3 Malibu Hotels That Make for the Perfect California Escape

Malibu has long inspired artists and beckoned the rich and famous. Now three low-key hotels are offering visitors a slice of the southern California dream.

A sailboat off the coast of Malibu

Valerie de Leon/Travel + Leisure

Hotel June

It was beginning to feel familiar, a sense memory rising from deep within my hippocampus. That sharp curve of road — it was in the chase scene from that movie, right? The Creamsicle sunset, just as mesmerizing as the song promised. That perfume — was it star jasmine or eucalyptus, Ms. Didion? (Actually, it was both.)

I drove west. Los Angeles was at my back, the Santa Monica Mountains to my right, and billions of dollars of oceanfront real estate (paid for by even greater billions in box-office sales) to my left. Ahead, the jagged rocks and darkening sky became unreliable bearings, and with Apple Maps in a death spiral (the cell service in Malibu is notoriously spotty), I pulled in to a gas station to ask for directions.

“Point Dume is where God would build a house,” the man behind bulletproof glass shouted, “if he was rich enough!” He howled with laughter, a frayed Netflix cap falling from his sunburned forehead. “Welcome to the good part, man. Keep heading west, and keep the water on your left.”

Pair of photos from Malibu, including diners at a cafe, and the interior of a hat shop
From left: Diners at Malibu’s Café Habana; the interior of Teressa Foglia’s hat shop at the Malibu Country Mart.

Carmen Chan

It was October, and I’d driven out from Los Angeles to flee a heat wave. After a series of unsurprising traffic jams — where the 10 intersects with the 405 and where the Pacific Coast Highway hits Rustic Canyon — I was somewhere deep in the enclave’s spiritual center, “the most Malibu of Malibu.”

Eighteen miles into the 21-mile strip that comprises the seaside city, I was long past the pier and the paddleboarders, past Cher’s house (currently listed at $85 million), Dr. Dre’s mansion on Carbon Beach (a.k.a. Billionaire’s Beach), and the Malibu Country Mart, with its mother-daughter duos in matching Teressa Foglia straw hats carrying matching chicken Caesars from Rande Gerber’s Café Habana. This was the Malibu of Neil Young circa his 1975 album "Zuma"; of desolate beaches like Point Dume Reserve, which in 1968 served as a location for the original Planet of the Apes. The Malibu of the 10-foot-high privacy hedge. The Malibu where Bob Dylan still lives in the home he bought for $100,000 in 1979. The Malibu of Barbra Streisand’s three-acre, country-style estate and Julia Roberts’ three-house compound.

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But there’s always been just one hotel: the Riviera. It was built in 1949; in 1974, Dylan wrote "Blood on the Tracks" there. About six years ago, its 13 rooms got a glow-up, and it was renamed the Native. Then, in 2021, came a makeunder of sorts — fewer Airstream trailers and pink walls, the same amount of Aesop products and the addition of handmade hammocks and baguette sandwiches from cult deli Gjusta — and it became Hotel June Malibu, part of the Proper Hospitality group (best known for the Kelly Wearstler swank in its boutique Proper hotels). If you squint at the sign at the head of the driveway, you can see the hotel’s three names layered on top of each other. (The first-generation neon VACANCY sign along the PCH keeps the no-tell-motel vibe alive.)

Two photos from Hotel June, including the lobby, and a portrait of the co-owners
From left: The coffee bar inside Hotel June’s surfer-chic lobby; Reem Al-Zahawi and Sam Shendow, two of Hotel June Malibu’s co-owners.

Carmen Chan

I checked in to Room 13, all the way at the end — across from the new heated pool and sofa-like deck chairs. It used to be Dylan’s. Despite the addition of tempting patio hammocks, the modern rooms aren’t for lounging — they’re nice but spare, with concrete floors and redwood beams. Instead, you’re meant to get out. Surf. Swim. Eat $40 barramundi tacos!

Overnight, it rained. The next morning, low clouds and gray skies accompanied my Gjusta croissant, which I picked up from the front desk. (There’s no room service or restaurant.) An even denser top note of that Malibu eau de parfum rode in on the fog, right through my half-open Dutch door. The fragrance grew stronger an hour later, when I found myself riding shotgun in a Subaru station wagon with Sam Shendow, one of the co-owners of Hotel June, and her colleague Travis Collings. We climbed up, then down, toward Zuma Beach, into the neighborhoods of Point Dume. “This is the Malibu of locals,” Collings said. He grew up around here. His first job was tending bar at the legendary Duke’s. “The Nobu and all that is…a different place.”

