Safe harbour on the Mendocino Coast
Mendocino, about three hours’ drive north of San Francisco, is a small coastal enclave set in outsized nature, a place where world-beating culinary experiences and zero connectivity often fluidly co-exist. Harbor House is the win up here, despite the presence of hotels that are ostensibly more exclusive (The Heritage House) or “cool” (Timber Cove Resort). Its popularity is down to the buildings’ charm – they were lovingly and meticulously restored by owners Edmund Jin and Eva Lu when they bought it – and the excellence of its culinary offering.
The Inn, which reopened in 2018, is historic, with six rooms in the main house and others in cabins, all cosy and antique-filled, and all unique; one is clad in redwood boiserie, another has a library. The more recent Madrone cottage is modern-architecture heaven. The restaurant has become a northern California beacon; executive chef Matthew Kammerer is a multiple James Beard Award finalist whose tasting menus, which do remarkable things with hyper-local seafood, produce and seaweed, have earned him two Michelin stars. It’s one of those hotels that’s almost legendary on America’s West Coast and inexplicably all but unknown overseas. theharborhouseinn.com, from $550
Carmel’s new hotel belles
It’s always been one of the state’s most beloved beach towns. Monégasque property tycoon Patrice Pastor, who like legions before him has fallen hard for Carmel’s charms, seems to be the person behind quite a few of its new developments; among the flurry of residential and commercial acquisitions his holding company, Esperanza Carmel, has made is the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Mrs Clinton Walker House. The Carmel Beach Hotel, operated by Mirabel, the hotel-restaurant company owned by local David Fink, has taken over Colonial Terrace at the corner of 13th and San Antonio (a serendipitous location: San Antonio is just a block up from Carmel Beach, and 13th Street is the border below which you’re allowed to take a picnic and a bottle down onto the sand).
Despite having only 26 rooms spread across its seven one- and two-storey buildings, it’s is a full resort proposition: the spa with its three treatment rooms offers facials, scrubs and seaweed wraps, the gym and fitness studio are similarly full-service. In the restaurant is Justin Cogley, who won Best New Chef laurels from Food & Wine, American’s culinary bible, for his delicious work at Aubergine, the restaurant in Fink’s other hotel, L’Auberge Carmel. If sunrise is when you do the beach, Cogley will have you covered; the Carmel Beach Hotel’s breakfast baskets, loaded with local sweet and savoury treats, are made for easy portability.
La Playa is one of Carmel’s larger hotels, as well as one of its oldest, in operation since 1905. I’ve often steered friends and visitors to its gloriously un-chic bar for the Taylor-and-Burton patina it gives. But the 75 rooms were always a bit too tired to warrant recommendation. Thankfully that’s changed; all of them were just renovated to the tune of $15mn, with an eye to creating a sense of upgrade without straying too far from the hotel’s Spanish-colonial vernacular, or its oceanside heritage. The décor schemes thus skew one way or the other: lush Persian rugs, gleaming mahogany four-posters, corner sofas upholstered in deep green velvet; or else rattan and jaunty blue-and-white beach stripes. Never opulent, but eminently comfortable. The views from the top-floor rooms, over the courtyard to the beach and Point Lobos beyond, merit the higher rates if you can foot them. carmelbeachhotel.com, from $250. laplayahotel.com, from $450
Rustic chic with a maximalist finish in Palm Desert
In mid-April, Coachella will once again kick off deep in the Colorado Desert, with Blur, Grimes, Lana del Rey and Tyler the Creator among the big names. Not that you need a festival to partake of this very beautiful landscape; it’s a good year-rounder (barring perhaps August and September) with many great places to stay, boasting design and ambience to please all palates.
The one the Angelenos are buzzing to see, Hotel Wren 29 Palms, is opening in spring. In the meantime you can’t go wrong at Sparrows Lodge, which has been around since long before anyone had the idea for Coachella; MGM Studios actor Don Castle built it in the 1950s and it’s been operating as a hotel for decades. The supremely cool Parisian DJ Claire-Marie Rutledge gave it a style refresh in 2022, and now it’s often booked close to solid, especially at weekends.
All the rough timber walls, exposed beam ceilings, and poured concrete floors combine rusticity with Rutledge’s nods to the area’s apex of 1950s and 1960s style, from the pottery to the beaten-up leather butterfly chairs and the saddle blankets at the foot of your bed. That there are works by the likes of Alex Katz, Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari hanging here and there doesn’t hurt. If you’re after just a dose of old Palm Desert glamour, a dinner at The Pink Cabana at the Sands Hotel & Spa will deliver: Mediterranean-Moroccan food in a space created by LA’s king of maximalism, Martyn Lawrence-Bullard. sparrowslodge.com, from $249; sandshotelandspa.com, from $154
Malibu’s most loved
How Malibu has changed in 20 years. Gone are the $3 tacos and feral surfers, replaced by $10 valet tips and premium nigiri at Nobu Malibu. The Malibu Pier – once home to the storied hippie-Hollywood hangout Alice’s Restaurant – is now dominated by a fancy retail outpost of One Gun Ranch, co-owned by a different Alice, the English one called Bamford.
Praise, then, for the Malibu Beach Inn (opened 1989), which notwithstanding a 2007 “luxury” upgrade still quietly evinces the spirit of the place. The 47 rooms and suites are all raw wood, ocean hues, generous fireplaces, sliding glass doors, few lofty airs, and the shore 10 paces away. The Inn’s restaurant, Carbon Beach Club, is an actual beach club, with loungers and umbrellas in the sand. The discreet spa, CURE, does it all, from morning movement classes to IV infusions and PRP, via the usual body and face treatments. And the location is easy walking distance to all the New ‘Bu bells, whistles and attractions. malibubeachinn.com, from $660
Old-school ranching in the Santa Ynez Valley
Working-ranch stays tend to be more associated with the Rockies – Colorado, Montana, Wyoming – than they are with southern California. But Alisal has been operating on 10,500 acres in the gorgeous rolling hills north-west of Santa Barbara since 1946, when it opened to just 30 guests for the summer. It’s evolved since, most notably in the accommodations, which in earlier years were fairly spartan; today they’re cosy and rustic-chic, but operate roughly along the same configurations, with houses for larger groups (Jackson House – named for Pete Jackson, the owner who opened parts of Alisal to the public – sleeps 12; Turner House, 10) and studios and cottages for smaller families and couples.
There’s a golf course and three tennis courts, as well as a spa and a handful of only-at-Alisal wellness experiences – in April, globally recognised equine-therapy expert Devon Combs will lead a women-only healing-with-horses retreat (from $3,600). But the place is perhaps still best experienced in the salutary simplicity of the original offering: days spent outdoors, hiking or in the saddle, learning about sustainable ranching practices and local wildlife, eating clean, delicious food, and constellation-spotting at night (the skies are exceptionally clear here). alisalranch.com, from $613 for two, full board