How to Hang With Surfers in a Small Beach City, See the Stunning Landscapes of Big Sur, and Savor the Best of Wine Country in One Epic California Trip

Alila Hotels are redefining the luxury travel experience across the Golden State.

Exterior view and mountain pool at Alila Ventana Big Sur

Courtesy of Alila

California encompasses 840 miles of coastline, from sandy beaches to craggy cliffs; 33 million acres of forest land, home to sequoias, redwoods, and pines; 352 mountain ranges, from the Sierra Nevadas in the east to the Coastal Ranges in the west; three major deserts; and more than 427,000 acres of grape vines. As a traveler, it can be difficult to choose just one vacation vibe. Even locals can’t decide: completing the “California Double” — surfing and skiing or snowboarding in the same day —  is a great source of state pride. 

But luxury-minded travelers will want to try what I’d go so far as to call the “California Triple”: Staying at all three Alila resorts, from Alila Marea Beach Resort in Encinitas, a beach city in San Diego County; and Alila Ventana Big Sur, where coast meets forest near Monterey; to Alila Napa Valley in St. Helena, the heart of wine country. To capture three different sides of the California spirit so authentically is no small feat, especially for a brand that’s relatively new to the U.S. Though it’s long been a renowned hospitality brand in Asia, Hyatt's Alila only debuted in the States with the acquisition and multimillion-dollar renovation of Ventana in fall of 2017, followed by the openings of both Alila Napa Valley and Alila Marea in March 2021.

Terrace with firepit and view of the vineyards at Alila Napa Valley

Courtesy of Alila

Mark Ley, director of sales and marketing at Alila Ventana Big Sur, says the secret is redefining luxury travel to focus on experiences that immerse visitors in their surroundings: "We're going to take you hiking... we want to get you dirty, get you involved... and then we're going to clean your boots," he told me with a laugh as we walked among the trees, past hammocks dappled with sunshine. "I think luxury is changing; I think travel is changing. People are much more concerned with where the money goes and how it's used... and they want to feel a connection to the place."

The hotels all have connections to local businesses and initiatives to benefit their communities. At Alila Marea, sustainability efforts are done in partnership with the Rob Machado Foundation, an organization founded by surf legend and Encinitas resident Rob Machado to "educate and empower young people to make sustainable choices." Proceeds from quarterly Alila Sessions, a seaside concert and dinner series, benefit the foundation.

Rooms are decidedly plush, but each in their own way. At Alila Ventana, they're made of rustic-chic wood accented by stone and leather; in Napa, they have a modern farmhouse feel. "Since each hotel is innovatively designed in harmony with the environment to preserve the extraordinary, natural beauty of their destination, the architecture varies from destination to destination," Crystal Vinisse Thomas, vice president and global brand leader, lifestyle and luxury brands at Hyatt, told Travel + Leisure.

One bedroom suite at Alila Marea

Courtesy of Alila

All of them are inviting enough to happily get lost in for a weekend (or more), but they're not meant to be all-day hideaways. Although Alila's business is hotels, the settings and programming — always led by local guides — make it clear that your room is intended to be a comfortable place to rest your head or relax with a warm bath after a day of exploring. "A key pillar of the brand is creating opportunities to immerse our guests in the beauty and awe of a destination," Vinisse Thomas said. "Each hotel celebrates the uniqueness and authenticity of the location it calls home."

Wellbeing is a common theme across culinary programs and activities, with a focus on the healing properties of nature, be it through meals made with seasonal ingredients grown in on-site organic gardens or outdoor meditation classes and mindful hikes.

Here's how to complete the "California Triple" and plan the perfect trip across all three properties, covering over 500 miles of Golden State scenery and three unique vacations in one.

Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas

Aerial view of Alila Marea with cliffside ocean views

Courtesy of Alila

"Our location is truly unbeatable," says Ben Thiele, general manager of Alila Marea. "We are one of the few luxury beachfront resorts in San Diego, and our talented designers did such a fantastic job at tastefully integrating the property into the coastal bluff, drawing on the unspoiled beauty of the San Diego coastline to boast some of the best views in San Diego."

The hotel was built so that 95% of rooms have either ocean or lagoon views, and the water was calling from the moment I arrived. Luckily, Alila Marea works with Dan Mori, the founder of Encinitas-based surf school Fulcrum Surf and the most effective surf instructor I've ever encountered. There was no better way to feel the rush of arriving in a SoCal beach city than to grasp, even slightly, the technique of a seasoned pro (even Kelly Slater's team tapped Mori as a lesson development consultant for his Surf Ranch) — resulting in catching my best waves to date.

