The Pacific Coast Highway snakes its way down the California coast, alternating between plunging cliffs, serene beaches, and quiet seaside hamlets. Roadside berry stands, scenic vistas, and the cool ocean winds are the norm on Highway Number One between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and Malibu is the last of this tranquility on the southbound PCH before reaching the chaotic megalopolis that is LA.
A few years ago, I drove the entire length of the Pacific Coast Highway and ever since then I’ve been trying to get back and spend more time in the towns along the way that caught my attention. In February, I spent the weekend in Santa Barbara taking in its colonial charm and architecture. On my most recent trip to California, I was determined to get back to the last bastion of Pacific Coast Highway serenity – Malibu.
Back to Malibu
Though it is only 45 minutes from Los Angeles, Malibu could not be more different. Geographically, it is on the Northwestern edge of the Santa Monica bay where the Los Angeles County coast begins to turn north. Topanga State Park separates the community from Santa Monica to the East and the San Fernando Valley to the North. It is close to LA, but all the stress, pressure, and attitude of the second largest city in America seemed to disappear I approached the ‘Welcome to Malibu’ sign.
Malibu is often thought of as an enclave of the rich and the super-rich. Celebrities and hollywood execs have certainly given the area that reputation as they’ve moved into the surrounding hills, but there is still plenty to be discovered by those who aren’t arriving by super-yacht (such as myself). This is exemplified at Lily’s Cafe and Pastries, a small working-class counter service joint hidden in a nondescript strip mall.
Despite its name, Lily’s didn’t appear to serve any kind of pastries on my visit. Instead, they’re known for their breakfast burritos. I ordered one of the signature burritos and sunk into my chair, taking in the tidy restaurant with black and white surfing photos decking its walls. Bacon, egg, cheese, and re-fried beans simmered inside the freshly made, pillowy soft tortilla. This breakfast burrito was different from what I was used to in my hometown of Denver. No potatoes, no green chile. The presence of the re-fried beans was an interesting take on the breakfast standard. I was a skeptic at first but the execution was top notch at Lily’s.
Lily’s exemplifies that Malibu is still a town just like any other in California – it just so happens to be located in one of the most scenic locations on the Pacific Ocean. Beaches like Zuma are sought out by visitors and are also popular hangouts for the celebrities. Deciding to forego the see-and-be-seen beach scene, I headed north for a quieter, more secluded beach featuring abundant sea life and some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in California.
Matador Beach is an isolated stretch of sand and rock located down five sand-covered flights of stairs from the Pacific Coast Highway. A small sign identifies it from the road with little of the fanfare reserved for the more popular beaches. The views of the hike down are breathtaking. Monumental rock formations jut from the sand and ocean serving as lookouts and rookeries for local seabirds. This is not a beach for spreading out your beach blanket, throwing around the frisbee, and frolicking in the surf. This is a beach begging to be explored.
Walking along the beach, I poked my head in and out of sea caves, explored tide pool micro environments, climbed over shifting sand embankments, and stared in awe at the massive rock projections as they continued taking beatings from the waves of the Pacific Ocean, much as they have for thousands of years. On the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend (the unofficial start of summer for my non-american readers) the beach was nearly empty, a hidden secret below the cliffs of Malibu.
A University in the Malibu Hills
After spending a couple hours up close and personal with the Pacific Ocean, I was ready to head for higher ground to take in the views. Pepperdine University is what every land-locked high school student dreams of when they picture going to university on the California coast. In the hills of Malibu, perched high above the Pacific Ocean sits one of the most spectacular college campuses in the nation. At most universities, the classic collegiate architecture and stately trees take credit for a campus’s beauty. At Pepperdine, the focus is not on the buildings and landscaping of the campus, but rather the view.
The Malibu campus provides a spectacular overlook of the Pacific Ocean, and on a clear day you can see to Hawaii.*
After climbing several flights of stairs to get back up from Matador Beach and to get to the lookout point at Pepperdine, I had worked up a desire for a refreshment. Thankfully, Grom has its only West Coast outpost just below the university in Malibu. Grom is the ubiquitous gelato shop with locations throughout Italy, and I first grew to love their lemon and fior de latte gelato during the three weeks I spent there. They made their first foray into the American market with a West Village location in New York City and have since (slowly) been expanding their presence in the United States.
A strawberry and pink grapefruit gelato combination fit the bill as the refreshment I was looking for. As I sat on the front lawn of the shop on aged white wooden beach chairs savoring my smooth, frozen concoction, I knew I’d be returning to the chaos of Los Angeles soon enough. I savored the last of the gelato and the last bit of serenity of Malibu before packing up and catching the PCH back to LA.
*yeah right. maybe the Channel Islands…