This Laid-back California Beach Town Has a Stunning Luxury Hotel With Ocean Views

In Encinitas, a luxe resort gets in on the good vibes.

Arerial view of a luxury hotel on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean, on the coast of California
The Alila Marea Beach Resort opened last spring just up the coast from San Diego. Photo: Courtesy of Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas

It's rare that anyone gets the hang of surfing on the first (or second, or third) go — so during their first-ever lesson, I half expected my kids to declare they'd rather play in the warm sand than try to catch a wave. But both daughter and son just kept getting right back on their boards, eventually popping up to stand. Seeing them succeed, I burst with pride at how at home they seemed on the water.

Our private surf lesson had been organized by the team at Alila Marea Beach, a clifftop resort that opened last March on the bluffs north of San Diego. The Alila raises the bar for high-end hotels in the region: designed by Joseph Wong Design Associates, its 130 inviting rooms have granite bathrooms, Indian jute rugs, floor-to-ceiling windows, and private fire pits. At the on-site restaurant Vaga, chef Claudette Zepeda is working toward a zero-food-waste kitchen while ensuring guests eat well, with produce-forward plates like beets with coconut cream and pink peppercorns or mushrooms with miso and fermented citrus.

But what truly impresses is how rooted the property is in the surrounding community of Encinitas, known for its surf breaks and free-wheeling spirit. The resort sources its beans from Lofty Coffee; outfits café staff in uniforms from sustainability-minded Vuori Clothing; and stocks the restaurant with handmade pottery from The Wheel. Guests can even see the town on cruisers from Electra, a bike company headquartered right on the South Coast Highway. Such local connections are not always a given, especially with big luxury-resort brands.

To say that Encinitas eats, breathes, and sleeps surfing is no exaggeration. Spend any morning at Swami's Beach — named for Paramahansa Yogananda, who founded the ashram on the cliffs above — and you'll see dozens of surfers of all ages. After hitting the waves, they'll likely walk with sandy feet to the Lotus Café for a breakfast burrito. Surf culture also plays a role at the Alila: prints from Aaron Chang, a local photographer and decades-long contributor to Surfing magazine, hang throughout the property.

Interior-design team Mark Zeff Associates tapped legendary Encinitas board shaper Brian Szymanski to create the surfboard-inspired wall panels that adorn The Pocket, the poolside bar. To reduce single-use plastics, Alila collaborated with the Rob Machado Foundation, founded by the renowned surfer and environmental activist, to offer refillable water bottles and water stations. Guests can get on a board themselves, like we did, through a partnership with the surf school Surfin Fire.

Two restaurant scenes from Encinitas, California, including a tropical pink interior, and vegan food and beer
From left: The dining room at the Waverly, an all-day café in Encinitas; craft brews and vegan lunch at the Far West Lounge, the restaurant from Modern Times Beer. From left: @k1mberly/Courtesy of The Waverly; Courtesy of Modern Times Beer and Coffee

To get the real feel of this singular California beach town, mingle with the locals. Encinitas — formed from the five historic communities of Encinitas, New Encinitas, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Olivenhain, and Leucadia — feels lively and booming. Surf shops, yoga studios, cafés, and taprooms line the main drag, including Culture Brewing and Modern Times. In Cardiff, newcomer The Waverly, a chic all-day restaurant, is packed with people catching up over wild-mushroom toast and Japanese-eggplant dip. At Broad Street Dough Co., a vegan-friendly doughnut shop, there's often a line of families out the door.

Farther up the coast in Leucadia, customers browse fair-trade brands at the woman-owned boutique Thread Spun, which has an accessories line produced by refugees who have resettled in San Diego County. This is a community where people support one another, and we were glad to join in.

A version of this story first appeared in the February 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline California Revisited.

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