If you're not the surfing type, chase that rush by hopping on one of the hotel's electric bikes, grabbing some insider tips, and heading into downtown Encinitas. Don't miss Herb & Sea, a coastal-chic seafood restaurant by Brian Malarkey of Top Chef fame; local favorite Lofty Coffee; Modern Times Brewery's buzzing Far West Lounge, and the original outpost of Vuori, a California-born athleisure brand travelers swear by.

You'll also want to spend time in a cabana by the oceanfront pool and catch sunset cocktails beside a fire pit at the bar at Vaga before sampling chef Claudette Zepeda's farm- and ocean-fresh San Diego cuisine.

Alila Ventana Big Sur

Glass house at Alila Ventana Big Sur

Courtesy of Alila

"Coming to Big Sur, you naturally disconnect from the world," Ley said. "It's a place that attracts people who want to disconnect so they can reconnect to something else... a partner, a project, their sanity." Alila Ventana houses just 59 rooms on 160 acres, so it's easy to find alone time. A customized hiking route or visit to the spa for a massage with wild herbs soothes the body and mind, but for me, the best place to bask in solitude was the hot tub on my deck, overlooking the misty forest. Sitting in silence with hundred-year-old redwood trees really makes you think about life. If that doesn't do it for you, Ley gave me an inside tip: Get up in the middle of the night and get a front row seat to incredible stargazing from the resort's Japanese hot baths.

On a clear, blue-sky morning, I got to enjoy the view and some vintage vinyl at a yoga class in The Glass House, a structure among the trees that's exactly what it sounds like. "We have wonderful bohemian roots here at Alila Ventana, and we are consistently looking for new and fun ways to pay homage to them," Ley said.

Behind The Glass House is The Sur House, a stunning restaurant and bar with views of everything Big Sur's dramatic landscape has to offer, from trees to mountains to ocean. Fairy lights and fire pits light up the night as guests sip wine from small-production Central Coast vintners. The food, seasonal and also locally sourced, is all-inclusive.

Although it's easy to forget the rest of the world in this type of clifftop setting, you can't omit a drive down the area's iconic main drag, Highway 1, from your itinerary. Alila Ventana teams up with Monterey Touring Vehicles to give guests access to 40 classic car rentals, from a 1938 Rolls Royce Phantom III to a 1955 Porsche Spyder. The team will pack a beautiful picnic you can enjoy on Sand Dollar Beach, or drive north to see the Bixby Creek Bridge. (Always check for Highway 1 road closures before heading out.) Stop at the nearby Phoenix Shop to browse art, textiles, gifts, and souvenirs.

Alila Napa Valley

Aerial exterior view of Alila Napa Valley in the evening

Courtesy of Alila

Vineyard-view rooms at Alila Napa Valley look out directly over Beringer Vineyards, the oldest continuously operating winery in Napa Valley. Private balconies with fire pits or soaking tubs add to the wine country magic.

Before or after the wine, Alila Napa Valley is the perfect place to sneak in some wellness: Attend a yoga class or sound bath, or book Spa Alila's Euphoric hot-stone massage (using rocks found along the California coastline, of course) — months later, I still dream of it. Amenities include handmade products from neighboring biodynamic Be Here Farm (I'm a Summer Solstice Serum devotee), and guests are invited to develop their own bespoke room spray using "scents of the valley," including rose, lavender, orange, and fennel.

"We hope our guests leave with a deeper connection to this region, which is primarily known for food and wine," said Ty Accornero, the hotel's general manager. "Our goal is to provide a more focused experience that extends outside the expected."

The hotel is just a short bike ride from St. Helena's posh yet quaint Main Street, full of galleries, shops, and restaurants. Start your mornings at Model Bakery, an Oprah favorite, and browse fine art at the Christopher Hill Gallery. For more intrepid cyclists, the team at Alila Napa Valley will set up a wine-tasting bike tour to family-owned estates like Spottswoode Winery, with a lunch stop at the classic Gott's Roadside. Have dinner in the charming, ivy-covered courtyard at The Charter Oak, a few minutes' drive away, or at the hotel's own Acacia House, inside a grand restored Georgian farmhouse.

We spent many more hours than our Alila guide originally planned at 810 Foothill Wine Collective, a collective of wine brands all made by famed Napa winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown. As we sipped the day away with local experts who quickly felt like friends, we slowly realized we'd need to cancel our other afternoon plans. And by my third Alila hotel visit, I knew that was OK: I was immersing myself in my destination, forging connections, and creating an unforgettable experience (yes, unforgettable, even after all that wine).

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