A retro style hotel sign in Malibu
The retro sign outside Hotel June.

Carmen Chan

Shendow and Collings mentioned the 2018 Woolsey Fire, which killed three people and burned nearly 100,000 acres. As we drove past celebrity-owned mansions and small family homes handed down through generations, they pointed out which houses, streets, and yards had been damaged or destroyed. “The fire changed the land here; it changed the vegetation we’re allowed to plant.” Shendow said. “It changed us.” The home of Rick Rubin — the mega-producer behind albums from Adele, Johnny Cash, and the Beastie Boys — burned down, but his studio was saved by the native plants surrounding the building, which functioned as a natural flame retardant.

The one-two punch of the fire and the pandemic irrevocably altered Malibu, Shendow and Collings continued. The fire started a building boom, and then the pandemic — when, for some, weekend homes became full-time homes — helped turn the area from a somewhat seasonal destination into a true year-round community. There are new hot spots like Broad Street Oyster Co. and the recently opened Malibu Brewing Co., as well as stalwarts like the Sunset Restaurant on Westward Beach, where every table overlooking the beach is now taken most nights at dusk. “Now you have the Andrew Garfields,” Collings said. “You have, like, every WB network actor from the nineties here in Point Dume. It’s like everyone you’ve ever seen your whole life just decided this is the spot to be.”

That afternoon, as I drove east listening to Dylan, I put on my sunglasses as my car was pummeled with rain from a sun-shower.

We pulled over near Johnny Carson’s old cliff-top mansion to say hi to a supermodel and a pro surfer out with their dogs. A key fob granted us entry to one of three private trails down to Little Dume Beach, which is only accessible from adjacent public beaches during low tide. Someone had engraved the 30 or so sand-covered steps down to the water with a series of hand-drawn manifestations: Joy, Gratitude, Present, Honesty, Peace, and, curiously, Daddy.

We reached the ocean, and a surfer came in from the water, just as the tide began to rise. His wet suit open to his waist, he looked like a centaur. A key fob — which, some locals say, can add $10 million to a property’s listing price — jangled from his bicep.

That afternoon, as I drove east listening to Dylan, I put on my sunglasses as my car was pummeled with rain from a sun-shower.

Seagulls flying in Malibu
Seagulls in mid-flight near Nobu Ryokan Malibu.

Carmen Chan

Nobu Ryokan Malibu

There’s a stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway — a mile or so between the paragliding school and the pier — where all of our Champagne wishes and caviar dreams seem to reside. The Maseratis, the paparazzi, and the pristine beaches; the flip-flops and the Patek Philippes; and some of the priciest real estate in the country. (Knowing that surfers, stoners, and vagabonds living in camper vans along the PCH are enjoying the same view as the CEOs on Carbon Beach is a welcome holdover of California’s egalitarian spirit.)

In these parts, Nobu Malibu is the town square. There’s Scott Disick getting a jump start in valet. Hey, it’s Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith returning to public life. Happy 50th, Cameron Diaz! Happy Tuesday, Selena Gomez. When I walked into the restaurant for lunch, I nearly collided with Rosie O’Donnell, who moved to town during the pandemic. “What a terrible day in Malibu!” she declared on her way to valet, her face lit up by a cloudless sky.

Pair of photos from Nobu Ryokan, including a sitting room, and the exterior seen from the beach
From left: The sitting area of a guest room at Nobu Ryokan; Nobu Ryokan, as seen from Carbon Beach.

Carmen Chan

A waterfront table at Nobu is the toughest reservation to get in southern California. Staying two doors down at the 16-room Nobu Ryokan Malibu really helps. The hotel opened in 2017 as a joint venture between Nobu Matsuhisa, Robert De Niro, and Larry Ellison. The rooms (which start around $2,000 a night, with a two-night minimum) can be ocean-facing, beachfront, or garden-adjacent.

