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California Hotels: Casual Elegance

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Photo: Coliena Rentmeester

Amalfi in Orange County

Every Californian knows the Pacific current flows south from Canada, and for all the summertime crowds the only ones who venture into the water year-round are wet-suited surfers. But Southern Californians worship the beach, and it’s our collective dream to live within walking distance of the edge of the continent. Those who do have a certain glow to them, an aura of contentment.

It’s because of the kelp, suggested the massage therapist at Montage Laguna Beach, a Craftsman-style resort that hides its bulk by hugging the cliffs between the Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean. The hotel’s exclusive spa offers a tempting range of treatments, and within an hour of checking in, I was wearing a robe and letting my feet soak in a hammered-copper bowl full of warm water sprinkled with Dead Sea salts, eucalyptus, and rosemary. As she bathed and rubbed my feet, the masseuse explained that the scent of kelp is a balm, an olfactory comfort, and it’s why one feels instantly happy when walking along the beach.

There’s nothing New Agey about the spa at Montage. It’s plush and meticulous, with a staff as attentive as that of a three-star restaurant. If there’s a sense of spiritualism it’s more a Greco-Roman cult of the body than talking about the seven chakras. This is apparent in the seawater lap pool with a view of Santa Catalina Island, and in the leafy courtyard with the private hot tub (in a classical touch, the water pours out of a bronze spout). The services are divided into several categories—Ocean, Earth, Bath & Water, and Touch, among them—and as I always do whenever I’m faced with too many choices, I balked. After the foot massage I requested the Surrender, which is like ordering the tasting menu: two hours of customized treatments. I lost track of myself, and it wasn’t just the kelp. It was the shiatsu, the hydrotherapy, the scalp massage; it was being pulled apart and then put back together just enough for the short walk back to my room.

Montage aims for an experience you might find in Positano, crisp service and the smell of the surf. You’ll find a pianist in the lobby, and a meal at the Studio, the hotel’s celebrated restaurant, involves a small army of waiters and an arsenal of silverware. The formality is intentional. It’s a place where the prosperous are pampered and the lawns are kept at fairway height, a beach getaway without any sand in the halls.

But there’s a view of the Pacific from every room, and mine was flooded with light reflecting off the ocean. The Bungalow Suites aren’t freestanding—they’re attached at the sides—but they’re set apart from the main resort, and the shady porches are just a few feet from the breakers and the California Coastal Trail, the public path that starts in Oregon and winds all the way down to San Diego and the Mexican border.

A Classic Reinvented

The resort by the ocean: by now it’s a familiar formula, but when the Hotel Del Coronado was built 120 years ago, the beach vacation was a recent invention. The hotel is one of the oldest in California, an architectural icon from a time when success was measured by the size of the crowd, and the sepia photographs in the hotel lobby attest to decades of success, hordes in bowlers and bustles parading on the boardwalk a century ago. It’s still crowded. Every day the lobby is packed with vacationing families; every weekend the wood-paneled Crown Room fills with visiting brunchers.

But earlier this year the Del, as it’s known, inaugurated the Beach Village, a lush group of cottages and villas set discreetly to the side of the towering Victorian pile. It’s a hotel within a hotel: there’s a private entrance (which I discovered after trying to check in at the Del Coronado’s main desk—the valet parking and reception for the cottages are around back), and the compound, painted the same distinctive white and rust-red as the rest of the Del, is gated and accessible only by card key.

It’s less a hideaway than a country club, a private enclave on a public beach. The cottages have something of the feel of the officers’ housing at the naval base nearby, only there’s a good spa, a new gym, and breakfast and complimentary newspapers at the Windsor Club Cottage every morning. Anybody who’s seen Some Like It Hot knows it’s a short run in high heels from the Del to the ocean, but it’s another thing to experience it in person, and I felt a theatrical thrill when I stepped out on the terrace, an F-35 cracking through the sky overhead, the sand just a few feet away.

Later that night, as I walked over to the main hotel for dinner at 1500 Ocean, the Del’s formal restaurant, the Pacific was always in full view. The best tables face the beach, and I could smell the saltwater as I lingered over a delicious meal of raw yellowtail with pepper jelly, and a deconstructed bouillabaisse with seared Mexican rockfish. But the scenery, for all its easy magnificence, held a deeper resonance. I was enjoying dinner, but really I was surrendering to the landscape.

The Del sometimes feels like an amusement park without the rides—a spectacle, which was more or less the idea behind the 19th-century resort. But 21st-century tastes have evolved, and the hotel has done an impressive job of absorbing the lessons of the best California hotels, turning the Beach Village into an understated utopia. The Del makes the proud claim that every U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson has stayed at the hotel during his term in office. I’m sure the streak will remain intact no matter who wins in November, but I bet there will be a small break with tradition: instead of taking a suite in the grand old building, they’ll want their own leafy patio on the beach and stay in one of the cottages instead.

Oliver Schwaner-Albright writes for the New York Times, Men’s Vogue, and Gourmet.

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