The Golden State is home to some of the most blissfully laid-back hotels in the country. To find some quintessential examples of this barefoot brand of luxury, Oliver Schwaner-Albright checks into—and checks out—six properties that deliver effortless hospitality, the intimacy of bungalows, and the lure of wide-open spaces.
Coliena Rentmeester California Hotels: Casual Elegance
| Credit: Coliena Rentmeester

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.

The houses at the Post Ranch Inn are the heirs to those bungalows. The hotel, opened in 1992, is made up entirely of small buildings set on a ridge high above the Pacific, and this year Post Ranch added 10 new sculptural buildings, spiraling Pacific Suites, cantilevered Peak Houses, and Richard Serra–esque Cliff Houses clad in torques of rusted steel. Christine and I stayed in the largest Pacific Suite, an intersection of circular rooms carefully designed so that wherever you stand you are exposed to the ocean and the sky, but unseen by other guests. Even the tiled bath, big enough for two, has a commanding vista, and a floor-to-ceiling window that opens to let in Pacific breezes.

The rooms are so thoughtfully laid out and well-constructed it took a while to register the architectural style—organic craftsmanship at the highest level. Or, to be more glib, Logan’s Run as a resort, a five-star yurt: the walls are paneled in redwood salvaged from old wine barrels, sheet-metal art adorns the bathroom, and everything that could be round, is—from the writing desk to the fireplace. The woodwork is exquisite, but this was the only time I’ve stayed in a hotel and didn’t think, I’d like that for my place. Even if the design is peculiar, it isn’t jarring. If anything, it’s relaxing, a vacation from décor.

We had our Big Sur day: Sierra Mar, the hotel restaurant, packed us a lunch, and we zipped down the Pacific Coast Highway in a Lexus convertible guests can borrow free of charge; we hiked past redwoods on the empty Coast Ridge Road; and we had a couples massage at the hotel spa, during which my masseuse found and kneaded out the knot that had been living under my right shoulder blade since college.

But mostly we wanted to be in our room, nursing glasses of good San Luis Obispo Cabernet Sauvignon from the complimentary mini-bar (a kid-in-a-candy-shop perk of hotels at this price level) on the balcony, taking in a view so humbling we could read the curve of the earth in the ocean.

Unfiltered Wine Country

Like most men, I don’t worry too much about footwear; when I travel I try to limit my luggage to one carry-on, and this time I brought my hiking boots, a pair of driving moccasins, and my favorite Vans. The trio suited California. But I spent most of my days either barefoot or padding around in hotel slippers, especially at the Post Ranch Inn, but also at Calistoga Ranch.

Situated at the rugged northern end of Napa Valley, Calistoga Ranch has 47 lodges nestled into a secluded canyon just off the Silverado Trail. The area was originally zoned as a campground, so most of the buildings at the resort are, improbably, the same size as a trailer. The architect turned the limitation into an opportunity, creating a striking compound of Modernist boxes with cedar shingles and copper trim, the bedroom of each lodge in one, the living room in another; and since there are no restrictions on outdoor spaces, the two are connected via a comfortably furnished deck with a fireplaces. Calistoga Ranch is visionary, and unlike any other hotel I’ve ever seen.

Actually, it still feels like a campground, only one with a groomed bocce court and Schott Zweisel glasses. Napa hotels can be dangerously themey and overly manicured. But the defining characteristics of Calistoga Ranch are the canyon and the creek, and I was struck by how little the surrounding nature has been affected by the resort. Whenever I walked back to my lodge, my gaze naturally lifted to the trees on the ridge.

Each lodge has an outdoor shower (as well as a luxuriously appointed indoor bathroom), and I began every morning outside in its cloud of steam and cascade of water, with a thick lather of signature bay-and-eucalyptus–scented shampoo and a view of the trees changing color as the sun hit the valley.

