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We know enough about what motivated The Mamas and the Papas to write their hit 1965 pop song “California Dreamin’.” In the first verse, they lay it all out: It was a cold, gray winter’s day in a place far from L.A. In their effusive pop harmonies, they pined for California.
Perhaps no part of the Golden State so embodies this dream of sunshine, salt water, safety and warmth than the highway that parallels the state’s dramatic coastline. Also known as Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), California State Route 1 stretches some 650 miles from Leggett in the north to Dana Point in the south. Surrounded by numerous points of interest and offering hours of jaw-dropping ocean views, PCH provides the raw materials for a happy-go-lucky road trip vacation.
Elevating the experience are luxurious coastal resorts where the ocean is the main character: The water influences the positioning of guestrooms and restaurants, and activities take place around or in the ocean, often in unique and exhilarating ways. Also inspired by nature are on-site restaurants, which feature the year-round bounty of California’s sea and land.
Not to be outdone by other parts of the hotels, spas dive in, too — sometimes oceanfront spa rooms are even complemented by treatments involving hydrotherapy and ingredients from the sea. (In fact, California leads all other U.S. states with 10 Five-Star spas, as rated by Forbes Travel Guide.)
The properties hand-picked for this story know how to harness the powers of the ocean for the benefit of guest well-being. And because they’re not strict wellness-only retreats, these hotels are great options for couples, groups and families composed of folks with different vacation agendas.
Whether combined into one epic California coastal itinerary, or enjoyed separately, the following luxury resorts promise to leave guests golden and centered — and maybe a little sandy.
San Francisco: The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay Best for: Sunsets When it comes to oceanfront luxury with a focus on wellness, The Ritz-Carlton is the company to beat with its trifecta of properties stretching from Laguna Beach in Orange County up to Half Moon Bay in San Mateo County. I wasn’t sure how it could get much better than the undeveloped coastline of The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara until I made my way up to Half Moon Bay, which shines (quite literally) as the top spot for ocean lovers.
The property is fresh off a wellness retreat hosted by wellness lifestyle advocates Mary and Lucy Firestone, but fortunately, guests can enjoy the healing properties of Half Moon Bay year-round — Ritz-Carlton style. The hotel is positioned just feet from the ocean, which means the water is hardly ever out of sight. Floor level rooms have terraces with firepits, while some rooms on the fifth floor have petite balconies, highlighting the fact that the main activity here is enjoying life (eating, sleeping, reading and socializing) to the soundtrack of crashing waves. And as the sun sets, it beams into the hotel, giving everyone huddled around outdoor firepits a vibrant golden glow.
A fitness center faces the ocean, but the main active draws are self-guided and outside: tennis courts; two golf courses, with holes jutting up against ocean bluffs; and a coastal trail that intercepts the hotel but stretches along the coastline in both directions.
This is a popular getaway for Bay Area locals, so guests in search of quiet should avoid weekend stays and opt for Club Level access. The spacious Club Lounge, headed by its own concierge and culinary team, is the most peaceful and exclusive place at The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, and serves around-the-clock bites and drinks.
Serenity seekers should also head to the spa. I recommend the Redwood Forest Ritual signature treatment with therapist Maya. She used hot, herb-filled poultices like hot stones, and achieved the perfect balance of effective deep pressure and soothing Swedish-style massage.
Big Sur: Ventana Big Sur, An Alila ResortBest for: Forest Bathing (healing immersion in forests)Set in an ancient redwood forest perched above the Pacific Ocean, Ventana Big Sur offers a seriously therapeutic location. Making matters even better for wellness travelers are the numerous amenities the property has installed to heighten guests’ experiences in the surroundings.
Guestrooms are set in small log buildings and feature earthy materials such as wood floors, stone bathtubs, neutral macrame wall hangings, leather chairs in front of the fireplace and large-format black-and-white photographs that depict the surrounding nature.
