Sure, kick sand in my face for admitting it, but going to the beach in Southern California is a hassle.
You crawl west on the freeway, then wait for a sweltering $10 parking space. You slog through burning sand, dragging a couch-size cooler weighted with gallons of food, drinks and ice, and finally lay your towel in between bottle caps and cigarette butts. The public restroom ... oh, banish the thought. A long stroll down the sandy shore? Someone's got to guard your gear. At day's end, you brace for the thigh-searing shock of hot vinyl and a long ride home in a gritty bathing suit ... with the rest of the megalopolis.
There has got to be a better way to hold on to some of the peace and calm that you sought at the edge of the Earth.
There is, and it's practically a secret: Don't go to the beach. Go to a beach resort. In Southern California's lush resorts, the very idea of the public coming for a day trip inspires something close to panic in the executives. So it's a well-guarded fact that for as little as $20, you can have the luxury of peace, privacy and a fleet of helpers to fetch you a drink, a clean towel or a massage appointment.
Drive to resorts in Santa Monica, Laguna Beach or Dana Point, hand your keys to the valet parking attendant -- gloved! -- and head to the resort's fitness center or spa. Then slide on down to the beach, toting the hotel's thick towels and maybe even snagging a shaded, luxurious lounge chair.
Oh, I know what you're thinking. Big beach hotels are the way tourists go to the beach here. And if there's one thing a Southern Californian lives in fear of, it's being mistaken for one of them.
But just for a minute, drop that attitude and consider this: There has been a building boom along the beach here over the past four years. At last count, 27 upscale resorts have opened or are in planning. To keep up, even the 20-year-old Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel is undergoing a $30-million remodeling that will include a spa. And in places like Miami and Hawaii, locals know that beach resorts are a luxury portal to the ocean, its views, classy restaurants, bars and spas.
Elaborate spas are especially common in Southern California, partly because they satisfy a requirement from the California Coastal Commission to improve public access to the beach resorts. For example, the public must be allowed to ride a golf tram or other vehicle at the St. Regis in Monarch Beach, according to Teresa Henry, the coastal commission's South Coast district manager. The public also must be allowed "to eat in the restaurant or bar of the golf clubhouse without paying greens fees or playing golf." And half of the tee times at the course must be kept open to the public, she said. Only the pools can be closed to the public.
(And by the way, if you've got a $25 day pass at the Loews in Santa Monica, it's not.)
Still, in the 30 years that the California Coastal Commission has overseen beach development, Henry said the public has largely kept its distance from the resorts and hotels.
It's the intimidation factor. After all, who feels bold enough to wander into a $500-a-night hotel, dressed in shorts and flip-flops, covered with salt and sand? Developers encourage that impression by cleverly building separate, adjacent beach paths, parking areas and playgrounds to keep the unwashed masses in their own corner. Many of those provisions are by no means luxe.
And luxe is what I was after. I spent a week taking advantage of the lounging, dining and pool dipping at four of the new resorts. I wanted to find out if a $20 access pass to a hot shower or a dry towel would seem like a deal after a dip in our chilly Pacific. I wanted to see just how intimidating the experience actually is, if "only" visiting the spa or fitness center makes you a second-class citizen in Resort World.
In general, I found that I could freely take my place among the overnight guests and enjoy the same level of service, which was refreshingly free of attitude or snobbery. True, room-key carrying guests officially have priority and access to the pools and other amenities, such as a beach butler who can light your campfire. And you will need to carry cash, while they merely sign expenses to their hotel room. But in practice, no one seemed to notice or care that I wasn't a regular vacationer. It was even kind of cool to be the in-the-know local.
Finally, this being Los Angeles in the 21st century, don't worry about those shorts and flip-flops. Some of the sloppiest and most obnoxious people you're likely to encounter, anywhere, were guests at these places. You know the types -- the cellphone abuser in the whirlpool, the cigar smoker at the pool, the fake Louis Vuitton bag ladies at lunch, the unruly teens on the beach.
Sometimes, too much money isn't a good thing.