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A New Class of Retro Designer Motels Recalls California’s Bygone Surf Era

Few destinations capture the retro days of surfing like California. Trouble is, for decades, there’s been a lack of decent coastal hotels from which to base a weekend of wave riding. If you wanted a beach-side surf spot, your options were to buy your own multi-million dollar oceanfront mansion or find a less-than-desirable motel.

Now, a new wave (get it?) of surf-inspired accommodations is hitting California. Former roadside motels are being repurposed into beautiful, designer digs that deftly capture the state’s bygone surf era. These are three of the Golden State’s best spots to embrace an endless summer of sick surfer hair, salty beach air, and some of the world’s best breaks.

For Well-Heeled Wave-Riders: Surfrider Malibu Hotel

Like many of Southern California’s seaside motels, the Surfrider Malibu has been around since the mid-20th century. But, for much of its life, it was a dirt-cheap, no-frills joint that offered little more than a place for surfers to rest their heads after a long day on the waves. Now, after a multi-year renovation, it has reopened its doors as a luxe, boutique surf hotel. It still retains its original barefoot, toes-in-the-sand vibe, and classic, low-slung motel architecture, but the decor has gone thoroughly upmarket with hand-painted bathroom accents, custom teak beds, reclaimed wood flooring, and artisan candle scents wafting through the hallways. Guests can avail themselves of custom loaner surfboards in case they’re too lazy to bring their own. The rooftop resto bar offers stunning views of Malibu’s famous pier just across from the hotel. Plus, if you’re crazy enough to venture away from Malibu in search of better breaks, the hotel even offers free use of their sage green ‘68 Land Rover to explore the area. They’ll even pack a picnic lunch so you can make a day of it.

For the Everyman: Dream Inn Santa Cruz

If weekending in Malibu is too rich for your wallet, Santa Cruz might do the trick. Dream Inn Santa Cruz has been a staple of the city’s beach motel scene since 1963. After a top-down renovation in 2017, it reopened with a thoroughly rad, retro-surf vibe including dark, 60s-era furnishings, a bold, bright color scheme, and whimsical, surfing-inspired accents throughout. The on-site Jack O’Neill Lounge pays homage to the late Jack O’Neill, the Santa Cruz local surfer who single-handedly defined the term “endless summer” by popularizing the modern neoprene wetsuit. Every room offers an ocean view and guests are never more than a 60-second walk from some of the state’s best breaks. For surf newbies, the Inn recently teamed up with Club Ed to provide hotel guests with surfing and stand-up paddleboarding lessons. The “classroom” is situated a one-minute walk from the hotel at famous Cowell Beach, which the Travel Channel ranks among the world’s ten best places to learn to surf.

For Nostalgia-loving Hipsters: Kimpton The Goodland

For Los Angeles locals, The Goodland is a more convenient option for a surf-centric day trip. This chic Goleta outpost of Kimpton Hotels is a pitch-perfect capture of California’s retro-surf days — eclectic, Bohemian, and nostalgic. Bits of vintage Americana dot the property, including a wood-paneled house car and a classic Airstream trailer. There are plenty of modern, hipster-flavored touches too, like the onsite VNYL record shop, a regular film series, a curated art gallery, adult summer camp-style games, and pop-up workshops taught by local artisans. With Goleta Beach and coastal Santa Barbara nearby, guests are just minutes away from some of the world’s best surfing.

Mike Richard
Mike Richard has traveled the world since 2008. He's kayaked in Antarctica, tracked endangered African wild dogs in South…
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