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The first time I packed up my car and hit the 101 as an Angeleno, it was a Friday afternoon in August. Clichés clicked into place as I was confronted by a sea of brake lights and being flipped the bird from an orange Lamborghini when I changed lanes too quickly. At a standstill behind a Starline Tours van, I texted my friend: “running late, hitting traffic in Studio City.”
It was in leaving Los Angeles that I arrived. I drove north to Santa Barbara, which is to L.A. as the Hamptons is to New York. Like most Americans, I had stayed put for six months, and it was time to stay put somewhere else. I’d planned a road trip, a series of isolated stays in hotels across Southern California. Over five days, I would find that wherever you go, there you are.
Tentpoles of California life began to scroll across my windshield, like a movie preview: Seussian palms; For Your Consideration Emmy billboards; an exit for Calabasas, home to the Kardashians. An hour before Santa Barbara, the highway swerved and dipped. The temperature dropped 15 degrees and my car was enveloped in fog. I couldn’t see the water, but I could smell it. It smelled like money.
Celebrities have been coming to the enclave since the 1920s, when silent film stars used the area as a getaway. In recent years, Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres, and Rob Lowe have made Santa Barbara a year-round home. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have now moved into a house in the Montecito neighborhood.
I moved in too, to the Belmond El Encanto in the Santa Barbara Hills. The property offers only bungalows dotted across seven acres. The cottages are best described as chichi-country. I walked through the hotel’s airy main building and stopped for a minty blueberry mocktail at the hotel bar looking out over the ocean and the pool. To my right: A group of entertainment executives debated the future of Ellen. To my left: The husband of an Oscar-winning actress toweled himself off. I walked back to my bungalow next to the turtle pond and never left.
For two days, I ordered burgers, handmade gnocchi, and carrot cake from room service. I picked an orange from the tree in my front yard after a live-streamed boot-camp class. On the morning of my departure, I picked a lemon and squeezed it into my water and listened to the next bungalow over talk about Ellen.
Malibu is a short zip down from Santa Barbara. It’s a storied 21-mile stretch of cliffs, sand, and melancholy, known as the setting for secretive Hollywood lairs (the Jennifers, Barbra Streisand), epic Hollywood meltdowns (Mel Gibson), and Joan Didion’s White Album.
In the area locals call “billionaires’ beach,” the 16-room Nobu Ryokan Malibu opened in 2017. Since the beginning of the pandemic, only a few rooms have been available, lending the already ultra-exclusive property a platinum halo effect. Also helping: Only guests can enter the property. Many of the Indonesian teakwood rooms are oceanfront. The sunset view is a Wellbutrin ad and the accompanying wave soundtrack is tremendous. After the show, I grabbed some fairtrade chocolate from the complimentary minibar and jumped in the overflow tub, handcrafted in Alaska. I poured in bath salts that were the exact hue of the walls. (“They’re custom colored,” an employee later told me.)
As much as Santa Barbara rises from the fog and Malibu smacks you in the face, Palm Springs makes you think you’ve arrived long before you actually have. About 30 minutes from town, the 10 split and I drove between the jagged mountains and futuristic windmills. Soon I spotted the first sign in town: Report Drunk Drivers. It’s as much a testament to the city’s history of indulging as to its history of involuntary detoxing.
I was headed to another bungalow getaway—the understated L’Horizon Resort and Spa an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property. The property was built in 1952 as a retreat for Jack Wrather—a producer of The Lone Ranger. It hosted Marilyn Monroe, the Nixons, and the Reagans; designer Steve Hermann later bought and overhauled the compound into 25 guest rooms that keep true to its original swank, discreet vibe.
L’Horizon is whisper quiet, save for the subtle uhntz-uhntz from speakers lodged into the palms. “There isn’t much to do here,” one half of a Vilebrequin-clad couple told me on my first afternoon, as we reclined six feet apart. “That’s why we are here every other week, especially right now.” He craned his neck and began silently counting on his fingers. “Seven of the nine people here right now are from L.A. You’ll know you live in L.A. when Palm Springs starts to feel like the grocery store.” He waved across to the other row of blinding white lounge chairs. “They live across the street from us in the Palisades,” he said through a ventriloquist’s smile. “He works for Ellen.”