The Big Sur Forest Shower Suite, a popular room category, offers a large deck featuring two side-by-side outdoor showers made of bronze; two chairs and a small table in the shape of a tree stump; and an oversize hammock — arguably the best of the bunch for taking in the wraparound aerial views of a lush forest slope populated by redwood trees. The most enjoyable place to take in the sights, however, is from Ventana’s infinity hot tub, just one of several superlative soaking options, which also include two pools with ocean views, Japanese-style indoor baths and the spa’s outdoor soaking tub.
On top of all that, Ventana provides one to three complimentary wellness classes daily, including gentle yoga, tai chi and meditation.
Walking around — slowly and intentionally, like a forest bather — is a treat. During Ventana’s daily complimentary walk around property grounds, my guide revealed the resort’s gems, including a glass lookout cabin where we spotted a humpback whale splashing in the water; the property’s expansive organic garden; and dense forest trails featuring a circle of ancient redwood trees that lead to Ventana’s glamping tents (a new room option).
The property emerged from an extensive refresh following Big Sur’s recent closure, and a new offering includes a nature trail that connects guestrooms to the Sur House fine dining restaurant (which serves smoothies and juices in the morning and even a vegetarian prix fixe menu for dinner). Another addition is “the redwood cathedral,” my guide’s name for an outdoor events space featuring wood benches among towering trees.
Santa Barbara: Rosewood Miramar BeachBest for: Ocean Access Rosewood Miramar Beach in tony Montecito, Calif., might be less than 6 months old, but it has already made quite a splash. The property is the first hotel owned by Caruso, a shopping center and real estate developer, and replaces the long-shuttered Miramar By The Sea Hotel.
Uniquely flanked by PCH and the Pacific Ocean, the hotel features 161 guestrooms, suites and bungalows; Sense, A Rosewood Spa; seven restaurant concepts; and more, spread out over two areas separated by Amtrak’s coastal railroad track. This quirk is celebrated with various hotel traditions, as well as a security guard.
The hotel has plenty more stylistic anomalies (such as a fleet of pink vintage Fiats), but guests will also notice the property’s goal to set a new standard for high-end luxury on the ocean. All rooms feature expensive and stylish fixings — such as oversize bathrooms decked out in Carrera marble — but the best rooms are the 26 positioned in front of Miramar Beach with generous wooden decks that hover over the sand.
The waves crash equally loudly at Miramar Beach Bar and Caruso’s, the Italian American dining concept that’s best for a cheat night (though dishes feature farmers market ingredients such as gnocchi made with Weiser Family Farms potatoes). Healthy eaters can get by with a vegan salad here — featuring charred avocado and cashew cream — but they’ll be best taken care of at the Malibu Farm at Miramar outpost, an expansive restaurant set in the stately Manor House building and facing the hotel’s large, grassy lawn.
Rosewood Miramar Beach’s California-meets-Italian design aesthetic has resulted in a property that is both chic and welcoming.Credit: 2019 Rosewood Miramar Beach
One of two pools, the Cabana Pool features a unique serpentine shape.Credit: 2019 Rosewood Miramar Beach
Rosewood Miramar Beach features 124 guestrooms and 37 suites, including charming bungalows set in the hotel’s lush gardens.Credit: 2019 Rosewood Miramar Beach
To fall asleep to the sounds of the ocean, splurge on a suite in front of Miramar Beach.Credit: 2019 Rosewood Miramar Beach
Miramar Beach Bar and Caruso’s Italian fine dining restaurant both feature ocean views.Credit: 2019 Rosewood Miramar Beach
Sense, A Rosewood Spa, offers signature treatments inspired by the California coast such as wild ginger, sage and chamomile.Credit: 2019 Rosewood Miramar Beach
The property’s grand lobby entrance reflects the hotel’s ambition to feel like a residence.Credit: 2019 Rosewood Miramar Beach
This is also the location of the chic spa, the handsome Manor Bar and a sundries shop curated by Goop, a high-end wellness brand founded by actress Gwyneth Paltrow.
