Malibu is less than an hour away from L.A. up the Pacific Coast Highway, yet it’s always felt somewhat impenetrable for the uninitiated, i.e., those of us who don’t own gleaming houses on this prized coastline or have bitcoin-rich uncles who do. That’s a bit unfair considering mood-altering beaches in Malibu make laying your towel in Santa Monica look like the definition of settling. Even away from the gorgeous, warm sand, Malibu seems like some kind of high church of fauna and renewal with its cragged, wild mountains, winding sagebrush-lined canyons, and very specific shimmering light that you think only shines on rocky cliffs in the Adriatic but in fact exists here; it has seduced filmmakers for decades. Driving farther north, Malibu unfolds its lush remoteness and you realize, Yeah, I’d probably want to keep this 21-mile stretch of coastline to myself, too.
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
The truth is, it’s never been a particularly great place for visitors to stay, unless you have an extra mortgage payment and a week of vacation to detox at a wellness retreat like the Ranch. Development has always been a slightly dirty word in Malibu. And the town’s looser, more Joan Didion-minded, eucalyptus-wafting, boho side doesn’t immediately reveal itself, while its clichéd trappings—paparazzi, preposterously rich entertainment folk, expensive sushi—are found smack dab in the center of town.
Thankfully for us weekenders, Malibu’s cool is becoming more accessible as a handful of smart, stylish boutique motels have opened in the past year. The nostalgia-rich, let’s-pack-a-last-minute-bag-and-get-the-hell-outta-town weekend is finally doable. Some may think of Malibu as Los Angeles’s Montauk, the free-spirited New York beach town that’s next to its more well-known moneyed cousin, the Hamptons. But the analogy is off, as Malibu’s just better—surfers tend to outnumber people in Range Rovers talking on cell phones.
“It really is a bit of an outpost,” says Gregory Day, who runs the newly renovated Malibu Beach Inn. “Nobody is coming here in suits and ties. Malibu has an equal share of celebrities and locals—though they can be one and the same. But it is a surprisingly friendly beach town. You come here to unplug, sit on the beach, read your book, go hiking, surfing, paddleboarding. It still feels very untouched in that way.”
Native, a midcentury motel where legends like Bob Dylan and Marilyn Monroe once stayed, basically spoon-feeds guests that of-another-time, low-key California we all crave once we cruise past Topanga Canyon. As soon as you check into one of the 13 rooms, you’ll want to throw on a robe cut from African deadstock cotton, crack open a cold one from a vintage cooler, sit on your private patio, and admire the potted cacti and hip guests.
When it comes to beach time, the rule of thumb is this: Malibu’s coast gets even more ethereal and dramatic the farther north you go, which is why you should make a day of it at El Matador Beach. It’s only a ten-minute drive from Native and has otherworldly caves, sweeping cliffs, and chilly tide pools that even the ocean-fearing can’t resist exploring. There are no taco trucks or souvenir shops hawking overpriced towels. Are there a few people taking too many Instagram pics? Yes, but you’ll be hard-pressed to keep your phone in your pocket when you’re hiking down the steep staircase looking out at one of the most stunning slips of earth bathed in sunlight.
Anyone who knows anything about surfing or has seen Big Wednesday (think Gary Busey in Hawaiian trunks) should stay at another motel with a backstory, the Surfrider, which sits across the PCH from an iconic beach break. “I love that Neil Young’s Crazy Horse Saloon was right next door, which meant some pretty epic names stayed here at one time,” says co-owner Matthew Goodwin. “We’ve heard Dylan, the Doors—their drummer actually popped in recently—Jimi Hendrix. The true Malibu is an eclectic mix of so many things: free spirits, billionaires, surfers, artists. There’s a wildness to this part of the coast.”
Goodwin, an architect who grew up in Malibu, and his Aussie wife, Emma, have remodeled the dilapidated roadside motel over the past few years, re-creating it into a kind of Nancy Meyers set by way of Françoise Hardy, all teak floors, beige linens, pitched roofs, whitewashed walls, and endless sun streaming into its oversized ocean-facing windows. It’s a soulful, surfer-friendly hideaway. There’s wetsuit storage, an outdoor shower, custom-made surfboards for those who couldn’t haul theirs onto the airplane, a guests-only roof-deck bar, and a to-go breakfast, complete with a thermos of coffee for early birds who want to get out on the water before the kitchen opens. If you’re thinking of hopping on a board but want a local to hold your hand, Goodwin takes guests out in the motel’s Land Rover (the “surf truck,” as he refers to it) to find the breaks at Zuma, among the most famous surfing spots in the world, or a variety of waves at County Line Beach. “I joke that the reason we opened the Surfrider is so I could surf all day with people from all over the world,” he says.