Christine had returned to New York, leaving me alone. There was no shortage of diversions in the area: French Laundry was a short drive away, as were the great Silverado Cabernets, such as Screaming Eagle and Stags’ Leap. Instead I played it closer to home and went on a 4 1/2-mile hike up to the 2,000-foot-high palisade that presides over the town of Calistoga, the very barrier that keeps in the morning fog that’s so important to Napa Valley grapes. It was leafy for the first two miles, then the trail opened onto a plateau lined with craggy cliffs, a rocky landscape that could have been lifted from a painting by Bellini. After another outdoor shower, I headed to the Lakehouse, the hotel’s restaurant, a long stone room with a fireplace at one end (one of the few buildings bigger than a trailer, it’s the same size as the old campground’s mess hall). The mood was casual, with waiters wearing crisp cotton shirts and jeans, and guests in faded denim picking wines from the bottom of the list. My dinner unfolded: fluffy ricotta gnocchi, flavorful duck confit with a preternaturally crispy skin more delicious than anything I’ve tasted in France. It was a quiet night, and an exquisite meal, relaxed but pitch-perfect, just like the rest of the hotel. For all the aesthetic differences between Calistoga Ranch and the Post Ranch Inn, they share many similarities: bungalows without a hotel, architecturally distinct buildings so carefully attuned to their environment that the line between outdoors and indoors doesn’t really exist. Even the staff members have the same ethos, unobstrusive but so attentive they call every guest by name—no easy trick with “Schwaner-Albright.”

Camelot Meets California

The San Ysidro Ranch, a Rosewood Resort, just outside Santa Barbara, is older and more traditional—this is where John and Jackie Kennedy honeymooned, and where Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were married—but there’s the same spirit of seclusion and comfort, of knowing what the haves want. Reception is little more than a place to sort out your keys and grab a tangelo.

The 500-acre property, fresh from a $150 million investment, gives the impression of stretching on forever (even if a few neighboring mansions creep into the picture), and when you arrive at the long driveway lined with olive trees and lavender, you have the sense of being on the frontier, at the last citrus grove before civilization gives way to the scrubby Santa Ynez Mountains. Most of the cottages are simple but refined, their board-and-batten walls covered with flowering vines, unchanged since Jackie was a young bride.

The cottages are made for staying in, and made for couples. Santa Barbara is a five-minute drive away—and now, post-Sideways, the local wineries have national followings—but to judge by the Porsches that remained parked throughout the day at the cottages on either side of me, most guests come to San Ysidro Ranch less to take advantage of the local attractions than to uncork a bottle of wine and listen to the creek outside. My shower was a glass box that had access to the outdoors, and outside on the stone patio there was another shower, a hot tub, a table, and some rosemary bushes. It was open to oak trees and the sky, and completely private.

As breakfast and lunch are room-service only, the ranch is quiet during the day. I saw a couple play croquet, but after whacking the ball once or twice they plucked some oranges from a nearby tree, then retreated inside.

Dinner draws a subdued crowd to the Stonehouse restaurant. At night the ranch glows like an Italian village, the paths lit by terra-cotta lamps twinkling in the trees. Half of the restaurant’s tables are outside, where a fireplace (and radiant heat in the floor) takes the edge off the Santa Barbara air and couples continue the conversations they’ve been having all day in hushed tones.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Los Angeles came into its own in the 1920’s, when a once-dusty agricultural crossroads with a population of 100,000 swelled to a cosmopolitan 1 million residents. It was a decade of explosive growth, and the hotels built during that time—the Roosevelt, Biltmore, and Beverly Wilshire all opened within eight years of one another—still define the city’s identity.

The Chateau Marmont was completed in 1927. Designed as apartments, then converted into a hotel two years later, the building was inspired by a Loire Valley castle and constructed with the then-new technology of reinforced concrete, a typically Los Angeles pastiche of nostalgia and modernity that, when planted with lemon trees and bougainvillea, becomes a Shangri-la. It might be artificial but it’s intoxicating.

At first the Marmont, as it’s known, was bungalow-less, but in the 1940’s the hotel started acquiring neighboring cottages. What it lacks in acreage it makes up for in discretion. Now 13 houses are hidden in a jungle of trees and flowering vines, and they range in style from Craftsman to Case Study, including two airy 1956 buildings by Craig Ellwood, one of the great Midcentury architects. There’s a reason why boldface names feel safe here. You can literally disappear.

