
Downstairs, the Carbon Beach Club Restaurant was a delight. We had a dinner on the oceanfront terrace, warmed by umbrella-shaped heaters. My appetizer of grilled avocado with Tunisian relish felt very California, and some flawless sea bass came with salty marble potatoes, tangy cipollini onions and earthy wild mushrooms. I also appreciated the wine list, which included adventurous selections as well as trophy wines like Grand Cru Aloxe-Corton by the glass. Breakfasts felt just as indulgent, especially since our rate included a substantial credit. I ordered an omelet of lump crab, mushrooms and avocado one morning and truffled scrambled eggs with rich Bucheron cheese the next.
The hotel’s other principal amenity is its spa suite, a converted guest room, where I enjoyed an expensive but superlative massage. The talented therapist was no slave to symmetry; one shoulder held more tension than the other, and it was treated accordingly.
And, of course, there is the beach. California law doesn’t allow for beaches to be private, but the Malibu Beach Inn does have its own set of loungers. Since the law also forbids the hotel to serve alcohol on the beach, we ordered some spicy ginger beers from the attendant and settled in with our novels, looking up occasionally at people walking their dogs or stopping to take photos on the boulders. I’m glad we took time to do some hikes nearby and visit the Getty Villa, which recently rearranged its magnificent ancient-art collection chronologically, rather than thematically. But I could have very happily never left the hotel, dividing my time among our room’s balcony, the restaurant’s terrace and the beach.
The beachfront location; the warm and helpful staff; our airy room and its Pacific-view balcony; the fine restaurant and its sublime waterfront terrace; the umbrella-shaded loungers on the beach; the complimentary wine and macaroons.
Sound from the Pacific Coast Highway penetrated our room, as did other noise in the hallway; our petite bath.
Because there is only one spa treatment room, book services well in advance. Although the spa staff asked if I had a gender preference for my therapist, they ignored my request.
When we did depart, my consolation was that we were heading to what looked to be a stylish hideaway in Laguna Beach. We already recommend two resorts along this stretch of coast: the 250-room Montage Laguna Beach, south of town, and the 204-room Resort at Pelican Hill, on the far side of Crystal Cove State Park from Laguna Beach, near the upscale town of Newport Beach. I hoped that the new 22-room Hotel Joaquin, within walking distance of downtown Laguna Beach, would give these relatively large properties a hideaway-size competitor.
The Hotel Joaquin abuts the busy Pacific Coast Highway, but most of its rooms face the opposite direction, toward the ocean, which is a short walk down a residential street from the hotel (the property is not on the water). After finding a parking place next to the entrance, we met a friendly man at the front desk — almost all the employees seemed to be men — who checked us in and dispatched a colleague to retrieve our luggage from the trunk of our car. They escorted us up to “the quietest room on the property,” Soleil, which had a step-out balcony facing the garden courtyard. To the left was the pool and, beyond the neighborhood’s rooftops, the Pacific.
I immediately liked the room’s bright midcentury-modern style. A wood headboard framed the king bed, unadorned except for brass reading lights and control panels. A record player came with several excellent jazz and Motown selections, and the bath had striking black-and-pink marble around the dual trough sink and tub (the separate walk-in shower came clad in attractive pearl-gray tile). I also appreciated the absence of a television. The man carrying our bags asked where he should put them, and looking around the room, I was at a loss. Only a single wardrobe in the bath, too small to contain even one suitcase, provided storage space. I indicated an open area of floor in the bedroom and asked if the hotel had any luggage racks. It did not. I can’t abide keeping luggage on the floor, and so our bags ended up resting on the sturdy wooden arms of the two vintage chairs facing the bed.
Left without places to sit in our room, we decamped to an umbrella-shaded daybed by the pool and sent a text requesting our complimentary welcome spritzes (rooms have no phones; guests are encouraged to interact with staff in person or via text message). Our drinks arrived a few minutes thereafter, and we reclined with our aperitifs, relaxing until the sun dropped behind the nearby rooftops. At that point, the small bar-lounge seemed a more appropriate place to continue our evening, and we installed ourselves on the sofa facing the fireplace.
In addition to the creative bar — the drink menu includes six spritzes and 10 additional specialty cocktails, as well as 16 wines by the glass — the Hotel Joaquin has a fine restaurant, Saline, which is open only to guests. Chef Leo Bongarra grew up in Buenos Aires, and his powerful, hearty food took me right back to meals I’d enjoyed in Argentina. I delighted in my appetizer of Broccolini with serrano chiles, aji amarillo (Peruvian yellow chiles), garlic tahini and hemp seeds, and I relished some skirt steak with chimichurri, pickled baby onions, sweet potato purée and a wedge of grilled cabbage topped with melted butter and brie.
Service at the hotel was always friendly, but a corporate incentive group sometimes overwhelmed the staff. The breakfast buffet felt crowded the first morning, and table service was unavailable (the next day it was far more tranquil, and à la carte). I never quite seemed able to connect with the “Adventure Guru,” George, who was organizing various excursions for the group. At one point, I texted and requested that chairs and an umbrella be set up for us at Shaw’s Cove, the beach closest to the hotel. I didn’t receive a response. When we went to the lobby later to check on the arrangements, I was told that George had to finish carrying some paddleboards up before he could get to our beach chairs. It took an hour from when I first sent the text before the beach setup was ready.
I liked the Hotel Joaquin and its friendly staff, but the lack of storage in our room and the inconsistent service prevent me from recommending it wholeheartedly. The property seems well-suited to stylish solo travelers, but we felt a little cramped, in spite of booking one of the more-expensive rooms. The Resort at Pelican Hill and Montage Laguna Beach may be larger properties, but for the moment, they’re the best options for those seeking luxury accommodations along this splendid stretch of Southern California coast.
The cheerful staff; the bright midcentury modern/Mediterranean décor; the location convenient to downtown Laguna Beach as well as lesser-known beaches; our striking bath; the creative cocktail list; the excellent restaurant open only to guests.
The staff was occasionally overwhelmed by the group at the hotel; the lack of storage space in our room.
Rooms have no phones or televisions; staff communicate via text, cell phone or in person; complimentary paddleboards and kayaks are available, as are complimentary bicycles; rates include a $35-per-night resort fee.