While there are plenty of wellness amenities on-site — including a state-of-the-art fitness center, two cabana-lined pool areas and the beach (which features a concierge as well as complimentary stand-up paddleboards and kayaks), travel advisors should arrange a guided hiking experience in Montecito. The hotel works with local operator 805 Fitness to personalize a special day off-site: At the summit of our hike, we were surprised with a yoga teacher waiting for us, green smoothies from the hotel in-hand.
Los Angeles: Terranea ResortBest for: Healthful Dining Ten years old and all grown up, Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes has broken ties from Destination Hotels and is now fully independent. Besides a recent multimillion-dollar refresh, the hotel is mostly unchanged: Its sensational oceanfront real estate — distinguished by its craggy, sloping coastline — is still a welcome respite for nature-starved city folk.
The resort’s highlight for disconnecting is The Spa at Terranea, which incorporates water into many of its treatments via a copper soaking tub, a Vichy shower and white noise provided by the ocean, located just outside the best spa suites.
The spa also features an adults-only pool, a boutique and Solviva, a new dining concept. According to executive chef Bernard Ibarra, the cafe is inspired by his experiences at the gourmet spa eateries of his native Basque Country in Spain and beloved southwestern France. It was a treat dining on tasty, nutrient-dense food throughout the day — sourced largely from Terranea’s organic garden — including sweet potato topped with avocado for breakfast and perfectly portioned, hand-cut pappardelle for dinner.
Guestrooms feature thoughtful amenities such as outlets built into the nightstand and reading lights embedded into the leather bed frame. Small touches — such as turndown service that includes L’Occitane lavender pillow mist and hand cream — add to the sense of calm.
The active set will enjoy a free guided walk around the property’s coastline as well as a meet-and-greet with the hotel’s falconer, whose feathered friends — such as Owlbert the owl — prevent seagulls from soiling guests’ experiences (and hairdos).
Terranea can also arrange outdoor activities — think: ocean kayaking, horseback riding and golfing — and complimentary yoga is often available on-site. Another mindfulness option is the Mandalas and Margarita activity. Painting rock mandalas (geometric figures used for meditation) by the ocean is a calming exercise, made even better with intention-setting conducted both before and after painting.
Orange County: Monarch Beach Resort Best for: Fitness OfferingsAccording to PCH, California ends in Dana Point (sorry, San Diego!). And at the end of the road awaits Monarch Beach Resort (MBR), a health mecca of sorts thanks to a partnership with wellness pioneer Miraval.
At 30,000 square feet, MBR’s new Miraval Life in Balance Spa is huge, and its offerings are even bigger: 70 treatments, with inspirations ranging from the California coast to Ayurveda, an ancient healing modality from India; amenities such as a spa pool and a spa cafe; and on-site locations for beloved brands Drybar, a blow-out salon, and Deborah Lippmann Nail Studio, a high-end option for manicures.
Opened in 2016 as part of the hotel’s $40 million renovation, the spa and fitness center provides about nine classes per day. There are several rooms for specific workouts, but some classes, such as Spin with a View, take place outside. Over the course of my two-night stay, I enjoyed two meditation classes and three yoga classes, including Aerial Yoga, where I was suspended midair with silks; Beach Yoga, which took place on Monarch Beach; and Yoga Sculpt, which incorporates dumbbells for an extra challenge.
The hotel’s Bourbon Steak Orange County is a great motivator for working out, thanks to its truffle-infused bread, martini bar cart and on-point renditions of steakhouse favorites. It’s best followed by the Shamana-Karma spa ritual, which drains lymph nodes and allows for full-body detoxification and revitalization.
Though there are trolleys that can take guests to the beach, I enjoyed going on foot, walking past Monarch’s pools and golf course and through a tunnel. The multimillion-dollar renovation of Monarch Bay Beach Club, which will offer dining, a bar, chair service and showers for guests, should be finished by May.
It promises to be yet another dream realized along the California coast.