Indulging in a ice-cream with my mom a few days ago at Cross Creek in Malibu, an Italian family heard us speak and asked us if we knew where they could take a seaside stroll to enjoy the Malibu views. I was stumped for a moment and, then, considering our location, I directed them to the lagoon and pier. “But the nicest beaches are farther north”, I volunteered.
The truth is, Malibu does not want tourism and does precious little to encourage it. But, with a bit of knowledge, it is a lovely place to explore and where to take advantage of the uncommon natural beauty a stone’s throw away from the urban sprawl.
It takes a while to get Malibu. Twenty-six miles of pretty coastline and canyons that were once the sole property of a dairy scion, were eventually sold to the county, but not before the Adamson family fought the advent of the railway – which is why most of the train lines going north/south in California run along the coastline but for the Malibu stretch.
Malibu was firstly imagined as a week-end hangout for movie stars and wealthy Angelenos and, much later, around the ’60’s, some families started to move in and build a community. Besides the estates of the rich and famous, most of Malibu is populated by families and now retired old timers. Some live on the ocean side but most dwell in the canyons that run from the Santa Monica Mountains down to the Pacific Ocean. It’s land still ruled by wildlife where a resident feels like a guest and, this being California, everyone goes to the great lengths to be respectful of plants and animals: mountain lions are tracked with ankle bracelets; rat poison has been banned; rattlesnakes are relocated rather than killed and residents are encouraged to landscape with native plants.
If you are in Los Angeles and want to poke your nose in Malibu, don’t bother with the “Star tour” buses: all the stars live in secluded enclaves and all you will see is a lot of high walls. For a fun-filled day, put your bikini and/or hiking shoes on.
Here is the inside guide to a day (and night) in Malibu, without breaking the bank.
Most of the Santa Monica Mountains are a giant wilderness park and there are innumerable hikes to be found, with some of the trails unmarked. Two of my favourites, which are not too strenuous, are Charmlee and Point Dume. The Charmlee Wilderness Park takes you into the mountains and from the up and down trail you will gain excellent vantage points to admire the coastline.
Point Dume is right next to famed Zuma Beach (Baywatch anyone?). While everyone knows Zuma as the epitome of everything Californian, not many are familiar with the Point Dume trail. You can leave your car along Sunset Beach (real name “Westward Beach) to avoid paying parking fee and then enter the parking lot on foot from where you will start climbing. The trail will ascend, level up and then descend into Paradise Cove. There are not many trails along the coastline but this is one of them. On the way back, stop at Sunset Restaurant ($$) for a drink and appetizers and to watch the sun dip into the ocean. The restaurant is mere steps from the sand and sunsets in California rival the Caribbeans’ – well worth it.
SUNBATHING AND SWIMMING (AND MAYBE SURFING?)
The prettiest beaches are towards the north end of Malibu. If you are set on large beaches, your best bet is Zuma but if it’s smaller coves with cliffs that dip into the ocean, my personal recommendations are La Piedra and El Pescador. Leave the car on PCH or at the beach parking lot and take the stairs all the way down to the sand. Both places do get crowded on Summer week-ends but are otherwise deserted mid-week.
My friend Silvia has a penchant for Californian surfers so to indulge her fantasy, every time she visits, we go to the Malibu Pier and Lagoon. It’s right in the center of Malibu, right next to the pier and across from the Malibu Country Mart at Cross Creek. Pitch your umbrella, sit in our chair and watch blond, tanned and muscular specimen of all ages and of both gender surf the waves (a lovely show in itself). If you are game and would like to try yourself, the shop across the street rents boards by the day. Walk a little bit farther north along the beach and you will find the Malibu lagoon, where egrets, seagulls and all kinds of birds live and thrive. Right next to it is the Malibu Colony, possibly the priciest piece of real estate on the coast.
LUNCHING AND DINING
I have always been astonished at how much bad food is on offer in Malibu. My advice is to forgo most of the restaurants you drive by – they will be price and not worthy it. Here are some notable exceptions: for a quick sandwich, head to the Country Mart (see above) and look for John’s Garden ($), a hole in the wall where they will build you a fat sandwich, choosing from a million ingredients and about five bread types. It’s not the cheapest sandwich you will ever have, but it will be so packed and tall to fill you up as a sit down meal. Take a seat at one of the picnic tables by the playgroundand watch the kids of famous people being minded by their nannies – always interesting dynamics to be observed.
For a more upscale sandwich, cross to the other side of the Country Mart and head to the Malibu Kitchen ($$). The rustic ambiance and the piles of baked goodies will inspire you to buy anything in sight. Stick to the sandwiches, that come on artisanal bread, and sit at the wooden tables outside. Follow your lunch with a gelato from Grom: Italian, organic, delicious and pricey but well, well worth it.
If you are around Point Dume, stop at the Duck Dive ($$) my favourite restaurant in Malibu. Open for lunch and dinner and any time in between, it’s a gastropub ensconced in a non descript shopping mall. Burgers, fish and chips, grilled fish, tacos and the likes are perfectly prepared and served in the industrial looking space which also has an outside patio. The duck fries are excellent. Next to it are Sunlife Organics (for healthy juices if you must) and Cafecito Organico a lovely cafe with outdoor seating – I can’t say I loved the organic coffee (pastries did look good) but I did love the adjoining bookstore and sitting around on the large couches with books and magazines.
For a special treat, there is always Nobu ($$$$). The new location is right on the water, with a wonderful terrace. Service and food are spectacular – the local hang out feel of the old place has gone, now replaced by glitz and trendy patrons.
Not so pricey, and also with a terrace right on the ocean, is the restaurant of the Malibu Beach Inn ($$$), the only nice hotel in town (there are a few surfers’ motels along PCH – as I said, tourism is not encouraged). There are only few tables at the Inn which has a seasonal and inviting Californian menu, adding to the cozy feeling of the place. The lobster club is pretty divine (thank you Cathy for introducing me to both the restaurant and the sandwich).
AND FOR SOME CULTURE
If you want to know about the origins of Malibu and about the people who owned it, you can visit (for $5) the Adamson House, right by the lagoon. It used to be the Summer house of the Adamson Family in the ’20’s and ’30’s and it has been preserved as was, boasting some beautiful Mexican tile work. It’s a fun guided visit that not many Angelenos are familiar with.
I would not recommend shopping in Malibu. Most stores are outposts of the usual chains or upscale fashion houses who think having a Malibu address sounds fancy. Everything is expensive. Room at the Beach at the Country Mart (next to the car wash) does have lovely beach-y house accessories and Morgan LeFay has unique (with prices to match) and beautiful clothes for special occasions.
All photographs C&S archives