My mother still lives in Los Angeles, and about the only excuse she would accept for my not staying in my old bedroom is that I had booked myself into the Marmont. We had a reservation for dinner next door at Bar Marmont, and I told her to arrive early so we could first have a drink on my patio.

Only I gave her the wrong room number.

As she later told it over Negronis, she knocked on what she thought was the right door, and an extremely famous, extremely funny actor answered. (In the spirit of the Marmont, I won’t name names.) She looked at him and said, “You’re not my son.”

He was friendly, and helped her find my room, which, she noted, was nicer than his, though I was incognito. Not that any room lacks for style. Hotelier André Balazs bought the hotel in 1990, and his famous attention to detail is apparent at every turn. My room held a grand piano old enough to have ivory keys; a rechromed O’Keefe & Merritt stove in its vintage kitchen; porthole windows in the dining room; and so many other well-chosen objects that I felt like I was on the set of Chinatown. The hotel stands at one of the busiest curves of Sunset Boulevard, and despite the banana trees you’re still in the middle of a teeming metropolis. But a little landscaping works wonders to create a sense of detachment, and by the end of the Negronis, Los Angeles, with its 4 million residents, almost seemed like the sleepy Mediterranean city it claims to be.

The quickest way to get to Bar Marmont is via an unmarked gate by the cottages. It’s one of the most exciting spots in Los Angeles (we had light-as-air gougères, crisp artichokes battered and fried like oysters, a rib eye, halibut with chorizo and romesco sauce), but despite the designer denim–clad, Fred Segal crowd drawn from all over the city, Bar Marmont is, strictly speaking, a hotel restaurant, and when the check came I signed my name and room number, a visitor in my own hometown. I wasn’t the first local boy to hide out at the Marmont. And I wasn’t really hiding, at least not by the standards of the hotel—I wasn’t writing a novel, having an affair, or plotting a comeback. In flashing my room key at the guard outside, I was claiming membership at the most exclusive club in town—for the night, anyway.

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.

When to Go

California is blessed with balmy air year-round, though it can be cold in the northern part of the state in December and January.

Getting Around

California is a monument to the automobile, and the best way to get around is by driving. When traveling between Northern and Southern California, the fastest route is I-5; state road 101 is more scenic but slower; and the Pacific Coast Highway (Rte. 1) is the most beautiful of all, but so winding that even a short drive can take a long time.

Where to Stay

Beach Village at the Del

A private enclave of cottages and villas right on the shore, the Beach Village at the Hotel del Coronado is a hotel within a hotel, and the newest part of the 120-year-old resort.

Calistoga Ranch

Modernist pavilions softened with cedar shingles and outdoor living rooms.

Chateau Marmont

The 1927 château-style hotel where the bungalows and cottages are separated from the main building and hidden in an overgrown garden.

Montage Laguna Beach

The 250-room Craftsman-style resort is built along a cliff overlooking the Pacific.

Post Ranch Inn

All 40 houses at the 100-acre Big Sur compound are on a ridge 1,100 feet above the Pacific.

San Ysidro Ranch, A Rosewood Resort

Traditional vine-covered cottages are practically hidden at this lushly landscaped ranch just outside of town.

A Few Affordable Alternatives

El Capitan Canyon

Comfortable cedar cabins—outfitted with Wi-Fi and other 21st-century amenities—are near El Capitan State Beach, a 17-mile drive from Santa Barbara. The feel is decidedly that of a cozy campground.

Solage Calistoga

Every room at this Auberge resort is a stand-alone “studio,” with a private patio. Guests are given complimentary bicycles for the length of their stay.

Treebones Resort

Great Value Nearly every yurt has an ocean views, as at the Post Ranch Inn, but without the thread count or plumbing: the bathroom is a short walk away, a small price to pay for such a spectacular location. The two-person Guest House, which has a kitchen and an en suite bathroom, is a still-reasonable $235.