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
Of course, there’s another Malibu beach fantasy to be realized, one that’s less about time traveling back to some earlier, hippie-tinged California than about reveling in this town’s affluent, let’s-stare-at-the-yachts piece of it. The Malibu Beach Inn, a formerly forgettable motel on tiny Carbon Beach, has been undergoing a much-needed face-lift and now resembles the Danish-modern crash pad of a Neutra fanboy’s dreams. Even if you’re not staying here, make a reservation at Carbon Beach Club, snag a spot on the patio, order the whole branzino and a bottle of wine, and hog the table for as long as you want, because there are epic ocean views wherever you look. And yes, Nobu Malibuis still very much a thing—ask any local for dining recs and this inevitably shows up on the list. If you can’t get a reservation, consider staying at the restaurant’s new hotel, the Nobu Ryokan, next door. Suede walls, custom-made furniture, and Japanese soaking tubs do not come cheap, but you’ll also have special access to the restaurant.
Malibu isn’t built for a food pilgrimage, per se, which is sort of refreshing if you’re tired of planning your whole day around scoring the primo ramen in town but have to eat at 5:00 or 11:00 p.m. to get it. You come to Malibu to be outdoors all day, eat no-frills seafood, have a few cocktails, and gobble down meals made with gorgeous organic produce, much of it coming from nearby One Gun Ranch. Not to say you won’t have some excellent meals here, starting with breakfast. For a pre-hike açaí bowl, you’ll want to stop bySunLife Organics, a bastion of cold pressed juices and blended smoothies where neither turmeric nor split-open geodes are in short supply. Day drinking with kids? Try Paradise Cove, where you can sit in Adirondack chairs on the beach and drink Bloodies or beers while Junior builds a sand castle. Order fish and chips at Malibu institutionNeptune’s Netand sit at the picnic tables overlooking County Line. Fish shacks are plentiful here, and you can’t find a better lunch or dinner than at Malibu Seafood or Reel Inn, both of which have outdoor seating. Taverna Tony is in a fancy strip mall, but once inside you feel like you’ve just landed in Crete. You’ll see old-money Malibu locals drinking Cali chardonnay and eating spot-on Greek food.
At some point you’ll want to have a meal at Malibu Farm Restaurant, on the pier. (This is also where you’ll find One Gun Ranch’s version of a stylish souvenir shop, Ranch at the Pier.) The views are a bonus. You come for Helene Henderson’s Cali-inflected health food that doesn’t taste like health food—cauliflower-crust pizza, spaghetti-squash lasagna. This is the kind of delicious surfer fare that will make you rethink how you eat back home. And then the next day, when you’ve come to your senses and are ready for a big piece of meat, check out the Old Place, a steakhouse in the Santa Monica Mountains that opened in 1970. “Rustic” is an apt description, not a lazy one. Sometimes the restaurant runs out of food, since everything is fresh and sourced from nearby Oxnard and it doesn’t own a freezer. You’ll likely have to wait outside, because the place is, as its website states, “the size of a shoebox.” But making a night of it is worth it, especially if you grab a glass of wine at nearby Cornell Winery or take a walk in the wilderness. There are hawks, deer, probably some species of cats watching you here, and it feels about as close to L. A. as the moon. That’s the whole point, after all.
The Hills Are Alive There’s More Than Just Beaches . . .
You probably don’t automatically associate Malibu with hiking, but you should. The trails here pay off big with breathtaking views.
1. Point Dume Nature Preserve: A wild headland, jutting out into the sea and overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where you’ll spot seals and dolphins playing.
2. Tuna Canyon Park: Nestled between the Santa Monica Mountains and Pacific. Ends with an I’m-having-an-existential-moment view of sprawling L. A.
3. Leo Carrillo State Park: Terrific beach walks and hikes of varying difficulty. Think caves, arches, tide pools, and bluffs that mimic Sicily.