As I walked into Asahi, my limestone-walled haven, the porter handed me an iPad to order from the restaurant (everything but the omakase is available from room service) and then opened the sliding glass doors. In charged the sound of crashing surf, the steady cadence of swell-boom-roar filling the room in Dolby surround sound like a scene from The Perfect Storm. “The waves do keep some people up,” the porter admitted. Looking out, I spotted a hoverboard surfer zipping across the horizon, shrugging at the waves.

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For some 4,000 years, this area was held by the Chumash, a Native American people. They named it Humaliwo, which translates to “the surf sounds loudly.” It was transliterated to “Malibu” by Spanish colonizers in the early 1800s. And, really, it wouldn’t be until Gidget surfed into the American consciousness (first played by Sandra Dee, then Sally Field) that the Malibu of popular imagination was born. And every cinematographer’s shot began with the Pacific Ocean.

Pair of photos from Malibu, including a seafood platter, and a man sitting in a vintage Land Rover
From left: A tier from a seafood tower at Broad Street Oyster Co.; Derek Savoie, the Surfrider’s front-desk manager and a surfing instructor, sitting in the hotel’s 1968 Land Rover.

Carmen Chan

Is this the part where I describe it? It’s green…no, blue…maybe even purple at times. At sunset, for just a split second, it’s tangerine. Then, it’s ink black. And the water temperature generally hovers somewhere around 60 degrees — perfect for a shoeless late-afternoon walk along the shore. (But tie a hoodie around your waist, because the minute the sun dips, you’ll need it.)

There are 27 public miles of sand in Malibu, beaches that range from the remote (Lechuza Beach, off Broad Street, is a pristine, feels-a-world-away option) to the bustling stretch in front of Nobu Ryokan. I took off my shoes, threw on a swimsuit, grabbed a sweatshirt, and headed out of my yosegi box of a room, entering the beach via the gated staircase the hotel provides.

While almost all the beaches in Malibu are public, the access is not — and this can be highly contentious. Many faux-legal RIGHT TO PASS BY PERMISSION AND SUBJECT TO CONTROL OF OWNER signs are hung along the area’s beaches. I turned left and walked past an outpost of Soho House (Little Beach House Malibu, to be precise), then Nobu, which both look identical from the shore, with patrons holding Aperol Spritzes and chopsticks, getting as close as they can to the water but not the sand, looking down on the proletarians trudging through the surf.

I carried on, the water flirting with my ankles. I got closer to Carbon Beach and its homes belonging to alpha males like David Geffen. I watched two people in wet suits walk into the water. They dove in and started swimming, headed for the horizon, chasing the fleeing sun. The hoverboarder I’d seen earlier from my room at the hotel had returned, zipping back and forth across the waves. Gidget, rebooted.

For some 4,000 years, this area was held by the Chumash, a Native American people. They named it Humaliwo, which translates to “the surf sounds loudly.” It was transliterated to “Malibu” by Spanish colonizers in the early 1800s.

The tide started coming in. There was less beach to walk on. Unable to find a public gate to get back up to the street, I turned around to head back to the Ryokan just as the water crashed up to my knees, throwing me off balance. My sweatshirt came loose and fell into the water. As I wrestled it from the undertow, an Academy Award winner walked by smoking a joint.

“You need a wet suit instead of a hoodie, bro,” he said with a chuckle, never breaking stride.

Surfers on a beach in Malibu
Surfers on Zuma Beach, in Malibu, California.

Carmen Chan

The Surfrider Malibu

There is one rooftop restaurant in Malibu. It’s at the Surfrider Hotel Malibu and, much to the chagrin of the locals, it’s only accessible to hotel guests. The hotel first opened in the 1950s, named for Surfrider Beach across the street and, yes, its surfers. It was overhauled and, in 2017, reopened by its current co-owners: architect Matthew Goodwin, his interior-designer wife Emma Crowther Goodwin, and their business partner Alessandro Zampedri. The feel is less hotel and more TV-show apartment building. Within a few hours, you’ve met everyone, made plans to surf, and gained enough gossip to trade over sardines on toast at happy hour.

Surely, the Surfrider is the only place in Los Angeles County where you can get a tarot card reading over ceviche, cocktails, and homemade peanut butter cookies. “Just breathe — that’s what the cards are telling you,” said the hotel’s brand manager Brittany Walsh, who works as a tarot reader in her spare time. Spreading four cards out across the table, she told me, “You have everything you want. You just have to see it.”

