Our first day at the Post Ranch Inn, in Big Sur, ended with a sunset so beautiful it stopped conversation. I had picked up my fiancée earlier that afternoon, and after a short drive along the coast we settled into our room, sliding open the enormous glass doors and stepping out onto the balcony, with a full view of the Pacific stretching out in front of us and the waves crashing a thousand feet below. The smell of pine mingled with the scents of night-blooming jasmine and seawater, as the sky turned from clear blue to deep purple to blushing peach, the sun dissolving into the ocean. There was nothing to say. I didn’t take a snapshot—the last thing the world needs is another photograph of a California sunset—and instead watched Christine’s cheeks catch the changing light and took selfish comfort in knowing I would get to do it all over again tomorrow.
I don’t find California strange or exotic. I grew up in Los Angeles and went to college at the University of California, Berkeley, and between skateboarding Venice Beach in the third grade (I wasn’t anything special) and using my campus-job earnings to splurge on dinners at Chez Panisse, all the curiosities of this vast state seem completely normal to me. Even paradise becomes a little mundane when the local DMV is planted with lavender and rosemary, and a creamy Mission Revival building with deep arches becomes a Sunglass Hut.
New York City, on the other hand, is endlessly novel. I moved there 12 years ago, and the city of Elizabeth Hardwick and Woody Allen still feels fresh: seasons, subways, the Strand. But despite my bias and, to be perfectly honest, a daily preference for New York, a Big Sur sunset moves me in a way a Hudson Valley afternoon never will. New York is a thrill, but it isn’t sublime, and it was unusually dismal last March when I took an early flight on a gray morning and landed in a California in full bloom. Nature gives California the advantage—even the sun seems to belong more to this state than to any other—but the appeal isn’t as simple as the climate or the coastline. I don’t want to generalize about a state with 37 million residents, but life here is lived on two parallel scales: nature is venerated, yet so is the individual. The promise of California is that the world is immense, and you have a privileged place in it. Here’s the sunset, and here’s your balcony.
Now I’m a visitor in my home state, and can experience California through its hotels, which, along with Hollywood, have always been its most convincing ambassadors. This trip I rented what turned out to be a disappointing, if efficient, Honda Civic hybrid, and meandered between San Diego and Napa Valley, rediscovering a place that, despite its constant flirtation with dystopia (sprawl, earthquakes, riots), continues to shape the country’s concepts of taste and privilege. There’s a tradition here of restless freethinkers: innovators with the autonomy, and the audience, to redefine how life might be lived. To my mind, California’s most compelling hotels aren’t anything like what you’ll find in other ambitious destinations such as Dubai or Las Vegas, where billions of dollars are invested in showy towers; they aren’t overly stylized boutique hotels, where design trumps comfort; and they aren’t elaborate resorts, where hundreds of acres are covered with sod.
I find California’s best hotels to be intimate, casual, and refined. They’re not ostentatious, and never obsequious. Instead they attract the kind of guest sophisticated enough to understand how much effort goes into making a place seem effortless. They cater to the most easygoing of Californians: the multimillionaires, people with the bank accounts to travel in any style they wish, which usually means taking the long way in a powerful car, wearing a good pair of jeans, and paying the restaurant corkage fee to drink a wine they bought at auction. They expect everything to be just right, but don’t want to be the center of attention.
If there’s an art to being anonymous, its architectural expression is the bungalow. This trip turned into a quest to take measure of how California hotels are reinventing the form, the fantasy of a country house with turndown. I chose six exceptional (and expensive) hotels known as much for their reclusiveness as for their service. Not one of them has a grand entrance. Instead, every one is marked by blink-and-you-miss-it signage, but once I turned onto the landscaped drives, it was as if I had been let in on a secret.
All Under Big Sur Skies
California may not have invented the bungalow, but it started to perfect it in 1912, when the Beverly Hills Hotel first opened its doors. Though the grandiose main building, painted the pinkest of pinks, was reminiscent of other aspirational hotels such as the Palace in San Francisco, it was the bungalows in the gardens out back that captured the imagination. Private and lush, they had all the amenities of a grand hotel but the seclusion of a private hideaway. Until the turn of the century, luxury had meant staying in a building that looked like a palace, and promenading through a gilded lobby; here, you were a houseguest, and left alone.