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Frederick Rindge said that, too, to his wife May when he took her to Malibu in 1892. The business tycoon had a lot of money and a simple plan to build a ranch somewhere among the area’s canyons. The love they found for its land, water, and air took them by surprise. They bought more and more property, nudging along a dream that Malibu could one day rival the French Riviera. The couple would go on to spend their lives (and fortune) battling fires, the Southern Pacific Railroad, Frederick’s health, and the Supreme Court, all to protect the area’s natural beauty.

A hotel terrace in Malibu
The Surfrider Hotel’s private rooftop terrace.

Carmen Chan

In his book "The King and Queen of Malibu," David K. Randall tells the story of how, when Frederick felt weak (he had been a sickly child and dropped out of Harvard because of illness), he would sleep on the beach, believing that “the air there was so fresh that it alone could rebuild a man’s strength.” Frederick himself once wrote, “When the prevailing winds blow, one can send one’s mind in the direction whence the wind comes…. In this good country you need not fear to take a deep, long breath.”

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I was thinking about the king and queen as I dug my oar into the Pacific, taking air deep into my lungs and considering its provenance as I did so. Even out on the water, I could smell star jasmine. I paddled under the Pier, where Malibu Farm Café serves the best breakfast, and view, in town. Above, the Property Brothers were filming an episode. “Welcome to paradise!” one of the twins bellowed. But ahead of me, on unseasonably warm water, was the Surfrider’s Derek Savoie, who’s half front-desk clerk and half surf instructor.

Three dolphins crested out of the water. A few minutes later, the water began to dance around my board. Soon we were swept up in a sardine “bait ball,” a phenomenon in which the fish gather in a massive cluster to make it harder for predators to pluck off individual victims. For 20 feet on either side of me, the water shimmered as if reaching a boil. It crescendoed and then…peace.

A bartender shaking cocktails behind a bar
A bartender at the Surfrider Hotel Malibu.

Carmen Chan

“You gotta take a dunk,” Savoie commanded, breaking the silence. We hopped in the water; the cold had me eyeing his wet suit with envy. We sat on our boards and floated. “Take it all in,” he advised, motioning up. “We never really look at this side of the street.” He meant the right side, the mountains, canyons, and rocks. You actually have to be out on the water to see the land.

We watched the surfers. We looked up at the hills and the trees, the camper vans and the G-Wagons — which, from this distance, were almost indistinguishable from one another. “When I’m out here, I have to make myself look back, look up,” he said. “And breathe in what Malibu has to offer.”

Get into the Malibu State of Mind

Where to Stay

Hotel June Malibu: This boutique property elevates its 1950s-motel origins with a subtle Midcentury Modern aesthetic — plus comforts like a heated pool.

Nobu Ryokan Malibu: An elite waterfront hideaway that evokes a traditional Japanese inn with teak soaking tubs, custom linen yukata robes, and an idyllic interior courtyard. Perks include in-room dining from the namesake restaurant and direct access to a pristine stretch of Carbon Beach.

The Surfrider Malibu: This modern beach house embodies California cool, from the all-neutral décor to the lively rooftop bar overlooking the Pacific.

Where to Eat

Broad Street Oyster Co. Locals flock here to feast on fresh seafood — including coveted Santa Barbara sea urchins and a pilgrimageworthy lobster roll. While the patio is always buzzing, many patrons opt to use the drive-through and take their order to one of the nearby beaches.

Café Habana Malibu: Though the grilled corn and fish tacos at this MexicanCuban eatery are much beloved, tequila cocktails are the real draw — fitting for a spot owned by Casamigos cofounder Rande Gerber.

Malibu Brewing Co. The tony enclave’s first brewery runs a taproom at Trancas Country Market where beer lovers can sample classic drafts (blonde ales, IPAs) and more offbeat options like a Hatch green chile lager.

Malibu Farm Pier Café: This breezy restaurant at the end of the Malibu Pier is known as much for its ocean views as for its healthy crowd-pleasers like cauliflower-crust pizza.

Where to Shop

Malibu Country Mart: There’s a high probability of a celebrity spotting while wandering the mart’s six acres, which are peppered with boutiques from high-end labels such as Vuori, Bleusalt, and Paige.

A version of this story first appeared in the February 2023 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Meditations on Malibu"


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